Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Galatians 1:3-5 ESV)
There’s nothing like being blunt. Today is about death. The Christian Church returns to this day every year because it is central, foundational, essential. The stage director and film maker in us has to work out how the words Jesus says from the cross ‘It is finished!’ will sound – defeatist, resigned, victorious, triumphant, defiant, or something else – when we consider that crucifixion is essentially a slow strangulation coupled with pain at each breath and when we consider what Jesus is doing on the cross – being lifted up to draw all people to himself – and this is worth noting from a fellow who has spent three years of public ministry teaching, performing signs (also known as miracles in some quarters), and dropping hints and being blunt that he is God among us.
Jesus and his death on a cross is central to Christianity. This day is important. It is good to be here. We teach our children that Jesus died for us. At each Holy Communion we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. At each baptism we are joined to Jesus’ death and – spoiler alert! – his resurrection. This death won’t go away. It can’t be ignored. Why? Because we will say something like ‘Jesus’ death has saved us’ or ‘God has forgiven me because of Jesus’ (and we mean because Jesus died) or ‘Jesus sacrificed himself so that we might live’. And we know what it is about – a death leads to a life. What makes this death not a medical moment – an organ transplant or a super blood transfusion – or a military moment – our buddy took the bullet for us – but a judicial moment is all the talk about sins, forgiveness, and righteousness that are part of Jesus’ story and his death.
Over the centuries the followers of Jesus have talked about the atonement. How Jesus is one with us – reconciling us to God, restoring our relationship with God, paying our debt to God, taking the punishment we deserved.
And over the last few years – but it has been going on for centuries – I have heard the complaint about Jesus’ death and about the atonement to the effect that a God who requires such a thing as Jesus’ crucifixion is not the God they want to know or follow. The violence of the crucifixion is too much. If this is all about God being appeased because we were independent, then people are wanting another God – and I’m not only talking about the world – but I’m having these conversations with Christians who are looking at the cross and are shaking their heads.
Of course there is a mystery here! We have God in human form dying so that we might not die as death intended – but, in this world, our loved ones die and we, in this world, don’t see them live on. We live by faith and not by sight here. We have God who made a good world – indeed a very good world – and yet sin and death and tragedy and evil have entered it. That is, in my view, the greatest mystery of all. And we have humanity who it seems is capable of climbing – or perhaps that should be plummeting – to even greater depths of destructiveness, torture, pain – and I can summarise millions of deaths in single words – Auschwitz, slavery, Maoism. The mystery of human evil is profound.
And to answer such mysteries the Church has looked at today and said Jesus has liberated us by a great exchange – his life for ours – by a ransom paid – maybe to Satan or to God’s wrath – not with silver or gold but his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. The Church has said that God tricked Satan to kill the innocent one and like a fish hooked on a tasty worm, the serpent is now caught on the hook within. The Church has said that Jesus as the Second Adam has done what the first Adam – and us also – didn’t and don’t do – trust God and obey him – and so has undone Adam’s mess and given us life instead of death. The Church has said that Jesus has satisfied God’s honour, Jesus has suffered our punishment, and that Jesus has died on the cross as a demonstration of God’s love which woos sinners back to God. These pronouncements and teachings – and more – over the centuries can be in tension with each other but they are wrestling with the mystery of grace and mercy, justice and righteousness.
What we never see, however, in the Bible are pages and pages of the Son begging the Father not to kill him or the Father getting stroppy with a headstrong Son who wants to go and rescue those who should not be rescued. What is consistent throughout the Gospel accounts is that Jesus knows his future and seeks to fulfil it, not against the Father’s wishes but in harmony with the Father’s will. The cry from the cross of abandonment – the suffering of sin and God’s wrath – is still made to God – it is still faith crying ‘My God, my God …’ rather than ‘O God’ or ‘Hey is anyone up there?’. What people do not like is that this story says that we are accountable beyond Planet Earth. That’s the message that gnaws at people.
I wonder whether a perspective of God’s holiness – that our rebellion makes us destroyable and our intention / potential to be like God – to want to be God – is the perfect recipe for our destruction. I wonder whether a perspective on God’s holiness and our sinfulness is good to remember because if true, then to rescue us, God has to go to extreme lengths and not destroy us in the process. We can’t see God’s face and live but we can see God’s back. To meet God without shielding, so to speak, is death and so the Bible is full of God making himself safe – hiding in dreams, sacrifice, strange visitors, words and it all leads to the point when he comes on stage himself in the person of Jesus who has come to die – and he dies!
The world that doesn’t want the God behind a crucifixion has missed the point of what grace – undeserved love is all about – and is blind to the rebellious nature we have for self preservation and self-deification.
Good Friday is about Jesus giving himself for our sins, rebellion, and self righteousness. Good Friday is the culmination of God’s love for the world as he gave his only Son. Good Friday is best seen has a gift – the unexpected rescue – from the one whose very nature would destroy but who has gone to extreme lengths to make us feel safe – be safe – and not afraid.
Jesus died for us. And Jesus is God. God brought death into the Trinity to swallow it up. Such a rescue is good for us. It is a pure gift.
- Galatians 1:3 - 5