Link back to index.html
The Difference Jesus Makes
The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “The Jesus I Never Knew” published in 1995.
Scott Peck writes that he first approached the Gospels skeptically, suspecting he would find public-relations accounts written by authors who had tied together loose ends and embellished their biographies of Jesus. The Gospels themselves quickly disabused him of that notion.
I was absolutely thunderstruck by the extraordinary reality of the man I found in the Gospels. I discovered a man who was almost continually frustrated. His frustration leaps out of virtually every page: “What do I have to say to you? How many times do I have to say it? What do I have to do to get through to you?” I also discovered a man who was frequently sad and sometimes depressed, frequently anxious and scared.... A man who was terribly, terribly lonely, yet often desperately needed to be alone. I discovered a man so incredibly real that no one could have made Him up.
It occurred to me then that if the Gospel writers had been into PR and embellishment, as I had assumed, they would have created the kind of Jesus three quarters of Christians still seem to be trying to create . . . portrayed with a sweet, unending smile on His face, patting little children on the head, just strolling the earth with this unflappable, unshakable equanimity. .. . But the Jesus of the Gospels—--who some suggest is the best-kept secret of Christianity—--did not have much “peace of mind,” as we ordinarily think of peace of mind in the world’s terms, and insofar as we can be His followers, perhaps we won’t either.
How can we know the “real Jesus” of whom Scott Peck got a glimpse? I have made a conscious attempt to view Jesus “from below,” to grasp as best I can what it must have been like to observe in person the extraordinary events unfolding in Galilee and Judea. Like Scott Peck, I too feel thunderstruck by what I have found.
Icons of the Orthodox Church, stained-glass windows in European cathedrals, and Sunday school art in low-church America all depict on flat planes a placid, “tame” Jesus, yet the Jesus I met in the Gospels was anything but tame. His searing honesty made him seem downright tactless in some settings. Few people felt comfortable around him; those who did were the type no one else felt comfortable around. He was notoriously difficult to predict, pin down, or even understand.
I conclude my survey of Jesus with as many questions as answers. I certainly have not succeeded in taming him, for myself, let alone for anyone else. I now have a built-in suspicion against all attempts to categorize Jesus, to box him in. Jesus is radically unlike anyone else who has ever lived. The difference, in Charles Williams’ phrase, is the difference between “one who is an example of living and one who is the life itself.”
To sum up what I have learned about Jesus, I offer a series of impressions. They do not form a whole picture by any means, but these are the facets of Jesus’ life that challenge me and, I suspect, will never cease to challenge me.
1. A Sinless Friend of Sinners.
When Jesus came to earth, demons recognized him, the sick flocked to him, and sinners doused his feet and head with perfume. Meanwhile he offended pious Jews with their strict preconceptions of what God should be like. Their rejection makes me wonder, Could religious types be doing just the reverse now? Could we be perpetuating an image of Jesus that fits our pious expectations but does not match the person portrayed so vividly in the Gospels?
Jesus was the friend of sinners. He commended a groveling tax collector over a God-fearing Pharisee. The first person to whom he openly revealed himself as Messiah was a Samaritan woman who had a history of five failed marriages and was currently living with yet another man. With his dying breath he pardoned a thief who would have zero opportunity for spiritual growth.
Yet Jesus himself was not a sinner. “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” he taught. The Pharisees themselves searched in vain for proof that he had broken the law of Moses. He had defied certain of their traditions, yes, but at his formal trial the only “crime” that stuck was the one he finally acknowledged, his claim to be Messiah.
I view with amazement Jesus’ uncompromising blend of graciousness toward sinners and hostility toward sin, because in much of church history I see virtually the opposite. We give lip service to “hate the sin while loving the sinner,” but how well do we practice this principle?
The Christian church has always found ways to soften Jesus’ strong words on morality. For three centuries Christians tended to take literally his command to “Resist not evil,” but eventually the church developed a doctrine of “just war” and even “holy war.” At various times small groups of Christians have followed Jesus’ words about disposing of wealth, but most of these have lived on the fringe of a wealthy church establishment. Nowadays many of the same Christians who hotly condemn homosexuality, which Jesus did not mention, disregard his straightforward commands against divorce. We keep redefining sin and changing the emphasis.
