Sunday, March 21, 2021

Passion about the Passion

(You can watch this sermon being delivered, with explanatory slides, at this link: )

Today (the 5th Sunday of Lent) is traditionally known as Passion Sunday – marking the beginning of Passiontide, which will of course culminate at the Cross.  Passion Sunday brings Jesus’ suffering to the fore.  It invites us to focus on the depth of meaning that suffering contains.  But what does it mean?  What is the significance of Christ’s passion?  Perhaps a story will help…

Picture a scene.  It’s the second world war, and the Japanese army is forcing British prisoners to build a railway, from Burma to China, crossing over the famous River Kwai.  At the end of each day’s labour in the sun, the prisoners are lined up and counted – along with their shovels, to make sure that none can be used for escape attempts.

But one day, it is discovered that one shovel is missing.  The Japanese soldiers scream their anger at the lined-up prisoners.  “Unless you tell us now who has taken the shovel, you will all be shot!”.  For a moment, there is stunned silence, as each man comes to terms with the news that he might be about to die.  Then, one soldier steps forward.  “It was me,” he says. “I took the shovel”.  A Japanese soldier puts his gun to the man’s head, and shoots him dead on the spot.

Later that day, the shovels are counted again – and it is discovered that there has been a mistake.  All the shovels are present and correct.  There are no shovels missing!  The soldier who apparently confessed his crime, was in fact completely innocent.  He took the punishment that had been threatened to all his brothers.  He died so that they might live.

And there, in what I’m told is a true story, we find an eloquently simple parable of what the death of Jesus has meant for many Christians over the centuries. The church has generally taught that Jesus took the punishment which should be ours.  It’s a theory known as the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’.  Jesus takes the punishment due to human beings who ignited the righteous anger of God.  It’s the picture – or at least something like it - that I guess many of us have in our minds, when we think about the death of Christ.  But there are many other ways of grappling with this idea.

Most theologies of the Cross rest on the idea of atonement:  that is 'at one-ment' - the idea that by his death, Jesus managed to bring fallen, sinful humanity to one-ness with God.  Many different images are used in pursuit of this idea.  Drawing from Isaiah's visions of the Suffering Servant, theologians have proclaimed that 'it is by his wounds that we are healed'.  In other words, through his suffering, Jesus atones for us.  It is as if Jesus says ‘sorry’ for us – to a wrathful God - and makes amends by suffering.  His atonement is a substitute for the atonement that we ought to offer.  Which is why this theory is called ‘substitutionary atonement’.   

Another theory is the idea of ransom.   According to that theory, our sins make us the moral property of the devil.  Because we sin, the theory goes, we belong to Satan – whom Jesus described as ‘the ruler of this World’ in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus, as the only sinless human being who has ever lived, was the only price which could be paid to 'redeem' us from the devil.  This is what the hymn writer Fanny Crosby was referring to in the second verse of our opening hymn.  ‘O perfect redemption – the purchase of blood’.  She was clearly drawn to the idea that only with his blood could Jesus purchase our souls back from the Devil, and by doing so, defeat the him and (as Jesus is quoted as saying in today’s Gospel, thereby ‘driving him out’).

But we must remember that all these images are just that...images deployed by theologians like St Paul, and many after him, to try to get a handle on precisely what Jesus was doing that day.  And that, crucially – is because Jesus himself never really explained how his death dealt with the problem of human sin, nor precisely how his death obtains the forgiveness of our sin. 

Other theologians have shied away from these images of punishment, substitution and ransom.  Many have struggled with the idea of the Satan having so much power over creation that an omnipotent God – who created all things, even Satan himself - should have to die in order to regain control.  Surely, they have said, if God is all powerful, as the Bible says, he could click his fingers and take care of Satan – assuming he really exists at all. 

Other thinkers have wondered what it says about God to suggest that he insists on a universal, cosmic punishment for all sin, which can only be paid by his own Son.  The Baptist minister, Steve Chalke, gained much notoriety a few years ago when he described this idea as a form of ‘cosmic child abuse’.  Surely, goes the argument, a God who defines himself as merciful Love can choose to give his amazing grace without requiring first some mechanism of torture and punishment. 

Such theologians – amongst which I dare to count myself – have wondered whether something else was really going on upon the cross.  Rather than Jesus paying a price for our sin, to the Devil or to a wrathful God, perhaps Jesus’ death was, instead, God’s message to the world.  Not a purchase of blood, or a price to be paid, but a monumental, unmissable, unforgettable sign, which would be imprinted on all of humanity’s hearts throughout history. 

What did that sign say?  Well, drawing from the thinking of Rowan Williams (the previous Archbishop of Canterbury) I think it looks something like this: “Ignore God at your peril!”  Let me explain…

On the cross, Jesus takes upon himself the very worst that humanity can do to itself.  He takes all the hate, all the power-games, all the might of the greatest army of the world, all the control-freakery of the religious leaders.  He takes it all.  In doing so, he paints an enormous sign of warning across the sky of the Universe…it says “This is what happens when you ignore God, when you refuse to listen to God, when you drive God out of your politics, your education systems, and your society.  You end up putting God, outside your city wall.  You exclude God from your decisions and from your lives.  You cast him out, and you let the very idea of God die, alone and friendless outside the thin walls of your self-built cities.”. 

But what Jesus does with this death is magnificent!  Having let the hatred and indifference of human power overwhelm him, to the very point of death – he bursts out of his tomb, powerfully demonstrating for all time that Love will always win over hate; true life, eternal life, will always overcome death.   There is hope – despite the worst that humanity can do to itself.  Jesus says ‘come to me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden (by the world and its ways) and I will give you rest.  Take my ways – my yoke – upon your shoulders, for my burden is light’.

So, for me, the Cross is a symbol of the worst that humanity can do, but also a sign of the hope we have in Christ.  It stands for hope that better days are coming.  It stands for hope that we can turn our swords into ploughshares.  It stands for hope that we can include God in our decisions, and in our life as a society.  It shouts out that selfishness, consumerism, power, greed, hatred, racism, and all the rest do not have to be the only way to live.  That there is another way. 

The downward thrust of the cross, from heaven into earth, calls us to let all those human patterns die, and having sought forgiveness for our complicity with them, calls us to rise again, with Christ, to life anew.  Amen!


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