Christ Church Cathedral
30 March 2018
[video | Letter to my critics | Making meaning out of the cross]
This morning I want to speak briefly about the death of Jesus, about the cross.
It is a most familiar topic, as our churches are littered with crosses. From the roof top to the decorations carved into our woodwork, we have crosses everywhere. We wear them around our neck, put them on the wall above our bed, and we make the sign of a cross at sacred moments.
The cross is everywhere.
But most of what people will be told about the cross today in churches around the world and across our Diocese and around this city is nonsense at best, and truly bad theology at worst.
So today I want to talk briefly concerning three really bad ideas that people have about the crucifixion, and I want to suggest one really good way to understand what the cross was all about.
As the ideas were taking shape in my mind, I went back to read again what I said on Good Friday at Byron Bay last April. I did that for a few different reasons.
First of all, because it helps me to clarify my thoughts now if I review what I have said about the same topic at an earlier time.
I also wanted to make sure that I was not just going to repeat unwittingly material from last year.
And I needed to check if I had anything new to say today. And I think I do!
Generally speaking I do not like to read what I said in a sermon a year or more ago. I rarely agree with myself!
As I have reflected on that I realise that this may because I am no longer the same person who gave that sermon. At the time it may have been the right thing for the person I was then to say in that context. But time has passed. Other stuff has happened in my life and yours since this time last year. I am a different person, and I am speaking to a different community of faith. Even if I was still in Byron Bay, we would all have moved on—I hope—in the meantime, and each of us will be at least a little bit different than we were twelve months ago.
It makes me wonder what we shall all be like in twelve months’ time from now!
What will God have been doing in and through us during the year ahead, and how shall we have changed —individually and collectively — in that time?
So back to the task before us here this morning …
Bad Idea #1
Crucifixion was a violent and cruel way to kill someone.
The story of the cross is a story of extreme violence.
Worse still, it is a story of sacred violence and it reinforces all those times when we have experienced or observed violence and hatred being inflicted on others in the name of religion.
This is a dark thread that runs through the Bible and through the wider spiritual tradition of Christians, Jews and Muslims.
Instead of our faith giving us the wisdom and courage to address religious violence, sacred violence has repeatedly been excused, validated and justified by religion.
Some parts of the Bible are frankly unable to be used in public worship or in a religious education curriculum at our local Anglican school because of the violence and hatred that those texts celebrate and reinforce.
We may make this issue a topic for as Dean’s Forum in the next few months, as it is a very nasty element of our faith which we rarely address and which we rarely admit.
It is therefore very important—despite all the sermons and all the Sunday School lessons you may have heard to the contrary—that we reject any notion that God wanted Jesus to die as a human sacrifice.
The cross is not about divine wrath or sacred violence.
It was violent, but God was the victim of the violence and not the perpetrator.
How could we ever have gotten that so wrong?
This is a really bad idea, and I hope you never again allow a priest or any other person tell you that God approves of violence for the sake of dealing with evil or sin.
That is simply not true.
Worse still, it is a tragic betrayal of the true nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Bad Idea #2
The second bad idea that you will find lots of Christian people spruiking, and especially their pastors, is that the suffering of Jesus was so deep that it is without parallel in human history.
This is a variant of the God likes violence theme, but sounds more like: God can be moved to action if the suffering is especially intense.
Fortunately this second bad idea can be disposed of very easily.
The simple fact is that the suffering experienced by Jesus was neither remarkable nor unique.
Many people have suffered as badly as Jesus did, including the several thousand Jewish rebels crucified by Roman forces during the siege of Jerusalem about 40 years after Easter.
Countless human beings have experienced torture and cruel deaths with levels of suffering much worse than Jesus would have experienced.
Christian women living with violent husbands who abuse their spouses and claim it is their prerogative as the spiritual head of the woman are probably suffering worse than Jesus did, because their suffering goes on week after week with no sign of ending.
Assylum seekers consigned to cruel and inhumane conditions by our own Government are probably suffering more than Jesus ever did.
I could go on, but all such calculations miss the point.
It is not how much Jesus suffered that matters, but who he was and how he acted. More on that shortly when we get to a good idea for thinking about the cross.
Bad idea #3
The last of these really bad ideas about the Cross that I want to mention is one that is especially popular among people planning—or attending—Good Friday services.
This is the idea that my sins—or yours, or both yours and mine together—are what caused Jesus to die.
This is an idea that is especially common in Christian hymns.
It is nonsense.
We know what caused Jesus to be crucified, and it was not your sins or my sins, or the sins of anyone else we know.
All such twisted theology does is generate guilt. It makes us feel bad, and encourages us to be compliant participants in a church forgiveness racket. It is misdirected.
Jesus was killed because the powerful elites of his day wanted to eliminate him since he was a serious threat to their power and their privilege.
And they were right.
They were not right to kill Jesus, but they were right to discern that if his way of thinking about God took hold in the minds of the people over whom they ruled, the people they exploited, then their own days were numbered.
This is not about my sins or your sins.
It is about a clash between Jesus the prophet of the empire of God, and the elites in Jerusalem who prospered under the empire of Caesar and could not tolerate someone like Jesus.
