Yesterday, after my Maundy Thursday sermon, one kind commentator on Facebook described it as ‘a very helpful teaching sermon. Which is absolutely right. Over these final days of Lent, I’ve chosen to take a more educational approach – than I normally do. It’s a risk! And it’s a little bit longer than I normally preach. But that’s because I suspect that many of us carry around in our heads only a very limited sense of what these great events are all about, much of it taught to us at a very young age, and at a pretty basic level.
So today, I invite you to focus with me on the Cross itself, much as we did on Passion Sunday – but with some more meat thrown in to the pot for today’s meditation! What's going on? What new layers of meaning might there be to inspire us? I want to invite you to go deeper…
‘What’s going on?’ is a question which has puzzled Christians for 2000 years.
Frustratingly, Jesus himself was surprisingly enigmatic about what his death meant. He told his disciples that it was 'necessary' for the Son of Man to die. At the last supper, he told them that his body and blood were to be 'poured out for many, for the forgiveness of sins'. But he didn't say very much more at all. How could the pouring out of his blood be 'for the forgiveness of sins'?
The first Christians searched the ancient texts of what we now call the Old Testament. In Isaiah, for example, they found someone called, enigmatically 'Servant of God' "poured out his soul to death, and bore the sin of many" (Is.53:12). They read that 'The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all'.
Some Jewish thinkers believed that these texts pointed to a Messiah. But others said that the Servant was of the nation of Israel - called to be a Servant to the rest of humanity (and indeed, that is the standard understanding of that text by Jewish thinkers today). But early Christian readers found enough synergy between Isaiah's 'servant' and Jesus Christ, to connect the two in their minds. Paul, and other New Testament writers used four primary words to try and understand:
1) Sacrifice. Sacrifice for sin was a very Jewish idea. People routinely sacrificed everything from pigeons to whole cows on the altar at the temple, believing that such an act of contrition would atone for their sin. So sacrifice was rooted in the idea that God was angry with humanity...and only the sacrifice of something precious would stem his wrath. That brings us to the second word which the early thinkers used...
2) Propitiation. To remove us from the wrath of God which early thinkers thought that Christ had to die as a propitiation for our sins. The word ‘propitiation’ means, essentially, appeasement. Believers in this doctrine say that Jesus appeased the wrath of God, that is ‘satisfied and dealt with it’, through his suffering and death.
3) Reconciliation. Early Christians thought that this propitiating sacrifice had the effect of reconciling us with God...bringing us back into fellowship with him. This is about ‘at-one-ment’, or as we say it, ‘atonement’ between humanity and God. St Paul writes that God "through Christ….was reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:18-19).
4) Ransom. Finally, to add real texture to the meaning of the cross, early writers threw in the idea of Satan. Because we are sinners, they argued, we are in bondage to sin, and therefore to the father of sin, Satan himself. We therefore need someone to redeem us from bondage - like a ransom paid to a kidnapper. So St Mark reports Jesus saying that he had come "to give his life as a ransom to many" (Mark 10:45)
But over the following years, many other Christians have questioned the assumptions which lie behind these early attempts to understand the Cross. They argued that these understandings are based on two logical, but questionable assumptions. The first question was whether God really was angry with humanity.
After all, according to Jesus himself, "God so loved the world...”. Jesus showed us a Father-God...a God whom He taught us to call 'Daddy'...Abba. Surely a loving Father, like a loving earthly Father, would understand that his children mess things up, and offer forgiveness, not wrath. To many Christians, this feels much more like the kind of God which Jesus described.
Others point out that there is no contradiction. It is perfectly possible for a human parent to be angry with their child, but to also love them at the same time – just ask my daughter! So why not for God?
The other questionable assumption is the whole idea of Satan. For many Christians Satan is not a real being - rather he is a metaphor, for all the evil in the world. If that is true, why would Jesus nee to ‘ransom’ us from a non-existent being?
