Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
April 17, 2011 Palm Sunday
THE MYSTERY OF THE CROSS: DOES JESUS’ DEATH MATTER?
Texts: Isaiah 53:3-6; Luke 23:32-38
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem amid the Hosannas of the crowd, the disciples were jubilant in their praise, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!!” they sang and shouted. The authorities, fearing things might get out of hand, ordered Jesus to shut his disciples up. He replied, “If these be silent, the very stones of the earth will cry out!” Like this wood (cello). Yes, the trees of the forest will clap their hands. So St. Francis: “All Creatures of Our God and King” (play). “The rushing wind, flowing water, rising morn, Brother Sun and Sister Moon, flowers and fruits that in thee grow.” Boy with cello. Children waving palms. Children, youth, adults singing their Hosannas!
Then the cross, oh, the cross. Today we ponder the Mystery of the Cross. It is one half of what Roman Catholics call “The Pascal Mystery,” the Mystery of the Cross and the Mystery of the Resurrection joined, death and resurrection the emblem of how God is saving the world and saving us. Today we will probe the Mystery of the Cross, ask the question: “Does Jesus’ death matter?” And if so, How? George Buttrick wrote fifty or so years ago: “Can we explain the cross? [Only] So far: Then faith leaps the rest of the distance, and words are lost in adoration.”
“O Sacred Head Now Wounded” (play 2 lines).
Midweek I sat at my desk with five failed starts to this sermon arrayed around me, thirty or so pages that could not be finished. So I took up the cello as my path, to see where it would lead. Maybe let the right brain lead the left. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”? (play). When I survey the wondrous cross. How do we survey it, and how may we call it wondrous?
A woman after last Sunday afternoon’s class said to me, “I hate the cross.” I think what she meant was the theology of the cross she had heard all her life. Something like this: Jesus had to die for our sins. God sent Jesus to die for our sins. It was a theology of blood sacrifice. God required the death of his innocent son that our sins would be forgiven.
In the Middle Ages the theologian Anselm developed his “Satisfaction” theology of the Atonement. God’s justice had to be satisfied, God’s honor preserved. Someone had to pay, to die, and if that someone was the one perfect, innocent son of God, then all our sins would be forgiven. No doubt this theory had great power in the minds and hearts of people in that day. But in our day? Fundamentalists today insist on it. It is one of their Five Fundamentals: “Vicarious Penal Substitionary Atonement.”
For me Jesus’ death does matter; it matters ultimately. That Jesus died for me, for us is at the heart of my faith. Christianity, as theologian Mark Heim put it, is incoherent without the cross. But “substitutionary atonement” as it is often explained is morally abhorrent; it is intellectually absurd; it plants violence in our souls. We might love Jesus in such a scenario, but how could we love and worship such a God? And how do we escape the violence at its heart?
Eric Reece is a Kentucky writer. His grandfather was a fundamentalist preacher. He loved being outdoors as they explored the natural world, but indoors and at church his grandfather’s religion was all Blood, Guilt, Sacrifice. It taught him to distrust himself and the world; it planted self-loathing. Eric’s father followed in his own father’s footsteps and became a fundamentalist preacher. But he could not escape (or cure) the conflicts it placed in his soul, and he killed himself with a hunting rifle when Eric was three. A rifle given him by his father. Eric has sought to extricate himself from a spirituality based on blood sacrifice, self-loathing and hatred of this world.1 I do not think I have ever been a fundamentalist in my theology, but I think the fundamentalist culture of the South has affected me in adverse ways, ways often hidden to myself.
So the question again: Does Jesus’ Death Matter? And if so, How? Would it have been the same for our faith had Jesus lived to a ripe old age and died in his bed of natural causes?
I grew up singing the Atonement and playing it before I was forced by life to think about it. I was swept up in God’s love for me expressed in Jesus’ death. Could God’s love be that deep, that full, that complete? As John’s Gospel put it, “Having loved us, he loved us to the end.” Jesus’ love for us went all the way.
We should not dismiss Atonement theology too quickly. For many poor and marginalized Christians Atonement theology has been powerful and important. It gave them ultimate worth – God, Jesus cared that much! It lifted them from a culture that deemed them without worth to a people cherished, liberated, free.
“What Wondrous Love” (play).
