St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Good Friday, 2009

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“Christ became obedient for our sakes unto death, even the death of the Cross.”

How shall we think of Jesus dying for my sins and for the sins of the world?  How shall we think about Jesus saving the world by his death on the cross?  How do these phrases sound to modern ears?  What can they mean?

There is a way of thinking of Good Friday, a way which many of us were brought up with:  Jesus paid the price for my sins.  It is in that hymn : There is a green hill far away –

“There was none other good enough
to pay the price of sin,
he only could unlock the gate
of heaven and let us in.”

There is an ambiguity here.  To whom is a price paid?  By whom is a price demanded? Theologians these days point out the inadequacy of an understanding of God who is full of wrath who needs punishment to satisfy is holy anger, in order to relent.  And who, at the same time as being angry, out of generosity, decides to send his Son to pay the price for sin instead of us.  We are let off.  Jesus has done it.  All we need to do is be grateful and try to be like him.  

This is a theory, a human theory of the doctrine of God’s atonement, God’s at-one-ment, making us at one with him.   It is a theory, begun by St Anselm and used by the reformers, and continues into our day.  There is little enthusiasm for it if one really goes to think about it.  One feminist theologian has called this theory : ‘cosmic child abuse’.

Jesus’ obedience can be seen like this.  He is doing what the Father tells him, even though it is so cruel.  This is hardly a God or a religion to commend to others.

A theory is only a theory, a faulty human perception.  We can all become theorisers, bystanders, those who think they can grasp the truth.  It is another thing to undergo it, to allow oneself to experience it, transformed by it.

How then are we to imagine it?

Well, we can concentrate on sin.  The Western Church has often got stuck here, stuck with the sin, stuck with ourselves and what we are like, stuck with our own perceptions trying to put it into words.  But I want to help us begin to imagine a different way of seeing, understanding today.  

Today, Good Friday, in the Eastern tradition is a day of triumph, the triumph of the cross, the triumph of love through death.  It is not so much about ourselves - remember we are focussing on Jesus and what he is accomplishing.   All must begin with God.

Through the pages of the Bible there is a gradual unfolding, dis-closure, unveiling, showing forth of who God is and what he is like; and from the receiving end, there is a growing perception of the True God, a development in understanding moving from a tribal god, who is bloodthirsty, to a God who is not like any god at all.  This is evident for all to see in the scriptures.  We often say that the Bible is full of contradictions.  It is.  We see all kinds of perceptions of God through history in the Bible as humans experience and make what they can of the God who is in their midst.  So, for instance, we hear still in Isaiah today of the god that the Israelites were being weaned off – a god who was pleased 'to bruise his Son and put him to grief. '  We would put it in another way – rather than God doing this to Jesus, God allowed this to happen to his Beloved. 

Another example of such a developing understanding is the non-sacrifice of Isaac which reveals the undoing of a perception of a god who demanded human sacrifice, and the bringing of a people out of that sort of darkness into a glorious light, the light of perception of a God who is sheer love, and utterly and only for us; a God who offers his all even to the end

Rather than hiding the contradictions of human perception about God, the Bible reveals them.   It shows how people experienced God and what they made of him, falteringly, seeing through a glass darkly, slowly being brought out of the idolatory of human projection onto God; the kind that says: "God is angry with me – that’s why I’m suffering"; and brought into a new understanding over time, through history….  And all because God will not let us hide in ignorance, pretending that God’s love is conditional on how good we are; God will not allow us to settle with an idol; a reduced sense of who he is because that is all we want or can cope with. 

The letter to the Hebrews begins with these glorious words :
“God, (note: it begins with ‘God’) who in sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us in his Son (no longer a message, but a Person), whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.

The revelation through history, the developmental human perception of the True God culminates here on Good Friday.  This is what your God is truly like.

The one who made the worlds, who holds all things in being (as Colossians tells us), the Creator God visible in Jesus through his creative work, still bringing the world to perfection, healing, blessing, calling us back, creating a new culture of grace and gracious living, is giving his life for us, because he still longs for us to share in that life.

In the beginning God bound himself in love to us, and still he does that. Though we have been faithless, he is faithful to his covenant.  

And we see then what we have been like.   We can stop theorising about original sin and how it came about - as if it were something 'over there.'  We can see ourselves in this light: how Genesis is an accurate description of what we are like.  How we fell and continually fall into rivalry and competition; vying for power over others.  We see the carnage and consequences of human sin; what the denial of love does to us and others. 

On the cross we see nothing less than deicide – the killing of God.  We see how we contribute to the sin of the world, daily doing this to the least of his brothers and sisters, and so doing it unto him; but we see it, and can only see it, because we know that God will not let go of us.

Today God triumphs.  Still there is only love : Father forgive them.  Father release them from this.  Father set them free from having to be like this; Father, may they come fully to share in our love, the love for which you created all.

Here in the Liturgy we hear and undergo with him his Passion, his suffering, his being done unto.
We respond by offering Intercession in unity with Jesus, the prayer that is Jesus’ own longing to the Father.
We venerate, we glory, we worship and give praise and thanks for the cross –which has become for us a sign of everlasting hope and joy and life.
And still he feeds us;  still he offers us himself, come share in my life in Holy Communion

Christ became obedient for our sakes unto death, even the death of the Cross.
Wherefore God hath highly exalted him and given him the Name which is above every Name.
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.

Amen

 

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