Why All The Talk About Crucifixion?April 9, 2000, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Why all the talk about crucifixion? Why the preoccupation with the cross? A graphic designer once described the cross as the perfect logo. Whether in silver or gold ornate with precious stones hanging about one's neck or simply two intersecting lines drawn with a stick on the ground, it unmistakably symbolizes Christianity. Why? Why not something more edifying: an empty tomb, bread and wine, or the first century symbol of a fish?1 After all, wearing a cross is the first century equivalent to wearing a silver electric chair around your neck, or a rhinestone hangman's noose on your lapel. Jews understood that someone executed on a cross had not only been rejected by God's people, but actually cursed by God.2 In Rome crucifixion was regarded as the most degrading form of punishment; even speaking of it among respectable people was considered a violation of good manners.3 Why then, is the cross our central symbol, prominently displayed on churches, the central symbol in sanctuaries and chapels, whether a crucifix, a christus rex, or simply the empty cross of Protestantism? Why do Christians around the world bless themselves by making the sign of the cross? What possesses us to sing "Lift High the Cross," or "In the Cross of Christ I Glory"? Why all this talk about crucifixion?
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.4 With that agricultural parable Jesus tells his followers that the time has come for him to take up his cross, suffer and die, in order to bring to perfection the work for which he came into the world. That work of atonement which began in the angel's annunciation to the Virgin, emerged in Bethlehem, matured in Nazareth for some thirty years and emerged in Galilee for a one to three year ministry of teaching and healing, now moves to its completion and fulfillment on a cross, and does so, not just for those who followed him, nor just those who stood by at a distance and watched, but for every woman and man, boy and girl from any and every time and place who will look upon him and call him LORD.
Atonement, what does that word mean for you? At its most basic level the word defines itself when hyphenated: "at-one-ment." In Jesus Christ God became at-one with us. English in origin, the word "atonement" appears in Elizabethan literature as "bringing concord between divided peoples or groups," and is used interchangeably with "reconciliation." In the Bible "atonement" is how the Hebrew word which means "to cover, or purge" is translated. It can also be translated "expiate, absolve or redress."5 Jesus Christ made atonement for sin in his sacrificial life and death upon the cross. But how?
It began in the incarnation, God taking human flesh to be one with us, a demonstration that flesh can bear God's presence and that the distance created between humanity and God by sin has been overcome by God. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting [our] trespasses against [us]."6 Atonement continued to unfold in Jesus' life and ministry as he took on the role of prophet, proclaiming God's word to us, engaging our ignorance and error about God and God's reign, while himself embodying the truth. But coming among us, and speaking God's word, announcing God's reign in and among us was not enough. Another creature had rebelled, and set loose such rebellion through us that the sin within us could not be cured simply by God's presence or Word. God had given the law, but human sin had distorted it, making the gulf between God and humankind all the more great. Something more must be done. The gospel lesson this morning is the pivot point, that moment Jesus moves to begin perfecting the work for which he had come, and embrace his other two offices, that of priest and king.
Now is the Son of Man glorified...." Jesus goes forth to meet sin and guilt as a priest, offering his own life. In the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, "he bore in his body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race, so that by his suffering, as the only expiatory sacrifice, he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and might obtain for us God's grace, righteousness, and eternal life."7 If you find that sixteenth century language antiquated, listen to the more contemporary Confession of 1967 "Against all who oppose him, God expresses His love in wrath." Let me pause here, mid-confession, to ask a question. Have we lived with the notion of God's love to the exclusion of God's wrath that we have forgotten that love opposed or resisted turns to wrath? That is what "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" is all about. God's love resisted or opposed turns to wrath. But the confession continues: "In the same love, God took on himself judgment and shameful death in Jesus Christ to bring men [and women] to repentance and new life."8 Here is the significance of the cross. Jesus suffers and dies, not for his own guilt and sin, but for the guilt and sin of the world. He takes on himself the wrath of God for all who oppose God. You see, as cruel and barbarous as Jesus' crucifixion is, that is not its meaning. Others have died equally cruel deaths. In fact, two died the very same way with him that day. Nor is this the first time someone has been executed innocently or simply for being a threat to the state, whether it was Steve Bikko being bludgeoned to death in his interrogation cell in South Africa, the many victims of Idi Amin's barbarous reign, the victims of the holocaust, or those dead men walking who really didn't do it in the history of American juris prudence. What makes this suffering and death unique, what makes the cross the powerful sign that it is in this world is it is where the God who took on human flesh willingly then died to make atonement for the sin of the world. Jesus the priest not only offers sacrifice for sin he didn't commit, but offers himself, the only one among humankind who had never been the object of God's wrath. He brings his life's work to perfection, says Hebrews, reverently submitting to his mission. Even though he was God the son, he learned obedience in suffering, and thereby perfected his work. He absorbed sin, death and God's wrath for all of us, made atonement, became the source of eternal salvation, and opened the way to eternal life.