They knew that when he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God”, Jesus was not describing an even split of our loyalties. Rather, Jesus was inviting people to give Caesar what he deserves (nothing) and to give God what God deserves (our all).
People who talk like that, who act like that, and who encourage other people to think like that will always be taken out by the powers that be.
A better idea
As I have already hinted, what matters about the crucifixion is not that it was a violent death or that Jesus himself suffered great distress, shame and pain. For sure it was violent, and involved suffering of many different kinds for Jesus.
But that is not why his death matters to God or to us.
Nor did his death have anything to do with us or our sins. It was all about the power games of the rich and powerful in first-century Jerusalem.
Instead of thinking about what happened to Jesus, how bad it was, and who is to blame; we can approach this from another direction.
We can focus on Jesus himself.
The redemptive element of the crucifixion is the faithfulness of Jesus himself, who never let go of his vision of God as the only power deserving of his loyalty.
Jesus was a martyr, not a sacrifice.
Paul teases this out in the early chapters of Romans when he compares the faithfulness of Abraham—who trusted God even when asked (in the story if not in real life) to sacrifice his only son—with the faithfulness of Jesus, who was willing to put his own life on the line because of his deep trust in God.
This is what the early church meant when it spoke of being saved by the faith of Jesus: not that we have faith in Jesus, but that Jesus was faithful to God, even to the point of death.
The faithfulness Jesus by which lived and died is the basis for our reconciliation with God.
Our sins did not cause the death of Jesus, but his faithfulness to God eliminates the impact of our sins on our own relationship with God.
Again this is something we may want to tease out in a Dean’s Forum some day. It is too big an idea to unpack in a single sermon on Good Friday, but it is essentially a simple idea:
What matters about the cross is that Jesus trusted God.
What matters about the cross is that Jesus was faithful to God.
What matters about the cross is that God honoured the faith of Jesus, and God did not allow violent political forces to stamp out his life even though they had killed him.
More on that when we get to Easter Day!
What we celebrate today, and in every Eucharist, is the offer of life, eternal life:
Our liturgy today is not excusing violence, or valorising suffering.
Our liturgy today is not asking us to accept the blame for Jesus having to die.
Our liturgy today is celebrating the faithfulness of Jesus, even to death, death on a cross.
Our liturgy today is inviting us to embrace that same faithfulness to God.
Our liturgy today is offering us the grace we need to be faithful people, just like Jesus.
Brilliant sermon Fr. Greg, thank you for sharing it! Peace and every blessing.
Thank you for this message! Lots to think about again or rather to renew slumbering thinking and to re assure where I’m at ( I hope). Anne
Thanks for this very clear statement and encouragement to people to think about their faith.
Thank you so much for sharing these views! I can only approve what you have written and I am glad that my husband now understands better my ideas and criticism on the theory that Jesus died for our sins. As if our father and creator could not accept and love us the way we are without Jesus dying on the cross. I have been facing criticisms for these views for a long time and felt misunderstood at several occasions. I do believe in a loving God and his son Jesus Christ who came to teach us but I don’t believe in a human sacrifice to receive forgiveness for my trespasses.
All the best from Germany from someone not wearing a cross around the neck! Hope to read more from you in future that will lead to fruitful discussions with my husband!
So right and ties in with the fact that it was not Just Jesus’ death that was important but his whole life.
In his Eucharistic sharing of the bread and the wine Jesus declared ‘This is my body, given for you, This my blood, shed for you. A variety of Scriptures declare the death of Jesus as linked with God’s gift of eternal life with the Resurrection evidence of the power of life over death, of love over hate, of the power of righteousness over the power of religion and politics. Jesus was put to death for his sins as determined by those who were threatened by his powerlessness. I do not subscribe to the idea that God required the death of Jesus in order to forgive sin – that would be grotesque but the weight of human corruption and ignorance, bigotry and power, rule-ridden religion and military-reinforced political control fell on Jesus who understood exactly what was being done and why. He refused to denounce or condemn trusting only that God would enable people to see the true redemption being offered and his trust and hope that human life would be guided by love and grace
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This is sensible and fantastic. Thankyou for expressing it so well here.
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Greg, this is first rate Christology and reinforces the martyrdom view (as argued incessantly by Gerard O’Collins SJ). Its time we remembered that Good Friday has never been a Day of Obligation (at least in the Roman Rite) and that an intense focus on Jesus’s suffering and death, such as at Oberammergau, not only distracts from his living witness and teaching (i.e. his faithfulness to the Father) but also from the power of the Resurrection. The kind of ahistorical mumbo-jumbo that elevates the Crucifixion also presupposes that Jesus was omniscient, in the sense that he was some kind of futurologist, compressing history and dispensing with it in one fell swoop. Plainly absurd and calculated to detract from Jesus’s humanity, giving him the kind of special magical powers that absolve the rest of us from confronting the life-enhancing challenges and shifts that we face, sometimes on an everyday basis. Great Thanks for this and may Grafton be a good chance for you to trouble the people there, especially at a time when local Muslims are too afraid to come out and be counted in the aftermath of the terrible brutality suffered by their people in Christchurch and visited upon them by one of Grafton’s sons. There will be much repair work to be done on this front. I wish you well with this. God love and keep you, Greg!