By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
I think that the cross is probably the deepest and hardest mystery that the Christian faith asks us to take on. On the surface, of course, it’s not hard at all: Jesus of Nazareth was executed by the imperial powers of the Roman Empire with the collaboration of religious authorities of his own community. Not very complicated.
Where the mystery comes in is the conviction for those who follow him (from the early days of the Jesus Movement, in fact,) that the cross, the execution of Jesus, is where the redemption of humankind is made complete. The mystery is the notion that we are saved by Jesus’ death on the cross.
Most of us learned to understand this – that Jesus’ death on the cross “saved us” and transformed our relationship with God - in a way that many of us can no longer affirm. You’ve heard me reflect on this before, but I think it’s one of those things that is worth returning to. I know that I continue to work at “unlearning” many of the “truths” I was taught in growing up.
Saint Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, declared that “Christ died for our sins”. Certainly, Jesus died because of the sinfulness of those who sentenced him and supported that sentence. He died because sinful human beings sought to protect their own privilege and authority against the threat that his popularity seemed to represent.
Over the course of time, Paul’s notion of Jesus “dying for our sins” evolved into a complex theological doctrine in which Jesus’ death came to be seen as having been required by God the Father. The religious doctrine we were taught maintains that Jesus’ death on the cross served, in effect, as the payment for the sins of the world. (This language is still reflected in our liturgies.) This “substitutionary atonement” theology maintains that humankind was held hostage by our own sins until Jesus, in effect, gave up his life on our behalf, in our place.
Such an idea – that God required sacrifice of God’s beloved child in order to forgive human sin – doesn’t sit right for many of us. It’s not consistent with the God Jesus described in his parables, a God who longs for relationship, who seeks out the lost and forgives, recklessly. The notion that violence was the necessary and pre-ordained means of human salvation does not ring true.
Theologian Marcus Borg points out that the Greek root of the word “martyr” means “witness”. “A martyr, or “witness,”” Borg observes, “is killed because she or he stands for something – which in early Christianity meant standing for God and standing against the powers that created a world of injustice and violence.”*
The powers of the world are still enacting crucifixions,
The powers of the world still crucify, and our efforts to stand in opposition so often feel like shoveling sand against the tide of human selfishness and greed – both within ourselves and in the social and political world outside ourselves.
And yet we are still left with that conviction – articulated by Paul and central to the faith of the Church – that it is the cross that saves us.
Along with others, I have come to see that the cross was not required to change God, but to change us. Jesus’ death provides us the means to face up to our deepest failings.
One of the mysteries of the cross is that it is the place where God’s grace meets and coexists with human violence.
The old hymn puts it this way:
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
As we contemplate the cross today we see the sorrow, the brokenness. We are in the fortunate position of knowing that the sin and the brokenness are not the final word.
The power of love gave Jesus the courage to submit to the worst the world had to offer. May that same love and courage inspire and transform us as we, too, join Jesus in the work of building God’s reign justice and peace.
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