Lent Quiet Day Material

Material from the Cluster Quiet Day
led by Leslie Attwood

WHY DID JESUS HAVE TO DIE?

1. GLORIOUS VICTORY.

The sense that a victorious God delivers us from evil reaches back well into Jewish history. The Easter Vigil includes that classic song in which the Israelites praised God for their deliverance from Egypt.

‘I will sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph!

Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea! ….

The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is his name.

The chariots of Pharaoh he hurled into the sea ….

Your right hand Lord, glorious in its power,

Your right hand Lord has shattered the enemy.   (Ex 15)

 

The memory of the Exodus, the great act of deliverance which created the Jewish people made it practically inevitable that from the outset Christians would reach for the language of liberation and victory to describe the benefits brought by redemption. Christ’s death and resurrection meant a triumph over sin, death and the demonic powers which menace, enslave and terrify human beings.  From Paul’s vision of Christ ‘reigning until he has put all his enemies under his feet’ (1 Cor 15:25) to John’s ‘fear not, I have overcome the world’ (16:33) and from Paul’s gospel of liberation from the curse of the Law (Galatians) to the conflict and victory imagery of Revelation we find the New Testament pressing this language into service to express the nature of redemption.

The conflict with evil inaugurated with Jesus’ ministry (Luke 11: 14-23) reached its climax with the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. That conflict lead to His death. But the New Testament writers are not content to interpret the crucifixion as a mere miscarriage of justice or a human tragedy. For them the crucifixion and the subsequent resurrection meant that ‘death was swallowed up in victory’: ‘The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ (1 Cor 15:54ff). In the language of Revelation ‘the Lamb who was slain’ has brought a universal deliverance from evil (5:6ff). The Lamb showed himself to be the conqueror.

It is certainly paradoxical to identify the slain Lamb as the victor over the world’s evil. St Paul defends the same paradox. It seems absurd but it is true that deliverance came in and through the appalling vulnerability of the cross; ‘He was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God.’(2 Cor 13:4). Jesus’ victory meant changing suffering and death into instruments of redemption, not taking them away.

From early on the Christian tradition picked up the biblical language about deliverance coming through a conflict with evil. For example Venantius Fortunatus (c530-600?), bishop of Poitiers in his ‘the royal banners forward go’

 

1 The royal banners forward go;
The cross shows forth redemption's flow,
Where He, by whom our flesh was made,
Our ransom in His flesh has paid:

2 Where deep for us the spear was dyed,
Life's torrent rushing from His side,
To wash us in the precious flood
Where flowed the water and the blood.

3 Fulfilled is all that David told
In sure prophetic song of old.
That God the nations' king should be
And reign in triumph from the tree.

4 On whose hard arms, so widely flung,
The weight of this world's ransom hung,
The price of humankind to pay
And spoil the spoiler of his prey.

5 O Tree of beauty, tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear:
Gone is thy shame, each crimsoned bough
Proclaims the King of Glory now.

6 To Thee, eternal Three in One,
Let homage meet by all be done,
As by the cross Thou dost restore,
So guide and keep us evermore.

 

In recent years, the theory of atonement known as Christus Victor (“Christ the victor”) has gained some support. It has come to attention through the book ‘Christus Victor’ written by Gustav Aulén, a Swedish professor who published a series of lectures on the atonement, arguing that Christus Victor was the classic view held in the early church. In a nutshell, Aulén argued that Christus Victor, the classic view of the atonement, has at its center continuous divine action: from beginning to end, atonement is the act of God through Christ, in which the powers of sin, death, and the devil are overcome, and the world is reconciled to God. Paul’s statement that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” epitomizes this view. Aulén spoke of this view as “dramatic,” “dualistic,” and “objective”—dramatic and dualistic, because it assumed a narrative of conflict between God and the powers of evil, sin, and death, in which God triumphs over these powers; objective, because it posits that God took the initiative to decisively change the relationship between God and the world.

But in the classic view (i.e., Christus Victor), God’s will to reconcile is worked out in a continuous divine work that triumphs over sin, death, and the devil, and at the same time passes judgment on them. Sacrifice is the means by which God acts to reconcile the world, the means through which the “divine will-to-reconciliation realizes itself.” In one continuous divine work of sovereign love and grace, God reclaims what is his own. For Aulén, Christus Victor was a double-sided theory of atonement, with God both as subject (Reconciler) and object (Reconciled).

 

WHY DID JESUS HAVE TO DIE?