These questions about Satan and the wrath of God left theologians with a problem. What did Jesus death mean, if there was doubt about the underlying assumptions? What was it all about? Here are three substantial contributions to that debate, from across the centuries…
Writing around the late 11th century, the theologian Peter Abelard proposed that Jesus death was a 'great moral example'. For him, Christ's death was dramatic demonstration of how much God loves his human children - by aligning himself with human suffering, even to the point of torture and death. According to Abelard, Christ's death shows God's love to us, and then draws from us a grateful response. We therefore thank God, for loving us that much...and we respond by living how he calls us to live.
Another idea, expounded by Faustus Socinus, in the 16th century, was that Jesus death was a Supreme Example. He argued that Christ's death provides an example of how we should trust and obey God perfectly, even if that obedience leads to suffering and death. Socinus pointed out that St Peter himself had touched on this idea, when he wrote: "…Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps".(1 Pet. 2:21)
More recently, as I mentioned on Passion Sunday, Rowan Williams has suggested another lens through which to see the Cross. In Williams' mind, Jesus death is the ultimate consequence of his refusal to use violence to fight violence. Williams points out that human beings believe that what you need to combat violence is even greater violence. He calls this the ‘myth of redemptive violence’. But Jesus takes all the violence that the world can muster against itself and God, and then transmutes it, through love. He even manages to generate faith and hope in those around him at the point of death. Consider the thief, and the Roman Soldier who suddenly sees God hung before him.
Williams also suggests that Jesus’ death is a graphic illustration of what happens when we remove God from our lives, and from our collective society. We push him of our City…where we can no longer hear his voice.
There are many more theories...and many combinations of theories. I haven’t even touched on the huge symbolism of blood in the Bible, nor on the ‘Day of Atonement’ theories. (Except that I just have, just now, by mentioning them!). But that's enough theology for one afternoon! The difficult task is to sum all these theories up...to try to make sense of them, in way that makes the story come alive for us. So in conclusion, I want to share with you what I've come to understand...in the hope that that makes some kind of sense to you!
For me, all these ideas, all these interpretations, boil down to one essential idea....and it's this: all of the above! I think there is truth in all these ideas, even if it is truth veiled in metaphor. Even if Satan is only a metaphor, we still need God to free us from the power of evil in our world. If the metaphor of ‘ransom’ is helpful in that task, let’s use it.
Even if God is Love, even the greatest love is still capable of anger: ask any loving parent. Removing anger from any relationship can only be a good thing. It the metaphor of propitiation helps us to get our minds round that, let’s use it.
Our task, as followers of Jesus, is to keep on peeling back the layers of meaning, discovering with every passing Good Friday new insights, new hope, new inspiration. In that sense the death of Jesus is an inexhaustible source of wonder, and a place for our imaginations to go as wild as the events described, in different ways by different reporters and thinkers, of that first Good Friday.
I'm now going to invite you to spend a moment in front of the Cross. I'm going to invite you to take one of the ribbons in the basket, and to tie your ribbon onto the Cross. These ribbons are yellow, this year, in commemoration of the National Day of Reflection we held a week ago. Let each one be a prayer for those we have lost during the Pandemic, as well as a sign of your own commitment to Christ. As you tie your ribbon on, let me invite you to pause, to stand for a moment in the presence of God, and to re-commit yourself to a living relationship with God, through Jesus Christ. Take a moment to thank Jesus for showing us that he can take everything we are capable of throwing at him...all our sin, all our doubts, all our fears, all our unforgiveness - and that he is capable of transforming it, redeeming it, overcoming it.
This plain cross of suffering, will be transformed in just three days’ time - as we come to church on Easter morning to celebrate the good news of Jesus resurrection. Our flower artists are poised to bring colour and life into the church once more, as a sign of God’s new life. Watch, therefore, as your death, your sin, your barrier to growth with God, is buried with Christ in his tomb, and transformed into new life in his resurrection.