But it was not just God the Son who suffered. Think about this for a moment. Both the Father and the Son suffer in this time. You see, the doctrine of Jesus sacrificial death as atonement for the sin of the world is barbarism itself -- a child abuse theology -- if only the Son suffers. It is not until you and I realize that it is the God-man, doing what he had come to do in the incarnation with God the Father fulling knowing what it will mean but not stopping it. God the Son offers his life on behalf of the sin of the world, and God the Father must look on, suffering, bearing the death of His only Son. The Father suffers Jesus' suffering and death with power to prevent it, but constrains that power because of the Father's love for the world. The longer you contemplate the bond between the Father and the Son, the more you realize that in this crucifixion, God is not inflicting suffering on another but receiving into God's own self suffering and death, the painful consequences of sin.9 Bearing God's wrath within himself, the Son conquers not only sin and its consequences but also the agents of sin and death.
Now the ruler of this world will be driven out."10 God the Son had come among us a prophet and priest, but there was still that rebellious power which worked to separate us from God, the "ruler of this world;" Satan, the Devil, demons, principalities and powers is how the New Testament names them. Before these humanity is powerless. Only God has the power to address the author of lawlessness. But God must not do it as God. For if God accomplished his will, rescuing us from the dominion of Satan by Divine force, then, in the words of 7th century theologian, John of Damascus, Satan would have had cause for complaint. After all, Satan gained dominion over humankind fair and square. It would not be fair for Satan to be compelled by Divine force to give them up.11 No. A man, the son of a woman, must meet Satan's worst and not be separated from God. God the Son willingly goes to experience sin and death. He who was stronger than Satan, succumbs to the power of evil to bear it.
Jesus conquers evil by absorbing it. That is the only way to destroy evil, absorb it. Meeting evil with evil is simply capitulating to evil's game. Evil can only be conquered by absorption, for then its power cannot ricochet back into life. Jesus absorbs evil and defeats it. Having defeated Satan for himself in the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus now defeats him for us in his passion and crucifixion. In his death he swallows the power of death and bears the weight of God's wrath. Calvin said that hanging on the cross Jesus was descending into hell. He was bearing the full weight of human sin on our behalf, suffering in his soul the full weight of God's wrath, and so cried out as one abandoned by God. The ultimate sign of Jesus' power as King is the cross, where he both bears God's wrath for the sin of the world and drives out the ruler of this world to take up his reign as Savior and Lord. Doing so, this ultimate symbol for evil is transformed into the ultimate symbol for good.
To be sure, from Friday at 3:00 pm until early on the first day of the week, it looked to all the world as though God had lost. The Son was dead and had descended into hell. Have you ever asked yourself what Jesus was doing between 3pm on Good Friday and Easter morning? He lay in the bonds of death, made his descent into hell. But even here he is the redemptive king. Striding through the streets of Hell Jesus proclaims the word of release, not only to all the Old Testament faithful but to all who had never heard of Christ. And as he does, the Father suffers the death of the Son and grieves with Divine love, a love so powerful that it gives the Son new life, and raises him in power to continue his reign. Now the Son reigns, not from a cross, but as ascended LORD and gives his power over evil, sin and death to all who embrace him as Lord and Savior.
Because of that cross, God's relationship to the world has forever changed. Jesus' passion, death and descent complete, he is still prophet, priest and king. He speaks wherever the word of the cross is spoken, and proclaims redemption and new life wherever his gospel is preached. He gives new life wherever he is embraced. As priest he continues to intercede for us before his Father, remembering before him that cross whereupon he offered the sacrifice sufficient once and for all, and serving as the mediator for us whereby we find our way into the heart of the Father. Because Christ is King, he continues to conquer sin, suffering and death with his liberating and saving power. He reigns, sending forth the Spirit to fortify and sustain all who claim him as LORD. He suffers with those who suffer, giving power to conquer as he conquered. And he meets his own in death so that they may never know the abandonment of God's wrath, and leads them to his Father's home.
But he does more than sustain us in suffering, meet us in death that we may die in peace, and usher us into God's holy habitations. In the cross a new creation has begun. Christ reigns as prophet, priest and king until that day when he returns, and by the power which swallowed up death he will establish the victory of life, making all things new, bringing a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more sorrow, no crying, nor tears. And the new covenant will have come in its fullness. There will be no need to teach one another or to say "know the LORD," for all shall know him from the least to the greatest, and God's law will be written on hearts, the thirsty will be given water from the water of life, he will be their God, and they will be God's children.12 The seed which died will have borne much fruit. That is why all this talk about crucifixion.
- The fish, icthus, in Greek, was an early cryptic symbol of Christianity, an acronym whose letters formed the early confession "Jesus Christ, God's Son, our Savior."
- Deuteronomy 21:23.
- Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 33.
- John 12:23-24
- kaphar, cf. Ex. 29:36-37, Lev. 23:28, Num. 15:28
- 2 Corinthians 5:19
- Heidelberg Catechism, question 37, The Book of Confessions, (Louisville, KY: General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1994), p.35.
- C-67, ibid, p. paragraph 9.14, p. 263.
- Gabriel Fackre, "Atonement,"Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, Donald K. McKim, ed., (Louisville, KY: Westminster Presss, 1992), p. 16.
- John 12:31
- John of Damascus, quotes by Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor, (New York: The Macmillian Company, 1969), p. 45.
- Jeremiah 31:33-34, Revelation 21:1-7
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