This past week in our Wednesday pre-school chapel service, I read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. There is something deeply profound and incredibly daunting about teaching crucifixion to a group of four year-olds. I knew they would have questions, and sure enough I was not wrong. “Why did God do that?” “Why did Jesus have to die?” How could I answer them? I still – and I think always will – wrestle and struggle with these questions. As I read the story, I came across the following words, “You see, they didn’t understand. It wasn’t the nails that kept Jesus there. It was love.” Why did Jesus have to die? Love. Not just any kind of love, but a never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever kind of love. God loves us so much that he gives his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Jesus dies on the cross to save us from ourselves, to save us from sin and death, to restore us to wholeness and right relationship with God.
It is easy to come to this day thinking that Jesus dies on the cross so we do not have to. That instead of punishing us, God punishes Jesus. But, it seems to me, to do that takes away the true meaning and power of the cross. Jesus died for me, so I do not need to worry. I can keep going on with my life as I always have because Jesus has paid the price for my sins. This misses the point. The cross, this day, the central plotline throughout the entirety of the New Testament is not about retribution. It is not about the models and standards of societies penal justice system. It is not about Jesus being tagged in to take the punishment we deserve. What is going on this day is all about restoration.
Think back to the Gospels we’ve heard throughout this season of Lent. They all portray a marginalized person – someone left out, someone broken and suffering – and how they are restored to wholeness, how sight is restored, how life itself is restored. A restorative approach to the cross, rather than a punitive one, recognizes and addresses our underlying brokenness; brokenness that so often leads to hurtful behavior. What happens when we look at the cross through the lens of our own brokenness and the ways we fall short instead of through the lens of capital punishment? What happens when we recognize that our brokenness and the brokenness of the world is reflected in Jesus’ brokenness on the cross? What happens when we choose to accept this radical gift of love, to allow it to break us open and heal us?
Jesus has not come only to forgive sin, but to liberate us from everything that could possibly separate us from God and life, whether that means crushing illness, dehumanizing poverty, or spirals of destructive behavior. When we understand the cross in this way we can no longer allow ourselves to ignore the cross for all but one day a year. Breaking free of punitive theology, allows us to in a healthy and helpful way contemplate the mysteries of the cross in our daily lives.
I recently came across a quote from a Nicaraguan peasant named Oscar. Oscar understands the connection of the cross with our daily lives. Here is how he puts it:
Lots of people in Holy Week think only about the sufferings of Jesus, and they don’t think about the sufferings of so many Christs, of millions of Christs that exist. And Jesus didn’t want them to be wailing for him but to wail for the others that were going to suffer like him or worse than him.
Each and every day people through out the world face suffering and death – brutal torment and torture. It is the absolute worst side of humanity. But, Christ’s suffering and death on the cross says something to those in these most horrific situations. It shows that the Lord and Savior, the Redeemer of the world suffered as they suffer. More than that, he chose to suffer out of love for us all. No matter what our brokenness is – be it physical brokenness at the hands of others or emotional brokenness by our own self-deprecation – Jesus chooses to suffer with us. He suffers so that we might be released from our brokenness and bondage and made whole once again. That we might live as God intends us to live. This is the most amazing kind of love there is. This is the most amazing gift we could ever receive – to have a Redeemer that loves us so much he will go to the cross and suffer for our restoration and redemption. How can we even begin to respond to this love?
This season of Lent, I have been reading from a book of meditations titled, “A Time to Turn: Anglican Readings for Lent and Easter Week.” This is a fabulous collection of works from people throughout the history of the Anglican tradition. But, one meditation, more than any other, has captured my heart and my imagination. Last Friday, I read a mediation on the cross from Poems, Centuries, and Three Thanksgivings by Thomas Traherne. In this meditation, Traherne wrestles with how to respond to this love that Jesus offers us on the cross.
Lord Jesus, what love shall I render to you, for your love to me, your eternal love! Oh what fervor, what ardor, what humiliation, what reverence, what joy, what adoration, what zeal, what thanksgiving! You are perfect in beauty, you are the king of eternal glory, you reign in the highest heavens and yet came down from heaven . . . And shall not I live for you? O my joy! O my sovereign friend! O my life and my all! I beseech you to let those trickling drops of blood that run down your flesh drop upon me. O let your love inflame me: love so deep and infinite . . . What shall I do for you?
What shall I do for you, O preserver of all: live, love, and admire; and learn to become such to you as you are to me . . . Why, Lord Jesus, do you love us, why are we your treasures? . . . Show me the reasons of your love that I may love all others too. O goodness ineffable! . . . O you who are most glorious in goodness, make me abundant in this goodness like yourself, that I may as deeply pity others’ misery, and as ardently thirst for their happiness as you do . . . Holy Jesus, I admire your love.
We are called to love as Jesus loves, to see the sufferings of the world and stand up against it. When we stand before the cross of the crucified Christ this day, we stand before the sufferings of all people. Jesus does not want us to wail for him, but for all of God’s children who have been cast down and broken
Who do we see when we look at the cross? Where is there suffering in our comunity, our nation, our world? Who have we put down in building ourselves up? Who have we crucified to preserve our power and privilege like the authorities crucified Jesus?
We are called to put our brokenness, shame, failings, and sin, at the foot of the cross and leave them there. This day we are reminded of our call to accept the radical gift of love that Christ has offered us. But, we are also called to share that radical gift of love with the world. It only takes one look at the newspaper to realized that this world of ours needs a lot of love. This world of ours needs the restorative, redeeming cross that we stand before this night.
May we go forth from this place reminded of the radical gift of love God in Christ offers to us. May we allow it to restore our brokenness to wholeness and strength. May it empower us to go out to do the same for the rest of the world.
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.