Every year I sit in church on Good Friday hearing the story of the crucifixion and try to get my head and my heart around it. How are we to understand Christ’s death? We hear that he ‘died for us’. And that he dies for us because he loves us. But in what sense can a man die 2000 years ago ‘for us’? It is even suggested that Christ died ‘for me’. How could that be?
An answer often given is that we are all sinners deserving punishment. God’s righteousness demands our punishment, his love demands that he save us. So he sends his son to take the punishment instead and make forgiveness and reconciliation with God possible. On this understanding Christ’s death was primarily a supernatural or spiritual event rather than an event whose significance lies in the everyday world. It pushes us towards an understanding of the cross as a rescue mission involving some kind of transaction with God. And I don’t find this particularly convincing or attactive, either as a picture of God or as an interpretation of the story – not least because God seems to have no problem forgiving people in the Old Testament, nor Jesus before his death.
No understanding is ‘right’. We are dealing with something beyond explanation. But here is how I think about it. I prefer to start with the story in front of us, rather than with the traditional superstructure of explanations in which useful metaphors (‘sacrifice’, ‘redemption’ and so forth) become seen as literal truth. In the Gospel stories Jesus revealed a new way of living chiefly characterised by love. He asserts that a great deal of what we have assumed about life is wrong. It is the poor who are blessed ahead of the rich; those who think they are good are not as close to God as those who know they are not; we overcome our enemies by loving them; religion exists to serve humanity, not the the other way round.
He demonstrated in his teachings and actions that what he called the Kingdom of God is a state of affairs characterised by inclusion, social revolution and love. His whole life was directed to making real, making visible, the liberation that comes from God – a liberation both personal and political. And he does this not by proposing a theory or launching a programme, but by talking and living differently amidst all the messiness and tragedy of real life. He feels compelled to make a stand against the very real forces of reaction and oppression – the Romans and the Jewish political and religious establishment principally – not violently, but through a non-violent confrontation. This is what is going on when Jesus enters Jerusalem and in the days before his arrest. The authorities, quite accurately in a way, see him as a threat. The people, on the other hand, become disillusioned by his failure to launch a rebellion. This combination of reactions leads directly to his death. It was in this sense that Christ reveals his love for us – he died for the sake of a vastly different view of reality, one opposed to the prevailing ‘powers’ and one that liberates ordinary people socially, politically, spiritually. And this death was also a spiritual act, of the deepest spiritual significance, in that it signified a hammer blow against the spiritual forces of violence and oppression embodied in those human authorities and the social and political systems of 1st century Palestine. In this conflict with these particular forces Christ contends with all such forces and all that creates them – and that is why it means so much for us.
Christ’s death is the outcome of his life and is the ultimate demonstration of a different way of living – a life with a different energy source. As the story develops it tells us that death can become the way to life. ‘Underneath’ life is being and love and these things are eternal.
Perhaps Christ’s death should not be understood so much as creating a new state of affairs as revealing the true state of affairs. When the Bible says that because of Christ’s death we have God’s forgiveness, the curtain is torn in the temple, we have access to God and so forth this is a way of describing what is now revealed. In other words Christ’s death enables us to see things differently
To see the world this way, to ‘follow Christ’ on this journey through the cross, is to change everything and to discover a world in which love triumphs over death – for all that we fear most loses its power in the light of the cross. It is to discover that the love that compelled Christ was and is the love that God has for us all.
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