Last year as part of a long journey through Matthew's gospel I preached a sermon on exactly this theme that stirred a lot of conversation among members in the congregation - for the positive - as we looked more deeply at what it means when we say that God sent his Son to die for us.
After that sermon, I wrote a letter to the Minister's Forum (a newsletter for Ministers) on the same theme which you will find reproduced below. It was printed around Easter 2007. It too caused something of a stir, this time not all positive, it has to be said! However, I stand by what I wrote and think it is very important.
Easter is coming and what to preach? Christ crucified, or Christ risen? I remember as a student being overcome by the despair in a colleague’s Easter prayer, effused as it was with what I felt to be grotesque imagery of the crucifixion. I prayed in response with thanks for the glory of the third day.
There is a curious difference for me between those whose natural empathy lies in the crucifixion and those who relate more to the resurrection. Just a curiosity? The more I reflect on it, the more I wonder if in this difference of emphasis there may be unintended consequences.
The widespread acceptance today of a penal substitutionary theory of atonement, with its dependence on the death of Christ, certainly has implications for our witness as followers of Christ. I am well aware that this model of atonement has a deep resonance with many, although I admit it is not a resonance I have ever felt myself. But it inevitably raises questions: In its reliance on a retributive system of justice, what room is left for the grace of God? In its dependence on violence to satisfy God’s wrath, what space for forgiveness? In its focus on the cross of Christ, why did God bother with resurrection? The work was done on the cross, not three days later.
The model is so well-known to us that we perhaps forget it is a later addition to our theological panoply shaped into its current form by Anselm in the eleventh century and based on his understanding of feudal law and the system of honour that existed at that time. It was in contrast to the view of Christ’s death and resurrection that existed prior to Christendom when Jesus’ followers were a persecuted and threatened community. Then, his life, death and resurrection were an affirmation that God would overcome all that oppresses: the evil structures and tyrants that threatened faith and discipleship.
Why might this be important today? It does not take long listening to George W Bush or our own leader speaking about terror, often with overtly religious language, to realise that the same retributive justice is the dominant theme. In Bob Woodward’s latest book on life in the White House, we read that Bush always wanted to know the numbers after a battle in Iraq… how many did we kill? Justice is served by spilling blood.
When our whole understanding of our Lord’s death is wrapped up in a system of retributive justice – in honour having to be regained by innocent death or in economic debts of sin being repaid to balance a heavenly chitty – then how do we take seriously Jesus’ life itself?
How do we reconcile Jesus’ teaching about pacifism, about forgiveness, about loving our enemies? Personally, I don’t believe we can. Hence Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ spent almost no time reflecting on Jesus’ life. In Gibson’s film we have no idea why Jesus had to suffer so.
Why did he? Because he was a threat to the powers that be, just as Martin Luther King Jr was murdered because he was a threat to the segregationists in 60s America, and just as Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down because he was a threat to the government of El Salvador.
Perhaps Jesus’ death was inevitable, as were the deaths of King and Romero, but for me it is not because of divine retributive justice “tantamount to child abuse”, as Steve Chalke puts it. It is because Jesus brought good news to the poor, to the imprisoned and oppressed – and those in power were threatened by the thought of local insurrection.
Did Jesus have to die? I do not believe so. Yet I do believe his death was the inevitable result of my sin, of our collective sin, of the fear of people, I shudder to say “like me”, who one moment shout “hosanna” and next moment “crucify”.
In a wonderful book, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense, W.H. Vanstone says, “The Word of God dwelt among us (full of grace and truth). In Him the truth of God is disclosed with graciousness. He discloses to us, on Good Friday and Easter Day, both the tragic and the triumphant possibilities of the love of God. But the disclosure is made graciously; Easter comes after Good Friday: tragedy is (swallowed up) in triumph: and [humanity], having seen the tragic possibility, is called away to devote [its] faith, hope and service to the possibility of love’s triumph.”
As we discuss replacing one set of weapons of mass destruction, Trident, with newer more potent weapons, as the results of political folly continue to fill our TV screens with bloodshed, perhaps this Easter we can have the courage to trust in love’s triumph. As our Statement of Faith, 1992, puts it, “By his death on the cross and by his resurrection, he has triumphed over evil.”