God Wants Us

Sermon preached Good Friday, April 2, 2010

Minnesota theologian Colleen Carpenter Cullinan writes in her book Redeeming the Story: When I was growing up, I had never understood why they had called the day of Jesus’ death “Good Friday.” What on earth was good about it? (149) Perhaps we all might wonder that. This is really a difficult day. The events we recall together here include betrayal, denial, miscarriage of justice, and execution. The method of execution was particularly gruesome. Monday evening, Dr. Tom Wiig from our church shared with a men’s group some of the medical and historical facts about crucifixion. It was an awful way to die, even if it was more common than we often realize. A historian of the Roman Empire recounts this history: The Roman generals and governors assigned to Judea and Galilee repeatedly used crucifixion as a means to terrorize the populace, presumably to deter further resistance. In retaliation for the widespread revolt in 4 B.C.E., around the time Jesus was born, the Roman general Varus, after burning towns and devastating the countryside, scoured the hills for rebels and eventually had about two thousand men crucified. (quoted in Cullinan, 146)
But here we are on Good Friday to hear the story again – and it can only be called “Good Friday” because as people of faith we believe that some good comes from this horrible series of events culminating in death. There is, of course, in the offing, Sunday’s story of resurrection, the story of Easter, and that certainly changed things, and in our faith we cannot finally separate Jesus’ death from Jesus’ resurrection. Without the resurrection, this death would be one of the countless now anonymous crucifixions carried out by Rome. But because of the resurrection, we ask, “What does this death mean?”
The technical theological term for trying to answer this question is atonement theory (see Walter Wink, The Human Being, 104-112, and Cullinan, 10-29). But you did not come to hear a theology lecture this afternoon! Suffice it to say that even within the New Testament itself there are multiple images and ideas used to try and understand the meaning of Jesus’ death. That’s important to remember because there are those who would reduce the richness of Christian thinking here by arguing that only one interpretation of Jesus’ death is appropriate.
One prominent theological theory of the atonement that is sometimes held up as the preeminent one begins with something like the assertion in Hebrews 9:22 – “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (See also Leviticus 17:11) In this view, human sin requires that a penalty be paid, something akin to ancient Hebrew practices of animal sacrifice, and Jesus becomes that sacrifice. While there is something deeply moving about the idea of someone paying a penalty on our behalf, there is also something difficult about this view. Its view of God is that God somehow requires a blood sacrifice in order to forgive. Teacher and writer Parker Palmer raises the question very directly. “What kind of God is it who demands blood – the blood of God’s own son – for atonement?” (The Promise of Paradox, 32) The question is nearly a thousand years old, if not older (Abelard (1079-1142): “How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything” in Cullinan, 26).
But what if God really isn’t in need of or even very interested in being paid penalties or being the recipient of blood sacrifice. There are other images in our Bible and faith tradition which suggest as much, other images by which we can understand the significance of the death of Jesus. Freedom is central to some biblical and theological understandings of the significance of the death of Jesus. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Perhaps what God really wants is not a substitutionary sacrifice, but us – you and me. The problem is we are not free to give ourselves to God and God’s love and God’s cause in the world because we are entangled in webs that bind us, caught in traps often of our own making.
Sometimes our lives are caught in traps of a too fragile sense of self. A couple of years ago, I was a candidate for bishop in The United Methodist Church and one of the people voting asked someone from the Minnesota delegation if I had a Napoleon complex, that is, was I trying to compensate for my stature by seeking a position of prominence! I don’t think I suffer from that particular affliction, but apparently some have it. A too fragile sense of self can entrap us into unhealthy patterns of behavior.
Perhaps we are trapped by our woundedness. Psychoanalyst Michael Eigen writes, “there is no trauma-free world, no trauma-free space in real life” (Conversations, 116). We have all been hurt in some way or another along the way, whether it was a date refused, a friend rejecting us, parent’s divorce, parental indifference, career disappointments, and the list is too long to continue. Sometimes we live completely to protect ourselves from further hurt, but then we shrink from life, we become trapped.
If we can be trapped by too fragile a sense of self, we can also be trapped by fear of our potential. Abraham Maslow (quoted in Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 48): We fear our highest possibility (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments… We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves…. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe and fear before these same possibilities.
Guilt and shame trap us. If I see shortcomings in the penal, substitutionary sacrifice ideas about the meaning of Jesus death it is not because I don’t take seriously that human beings can be cruel, mean, hurtful, selfish – that they can sin. We not only feel guilty about things we have done, but also about things left undone. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 180: “guilt results from unused life.” We cannot change the past, but we can shape how it is part of our present. Therapist and spiritual teacher Jack Kornfield writes “forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past” (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, 25), and the same author also says, “without forgiveness our lives are chained, forced to carry the sufferings of the past and repeat them with no release” (21). We can, in other words, be trapped by guilt.
We can also be trapped by human created systems which begin to take on a life of their own and divide human persons from each other. Rome divided the world between the free and slaves, between citizens and non-citizens. We can become trapped by buying into systems of domination and division that dehumanize those who are different, whether that difference be racial, ethnic, gender, class, or affectional orientation.
Jesus death frees us for God by freeing us from all these traps – not always immediately or automatically, but often over time as we let the story of Jesus who was crucified permeate our lives, let his Spirit move in our hearts, souls, minds. The cross frees us by breaking open our hearts and minds.
On the cross we see a deep faithfulness to love – lavish and wasteful love. For love of God and love of others, Jesus stayed true to his mission, even when it meant death. Such lavish love is God’s “yes” to us – God’s response to a fragile sense of self or a fear of one’s highest possibilities.
The cross, together with the resurrection, show us a way of dying and rising that is an important part of God’s way in the world. Therefore we have courage in the face of hurt and trauma. There is one who has shared our pain, and made it through. The message of Jesus and the cross is “take heart, do not be afraid.”
At the cross there is forgiveness. What conceivably could be worse than putting someone to death unjustly, especially when that death was torturous? Yet from the cross we hear these words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
The cross reveals the dynamics of human systems that dominate and divide. It leads us to ask difficult questions about any social arrangement. What price peace? Who is not being included? Who is suffering? Asking such questions frees us from simply going with the flow when the flow is not healthy or helpful.
When I hear the story of the death of Jesus I don’t hear a story about a God who wants or needs blood or sacrifice or a substitute to punish. I hear a story about a God who wants us, each of us – – – a God who wants us healthy and whole and free, free to live fully and love as lavishly and wastefully as God does here. And that is good news. Amen.