Making sense of the cross
Lent 5: 18th March, 2018
Fr Greg Davies, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Hebrews 5: 7-9 & John 12: 20-33
Selected book: 'Consuming Passion' — Why the killing of Jesus really matters, edited by Simon Barrow & Jonathon Bartley.
Just about every Holy Week as far I can remember, there would usually be at least one person who would come up to me and say something along the lines of "I don't like this week. I find it hard to deal with all the violence of the cross. I don't understand how God could send his son to such a death. It is all too much!"
This indeed may be a view or feeling that we have all had at some point — especially at this time of year when so much focus is placed on Jesus' passion and death. Then of course for those outside the Christian faith — looking in so to speak, it must at the very least seem strange if not outright offensive — as we celebrate what has to be said was an extremely gruesome death and then go on to proclaim this event to be the defining action of God for the salvation of humanity. I mean what kind of God is this they may and we may well ask?
And so it was in response to those feelings and questions that I was drawn not so much to a particular author but rather a book containing a collection of articles — titled ‘Consuming Passion'. However it was the subtitle that really grabbed my attention — Why the killing of Jesus really matters!
That sub-title itself powerfully makes it clear that you cannot avoid the fact that Jesus was brutally killed. As Paul said in Corinthians 1.23 says — but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles .... Paul here acknowledging just how difficult it was for his audience to make sense of the reality of Jesus' suffering and death.
So how might we answer or at the very least explore this question for ourselves here and now and in the weeks ahead? How do we comes to terms with the very violence of the cross and make sense of it at both a head and heart level?
Steven Chalke in the article that has been circulated, quotes from his book The Lost Message of Jesus to claim that penal substitution is tantamount to child abuse — a vengeful father punishing his Son for an offense he has not even committed. Chalke, I believe convincingly demolishes this understanding of Christ's death as simply untenable if we are to proclaim a God of love and forgiveness. And then while many who hold this view would see it as upheld by scripture — in fact it is the opposite as Chalke says and I quote it represents nothing more than a stark 'unmasking' of violent pre-Christian thinking ....
Our scripture readings for today are indeed a case in point. Jeremiah proclaims a God who takes initiative and will make a new covenant with his people — a covenant that will cement a special relationship and result in sins being wiped away. Nothing of a vengeful or angry God comes through here or the sense that satisfaction or some kind of action is demanded from the people — in fact we have the opposite where God seems to take it all out of their hands. This is something that I your God will do. And then in the gospel while we have a number of images that include death — principally the death of Jesus — it is a death that results or is to result in Jesus bringing all people to himself. Here is a picture of gathering, unity, restoration and relationship.
In spite of these positive and more affirming non-violent scriptural references — we still face the challenge of coming to terms with and making sense of Christ's death and its proclamation in a world that at times seems overwhelmed and repulsed by violence and yet at the same time I think paralysed by it in terms of not knowing really how to respond. [For example. As we have recently witnessed with the shootings in the USA and now a chemical attack on its citizens in England — not to mention domestic violence in our own backyard].
From a Christian perspective — to make sense of Christ's passion and death I believe we need to immerse ourselves in the whole narrative or story — that is in all of Jesus' life, death and resurrection. For example — when we look and reflect upon Jesus' life and ministry on earth — when we see Jesus' response to conflict, confrontation, anger and potential violence or threat against him, what do we find? Jesus does not retaliate — he does not hit back — he refuses absolutely to behave and respond as the world — as we human beings would expect and understand. This is not to say that Jesus just sits back and cops all that his opponents can throw at him — on the contrary Jesus confronts, challenges and exposes what is going on in those who attack him and his followers. He does this with wit, wisdom and insight. He so to speak hits the ball back into his opponents' court — more than often in a way they do not expect but with a compassion and hope that they might see what God is offering them and change.
We see this for example in the different accounts when Jesus is brought before Pilate, where he again speaks to Pilate of another way — another world — another kingdom or in the face of the Roman authority he simply remains silent — again refusing to play the game of the world. And here is the paradox or mystery of our faith — that in Jesus' refusal to play the human game, the power game — in his rejection of retaliation, anger and violence, Jesus suffers and dies. In the end, he takes on all that the world can throw at him but of course in his resurrection we learn that Jesus has not been overwhelmed or eliminated by such violence and evil — indeed the opposite has happened as Steven Chalke notes — Jesus creatively and courageously, armed only with the non-violent power of truth and love, opposes and defeats sin and violence. Jesus contains evil but evil cannot contain him.
It is in this whole narrative of Jesus' life, death and resurrection that I believe the cross does make real sense albeit immersed or surrounded by paradox and mystery. And again because this proclamation of Christ's life, death and resurrection is mystery — there will always be differing views, understanding and experiences of it that give rise to different interpretations or theologies. In other words — the challenge and journey of faith at both a heart and head level is as I remember a colleague, quoting from some unknown source, said — this is a mystery to be probed not a question to be answered or a problem to be solved.
And one way in which to probe this great mystery of our faith in our Lord's passion, death and resurrection at the deepest level is to be involved — to be involved in the liturgies of Holy Week — as much as we possibly can — and especially in the Triduum — that ONE LITURGY — yes ONE, not three, of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.
May our probing / our involvement this Holy Week give us new understanding and faith that the 'Killing of Jesus really does matter' for ourselves and our world.