I spoke this morning about how the early Christians began to think about the meaning of the crucifixion; how they began to see it as ‘for us’, and so began to develop the Christian doctrine of the atonement. I want to continue by exploring how Christians since then have understood the cross, and how we might understand it. I don’t want to draw the traditional pictures of various people standing round the cross on the first Good Friday; that has been done so often, and it doesn’t help us understand in real terms how Jesus’ death on the cross actually does anything for us. It seems to me important every now and then to try to think that through.
One of the earliest pieces of Christian tradition, which St Paul in the mid 50s AD says he got from his predecessors, was that ‘Christ died for our sins’. When it came to ways of dealing with our sins, the Jewish law under the Mosaic covenant demanded that Jews made sacrifices to God, their prophets emphasised the need of repentance, and Jeremiah spoke of a new covenant in which God would write his law on their hearts and remember their sin no more. Jesus put repentance above sacrifice (Mt 9.13), and taught his disciples to pray to God to forgive them their debts (or sins) as they forgave others theirs (Mt 6.12). He spoke of giving his life as a ransom for many, but didn’t speak explicitly speak of himself as a sacrifice for sin. But it was not long before his followers applied that language to him; St Paul speaks of God making Jesus an expiation for sins (Rom.3.25) and of ‘making peace by the blood of his cross’ (Col.1.20), and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks dramatically of Christ as the new High Priest, unlike the old high priests who have to offer repeated sacrifice, ‘appearing once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself’ (Heb.9.26). And St John’s gospel (Jn 1.29) speaks of Jesus as the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. So the early Christians began to explain Jesus’ death in terms taken straight from the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament.
That’s fine if you limit your intellectual, theological world to that of the Old Testament, but Christians never have limited their theology to Old Testament thought patterns. Christianity grew away from Palestine and the Jewish people, and grew up in the Greek world of the Mediterranean, and it focussed on the very Greek idea of salvation, salvation from ill health, from ignorance, from the power of world rulers, salvation from the heavenly powers of the stars, from the evil forces controlling the world. In our own time Liberation Theology has followed the same track; Christ can bring salvation – liberation – from the poverty and injustice of dictatorial governments. But for the early Christian theologians, humanity could not be saved from anything if there was no real linkage between humanity and God. What mattered to subsequent Christian theologians was how humanity related to divinity, humankind to God; for the early Christians, Jesus, being both human and divine, was the link between the two, enabling humanity to be saved; the cross was part of the mechanism, the temporal point where the two intersected. To us who are being saved, said St Paul with brilliant paradox, the cross is the power of God.
So theologians, through the long history of the church, have tried to explain how God, in Christ, and especially through his death, effected reconciliation with the sinful world. Athanasius (AD 296-373) did it by suggesting that God’s involvement with humanity, through the person of Jesus, had the effect of changing humanity; ‘God became man that man might become divine’ (an idea which needs only that Christ lived and died like any human, not necessarily that he died on the cross, to satisfy the argument). Anselm (1033-1109) used legal language; God is just and demands satisfaction for sin. Only God can make satisfaction; only humanity ought to make it; Jesus, therefore, man and God offered himself to satisfy God’s justice. Luther (1483-1546) and Calvin (1509-64) developed this to mean that God demanded human punishment, and accepted the punishment of Jesus on the cross in man’s place – but surely that over-emphasises the justice of God at the expense of his love and mercy? And the New Testament does not speak of God punishing Jesus; however the cross works, the early Christians did not see it as having penal intent. Abelard (1079-1142) took the view, represented in modern times by Hastings Rashdall (1858-1924), that ‘the death of Christ justifies us, in as much as through it charity is stirred up in our hearts’. The value of the cross for us lies purely in the moral example which it sets us of complete love and self-surrender, moving our imagination and will to repentance and holiness. It is the example of Jesus on the cross that changes us – as indeed St Peter’s first epistle says: Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
Jesus’ death is not the only death that has changed people for the better. So what makes his death different? The answer must lie in the early disciples’ experience of his life and in particular of his resurrection. It was their experience of his resurrection which showed them that his death was charged with meaning. But it was their experience of the living Jesus, not the dead one, that was the foundation of Christianity. I sometimes think there is a danger that Christian theology might pay too much attention, in a sense, to the brute fact of the crucifixion; without the disciples’ experience of the resurrection (whatever that very ambiguous event really was), the death of Jesus means little more than the death of any other person, and there were many people crucified in the 1st century AD. Which raises the question, who was Jesus? The value you put on that death in AD 30 or thereabouts depends on your answer to that question. Events are ambiguous; what matters is their interpretation. How do you interpret the person Jesus of Nazareth?
I began by quoting St Paul, who did so much to found Christian theology. Paul knew, none better, that neither Greeks nor Jews could see any sense in a gospel founded on a crucified man – a man branded by the form of his death as a slave or a rebel or worse. And Paul makes the great and basic point, the very foundation of the Christian theology of the incarnation, that the action and power of God is to be seen above all in what is weakest in the world – not in wisdom, not in heritage, not in Greek philosophy or Jewish tradition or Roman power. ‘God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are’(1 Cor. 1.27-28). God works even through death, and a shameful death at that, to bring life to humanity. The cross effects salvation for us because it makes us reverse our worldly values totally, and that is exactly what Jesus did through his teaching – if you want to be perfect, sell your possessions…whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…blessed are the poor….blessed are the meek. The life and teaching of Jesus were one with his death. So, as Paul says,
We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews, and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
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