On this, the holiest day of the Christian year, we stand before the mystery of the cross of Christ. This week the United Methodist News Service released a story on the meaning of the cross, a story in which two Duke Memorial members were quoted. I send this to you for your reflection in the hope that you will be with us tonight (Organ prelude, &7:00, Service 7:15, childcare provided) as Duke Memorial worships in the solemn Service of Tenebrae (Darkness). Come hear some of the church’s greatest music, sit in the darkness of our beautiful church, and ponder the deepest of Christian mysteries.
Why did Jesus have to die?
By Heather Hahn
April 16, 2014 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
Christian theologians wrestle with how best to explain the meaning of the cross and why Good Friday is good.
As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:23-25, the Crucifixion — “a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” — makes Christianity a tough sell. But as Paul also writes, preaching Christ crucified is an essential part of the faith.
- Article XX of the Articles of Religion in the Methodist Church: The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone … .
“Christ’s willingness to suffer and die is equally remarkable with his ability to conquer death,” said the Rev. Randy L. Maddox, associate dean and William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School. He is also an ordained United Methodist elder.
“If one seems to challenge his divinity, the other challenges his humanity. One task of Christian doctrine through the ages has been to hold these two together with their full force.”
The importance of the cross
Make no mistake: Crucifixion was a horrific and ignominious way to die. Roman authorities reserved this public form of execution for particularly heinous crimes such as treason and for certain classes of people, namely non-Romans and slaves. Perhaps appropriately, the Latin verb crucio — torture — shares a root with crucifixion.
Yet, the cross tells us something significant about God, said Will Willimon, former bishop of the North Alabama Conference and now a professor at Duke Divinity School and interim pastor of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C.
“God is the God who achieves what God wants through suffering, self-sacrificial love (the cross),” Willimon said.
The New Testament uses a variety of metaphors and models to explain how such sacrificial action redeemed humanity. In Scripture, Christ is described as giving his life as ransom, as acting as the Lamb of God who carries away sin, and as serving as the ultimate high priest who uses his own blameless life to purify the populace.
For many theologians, the cross reconciles two attributes of God — divine justice and divine love.
One of the more influential explainers of atonement was Anselm of Canterbury, who lived in the 11th century. Anselm argued that human sin dishonored God and corrupted creation. By suffering as a substitute for humankind, Christ provided satisfaction to restore God’s honor and purpose for creation.
But over the centuries, Anselm’s theory has drawn plenty of detractors. Many theologians have accused Anselm of treating Jesus’ death almost as a business transaction. Others see Anselm’s portrayal of God as abusive rather than loving.
Willimon said it’s a mystery why Jesus endured such a violent death, but it also makes sense given the nature of human sin.
“We have the cross because humanity is a violent, brutal species,” said Willimon. Among other books, Willimon has written “Thank God It’s Friday” about the seven last words of Jesus from the cross, and “Thank God It’s Thursday” about Maundy Thursday.
“Any God who would love us, must not be a God who shirks from some blood and pain for that’s how we treat our enemies and our saviors!”
What the Wesleys taught
Both John Wesley, in his sermons, and Charles Wesley, in his hymns, used a variety of images to explain what Jesus achieved on the cross — including substitionary atonement. Methodism’s founders also emphasized God’s wondrous love.
“Both John and Charles Wesley set a precedent for Methodists of refusing to limit themselves to only the ‘penalty satisfaction’ model,’” said Maddox, the Duke professor. The Wesleys used a range of biblical allusions, he said, “to stress that Christ not only dealt with the ‘penalty’ of our sin but also brought healing power to deliver us from the ‘captivity’ of sin and enable us to walk in newness of life.”
The Wesley brothers considered one aspect of atonement nonnegotiable, and it is still an essential part of the movement they founded, said the Rev. Jason Vickers, president of the Wesleyan Theological Society. He is an ordained United Methodist elder and professor of theology and Wesleyan studies at United Methodist-related United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
“Whatever it is Christ undertakes in his death and resurrection, however Christ’s death accomplishes salvation,” Vickers said, “we’ve always said that Christ undertakes his saving work for all — not just for the elect, not just for the rich, not just for certain people. He died for all.”
Perhaps the greatest comfort the cross offers is the knowledge that there is no sorrow, pain or despair humans can undergo that God does not know and walk through with us. And because of the Resurrection, we know that sorrow and death do not have the last word.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.