This weekend is the time of year when we reflect on what Jesus did for us in his death and resurrection. Traditionally it is on Good Friday we remember his crucifixion and then celebrate his victory over death on Easter Sunday morning.
I was having a conversation with Vicki (my beautiful and intelligent wife, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of an introduction) about the usual Easter sermons that appear on the church’s ‘menu,’ and she made a really good point: the punishment Jesus received was not unusual or even extraordinarily harsh for the empire in which he lived. Many, many people before him suffered the same fate. The court system was as corrupt and unjust for countless others before him. The flogging, the mocking, carrying his cross, dying this cruel death was common. And the people who witnessed it, those who called out for Barabas, those who watched his last procession down the Via Dolorosa, those who stood around the Roman execution stake on which he hung, were possibly no more moved than we might be watching the latest action flick or monster truck rally. So ‘normal’ was this scene in first-century Jerusalem.
But preachers, it seems, are after some type of emotional commitment and, for many, their message goes something like this: ‘Jesus died a cruel and horrifying death [insert gory details here] inflicted by such despicable men [insert character references here] and suffered such torture on on the way to his death [insert horrific acts of cruelty and barbarism here], all because of an unjust and corrupt Roman judicial system [insert examples here].’ By this time, the congregation is feeling so horrible, tears are starting to well up, hearts are starting to beat faster, and the preacher goes for the clincher: ‘And it wasn’t the Jews or the Romans who killed Jesus. It was you and I that drove those nails into his hands and his feet and lifted him up on that cruel cross to die a slow and painful death.’
Talk about a major case of guilt! I murdered my Lord! It was my hands that killed the Messiah! How could God ever love me? I am so unworthy. . . .
In my opinion, this borders on spiritual–and, potentially, emotional–abuse of God’s people.
Jesus didn’t die so that on Good Friday and Easter Sunday churchgoers everywhere could partake in a ceremony of guilt and fear. God, contrary to increasingly less-popular belief (Hallelujah), does not think I killed his only son. In fact it wasn’t even my sin that nailed him to the cross (that spoils a few good hymns, doesn’t it?). Technically, it was the Romans at the insistence of the Jewish religious leaders who did the terrible deed. Biblically, Jesus laid down his life willingly to show his kingdom was about a new way of seeing, a new way of relating, a new way of being. In giving up his life (by his own authority, Scripture says), Jesus embodied in reality what he taught in theory: how love truly is a better way.
Jesus would not have wanted us, 2,000 years down the track, to feel responsible–or guilty–for his death. He did not come into the world to condemn, but to deliver us from condemnation. He didn’t go to the cross with the idea that millions of people will feel oppressed by fear of God’s wrath in millennia to come, but that they, instead would experience the freedom of God’s forgiveness and grace.
If grace is true–and I believe it is! Praise God!–then Jesus died to show us God’s love and the freedom that comes from experiencing his unconditional love.
So, thank you, Jesus, for willingly submitting to the death of the cross to demonstrate that your reign indeed is not of this present world system, but is able, through love, to redeem it eternally for God’s glory.
And praise to you God, holy Three-in-one, Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, for the freedom we enjoy because of Jesus.
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This morning I arose early and went to Holy Cross Church to celebrate Easter with my Anglican brothers and sisters. At 6.00 a.m. they held an Easter Vigil where we lit our candles and processed into a darkened church to reflect on the sacrifice of Christ as the Passover Lamb, and then to declare his resurrection in exulting and light-filled celebration. In doing so, baptismal vows were renewed and the Eucharist was celebrated. It was a beautiful and moving service, full of Scripture, prayer, and simple faith–not a hint of guilt or anxiety in sight. Thank you Fr Neil for such a blessed reminder of the joy and freedom that is ours because of Jesus. He is risen! Alleluia! He is risen indeed! Alleluia. Alleluia!