At the same time, the institutional church expends much energy positioning itself against the sinful world outside. (A term like “Moral Majority” only sounds appealing to someone already included in it.) I recently attended a play based on stories from a support group comprising people with AIDS. The theater director said he decided to stage the play after hearing a local minister state that he celebrated each time he read an obituary of a young single man, believing each death to be yet another sign of God’s disapproval. Increasingly, I fear, the church is viewed as an enemy of sinners.
All too often, sinners feel unloved by a church that, in turn, keeps altering its definition of sin—--exactly the opposite of Jesus’ pattern. Something has gone awry.
In one of his earlier books, Shame, Salman Rushdie said that the true battle of history is fought not between rich and poor, socialist and capitalist, or black and white, but between what he termed the epicure and the puritan. The pendulum of society swings back and forth between those who say, ‘Anything goes,” and those who say, “Oh, no you don’t!”: the Restoration versus Cromwell, the ACLU versus the religious right, modern secularists versus Islamic fundamentalists. As if to prove his point, soon afterward Iran set a million-dollar bounty on Rushdie’s head; he had crossed a line.
History gives ample precedent for legalism and also for decadence. But how does one hold to high standards of moral purity while at the same time showing grace to those who fail those standards? How to embrace the sinner without encouraging sin? Christian history offers few facsimiles of the pattern Jesus laid down.
While I was researching the life of Jesus, I also read several lengthy studies of the first three centuries of the faith. The early church began well, placing a high premium on moral purity. Baptismal candidates had to undergo long periods of instruction, and church discipline was rigorously enforced. Sporadic persecution by Roman emperors helped to purge the church of “lukewarm” Christians. Yet even pagan observers were attracted to the way Christians reached out to others by caring for the oppressed and devoting themselves to the sick and the poor.
A major change took place with the emperor Constantine, who first legalized Christianity and made it a state-subsidized religion. At the time his reign appeared to be the faith’s greatest triumph, for the emperor was now using state funds to build churches and sponsor theological conferences rather than to persecute Christians. Alas, the triumph did not come without cost: the two kingdoms got confused. The state began appointing bishops and other church offices, and soon a hierarchy grew up that neatly replicated the hierarchy of the empire itself. As for their part, Christian bishops began imposing morality on society at large, not just the church.
Ever since Constantine, the church has faced the temptation of becoming the “morals police” of society. The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, Calvin’s Geneva, Cromwell’s England, Winthrop’s New England, the Russian Orthodox Church—--each of these has attempted to legislate a form of Christian morality, and each has in its own way found it hard to communicate grace.
I realize, as I look at the life of Jesus, how far we have come from the divine balance he set out for us. Listening to the sermons and reading the writings of the contemporary church in the U.S., I sometimes detect more of Constantine than of Jesus. The man from Nazareth was a sinless friend of sinners, a pattern that should convict us on both counts.
2. The God-Man.
It would be easier, I sometimes think, if God had given us a set of ideas to mull over and kick around and decide whether to accept or reject. He did not. He gave us himself in the form of a person.
“Jesus saves,” announce the bumper stickers—--imagine how ridiculous it would sound if you substituted Socrates or Napoleon or Marx. The Buddha gave his disciples permission to forget him as long as they honored his teaching and followed his path. Plato said something similar of Socrates. Jesus, though, pointed to himself and said “I am the way.”
Looking at Jesus’ life primarily “from below,” I have not stressed such concepts as preexistence and divine essence and dual nature, which take up so much space in theology books. It required five centuries for the church to work out the details of Jesus’ divinity/humanity, and I have deliberately stayed close to the viewpoint presented by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, not the interpretive screen provided by the rest of the New Testament and formalized by the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon.
Even so, the Gospels themselves present the mystery of Jesus’ dual identity. How did this Galilean Jew with a family and hometown come to be worshiped as “Very God of Very God”? Simple: Read the Gospels, especially John. Jesus accepted Peter’s prostrate worship. To a lame man and an adulterous woman and many others he said commandingly, “I forgive your sins.” To Jerusalem he remarked, “I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers,” as if he was not a rabbi standing before them but the sovereign God of history. When challenged, Jesus answered bluntly, “I and the Father are one.” “Before Abraham was born, I am,” he said on another occasion, uttering the sacred Hebrew word for God in case they missed the point. Devout Jews did not miss the point; several times they picked up stones to punish him for blasphemy.