(2) REDEMPTION AS EXPIATION

The second model of redemption takes up the theme of expiation from guilt, purification from the contamination of sin, or reparation for (and of) a disturbed moral order. Essentially this second model comes down to this. Through his death and resurrection Christ acted as both priest and victim to offer a sacrifice (John 1:29, 36) which both expiated sins and brought a new covenant relationship between God and human beings. (Mk14:24) Jesus did all this representatively – or as Paul often expressed it ‘for us’ (e.g. Rom 5:6; 8:31). To understand this model a careful study of the parable of the Prodigal Son would yield beneficial results. (Lk 15)

In his book ‘Cur Deus Homo’ (‘Why God [became] Man’) St Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) developed the classical version of this model. His theory of satisfaction aimed to describe and explain how Christ’s death restored the divine ‘honour’ which sin offends. This version appreciates God’s fidelity to creation and the moral order. Understood within the feudal context, talk of the divine ‘honour’ implies rather than excludes love. For Anselm, true honour guarantees truth, order and justice.

After Anselm, Alexander of Hales (1186-1245) introduced a punitive element into the equation, which was in turn picked up by St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and other medieval theologians. This development reached a peak with John Calvin (1509-1564). In his view Jesus became the focus of divine reprobation. Through his passion he suffered an abandonment by God that corresponded to the lot of those condemned to Hell. This suffering as a penal substitute turned away God’s anger and won the divine favour for the human race.  Bishop Bossuet (1627-1704), a great Catholic preacher put it like this:

‘The man Jesus Christ has been thrown down under the multiple and redoubled blows of divine vengeance ……. As it vented itself, so his (God’s) anger diminished; he struck his innocent Son as he wrestled with the wrath of God …. When an avenging God waged war upon his Son the mystery of our peace was accomplished.’Such language of anger, punishment and propitiation has flourished down to our own day. Watch out for it in Victorian hymns and often in hymns imported from the American South and ‘Bible-belt’. Even the great Karl Barth (1886-1968 ) endorsed this view. Jesus Christ, the man-for-others, entered the heart of their alienation from God, took the place of those judged by divine justice, and became himself the object of God’s anger. On Calvary Jesus carried human sin and culpability, for which he was judged, condemned and punished by death. ‘He stands,’ wrote Barth, ‘before the Father at Golgotha burdened with all the actual sin and guilt of man and of each individual man, and is treated in accordance with the deserts of man as the transgressor of the divine command.’

Certain human causes lurk behind the image of God as an angry punisher. It seems atrocious to picture the Father God acting with extreme cruelty towards his Son and treating him as a sinner even though He is utterly innocent. A punishing God has helped to justify and protect authority in families, society and religion. This is not necessarily to allege that parents, rulers and religious leaders have consciously fostered such an image of God as a prop for their position.  The image resulted naturally enough from the way they (and those under them) experienced and interpreted human authority. Fear of God has been mobilised to support human subjection.  Furthermore, at a personal level the notion of a punishing God corresponds somewhat to self-destructive tendencies in human beings.  Drives to self-punishment, the anxiety to propitiate forces within oneself and crippling worries about possible consequences of ones actions – all of these elements can coalesce to project a God made in their image and likeness.

 

WHY DID JESUS HAVE TO DIE?

(3) TRANSFORMING LOVE.

The third model of redemption centres on the power of Christ’s love to heal and transform human hearts.  His death and resurrection work through the love which they reveal. In this third model Jesus is no longer the ‘lamb’ but the ‘good shepherd’ who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. (Jn 10:11) In his final discourse the Johannine Jesus expresses this theme in a classical way: ‘greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’. (15:13) In a word, Christ died to touch and change the hearts of enemies. Even if our representatives crucified him we are still loved by him and his Father. Christ’s fate reveals the loving self-sacrifice of the best, not the victorious survival of the fittest.

Jesus Christ is the high point of the progressive revelation of the divine love. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’. (Jn 3:16) This supreme initiative from God aimed at bringing about a new and final covenant – a change of hearts and a permanent relationship of love both vertically (with God) and horizontally (with one another).

If it is that ‘greater love hath no man …….’ is a general principle what is it about Jesus that makes him to be THE man? What makes Jesus’ suffering love uniquely different and powerful? Ultimately it was a matter of his human innocence and divine identity. Unlike other martyrs he died utterly guiltless and totally sinless. ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’. (Mk 15:39)

Sometimes it is argued that even the most startling example of human love is only effective if it is known.  What of those who lived before Jesus or after him but have never heard of him and his self-sacrificing love?  Love must be communicated to touch and transform human hearts; isn’t this another name for mission?  But surely any life full of generous love can spread infectiously to affect people who may never identify the source of this influence. Isn’t this the heart of discipleship? Ponder 2Cor 5:14ff on this point. Once it is accepted that ‘Christ has died for all’ i.e. his death is not simply a concern for his followers, family and friends, then we have no choice. His love for us causes us to have a new faith conviction (‘one has died for all, therefore all have died’) and a new way of life (‘no longer for themselves but for him’).  In short Christ’s initiative of love makes our response possible.

Consequently those who know themselves to be transformed through the Redeemer’s love are called to act accordingly. (1Cor 13) The beneficiaries must become participants. Those who receive love from god should pass it on: ‘If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.’ (1Jn 4:11) If truly practised such love will bring people to real suffering and even to death.

However as the old adage has it ‘amor vincit omnia’ (love conquers all). Love overcomes all the forces which menace and enslave human beings. Love is the final and deepest meaning of redemption and, indeed, of all reality.

 

WHY DID JESUS HAVE TO DIE?

(4)  THE HUMAN CONDITION.

I have deliberately left till now a kind of afterthought which should be a ‘pre-thought’. Namely, what is it about the human condition that requires it to be saved anyway?  You have spent the day, or, I hope, some portion of the day pondering at least some angles on this question.

Let’s posit three possible scenarios which might give God the opportunity to send Jesus to save the human race.

1. The human race is oppressed from without by an enemy. Let’s call it Evil, or the Devil – we might want to include under this heading – sin, death or the various labels given in our day to ‘evil forces’.

In Luke’s gospel Zechariah talks of those who would receive the light as sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.  Further in that gospel Jesus speaks, quoting Isaiah, of himself bringing ‘release to the captives ……. To set at liberty those who are oppressed’. Healing the sick often carries with it the notion of liberation from some demonic power. There are evil powers holding the human race in bondage. St Paul has a rather vaguer view of things speaking to the Galatians reminding them that they were ‘slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe.’ (4:3 and 4:9)

Christian teaching, liturgy, theology, spirituality and art have down the centuries portrayed men and women as being threatened by forces beyond their control, at least at  the level of the suffering individual.

Demonic forces can be said to abound in our modern world too. The laws of profit and material success hold groups, nations and whole continents in bondage. It is bad enough when greed for wealth enslaves individuals and makes them inhuman towards themselves and others.  But it is much worse to see the laws of economics and scientific technology keeping whole populations deprived of their human rights and living under fresh forms of slavery.

Bondage to the irrational forces of nature have simply been replaced by a bondage to evil forces on a national and international scale: uncontrollable greed, exploitation, institutionalised injustice, revenge attacks, extremism, violence of all kinds. Anxiety and impotence in the face of evil forces ‘out there’ have not disappeared; they have simply relocated.

Repeatedly the Old Testament pointed to idolatry as the root sin; the primary evil, having others gods than the true God. The Book of Revelation throughout its length seeks to unmask false gods and the worship of idols. In our day we can point to economic growth, military superiority, and dare one say even international sport as likely idols to be dethroned. Rather than silver and gold we now serve abusive systems and goals as members of our pantheon of gods.

2. Secondly we can think of humankind as being contaminated. Long before Christ the psalmist prayed ‘wash me from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin’ (Ps 51:2) Isaiah expresses this primordial feeling of defilement when he asks for his unclean lips to be cleansed. (6:5) Various world religions as well as both the Old and New Testament identify practices which are necessary to expiate or cleanse contamination. Quite naturally baptism can be understood in this way. ‘You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.’ (1 Cor 6:11) The Letter to the Ephesians compares the whole community to a bride who was ceremonially cleansed and purified for her husband, ‘Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.’  (5:25) In general studies in anthropology and the history of religions illustrate how widely human being believe themselves to need cleansing from the contamination of guilt and sin.

3. A third persistent way of expressing the human condition looks to the inner wounds, sickness and hard-heartedness that call for the healing touch of divine love. As Ezekiel puts it, ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’ (36:25ff)

The conviction that there is something wrong deeply within human beings shows up over and over again in the New Testament. Jesus comes as the Divine Physician to cure sinners of their sicknesses, often mental conditions. Jesus sees how evil emerges often from a wicked heart: ‘From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these things come from within.’ (Mark 7: 21-23)

Cold indifference towards the suffering of others, rampant greed and fear, failure to forgive and institutional hatred all point to something wrong within, some woundedness and basic selfishness at the heart of human beings.

Some theologians see human history as a history of suffering which can be distinguished in three ways as the history of oppression, guilt and selfishness under which and from which men and women suffer and from which they all need to be saved/redeemed.

Of course another side to these considerations is to enquire as to the nature of God. What is your image of God and how does it enable your life as a Christian?  Perhaps that is a topic for another leader on another Quiet Day.   Thank you for listening.