Credible Christianity

Meditation on the Cross

Do this in remembrance of me

What does the broken bread and wine that we receive at Holy Communion mean to us? It is a symbol of the broken body and blood of Jesus. But how do we remember those?

We are taught in Sunday School that “he died that we might be forgiven, he died to make us good, that we might go at last to heaven, saved by his precious blood.” That is an excellent summary, and in response we feel immense gratitude for his great, costly love. The main, appropriate response to Jesus’ death is one of humility and deep gratitude.

Unpacking the clauses of the Sunday School song is an intellectual exercise, but I want to suggest that it can be spiritually valuable as well. It is when we move from thinking about Jesus’ crucifixion in a theological manner to identifying with him empathetically that we are changed, and enabled to live a more godly life.

Let me illustrate these two forms of inspiration. People have been inspired by historical reports of the way in which Florence Nightingale tended sick soldiers during the Crimean War in 1854, and the way John Simpson saved wounded soldiers at Gallipoli, bringing them away from the front to safety, sometimes under fire, on his donkey. One can make an intellectual judgement that these people behaved in a very brave, selfless, caring way, that this behaviour was admirable and worthy of imitation. However, when one considers what they did in more detail, one can begin to sense their compassion and courage, to be moved by it, even to share it to some extent. Florence, “the lady with the lamp”, faced the horrors of an army hospital to bring comfort to suffering soldiers, lifting their morale and caring for them as best she could. Simpson, careless of the danger, trudged up and down rescuing wounded soldiers from the front line trenches for three weeks until he was shot by a Turkish sniper in May1915.

Notice, by the way, that empathy alone is not enough for a good life. People can be stirred to share the enthusiasm of leaders to act badly, destroying property and harming people without good reason. For a good life one must reflect upon one’s plans, to check that they are good.

Now consider the three statements in the hymn, first in an intellectual way, and then more empathetically.

First, “he died that we might be forgiven”. It is common to think of Jesus’ death as the sacrifice that had to be made to enable a just God to forgive sinful men and women.

There are problems with this understanding of the cross that are well known. In particular, if God is perfectly just, as the Jews believed, it was clearly impossible for Him to punish the innocent and forgive the guilty, no matter how much he loved them.

It is easy to see why the early Jewish Christians thought that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice to appease God. Their tradition emphasised the importance of obeying the laws God had given to Moses, and it also stressed the justice of God as one who rewards those who obey him but punishes those, like Adam and Eve, who do not. Furthermore, the Jews had a tradition of averting God’s wrath by offering him sacrifices of pure lambs and other animals. The early Jewish Christians had to find an explanation for the crucifixion of the Messiah, an event contrary to all that had been expected. How natural it was for them to think that Jesus’ death was the ultimate sacrifice, of a man without blemish, eternally acceptable to God.

However, there is a more plausible theory to account for Jesus’ crucifixion. When someone deeply offends us, there are basically two responses available to us. The first is one of anger, expressed in a desire to hurt the offender in return, by either legal or illegal means. The second is a willingness to suffer the pain the offender has inflicted, without retaliation, perhaps even continuing to love them. Parents often have to suffer the insults of their children in this way, bearing the pain without retaliation, in order to continue loving them.

When Jesus suffered unjust insults, humiliation, suffering and death on Good Friday, he demonstrated God’s willingness to endure all the pain we could possibly cause him, and his willingness to forgive us. In this way Jesus revealed a depth to God’s love much greater than the Jews had imagined. With this actual demonstration of his loving forgiveness, people now have objective grounds for believing that God will suffer and forgive their sins. We think that God is saddened by our sins, the acts by which we harm ourselves or others, because of his great love for us. Recall that Jesus wept over Jerusalem for its evil ways. But thanks to the crucifixion, we no longer believe that our sins, and the sadness they give God, prevent him from continuing to love us.

That is an intellectual appreciation of what it means to say that “he died that we might be forgiven.” However there is an emotional response to Jesus suffering people’s sins against him that is also very important. As we consider the events of Good Friday in detail, perhaps via the stations of the cross, we might well be moved by Jesus’ willingness to suffer men’s sins right to the point of death. Then, when we are tempted to respond in anger to the offences of others, we might recall Jesus’ willingness to suffer rather than to condemn, to love rather than to punish. Identify with him helps us to bear the pain others have inflicted on us, and to go on loving them. In personal relations, this is the only path to peace.

“He died to make us good.” First here is an intellectual appreciation of how Jesus’ crucifixion helps to make us good. St Paul understood this blessing very well, but we often ignore it. The story of the cross is one of Jesus setting aside his own wishes in order to obey God, even unto death. He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would spare him, but always added, nevertheless not my will, but thine be done. He showed us that while those who obey God act well, they sometimes do so contrary to their own desires, and at great cost to themselves. That is the nature of altruistic love.

Here is a pattern of coping with temptation that we can follow. But St Paul did not stop with this intellectual judgement. He encouraged us to identify with Jesus, to share his determination not to put his own desires ahead of God’s. This involves the sort of empathy I have been discussing. St Paul wrote of this in Romans chapter six. He writes: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?…count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (NIV, vv.2-3, 11.) Just as Jesus “died to sin”, i.e. remained inert to the temptation to disobey God, so we with him must remain inert to sin too, so that we can be free to obey God.

I suspect that Christians often ignore this blessing because they do not believe that God has a particular will for them each hour of the day. Consequently they are usually unaware of any conflict between their normal, everyday desires and God’s will for them. So the need to die to temptation does not often arise for them. However, when we pray for God’s guidance, we often find it is to do something we had not considered.

When we receive the broken bread, we identify with the broken body of Jesus, broken as a condition of continuing to love those who hated him, and broken in continuing obedience to God. This is the price of discipleship, the cross Christians, with Jesus, have to bear.

“That we might go at last to heaven.” The third blessing from meditation upon Jesus’ death is the realization that pain, suffering and death are unable to defeat God’s eternal life-giving Spirit. If God was able to raise Jesus from the dead, then it is possible that he will raise us too. St Paul was confident that this would happen. He wrote: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.” (Ch.8, v. 11.) This is the intellectual conviction that St Paul arrived at from considering Jesus’ death and resurrection.

In this case, the emotion we share is not that of Jesus, but that of his disciples and authors of the New Testament. They rejoice at the prospect of being rewarded for their faithful discipleship after death by life with God in heaven, where “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” (Revelation, ch.21, v.4) Many godly men and women suffered for their faith, and have done so down the centuries. Faith in life after death with Jesus gave comfort to the Negro slaves in America, who sang of it in their passionate spirituals. It is a hope that has rescued many people from despair.

Just as blood is a source of life, so the wine that symbolizes the blood of Jesus can remind us of his life-giving Spirit, whom we accept as we drink it. St John writes: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (ch.6, v.54.) He adds: “The Spirit gives life.” (v.63).

Clearly our main response to Jesus’ crucifixion is one of humble gratitude. But thoughtful reflection upon the story can move us to love our neighbours more profoundly, to love God more completely, and encourage us to believe that God’s eternal life-giving Spirit will carry us through death to a new life with Him.

C. Behan McCullagh

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