It seems an odd day for us to be drawn to the church. The altar has been stripped, the crosses veiled.. Though we will receive reserved sacrament, we will not celebrate a Eucharist today—we will not celebrate anything. Jesus is dead.
Do we come because we are drawn into suffering—bystanders rubber necking their way through life? Do we come because we need to grieve—and this day affords a reason for true grief? Do we come out of some since of discipleship or spiritual discipline? Do we come looking for answers to the question why? Why did Jesus have to die? What does that mean for my own life?
For whatever reason you may have come today, it is these two questions—Jesus’ death and what it means for us–that have kept Christians coming to the church for two thousand years. The mystery that answer evokes is one we wrestle with, one theologians wrestle with. It is a mystery not explained by Christ—only acted out by him. And it is in this mystery that we, as Christians, find hope and comfort.
There is a long history of trying to understand just what the cross is. It seems that we all pretty much agree that the cross brings us salvation and solidifies our relationship with God. That since of being made “at-one” with God is called atonement. Early on, theologians believed that atonement was Christ’s way of ransoming us from the devil—paying the price. Later on, they would move away from that line of thought, because it grants Satan too much power. If God were omnipotent, why would he need to defeat Satan? Why would God need to ransom us from Satan?
Maybe, its not that we have to give Satan something, maybe it is about giving God something. This inquisitive thinking leads us to the Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory. In this theory we believe that God is a just judge who demands justice for the evil we have done. Jesus, recognizing our guilt, presents himself as a substitute for us and accepts our punishment in order to save us.
These are rather over simplifications of complex theories. But, for me, neither answer seems satisfactory. I don’t believe that Jesus was sent as a ransom to save me from the devil nor do I believe in an angry God who requires punishment for salvation.
Both of these theories—Ransom theory and Penal Substitutionary theory—seem to beg the answer “Jesus died for us.” They are more about us than Jesus and point to our need for some simple equation in which Jesus’ death cancels out my sin and makes everything ok. And yet, I still sin, man has sinned a lot since Jesus died and, granted, if Jesus died for our sin then its all cancelled out and everything is ok. But everything doesn’t feel ok–I’m still suffering, people still suffer. If Jesus died for our sake—why is that so?
Yes, Jesus died for us but the preposition “for” implies distance and indicates that someone does something on behalf of another. We like to keep Jesus at a distance, he is safer that way—so, implying that Jesus has done something for us decreases our intimacy with him, it offers separation between us and a sacrificial Jesus.
I think we are mistaken to find security in that separation. Instead of Jesus simply dying “for” us, what if he were to die “with” us also?
The preposition “with” implies a closeness, a shared experience. Instead of Jesus suffering for us, he suffers with us—we share in pain and sorrow together. This is the true incarnation of Jesus as man, when he suffers with us, he takes on all the pain, and sorrow, and doubt, and sin that we are, but he does not take it away from us—he shares it. Our burdens are now also his burdens and his burdens are ours.
Julian of Norwich, an English mystic in the late fourteenth century wrote about the revelations of divine love. In her description of the Passion and the cross, she says, “…Of all pains that lead to salvation this is the most pain, to see thy Love suffer. How might any pain be more to me than to see Him that is all my life, all my bliss, and all my joy, suffer?” Her “love” is Christ himself on the cross. Her pain, the deepest of all pains, is to see Christ suffering on the cross.
Julian sees Mary standing at the foot of the cross watching her boy die, suffering more than any other in his death—parents should not have to see their children die, especially not like that. Julian sees the disciples, and recognizes that they, too, suffer greatly. All those who love Jesus suffer pain at his death.
It is in this pain, this communal pain—Jesus, Mary, the disciples, us–in this deepest of sufferings that Julian understands true atonement—it is not about paying a ransom, paying the price, it is not about punishment—it is about what Julian describes as a ONEING, ““Here saw I a great ONEING betwixt Christ and us: for when He was in pain, we were in pain.” Julian’s atonement is about unity, an incarnation that transcends time and space—God with us and us with God.
It is not simply that through Christ’s suffering on the cross, we are saved. It is through Christ’s suffering on the cross that we become one with him and he with us. Incarnation began with an Annunciation, was delivered through a Nativity, and has found completion in a crucifixion. This is what atonement means—what atonement is—being made one with God, completely united together.
We do not stand and gaze at the cross from a distance. We are nailed on that cross with Christ. It is our hands, our feet that are punctured and dripping with blood. Because it is the cross and the cross alone that brings incarnation to completeness and ONES us with God in love so that our deepest connection with God is through pain and suffering. God is not a God who wants to keep his distance from us.
God is a God who wants to be united with us in our suffering. God is a God who understands and deeply cares about our pain–so that in every day of sorrow and suffering and pain and grief that we experience, God is with us and we are with God. That is true atonement—at-one-ment. Jesus’s death on a cross is about becoming one with him. It is about a relationship not some sort of exchange—his life for mine. It is about our life together. That is why Jesus has to die and that is what his death means to my life.
Good Friday: Is 52:13-53:12; Ps 22; Hb 10:16-25; Jn 18:1-19:42
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery
Friday, April 19, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer