In the name of God, who created us from love saved AMEN.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
We’ve just listened to the narrative of the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. It’s hard to hear and to think about, but the questions we’re left with are simple: What did God expect of Jesus? Why is this Good Friday?What does this mean to us? What are we supposed to do—die on a cross? What does “losing our life to save it,” mean? Why, why, why is this good news? Simple questions, and through time, there have been a variety of answers.
Here’s the basic answer, the guide to hearing, answering, and living with these questions: God is good; God’s property is always to have mercy, and God loves us just the way we are. Really. Every answer about the cross must fit into that framework. Its corollary is: “What is the chief end of man? To praise God and enjoy God forever.” Really.
What God expected or hoped for from Jesus is roughly the same as for every human: to live into the best self possible, as he was, as we are, even if it gets tough. Jesus had walked with people, studied, interacted with his world oppressed by the Roman Empire and by local, often corrupt or corrupted, authorities getting along by going along, and had increasingly confronted those forces in behalf of justice for people, all people, all those sick, weary, underpaid, lonely, striving, over- taxed, tyrannized by systems and leaders, bullied by officials, discouraged, hungering for God’s presence in their lives, women, strangers, and all those struggling to follow God’s hopes for them to make a better life-giving world.
When Pilate asks, “What is truth?” we can add, “What’s justice?” Do we mean the greatest good for the greatest number, the greatest freedom for individuals, or do we mean some sort of innate moral virtue, and how is that to be realized equitably for all? How is God’s justice to be for all? These questions are difficult, and don’t really impact this story, but they’d need to have an agreed answer to establish a world just for all, but Jesus didn’t engage in that conversation.
Why, did Jesus do what he did? Did he know he would die? Did God expect it of him? How can we see our way to do that or to accept what Jesus did for us?
I believe he was on a continuum of service, and one thing led to another. In the Garden of Gethsemane he finally understood where that path was leading, but it was the service to bring about God’s realm that he was doing. He could give up and accept the limits, strictures, and controls by those in charge, or he could hold to his chosen path. It was more important for him to keep on, but he began to understand what would happen. He said aloud that he didn’t want to continue, go there, and be crucified. He was human— he knew it would be awful, but he didn’t see a way to further his works while changing paths, so he kept going doing what he’d been doing and what he could do.
The consequences of continuing were neither his choice, nor God’s. They were what happens when people confront evil and evil wins out, but Jesus kept on, and so died. He did not solicit God’s might to bail him out, nor the crowd’s. He did not appeal to any of the powerful forces that Satan had tempted him with earlier. He accepted the consequences of his free choice to serve God.
What does that mean we’re supposed to do? Are we to be crucified? Is that what a loving God wants or expects? We see images of Jesus on his cross and are told and shown that this was the greatest suffering, the hardest way to die: death by torture on a cross.
Would you not trade three hours of absolutely any unimaginable such torture rather than to see the death of your child, the stretched out suffering of your parent’s Alzheimer’s’, or a long-term, futile painful cancer in a friend? Would you not go straight to the nailing onto a cross to swap your suffering for a child’s lifetime of being bipolar?
Were you pregnant with a baby or babies at risk and you were told to go to bed, would you give it an instant of thought or objection? I know two women who spent 7 or 8 months in bed gestating, to provide a chance for an at-risk unborn child. What did they do in that time? Each women observed the branch she could see without moving, out a nearby window. Did they complain or count it as suffering or sacrifice? Were they giving up their lives for service? Absolutely, giving up careers as a doctor and a teacher, and they did it joyfully and instantaneously.
We’ve been shaped by the revered image of the tortured Jesus nailed on a cross, and it was an unimaginably painful death. It’s not a suffering sacrifice we’re apt to encounter, and yet it’s not the worst death I can imagine. Can you not think of other sacrificial deaths as bad or possibly worse?
Each of us, as we are, has our own tailor-made sacrifices. The death that Jesus walked into was the one for him to fulfill his life’s work as offering, not to avoid his path. He’d traveled and walked, talked and preached offering his steadiness of purpose and life commitment. I believe that he kept on the path God offered him. His work was on a scale that God had offered him, and he succeeded in it— his self-giving work was accepted as so perfect as to be acceptable as a life so well lived to “count” as acceptable once for all people. His living perfectly was accepted as the right way for all humans to live and to have lived.
Does that mean we need to do or not do that life? Did Jesus live the hardest death you can imagine? Think of all the horrors he avoided. Many philosophers have suggested a way to live a good or perfect life is to avoid all human relationships, because they’re apt to cause stress and agony.
True. Some of the Gospel accounts seem to describe Jesus as having followed that path, but that’s not available for all humans. It’s a path for those for whom it is a free and loving choice, one to build up God’s realm. Obviously it can’t be for all. Jesus didn’t have a wife or child die in childbirth or have to support an aging Mary though a suffering old age, or lose his own vigorous focus and know he couldn’t stay on his path any longer. Perhaps he accepted his death then, at that age, instead of fighting for his causes for longer, because he feared the loss of his dedicated purpose.
It seems to me that his choice was perfect, but neither inevitable, nor the only one. We are offered repeated choices like that. Do we keep on trying to be better at being our own best self, or do we accept where we are and the sacrifices necessary now.
I had a long chat with a 91-year old friend last week. I asked him what was up with him now. He said he felt he was getting better—specifically “more good”— every day. Every morning he says to himself, “What can I do to better myself, my world, the greater world?” Every evening he looks over his day and tries to name what has contributed to those goals. I asked him how, specifically, he’s done that. He said therapy had helped, but learning to pray, and to take seriously an inner life. He said he was learning to be more present to his emotions with himself and others. He said he was learning to let up on his bookish perfectionism about himself, and to credit himself with what he was doing to learn to be better. He’s including his own happiness and that of those in his life.
It was a wonderful conversation, and reminded me about a possible virtue in a long well lived life. Twenty or so years ago he’d told me that if he died then of something, he’d led a good life and was content with what he’d done and achieved.
Now each day is a chance to improve himself and the world. Giving up life to gain life takes many forms for each of us. This man gave up his simple cerebral life, for the messiness of human relationships, and has been rewarded with increasing growth and virtue. What does each of us choose, given God’s guarantee of freedom of choice for us? God loves us and wants what is best for each of us—as we are.
What then is each of us to choose, and how to make better choices? God wants us to flourish. I think many of the choices we do make are sacrificial, but without the drama of the cross. Jesus’ path was one accepted as perfect, but it was the symbol that stuck.
If I put a black dot on a whole white wall and asked you what you saw, most would reply “a black dot.” God loves us, and enabled his Son through his own free choices for his life, both to provide us encouragement to live into our own best selves, and to do his own life so well that his life guaranteed that our attempts would be enough to join him in paradise forever.
The cross, appallingly more than a black spot, still isn’t the point: Instead it’s both God’s initiative and Jesus’ life, each for us, to show us that God loves each of us, all of us, just the way we are forever: Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 6 April 2012