But are there other ways to think about Jesus’ death? There was one answer given in the Middle Ages, in Anselm’s own time – by Peter Abelard. It was called the “Moral Persuasion” theory of the Atonement. It said that Jesus’ death was not the cause of God’s salvation, or the cause of our forgiveness, but was the revealing of our salvation, the revealing of the forgiveness of God always and forever flowing. Andrew Daugherty used these words of Roger Haight last week:
Jesus’ death does not cause our salvation but reveals it at its most powerful level. His love poured out on a cross opens our minds and hearts to it. It moves us at the deepest places. Luke asks, “Was it not necessary that Jesus die?” Yes, necessary, but not as a cause, rather as a revelation of the saving love of God. It would not have been the same had he lived to a ripe old age and died of natural causes.
Here is another way to look at the salvation of God in Christ. What is saving is his whole life, his birth, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection. Salvation comes from Incarnation as well as Crucifixion and Resurrection. Bethlehem, Galilee, Gethsemane, Golgotha, Easter, all.
When Jesus said, “This is my body given for you,” he referred not just to his death but to his whole life given: his lifelong love of God and us; his faithfulness to God and to the kingdom of God. The ways God healed and forgave and came close to others through him.
To have run from his death would have invalidated his mission. To have responded to the tide turned against him by flight or fight would have disproved his life. To have run away, or to have taken up arms against Rome, would have betrayed his essential message and way of being.
He had the choice. And his choice was to be true to God, true to his mission, true to his deepest self.
Had he read the suffering servant poem of Isaiah?
He was despised and rejected by others; a man suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
He had said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom.” Did he trust that God uses innocent suffering, to redeem the world? It is not the power of the sword, but love made eloquent in suffering that transforms the human heart and saves the world.
Which leads to another meaning of Jesus’ death by execution. It conveys that God Immanuel, God-with-us, is with us everywhere and especially in the darkest places of our lives. Peter Kreeft put it in these words:
He came. He entered space and time and suffering. He came, like a lover . . . . He sits beside us in the lowest places of our lives, like water. Are we broken? He is broken with us. Are we rejected? . . . . He was “despised and rejected of men.”. . . . Do we weep?. . . . He was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” . . . . Does he descend into all our hells? Yes. In the unforgettable line of Corrie ten Boom from the depths of Nazi death camp, “No matter how deep our darkness, he is deeper still.”2
“Go to Dark Gethsemane” (play).
There is one more dimension of the meaning of the death of Christ I will offer you today. It comes from the work of philosopher Rene’ Girard, whose work is being used by many theologians today. In a nutshell here is his theory: Culture and religion in all times have operated with the mechanism of “sacred violence.” This is the belief that if we do away with, cast out, kill or sacrifice certain person or persons, then all will be well. This scapegoating has been part of human culture forever. It plays out in families, communities, churches, nations; in family estrangements, religious shunning, domestic and foreign policy.
And this way of thinking, believing not only gives religious validation for violence against others; but also for violence against the self. You make yourself a scapegoat. If someone must always pay, maybe I am the one to pay. Self-mutilation and self-loathing became a religiously motivated act. You miss a note in performance, you make a mistake, you flunk out, you fail, big or little, and self-loathing and self-mutilation step in.
So in Girard’s theory, Jesus’ death was the voluntary sacrifice to end all sacrifices! Jesus at the cross has saved us from sacrifice. It exposed to the world the mechanism of sacred violence that lay near the heart of all culture and all religion, so that it would no longer work. So that we would see our own violent ways as false and futile. See it and stop it.
The logic of sacred violence was expressed by Caiaphas the high priest: “It is better that one man die than the whole nation be destroyed.” (See John 11:50.)
And Jesus’ answer was to go to the cross willingly, the victimless victim, to mirror our violent ways and to say from the cross: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (See Luke 23:34.)
In a real way Jesus’ death was an exorcism! Exposing and casting out the demons of sacred violence. We are still learning. Look at what the church has done: It has scapegoated the Jews as the killers of Christ! Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of Christ, was a fetish of blood sacrifice and dramatized the Jews as the killers. Scapegoating in all its cinematic power. The message of the cross is that scapegoating is over. That no one person or people are guilty: We are all guilty of such violence, and now by the grace of God it can end!
In conclusion, I return where I begin. The deepest meaning of the cross is divine love. An Episcopal priest Mary Earle wrote an essay about her spiritual journey as her thirty-year-old son was dying with astrocytoma. As he was dying, she was reading the British mystic Julian of Norwich. Julian herself may have lost her children to the Black Plague. She received a vision of the suffering Christ and saw Christ as Mother suffering with us and loving us in our suffering. Julian wrote, “Love was our Lord’s meaning.” Yes, love was our Lord’s meaning: his whole life and his death. His life and death and resurrection have drawn a circle of love which completely surrounds us and will always encircle us, from which we will never fall.
“O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” our song:
What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever,
And should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love to Thee.
1 See his book, An American Gospel.
2 Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1986), pp. 133-134.