November 6, 2016 | Luke 23: 33-48 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
On Wednesday evening I shared with our Worship Team that I would be reflecting today on the cross as a place where we see God suffer. One of the members of our group said I hope you will say something about how that relates to the suffering we have seen in Abbotsford this week. I’m sure you have all heard, it’s been a terrible week for the students and staff, the family and friends of 13 year old Leticia Reimer who was stabbed to death by a homeless man in the rotunda of her Abbotsford highschool on Tuesday. It’s the kind of shocking and heartbreaking news that always begs the question of those of us who gather around the strange symbol of an ancient instrument of death and torture from the Roman Empire, just what does the cross have to say about this kind of random act of violence, or the suffering born of war for which we wear our poppies today, or any other kind of suffering.
We have heard in the news that young Leticia was a Christian. She was an active participant in the life of her church, went on mission trips and spent last weekend of her life at a youth retreat. We don’t know what she or her family believe about the cross but whatever they believe, I hope and pray it is bringing them great comfort in this time of tragic loss.
What I do know, is that for many people, the only understanding they have ever had of the cross is that it’s the place where Jesus died to save us from our sins. Without exception anytime I have ever asked a group of people the question “why did Jesus die” that is the response I have received. To save us from our sins. But then when I them to explain what that means they either can’t explain it, or they give me the answer they think is the “right” answer to the question.
The cross as the place where Jesus died to save us from our sins is one way of interpreting the crucifixion but it is not the only way. And I think it’s hard for us to explain what that means because it doesn’t always resonate with our experience of God or of life. It feels to me more like a statement of doctrine than a lived experience of faith.
Just what does is mean to say that Jesus died for my sins? Traditionally it means one of two things. The first way of understanding says that God made Jesus suffer on the cross to win our freedom, so that we don’t have to suffer the punishment we deserve for everything we’ve ever done wrong in our lives. The problem with this for many is that it’s a portrayal of God as a kind of divine child abuser. Nadia Boltz Webber who speaks about this in the Animate Faith series calls this God “angry daddy God.”
The second understanding says that God requires us to pay a penalty for all the things we’ve done wrong in our lives. In the ancient world penalties were paid to God by making sacrifices. In the earliest of times human sacrifices were made to appease the wrath of God. Later on animals were substituted in for humans. In this way of understanding the cross, Jesus becomes the ultimate substitution appeasing God once and for all. Nadia Boltz Webber says this is “God as Cigar Chomping Loan Shark.”
I personally don’t find either one of these ways of interpreting the cross, helpful. Neither God nor Jesus are presented in a way that has any relevance for my life. I don’t want a God who needs to be appeased or who sees me primarily as sinful and I don’t want a Jesus who is so caught up in some kind of divine accounting system, he has no idea what it is to live the life I live.
I can‘t relate to a Jesus who died for my sins but I can relate to a Jesus who died because of my sins, because of the broken system of values we choose to live out of in our world and because of our capacity as human beings to do each other wrong both intentionally and unintentionally.
At the end of the second world war when the horrors of the holocaust began to come to light, when humanity came face to face with the depths of depravity to which we were capable of stooping, many theologians began to realize we could no longer tolerate any interpretation of God that even hinted at the possibility that a God of love could ever require humanity to suffer or cause humanity to suffer. We could not have a God that would ever tolerate or condone or fail to intervene in what happened in Dachau and Auschwitz, if God could have intervened.
Instead, a theology of the cross developed that saw God as one who suffers with us in our humanity. Not God looking down on the cross, manipulating what happened there but God hanging from the cross, vulnerable, broken and weak. Not an all powerful, all knowing God, but God who is with us.
If we understand the incarnation, the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, God who is with us, as a way of seeing the divine not just in Jesus, but in each and every one of us, then it makes perfect sense that when Jesus is hanging on the cross, God is hanging on the cross. It makes sense that when I suffer, God suffers, because God is in me and I’m in God. When creation suffers, God suffers.
That’s a God and a Jesus I can embrace because it’s a God and a Jesus that is mirrored in my human experience and calls me beyond my current state.
There’s one final way I want to talk about the cross and it’s particularly poignant in light of our observance of Remembrance Day. Not only is the cross a symbol of the way God suffers with us, it is also a symbol of sacrificial living.
When we see the rows and rows of crosses commemorating both known and unknown soldiers, we are reminded of the promise of eternal life that is symbolized by the cross, the promise that death is not the final word. We are reminded also of the sacrifice made by countless women and men in service of peace and freedom. It is a sacrifice we must always honour because of the price that has been paid to gain our freedom. It’s a sacrifice we must never forget because in our remembering we see before us the capacity we have for violence and war and it gives us greater resolve to work for peace.
In the cross we witness sacrificial love, the death of one for the sake of others. But there is a very significant difference between the sacrificial death of our service men and women and the sacrificial death of Jesus. The women and men who lost their lives in the battlefields of war were caught up in power struggles made by human hands, caught in cycles of violence and vengeance that cost us dearly. They were not necessarily on a path of their own choosing but they believed they had no other choice. We need to honour that.
The path that Jesus walked was quite a different path. In response to the violence and power struggles around him, he chose not to fight back, he chose the way of non-violent peace. It is perhaps the highest expression of human love, to be so self-possessed there is no longer any need to lash out, to retaliate, to revenge. It is the way that we as human beings have not yet been able to fully embrace. Until we do the logical end of our value system will always lead to suffering and death.
Some time ago I was introduced to an image of Christ on the cross that has spoken to me deeply. It’s a 13th century statue from a church in Spain called the smiling Christ. Instead of the usual look of defeat and agony we are accustomed to seeing, this Jesus has a look of serenity and peace. Perhaps he is smiling because he knows his suffering has ended and he is on his way to heaven. Or perhaps he is smiling because he knows he has lived his life well and therefore overcome defeat, never having given in to violence, never returning hate with hate, seeking the wellbeing even of those who would do him wrong.
The day after Leticia Reimer was killed I heard her pastor interviewed on the radio. Time and time again he turned the focus of the conversation away from the story of violence that was her death to the story of love and beauty that was her life. He spoke of her laughter and her smile. He could have spoken of revenge. He could have spoken of hate but he spoke instead of joy and laughter and love. Not to deny the pain of it all but to allow love to have the final say.
That is the deepest and more lasting message of the cross. Love wins and no matter how painful life may be we are not alone.