Jesus’ audacious claims about himself pose what maybe the central problem of all history, the dividing point between Christianity and other religions. Although Muslims and, increasingly, Jews respect Jesus as a great teacher and prophet, no Muslim can imagine Mohammed claiming to be Allah any more than a Jew can imagine Moses claiming to be Yahweh. Likewise, Hindus believe in many incarnations but not one Incarnation, while Buddhists have no categories in which to conceive of a sovereign God becoming a human being.
Could Jesus’ disciples have back-filled his teaching to include such brazen claims as part of their conspiracy to launch a new religion? Unlikely. The disciples, as we have seen, were inept conspirators, and in fact the Gospels portray them as resistant to the very idea of Jesus’ divinity. Every disciple, after all, belonged to the most fiercely monotheistic race on earth. As late as Jesus’ last night with them, after they had heard all the claims and seen all the miracles, one of them asked the Teacher, “Show us the Father.” Still they could not grasp it. Jesus was never clearer in his response: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
It is an incontestable fact of history that Jesus’ followers, the same ones who were scratching their heads over his words at the Last Supper, a few weeks later were proclaiming him as the “Holy and Righteous One,” the “Lord,” the “author of life.” By the time the Gospels were written they regarded him as the Word who was God, through whom all things were made. In a later letter John took pains to point out “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” The book of Revelation describes Jesus as a blazing figure whose face “was like the sun shining in all its brilliance,” but always the author connected this Cosmic Christ to the actual Galilean man the disciples had heard and seen and touched.
Why would Jesus’ disciples invent these notions? Followers of Mohammed or Buddha, willing to lay down their lives for their master, did not make such a jump in logic. Why would Jesus’ disciples, so slow to accept it themselves, require of us a belief so difficult to swallow? Why make it harder rather than easier to accept Jesus?
The alternative to a conspiracy theory, regarding Jesus himself as the source of the audacious claims, only magnifies the problem. As I read through the Gospels, I sometimes try to view them as an outsider might, in the same way I read the Qur’an or the Upanishads. When I take up that perspective I find myself repeatedly startled, even offended, by the arrogance of one who says, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” I can read only a few pages before stumbling across one of these statements that seem outlandishly to undercut all his wise teaching and good deeds. If Jesus is not God, then he is badly deluded.
C. S. Lewis made this point forcefully. “The discrepancy between the depth and sanity and (let me add) shrewdness of His moral teaching and the rampant megalomania which must lie behind His theological teaching unless He is indeed God, has never been satisfactorily got over,” he wrote in Miracles. Lewis phrased the argument more colorfully in a famous passage in Mere Christianity: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.”
I remember reading that quote from Mere Christianity in college and thinking it a gross exaggeration. I knew many people who respected Jesus as a great moral teacher but judged him neither the Son of God nor a lunatic. That was, in fact, my own view at the time. As I have studied the Gospels, though, I have come to agree with Lewis. Jesus never temporized or waffled about his identity. He was either the Son of God sent to save the world or an impostor deserving of crucifixion. The people of his day understood the binary choice precisely.
I now see that Jesus’ entire life stands or falls on his claim to be God. I cannot trust his promised forgiveness unless he has the authority to back up such an offer. I cannot trust his words about the other side (“I go to prepare a place for you .. .“) unless I believe what he said about having come from the Father and returning to the Father. Most important, unless he was in some way God, I must view the cross as an act of divine cruelty rather than sacrificial love.
Sidney Carter wrote this disturbing poem:
But God is up in heaven
And he doesn’t do a thing,
With a million angels watching,
And they never move a wing....
It’s God they ought to crucify
Instead of you and me,
I said to this Carpenter
A-hanging on the tree.
Theologically, the only answer to Carter’s accusation is the mysterious doctrine that, in Paul’s words, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” In an incomprehensible way, God personally experienced the cross. Otherwise, Calvary would go down in history as a form of cosmic child abuse, rather than a day we call Good Friday.
3. Portrait of God.
George Buttrick, former chaplain at Harvard, recalls that students would come into his office, plop down on a chair and declare, “I don’t believe in God.” Buttrick would give this disarming reply: “Sit down and tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that God either.” And then he would talk about Jesus, the corrective to all our assumptions about God.
