By Jenny Andison
Three generations of my family were born in India when it was under British rule, and so I grew up being taught to revere (and still do) Mahatma Gandhi. I then had a gap year before undergrad, in which I was certainly intellectually searching, while living in southern India. I read a lot of Gandhi that year. There is a quote from his autobiography that I found arresting all those years ago:
I could accept Jesus as a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice, and a divine teacher. … His death on the cross was a great example to the world, but that there was anything like a mysterious or miraculous virtue in it, my heart could not accept.
Gandhi admired the sacrificial love of Jesus — laying down your life for the sake of your friends seems incredibly noble and to be emulated. But Gandhi didn’t believe it had any power beyond that moment to impact the world. How could a violent, brutal death bring peace and hope, wondered Gandhi. What about modern-day terrorists? They think they are being noble when they blow themselves up in a crowded market. We now live in a world that if your children are surfing the net, you have to make sure they don’t watch an ISIS beheading video. So much blood. So much violence. Yet, the primary symbol of the Christian faith has always been the cross, an instrument of torture and death so gruesome that even the Romans, not the cuddly-feely sort, outlawed it as a form of the death penalty in the 300s. The musician Billy Joel speaks for many:
I viewed the business as a lot of very enthralling hocus pocus. There’s a guy … nailed to a cross and dripping blood, and everybody’s blaming themselves for that man’s torment, but I said to myself, ‘Forget it. I had no hand in that evil. … There’s no blood of any sacred martyr on my hands. I pass on all of this.’
The cross, which has always been considered good news by Christians, is increasingly seen by the rest of our culture as bad news. How can the torture and death of Jesus on a cross be good news? How can it possibly bring a change in our lives that would positively impact how we parent our children, handle our finances, or deal with the evil of terrorism that stalks our globe in this generation? Why the cross? Even Jesus wanted to know the answer to that question, in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before he died. Really, God? Do I really have to do this? Is there no other way? Indeed. Is there no other way than the cross? This morning at Holy Family, I want to circle around the cross — how it is both unavoidable and beautiful.
So first, how is the cross unavoidable? All serious love involves an element of personal exchange. All real love requires some sense of sharing in what others experience, or even in swapping places with them. Very often people will say something along these lines: Look, I hear you about sin. It’s real. It’s destructive. And look, unlike Donald Trump, who has gone on record saying that he has never asked God forgiveness for anything, I know I am culpable. But why can’t God just forgive? If God is a God of love, why do we need the death of Jesus for God to forgive our sins? The simple answer is that if you take away the cross, you have taken away the God of love. In the attempt to make God more loving, saying no need for a sacrifice, no need for costly forgiveness, we ironically make God less loving. Because without the cross, the love of God is just sentimentality, it is just a pious emoticon, with no action. Because in the real world—in the lives that you and I actually live in this neighborhood — love requires more than sentimentality. Real love requires getting in the trenches, even trading places.
A few examples… We have three daughters, two of whom are now teenagers. Children come into the world in a state of total dependence. They cannot survive unless their parents give up much of their own independence and freedom, for many years. If you don’t allow your children to impinge on your own happiness, freedom and comfort, and if you will only care for them when it doesn’t inconvenience you, then your children will grow up physically, but that is where it will stop. In so many other ways, they will be damaged and stunted. Our oldest, Emma, went to Haiti last year on a church mission trip. Haiti is not an entirely safe developing country, and on a small level, Tim and I had to open ourselves up to increased anxiety and stress for ten days, so she could grow in maturity and wisdom. To love your children well, you must decrease so they can increase. The choice is clear. It’s them or you. You have to sacrifice or they do. Or think of someone in your life that you know is difficult, emotionally damaged, or had a hard life. It is not possible to listen to or love people like that and stay completely emotionally intact yourself. The other person may feel supported and encouraged by your patience or understanding, but it comes at a cost to you. It is draining. You always feel exhausted after spending time with them. Once again, it’s them or you.
You may have heard the news how last week of an ISIS-affiliated terrorist taking hostages in a French grocery store. French police officer, Arnaud Beltrame, knowing that he was walking to his death, offered himself to the terrorist in place of the hostages. He strode across the parking lot into the grocery store, the hostages were freed, and he was stabbed and shot and died later at the hospital. It turns out he was a practicing Catholic, and the Catholic priest who was going to be marrying him in six weeks time, gave him instead the last rites and married him and his fiancé in the hospital room before he breathed his last.
