In the name of the crucified Christ.
Two questions for us to ponder this evening: The first is: Why must Christ suffer and die? If Jesus is divine, a powerful spiritual prophet of God, God’s messenger to humanity, who has come to bring life and salvation, why does God let him die? This was a stumbling block for the first Christians: we can imagine many people saying, “If Jesus was the Messiah, how could he be crucified?”
The answer Christians found was in the prophet Isaiah, specifically in a series of poems
often called the “suffering servant” poems (today’s Old Testament reading was from one of these). These poems are about a mysterious servant of God, who is a king and a prophet, an agent of God’s justice, a light to the gentiles. But he is also despised and rejected, beaten and abused. He bears the sins of many, is punished for our transgressions – yet, we are healed by his wounds.
In the Jewish tradition, the servant is thought to refer to the whole people of Israel,
historically oppressed and abused, yet meant to be a guiding light to other nations.
But Christians saw a clear reference to Jesus. Isaiah seemed to explain Jesus’ suffering
and death, not as a catastrophic failure of God’s plan, but actually central to God’s plan.
This understanding informs the writing of both Paul and the gospels. The promise of salvation comes through Jesus’ death on the cross, not in spite of it.
Second question: How does this help us? How does this bring salvation?
In the Christian tradition there are a number of different ways to explain this. They
usually assume some form of divine justice that demands payment for sin.
An example is C. S. Lewis’s novel, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the story four children are transported to a magical land, ruled over by a powerful lion, yet at the moment under the domination of an evil witch. The witch induces one of the children, Edmund, to betray the others, and then demands his life as punishment for that betrayal, in accordance with established law. But the great lion, Aslan, appears to offer his own life in place of Edmund’s. The witch is delighted to accept, not knowing that after he is killed, Aslan will come to life again.
You can see how it parallels Jesus’ story. But I find there are problems with this
approach, because it assumes that there is a divine law that supersedes God’s will and must demand punishment for sin.
I have an alternative understanding, one that begins with the Incarnation: Jesus’ birth is God entering into the full experience of human life. God, through Jesus, experiences human hunger and thirst, love and joy, the pleasures of friendship and good work. But this is not the full human experience. There is a dark side to human experience – which we are all too well aware of in this particular moment of history: fear, hatred, violence, cruelty, pain, and death. For God to fully enter into the human experience, Jesus must experience the worst of humanity, up to torture and death. And God does so, voluntarily.
So here’s the mystery of the Cross and of our salvation: In Jesus, God unites the human
and the divine. The barriers between God and God’s creation are broken down.
As God fully enters into human life, God makes it possible for us to share in the divine nature.
As God lowers Godself to experience suffering and death in human flesh, human flesh is
raised up to know and to participate in divinity.
The cross is the seal and the symbol of God’s promise that God will always be with us – and in us.