God On A Cross

Over the next few weeks, I’m reflecting upon Jesus as God’s salvation. These meditations are selected from my book, “Why Jesus?” (Abingdon, 2010). Lent is the season of the cross. The cross rearranges our definitions of God – God defined not as almighty power but rather as suffering love.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered with his disciples in the Upper Room, sharing a meal with them. Jesus called the Passover bread his “body,” and urged his disciples to feed on him for the remission of their sins. He passed around the cup of wine, telling them that the wine was now the sacrificial blood poured out like the blood was dashed upon the altar in the temple.[i] Whereas the temple was where Israel celebrated the Old Covenant, the “Old Testament” between God and Israel;

  • now this cup, this bread was sign of the New Covenant, the “New Testament” God was ratifying with the whole world.
  • now, in Jesus, people didn’t need to perform an ancient ritual act, blood sacrifice or engagement in some certified spiritual practice as doled out by the priestly experts at the temple.
  • now the necessary ladder from heaven to earth and back again, the movable Tent of Meeting, the great high altar on Mount Zion was among us as Jesus.
  • now the world need not come to the temple. God’s “temple” had, in vagabond lover Jesus Christ, come out to the whole world.
  • now the appointed means to enable humanity to get to God and God to get to humanity was provided by God – God’s own Son, Jesus. The work that Jesus did on the cross was redemptive, bringing-us-close-to-God work, which he did for all time, for all people.

All that being said, it’s still a shock to see God on a cross. It’s not at all what we expected. Can the problems between us and God be so deep that they can only be set right by God submitting to such human violence? Once again we see that we cannot affirm “God is love” without risk of grave misunderstanding, anymore than we can say, “Jesus is both God and Human” without nuance of what we mean by human and divine. The cross signifies that deep paradox is built into any accurate picture of Jesus because we don’t expect God to go to such lengths to get to us.

The gospels preach this. For instance, the first thirteen chapters of Mark’s gospel show Jesus the powerful Magician, the all-knowing seer, the divine one who casts out demons and commands the wind and wave, “Be still!” Jesus comes across as a human being but with remarkable divine powers. When Jesus heals a paralytic, the religious leaders ask, “Who is this speaking blasphemy? Who is powerful enough to forgive sin except God alone?”[ii]

In chapter 13 the mood shifts and Jesus becomes the human, anguished one who is tormented by thoughts of his imminent arrest. In Mark 14, dining in darkness at the home of Simon the leper (apparently no healthy person would receive Jesus at this late hour), when an unnamed woman shows up and adoringly pours expensive sweet smelling oil on Jesus, his disciples (feigning concern for the less fortunate) protest, “she should have sold this oil and given the money to the poor.” Jesus tells them to show compassion for the poor anytime they want but tonight, “she has anointed my body for burial.”[iii]

The next night Jesus shares a last meal with his disciples.[iv] During the meal, Jesus tells them that when the going gets rough all of them will scatter. Peter self-righteously protests, “Though these eleven cowards desert you, you can count on me.”[v] Before dawn, when challenged by a little serving girl, Peter curses and three times denies even knowing Jesus.[vi] The night ends with Peter (nicknamed “The Rock,” by Jesus) weeping in the darkness like a baby – the first in a long line of Jesus’ best friends who were grave disappointments to their Master.

Jesus then enters the Garden of Gethsemane, sees the prospect of his looming execution, sweats like great drops of blood, and prays to be delivered.[vii] “Oh God, I don’t want to die!” Is this any way for a God to act? It’s as if, in these later chapters of Mark, Jesus the God-Human One is Jesus the All-too Human One wrestling with God. Remember that our story began in a garden, the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were tested and flunked the exam, disobeying and rebelling against who God created us to be.[viii] Now, in another garden, Jesus is confronted with a fork in the road. Jesus can be obedient to God’s way, at grave risk deliver God’s love letter to humanity or he can act like our primal progenitors and safely go his own way. He can stand up to his adversaries and suffer what they have in store for him, or he can cut and run.

Jesus’ anguish in the garden is a great mystery in which the gospels enable us to peer into the depths of divine love. Of Jesus it can be said, “Truly he is the Son of God,” and yet he is no robot unflinchingly plodding toward his death on a cross. He is truly flesh and blood. He does not play-act in Gethsemane; he wrestles with his destiny, crying in anguished dereliction. He is ready to play his part in the divine drama of redemption and he asks to be delivered from it. He is obedient to his Father’s loving but risky rescue operation for the world and anguished that such painful lengths must be traveled in order to reach the human race. Nobody takes Jesus’ life – in free obedience he gives it. In short, he is in his anguish, as the church believed him to be, truly God and truly human. And in his obedience, in his complete unity with the Father’s loving determination to get back the fallen, murderous human race, he is truly God.

William H. Willimon

[i] altar in the temple. Leviticus 17:11.
[ii] God alone.” Mark 5:21.
[iii] for burial. Mark 14:3-9.
[iv] with his disciples. Mark 14:17-31.
[v] you can count on me. Mark 14:26-31.
[vi] even knowing Jesus. Mark 14:66-72.
[vii] to be delivered from it. Mark 14:32-42.
[viii] us to be. Genesis 1:26-2:25.

P.S. Our North Alabama Annual Conference will meet June 2-4, 2011, at Asbury UMC in Madison. We are asking all our churches and individuals to be in prayer for this time of Christian Conferencing. We have a prayer sign up on our Conference website – www.northalabamaumc.org/ac11prayer.

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