Mar 28th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | Romans 5:6-11
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I am often asked how long it takes to write a sermon. The answer varies. Some sermons present themselves rather quickly and others take time to marinate and form. Case in point: this morning’s sermon has taken sixty years for me to write.
This sermon is part spiritual autobiography and part proclamation. I’m going to tell you how I got to the place where I am in my understanding of the cross of Jesus. I’m not telling you that so that you can be impressed by my adventure in any way. I am telling you my story because you might find parts of your own story in it. Trust me, please: by the time we’re finished this morning you will have a sermon to take with you into Holy Week.
The crucifixion of Jesus has always bothered me. As a child and young adult, I was taught that God needed Jesus to die so that God could forgive us. This seemed, to me, strange. If God was God and capable of doing anything God wanted to do, why would God require Jesus to die? It seemed unnecessarily cruel. Later, I would hear one preacher refer to this interpretation of the cross as “divine child abuse.” That resonated with me.
In college studies, the dominant understanding of the cross was found in “the substitutionary theory of atonement.” This approach suggests that Jesus died for us. We deserved to die for the sin of our lives, but Jesus died in our place so that might live. We’ve all probably heard this taught and preached. It is the central understanding of what the crucifixion of Jesus means.
But, my problem continued. Surely, in the infinite wisdom and creativity of God, there was a way of accomplishing the reconciliation of God and humankind without someone having to die.
On to seminary. Things started to change. I discovered that the Bible talked about Jesus’ death using four images.
The first was a financial image. Imagine a prison camp. In the camp are those who have lost their freedom. Then a person steps us and pays the ransom money to release the captives. That ransom money was the person’s life. A life freely given for the sake of others.
The second was a military image. Imagine a battlefield where God and Satan - the anti-God - are at war for the possession of earth’s people who have been stolen by Satan. A great warrior appears, invading the territory held by Satan and bringing home those who had been held captive. In the action, the warrior is killed. (Think Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.) The powers of evil seem to be victorious. But then, on Easter Morning, “up from the grave He arose with a mighty triumph o’er his foes!” Jesus is God’s “victor” who leads God’s people from darkness and death to God’s realm of light and life.
The third image was a sacrificial image. Imagine a place of worship. There is an altar, where sacrifice is offered through the spilling of blood. Instead of an animal to be sacrificed, a Priestly One steps forward to mediate the dispute between God and humankind. Instead of offering a lamb, or a pigeon, or a dove, the Priestly One offers his life as a sacrifice. The Priestly One becomes “the lamb that was slain.”
The fourth image was a legal image. God is the just judge who is seated at the bench and all the people who have broken God’s law stand in front of the judge to be tried. The verdict is rendered: guilty. The sentence is the same for all: death. But a righteous person, who has obeyed the law perfectly comes forward, stands beside the accused, and takes the death penalty upon himself. Those who were enemies of the law - and thus, of the judge - are now acquitted and reconciled to each other and the judge. 1
Well, things were getting a little clearer. In each of the Biblical images, God does not require Jesus to die. Jesus freely accepts the burden of reconciling us to God. The great Christ hymn from the Letter to the Philippians suddenly came to a new life:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Jesus voluntarily took on the cross - not because God required it - but because obedience to God led Jesus nowhere else. In order to be faithful to God and the purpose for which he entered the world, Jesus obediently walked the path that led to the cross.
Then came The Cross and the Lynching Tree by Dr. James Cone. A leader in Black Theology, Cone offered us - predominantly white folk - a new image. Cone taught that the cross was, to a black person, no different from a lynching tree. The cross and the lynching tree place in stark reality the cruelty of which human beings are capable. The lynching tree was the embodiment of white power and the merciless death of 3,446 Black Americans, and 1,297 White Americans between 1882 and 1968. Cone tells us that, for African Americans, the image of Jesus, hung on a tree to die, powerfully grounded their faith that God was with them, even in the suffering of the lynching era. There is something restorative and healing, curative and redemptive in the suffering of Jesus and those who were and are persecuted for their race, economic class, sexuality, or any of the other reasons that cause suffering.
The discomfort of the image is powerful. But more powerful still is the question, “Who hung black men and women on lynching trees?” The answer is “white people.”
And then came along the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Brief Statement of Faith. Adopted in 1991 by the General Assembly, the Statement’s section on Jesus reengaged our thinking.
Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition,
Jesus was crucified,
suffering the depths of human pain
and giving his life for the sins of the world.
And there it was, condensed and clear.
Why did Jesus die? Jesus died because of injustice. “Unjustly condemned.” Who perpetrated this injustice? People like you and me. Humanity’s hubris put Jesus on the cross. We didn’t want to hear his message of loving God and loving our neighbor. So, in order to silence the message we silenced the messenger. It was humanity’s behavior before Jesus and it is human behavior after Jesus. When someone says something we don’t want to hear, we silence them in one of many ways.
The nice thing about my earliest understanding of the cross was that it was all God’s doing. It seemed, for the most part, that I was off the hook, because God was doing it all. All I had to do was say, “thank you, Lord,” and go on my merry way.
But now, I had a problem. I was one of those, like other white people, who hung “strange fruit” on a tree. I was one of those who had denied and abandoned God’s messenger. I was one of those who didn’t want to hear what God wanted me to hear, and so, I joined with others in silencing the messenger. When I hear the old spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”, I can answer “yes” because I “nailed him to the tree.” There is no room for blaming the Jews, the religious authority, or the empire. People - just like you and I - crucified Jesus Christ.
In a supreme act of injustice, we trumped up charges of blasphemy - that is, claiming to be God - and sedition - that is, overthrowing the sitting government. We were co-conspirators in that toxic combination of ignorance, religion, and politics that led to Jesus’ execution. We caused Jesus’ pain on the cross. It was people, just like you and me, that caused Jesus’ death.
And if that’s where it ended, we would be consigned to live with the guilt and self-reproach that would be well earned. But that is not where it ended.
The cross and the resurrection cannot and should not be separated. While we threw the Messiah of God back into God’s face, God’s love raised Jesus from the dead and sent a message of forgiveness and love to the world. Even our worst behavior could not sever the relationship God wants to have with us.
Professor Shirley Guthrie tells us:
It is not the guilty but the injured party who acts to restore the broken relationship. God does not demand that we first do something to make up for what we have done or not done before God reluctantly agrees to forgive and love us again. God makes the first move…it is not God who is reconciled to us but we who are reconciled to God. It is not we who make peace with God but God who makes peace with us. That is what the death of Jesus is all about. 2
And that is the good news of the cross. God loves us so much, that even when were at our supreme worst, God loved us back into relationship with God. When we acted our worst and perpetrated the greatest injustice the world has ever known, God responded - not in condemnation - but in restoration. When we acted as inhumanely as possible, God wiped off the grime and let the image of God, in which we were created, shine. God did not kill Jesus. We did. God raised Jesus from death, redressing our hatefulness with love, overcoming our sinfulness with grace, destroying the power of death and opening the door to authentic and abundant life. But, more on that next week.
It is strange that a cross has become the symbol for Christianity. It is odd that an instrument of execution should represent a faith tradition. But, the cross is central to our understanding of ourselves and of our God. We are capable of great cruelty and evil. But God’s love can overcome the worst we can do. Perhaps, in a strange way, when we look at the cross we can see - love.
The old hymn asks, “What wondrous love is this?” The most wondrous love of all. It is a love that is for now and evermore. Amen.
1) These images are drawn from Dr. Shirley Guthrie’s work in Basic Christian Doctrine.
2) Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine - 50th Anniversary Edition, p. 257