All love that actually changes people lives requires a sacrificial exchange. If you become personally involved with someone—be they your child, a work colleague, or a hostage — then in some way their flaws, their suffering, flow towards you, and your strength, your hope, flow towards them. There is a sacrificial exchange. John Stott, a famous British Anglican priest of the past century, summed up the exchange like this:
The essence of sin is we human beings substituting ourselves for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for us. We … put ourselves where only God deserves to be; God … puts himself where we deserve to be.
If God really is a God of love, how can God not become personally involved in the suffering and pain in people’s real lives and the evil of the world? This is where it is essential to remember that Christians believe that Jesus is also the fullness of God. God is not some primitive deity who demands blood for his wrath to be appeased. We are not worshipping a monster who needs to be fed. No, we are worshipping a God who becomes human and offers his own life in order for justice to be done and love to be shown. For God to be a God of real love, the cross is unavoidable. God must be willing to enter into pain, suffering and evil. And only one belief system claims that that is exactly what God did.
Many of you here today have come bearing the troubles and burdens of real life. You are tired and want to put down your burden. Well, you have come to the right place here at Holy Family on this solemn morning, because Jesus is the only person in the world who can with all sincerity, look you in the eye and say, I understand. I know what you are going through. Any defeat, relationship breakdown, betrayal, miscarriage of justice, or physical or psychological pain you can imagine, Jesus has walked that road of sorrows. In the trenches of real life, in the trenches of cancer, parenting, debt, marriage, divorce, loneliness, retirement, and sexual violence. The problem of human suffering cannot be minimized or explained away, and we cannot tie it up in a neat intellectual bow, but in the Christian story, the suffering has been shared. In the real world of hard work, suffering and disappointment, how can we worship a God who is immune to it? To talk about God loving us independently of the cross, makes the love of God nothing more than mere sentiment. Who cares then? We need a broken God. We need a bleeding God. We need a despairing God. The New Hampshire poet laurate, Jane Kenyon, grasped at this mystery of Good Friday: “The God of curved space, the dry God, is not going to help us, but the son whose blood spattered the hem of his mother’s robe.” For a God of love, the cross is unavoidable.
The cross is also beautiful. A beauty with power. Consider A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Charles and Sydney look very much alike and both love the same woman, the lovely Lucy. Lucy chooses and marries Charles, and they have a child. The backdrop of the story is the French Revolution, and Charles who is a French aristocrat is imprisoned and sentenced to death by the guillotine. At the end of the novel, Charlies is visited by his old love rival Sydney, who is English, on the night before he is to be executed. He offers to exchange places with him. Charles refuses, but Sydney has him drugged and smuggles him away in a waiting carriage. Sydney takes his place in prison. That same night, a young seamstress who is also condemned to die, comes up to Sydney and strikes up a conversation, thinking he is Charles. She hears his English accent, the penny drops, and her eyes widen. “Are you going to die for him?” Sydney responds. “Hush! Yes, and for his wife — whom I love — and their child.” The young seamstress then confesses how terribly afraid she is and not sure she will be able to face her own impending death. She asks the brave stranger if he will hold her hand to the end. When the time comes, they go to death hand in hand. She finds herself composed, even hopeful, as long as she keeps her eyes fixed on Sydney as the blade comes down. The girl in the story was crumbling under the weight of her burden and fear. Yet the wonder of this beautiful exchange strengthened her to face that ultimate test.
The beautiful, unavoidable exchange that took place on the cross — God substituting himself for us, putting himself where we deserve to be — is the great exchange that creates a different kind of person, a different kind of culture, a different kind of response to evil. Because on the cross, we have God, who is in the ultimate place of power and authority, reversing places with the arrogant, the greedy, the gossips, the poor, and the oppressed. On the cross, all the values of our world are turned on their heads. Jesus wins through losing, achieves power through service, and comes to wealth by giving it all away. People who are shaped by the breathtaking beauty in this great exchange no longer need to have their identity, hope and purpose in life justified through status, money, or power. Because of the beauty of this exchange, Christians, will look at money, for example, as something to give away to fulfill God’s purposes of justice and hope for all. They will look at power, skill, and accomplishment as something to be used to serve other people.
On this Good Friday, we have before us an unavoidable, startling, beauty. On the first Good Friday, two men knew this, as they lavished love on the broken and bloodied body of Jesus:
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen clothes, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Jenny Andison is Bishop Suffragan in the Anglican Diocese of Toronto and Area Bishop of York-Credit Valley.