Texts: John 18:1-19:42;
THE CROSS — BOTH PERSONAL AND COSMIC
I was bringing communion to a shut-in recently, reading first the story of our Lord’s Passion. When I looked up at one point, there were tears streaming down her eyes. She felt a bit sheepish. But I reassured her. This is how this story is supposed to move us, isn’t it? That our Lord would suffer and die for us so is almost beyond our imagining. You and I listen once again this evening and it is more than we can take in: “Jesus did this, he went through this, for me.”
It is one of the paradoxes of our faith that its deeply personal element is grounded in its cosmic scope. In other words, it’s because I know that Jesus died for everyone that I also know he died for me. The cross of Jesus has had such power through the ages, and will continue to have such power, because of its cosmic embrace that also embraces each person. Lose either of these dimensions and the cross loses its power.
So why would anyone want to mess with a good thing? It was more than a little humbling to see myself featured in last Saturday’s Kalamazoo Gazette religion section, under the headline, “A New Reformation? Emerging Theology shaking Christianity, Says Local Pastor.” (1) To be honest, I’d rather have someone else be in the spotlight than me. But when Margaret DeRitter, the religion editor, called me for an interview, I was excited to do it, because I’m passionate about understanding this time of change in the church.
And today brings a crucial moment in this changing understanding. The heart of our faith is this story of our Lord’s passion, in both its cosmic and personal dimensions. Do any of the changing understandings in the church undercut either of these dimensions? Those who favor the traditional understandings of the past couple centuries think that’s the case, namely, that the new versions of understanding the cross undercut its power.
Last Friday, NPR had a story similar to the one featuring me in the Gazette. Only it was one of my favorite authors, Brian McLaren, in the spotlight. McLaren’s latest book — A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith — has produced quite a strong reaction from conservative evangelicals. Let me play a short clip of that NPR story:
NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Recently, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, convened a school-wide event to talk about a new book by a popular evangelical Christian.
Who is Brian McLaren, and what has he done to make these people so angry? Well, McLaren is considered one of the country’s most influential evangelicals, and his new book, “A New Kind of Christianity,” takes aim at some core doctrinal beliefs. McLaren is rethinking Jesus’ mission on Earth, and even the purpose of the crucifixion.
Dr. BRIAN MCLAREN (Author, speaker, pastor): The view of the cross that I was given, growing up, in a sense, has a God who needs blood in order to be appeased. If this God doesn’t see blood, God can’t forgive.
HAGERTY: McLaren believes that version of God is a misreading of the Bible.
Dr. MCLAREN: God revealed, in Christ crucified, shows us a vision of God that identifies with the victim rather than the perpetrator, identifies with the one suffering rather than the one inflicting suffering.
HAGERTY: McLaren says modern evangelicalism underplays that Jesus, who spent most of his time with the poor, the sick and the sinners, and saved his wrath primarily for hard-core religious leaders.
That’s like a shot to heart of Christian beliefs says Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Dr. AL MOHLER (President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim? If so, we have no Gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life. Did Jesus go merely as a political prisoner, executed because he had offended the regime? Well, if so, then that’s a very interesting chapter in human history, but I’m not going to stake my life on it, much less my hope for eternity.
In other words, Dr. Mohler is saying that the cross loses its universal, cosmic scope with what I see as the renewed way of understanding the cross, the emerging way that gives us the true meaning of the cross. Dr. Mohler can only see that if Christ is a merely victim of human bloodlust, then he’s just like millions of others throughout human history.
But Dr. Mohler misunderstands. He tries to see the universal scope of the cross on its own — in short, he sees it without the Resurrection. It is that first Easter which makes all the difference. On Holy Saturday, the apostles did in fact experience the cross like thousands of other executions on the cross that the Romans had carried out. That’s precisely why the first Good Friday was so devastating to them. The one whom they had hoped was the Messiah turned out to be just another victim of imperial brutality. It’s only Easter which changes that. It’s only Easter which can explain the 180 degree about-face that the apostles experienced. It’s only with God raising Jesus from the dead that they, and we, can begin to see him as Messiah again.
Moreover, the first apostles not only begin to see Jesus as the Messiah, but they begin to also see him as God’s only Son, as on a par with God. They begin to experience him as a person in the Godhead, the second person of the Trinity, the one who shows us who God truly is, the one who shows us beyond doubt that God is Love, that God is mercy and grace and forgiveness.
And so, as their Easter eyes begin to shed new light and understanding on things, they also begin to understand better who we human beings are. We are the ones with bloodlust, not God. Since the beginning of human culture and religion we have been mired in the original sin and idolatry of insisting on gods who have our same kind of bloodlust for laying the blame on someone and punishing them.
It is sliding back on these kinds of insights that brings out my passion, then. The meaning of the cross that has held us in sway the last several hundred years, goes backwards, in my view, from these insights. First of all, it goes right back to the same God of our ancestors, in seeing a God who absolutely must punish someone for our sins. It would be us if Jesus didn’t step in, according to the old view. Yes, God is gracious in giving us the Son to take the bullet for us. But think about the God behind this scenario who holds the gun, so to speak. It is the old gods of our bloodlust, isn’t it? And wasn’t the cross of Jesus supposed to change that forever by showing us who God truly is? Isn’t it our human age-old bloody need for victims that we must see in the cross? It should be enough to bring us to tears and to our knees in repentance.
This is absolutely vital, I believe, with all my heart and soul and mind: that the meaning of the cross is to stop precisely that age-old view that requires a wrathful, punishing, blood-thirsty God. It’s we human beings who are like that! And Jesus was a victim of cosmic importance precisely because he understood it all, and so he walked into our bloodlust on purpose! — in order to reveal it — but only to reveal it at the same time as he was forgiving us for it. Because that’s the only way we would ever come to see it.
And so we are shaped by this story once again tonight. We are moved and changed by the story and images of one who loved us so much that he gave his life-blood for us. It is a story both personal and cosmic. But not because it fulfills some script of a God who requires punishment. But because God in unfathomable love took the side of millions of human victims and raised one of them to new life so that we might finally meet a God of such amazing grace.
That’s another shortcoming, actually, of the traditional story of the past couple centuries, namely, it doesn’t even need Easter — which is why it misses the point with what I feel is the true meaning of the cross. It can only see Jesus being a victim like millions in history because it doesn’t account for how Easter makes all the difference in the world. But we can save that part for Sunday morning. . . .
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, April 2, 2010
1. There was also a Part 2 to the Kalamazoo Gazette interview with me that appeared the next day, “Resurrection and hope: Some Christians have missed part of the message, pastors say.”