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It doesn’t really make sense.
Almost 2000 years ago an obscure Palestinian Jew was arrested by Roman troops while praying in a garden with some friends after supper. Over the course of one long, grueling night, he was sent back and forth for judgment between civil and religious authorities, all of whom had come to see him as a troublemaker of the most serious kind.
To the religious authorities, he was a threat because he was highly critical of the system of offerings for atonement made in the Temple. But he was even more dangerous because, by his teaching, feeding, and healing, an increasingly large number of people had come to consider him a healer, and a prophet, and maybe even the promised Messiah.
To the civil authorities, he was considered the most dangerous kind of criminal: an insurrectionist. His popularity among the people, and their hopes that he just might be the legitimate heir to King David’s throne, led the Romans to believe he had unacceptable political aspirations, putting him squarely in the camp of ‘enemies of the state.’
So they killed him. They nailed him to a cross, the Roman Empire’s punishment of choice for insurrectionists, both because it was horrifically painful, and because, under normal circumstances, it denied the criminals the decency of burial. Their bodies were left on the cross for nature to dispose of. This made it the most humiliating way to die, as well as the most painful.
That part, that all makes sense. It’s the next part that deviates entirely from logic and reason.
Not too long after they killed him, Jesus’ followers—because, of course, I’m talking about Jesus—began to speak of their experiences of seeing him. They began to claim, on the evidence of the women who followed Jesus, that he had been raised from the dead, that he was, in fact, alive again.
Eventually, his followers came to believe that Jesus’ death on the cross had done exactly the opposite of what the Roman Empire had intended. It hadn’t stopped his movement, it had revitalized it. The cross wasn’t a symbol of humiliation; it was embraced with pride, with joy.
We wear crosses around our necks. They have become our preferred décor, our treasured jewelry.
It doesn’t make sense.
Throughout the letter to the Romans, Paul works diligently to help us—or, more specifically, the Gentile converts to Christianity that didn’t have the benefit of the Hebrew Scriptures for reference—to make sense of it all. What happened when Jesus died on the cross—specifically, and, globally? What difference did it make? Why do we—followers of Jesus, Christians—look upon this horrific thing, as a good thing?
Today’s passage offers clues. First, Paul’s words on suffering.
… suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.… (Romans 5:3b-5)
I think it’s easy to misunderstand these words as being globally applicable to anyone who is suffering, for any reason. I don’t think that’s is the case. These are words offered to a particular group of people, at a particular time, regarding a specific shared experience of suffering based on their position as a religious minority, subject to oppression and mistreatment by that same Roman Empire that nailed Jesus to a cross.
But if we take these words as reflections upon the suffering of a community in the light of Jesus’ suffering on the cross, we start to get closer to their wisdom. His suffering, Jesus’ suffering, produces hope. And that hope is intimately connected to the conviction that God’s love has been poured out for us in some way.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
There it is. The place where we begin to understand, where, for Paul, it all makes sense. Jesus Christ died for the ungodly—which is to say, for those same Gentile converts. Which includes us.
There is a field of theology known as “soteriology,” which means, theology of salvation. And Paul, in this portion of the letter to the Romans, is venturing into the realm of soteriology. Jesus died for us.
The most popular way to understand this is something called “substitutionary atonement,” and there are definitely echoes of that in Paul’s writing here. This was first put forth by Augustine of Hippo, a 5th century theologian. The logic goes something like this: the death of Jesus on the cross pays a debt owed to God by sinful humanity. Jesus stands in for us, substitutes for us by dying this terrible, painful death, and as a result, our sin is forgiven, and the slate wiped clean.
But, and this is really important to know, this is not the only way of understanding Jesus’ death on the cross. Faithful Christians don’t universally agree on the theory of substitutionary atonement as the ultimate significance of Jesus’ death. I’ll offer just a couple of other ideas.
The theory of Solidarity: Jesus saves by showing us God’s solidarity with us. As one writer puts it, “Jesus’ life stands as testimony that he always stood with the marginalized, the poor, the prostitutes and the tax collectors. His death was the result of his life. We are called to identify with Christ’s suffering and to stand with those whose experience of being forsaken parallels Christ on the cross.”[i]
Here’s another: The theory of the Last Scapegoat: Jesus saves us by serving as a scapegoat. All societies are essentially tribal, and require violent release, a kind of pressure valve, by the death of a scapegoat. Jesus’s death shows us the innate injustice and repugnance of this system.
And here’s yet another: The theory of the Ransom Captive: Jesus saves us by his death, which is the ransom required by the devil as payment for sin. This theory focuses even more on the resurrection, and is the basis for the celebrations of “Holy Hilarity,” as the devil has been tricked. Interestingly, in the passage from Romans that we read last week, Paul wrote that Jesus “was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). So Paul also sees Jesus’ rising as having ultimate significance for us, not just his death.
And there are more. Enough for a whole sermon series!
What I really want to say is this: If we believe that Jesus revealed something radically true and important about God, it is this: That God is for us, that God not only loves us, but wants to love us, in a way that is almost ridiculous. It makes no sense. And God will go to any lengths to achieve reconciliation with us, sinners though we may be. Any lengths. God, will even become human and die, on our behalf.
Near the end of the very first Harry Potter book, Harry is talking to headmaster Dumbledore about the fact that the forces of evil are very much out to get him, and he puzzles that, so far, he’s been protected. It doesn’t make sense. But it does to his headmaster. Dumbledore says,
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin.”[ii]
If there is one thing evil cannot understand, it is love. The specifics of why and how are all human conjecture. The joy, the beauty, the thing we cling to is this: This love that has been poured out leaves a mark on us. To be loved as deeply as God loves us, and shows us in and through Jesus, will give us protection forever. It is in our very skin. Whether or not it makes sense, it is God’s promise, and our joy. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Rev. Jeremy Smith, “Primer on Atonement Theories,” HackingChristianity.net.
[ii] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1997), 299.