What Happens on the Cross?

Wading in…

If you are new to this blog site please take a look at the page entitled “The Current Project.”  The material there will help orient you to the conversation and get you on board as a participant in the dialog.

A few house keeping matters before we get started…

I am hoping that this blog site will be an opportunity for conversation.  Please do take the time to reflect and to respond by posting comments.

When you look at a posting on the “Home” page you will see that there are little “dialog bubbles” next to the titles of each post.  If there is a number in that bubble that means that people have posted comments and responses.

You will not see those responses on the home page.  In order to read them you must either click on the title of my original post, which will take you to a new window where you may scroll down through the post to find the comments, or you may click on the bubble, which will take you directly to the comments themselves in a new window.

What Happens on the Cross?

How would you answer this question?  Aside from the basic fact that Jesus dies… what is affected, what transpires, what is changed?

The way that we answer this question is, I think, incredibly important.  I think that the way we perceive the cross makes a huge difference in the way that we understand God and the way that we relate to one another as God’s people, God’s children, God’s beloved.

A couple of months ago we sat in the Parish Hall at Saint Andrew’s wondering how we might best use the time between worship services, what topics we should consider when we gathered for the Sunday Forum.  In that gathering a plea for help seemed to grab everyone’s attention.  “How do I respond to co workers, family, people I associate with, whose faith traditions lead them to respond very differently than I do to the events in the world around me?”

We were having this conversation in the terribly difficult time following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the emotion and energy that we all felt was a response to public statements by national religious leaders that those horrific murders had happened because God is angry with us as a people, and as a nation.

Of course this kind of statement is nothing new.  We heard the same kind of talk when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans; a sinful and wicked city had been brought low.  We heard it when the terrorist flew airplanes into the World Trade Towers; America was being punished for listening to the voices of pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU and People for the American Way (Living the Questions, p. 106).  We heard it when the tsunami hit South East Asia; God was punishing Muslims for denying Christ.

Does God punish us by sending natural disasters and jihadists among us?  Does God work to get our attention by killing or destroying us?  Does God allow people with guns into our schools because we have “excluded” God from the public schools?

In Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity the authors state,

“The ideas that we hold about the nature of God and the language that we use to describe God play out in small ways – how or even whether we pray, how we think about our purpose in life, how we relate to those who do not share our beliefs.  But they also influence how we see the world and, ultimately, God’s role in the world” (p. 26).

So what does all of this have to do with the cross?  It is the cross, and my understanding of what happens on the cross, that shapes my understanding of who God is, of God’s nature and character.  I cannot reconcile what happened on the cross with the idea that God’s hand was at work in the AIDS Crisis, in Hurricane Katrina, in the Tsunami in South East Asia, in 9/11, or in Newtown.

So we are back to the original question, “What happens on the cross?”  At the most basic level the answer to this question is that through the cross we are reconciled to God; that through the cross our relationship with God is restored.  That seems easy enough but now we come to the tougher question…  How is it that Jesus’ death on the cross reconciles is to God?

Did Jesus die for our sins?  Was Jesus’ bloody death on a Roman cross the blood sacrifice that was required to make satisfaction for our transgressions?  Did Jesus stand in as our substitute, enduring the agony and painful death that we all deserve for the sins that we have committed against God and one another?  Did God sacrifice Jesus in order to pay off the devil, ransoming us from captivity to sin and death?

Remember that quote from Living the Questions,

“The ideas that we hold about the nature of God and the language that we use to describe God play out in small ways – how or even whether we pray, how we think about our purpose in life, how we relate to those who do not share our beliefs.  But they also influence how we see the world and, ultimately, God’s role in the world” (p. 26).

Did God demand or require that Jesus die in order that we who have betrayed God and one another might be reconciled to God?

Does God require a blood sacrifice to make satisfaction for sin?

Does God’s wrath require that we die for our sins?

Does God’s justice allow someone else, someone innocent of our offense, to die on our behalf in order to atone for our sins?

These questions might seem flip or disingenuous but they are questions that beg to be answered when we hear people claim that God has visited death upon us through sickness, famine, or natural disaster because we have sinned.  They are questions that beg to be answered when people say that the obscene violence that seems to permeate our culture and society is God’s way of getting our attention and putting us back on the right path.

Is it possible that God uses pain, suffering, violence and death to reconcile us all, one to another, and to God?

In Thinking Theologically, chapter 3 of Living the Questions, the authors quote Harry Emerson Fosdick…

“…telling the story of a distraught student who exclaimed, ‘I don’t believe in God!’  Fosdick Replied, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in; chances are I don’t believe in that God either’” (p. 24).

There is another way of understanding what happens on the cross.  God did not demand Jesus’ death.  We did.  God came into the world and shared God’s dream for all of creation with us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  We responded to that dream, to God’s love by pushing God away.  Unwilling to see ourselves through God’s eyes, unwilling to cede the fantasy that we are at the center of all things, we nailed God to a tree.  In giving God’s self into our hands God loved us enough to give up control of the outcome, loving us before we could love in return, loving us when we didn’t love in return, and refusing to abandon us even when we betrayed him to an awful, violent, and bloody death.

Having endured the cross God has experienced the worst very worst that lies within us.  There is no depravity hidden from the God who wants only to love us and who has died at our hands.

And yet, knowing who we are, knowing what we are capable of, knowing what we have done, God has not abandoned us!  God loves us still!

In coming posts I will be exploring traditional or classical understandings of the cross, seeking to offer a more nuanced understanding than is represented in this introduction to the conversation.  I will also be exploring the writings of some contemporary theologians whose ideas about reconciliation, atonement and the cross challenge the models or theories that seem to portray violence as redemptive.

If you find yourself intrigued and want to do some exploration of your own I highly recommend Living the Questions, chapters 3, 8, 10, and 11.

I would also recommend Why the Cross? God’s at-one-ment with humanity.  Published in The Christian Century, March 11, 2013.  Written by Charles Hefling.

I have added the Article by Walter Wink from which chapter 11 of Living the Questions draws its title, The Myth of Redemptive Violence to the reading list.  It offers a history and critique of a world view built around a God of violence and pain.

I hope that you will join me in this journey, offering your insights, questions, and reflections by commenting on this post.