Books of theology tend to define God by what he is not: God is immortal, invisible, infinite. But what is God like, positively? For the Christian, Jesus answers such all-important questions. The apostle Paul boldly called Jesus “the image of the invisible God.” Jesus was God’s exact replica: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.”
God is, in a word, Christlike. Jesus presents a God with skin on whom we can take or leave, love or ignore. In this visible, scaled-down model we can discern God’s features more clearly.
I must admit that Jesus has revised in flesh many of my harsh and unpalatable notions about God. Why am I a Christian? I sometimes ask myself; and to be perfectly honest the reasons reduce to two: (1) the lack of good alternatives, and (2) Jesus. Brilliant, untamed, tender, creative, slippery, irreducible, paradoxically humble—--Jesus stands up to scrutiny. He is who I want my God to be.
Martin Luther encouraged his students to flee the hidden God and run to Christ, and I now know why. If I use a magnifying glass to examine a fine painting, the object in the center of the glass stays crisp and clear, while around the edges the view grows increasingly distorted. For me, Jesus has become the focal point. When I speculate about such imponderables as the problem of pain or providence versus free will, everything becomes fuzzy. But if I look at Jesus himself; at how he treated actual people in pain, at his calls to free and diligent action, clarity is restored. I can worry myself into a state of spiritual ennui over questions like “What good does it do to pray if God already knows everything?” Jesus silences such questions: he prayed, so should we.
During my work on The Student Bible I spent several years immersed in the Old Testament. With a steady diet of “the Old Covenant,” I absorbed something like the attitude of an Orthodox Jew. The Old Testament underscores the vast gulf between God and humanity. God is supreme, omnipotent, transcendent, and any limited contact with him puts human beings at risk. The worship instructions in a book like Leviticus remind me of a manual on handling radioactive material. Bring only spotless lambs to the tabernacle. Do not touch the Ark. Always let smoke cover it; if you look at the ark, you’ll die. Never enter the Most Holy Place, except for the high priest on the one permitted day of the year. On that day, Yom Kippur, fasten a rope around his ankle, and a bell, so that if he makes a mistake and dies inside, his corpse can be dragged out.
Jesus’ disciples grew up in such an environment, never pronouncing God’s name, complying with the intricate code of cleanliness, heeding the requirements of Mosaic law. They took for granted, as did most other religions of the time, that worship must include sacrifice: something had to die. Their God had forbidden human sacrifice, and so on a festival day Jerusalem was filled with the bleats and cries of a quarter million animals destined for the temple altar. The noise and smell of sacrifice were sharp sensory reminders of the great gulf between God and themselves.
I worked in the Old Testament for so long that, when one day I skipped over to the book of Acts, the contrast jolted me. Now God’s followers, good Jews most of them, were meeting in private homes, singing hymns, and addressing God with the informal Abba. Where was the fear, and the solemn protocol required of anyone who dared approach mysterium tremendum? No one brought animals to sacrifice; death did not enter into worship except for the solemn moment when they broke bread and drank wine together, reflecting on the once-for-all sacrifice Jesus had made.
In these ways, Jesus introduced profound changes in how we view God. Mainly, he brought God near. To Jews who knew a distant, ineffable God, Jesus brought the message that God cares for the grass of the field, feeds the sparrows, numbers the hairs on a person’s head. To Jews who dared not pronounce the Name, Jesus brought the shocking intimacy of the Aramaic word Abba. It was a familiar term of family affection, onomatopoeic like “Dada,” the first word many children spoke. Before Jesus, no one would have thought of applying such a word to Yahweh, the Sovereign Lord of the universe. After him, it became a standard term of address even in Greek-speaking congregations; imitating Jesus, they borrowed the foreign word to express their own intimacy with the Father.
An event happened as Jesus hung on the cross that seemed to seal the new intimacy for the young church. Mark records that just as Jesus breathed his last, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” This massive curtain had served to wall off the Most Holy Place, where God’s presence dwelled. As the author of Hebrews would later note, the tearing of this curtain showed beyond doubt exactly what was accomplished by Jesus’ death. No more sacrifices would ever be required. No high priest needs tremble to enter the sacred room.
Those of us in modern times have lived under the new intimacy for so long that we take it for granted. We sing choruses to God and converse in casual prayers. To us, the notion of sacrifice seems primitive. Too easily we forget what it cost Jesus to win for us all—--ordinary people, not just priests—--immediate access to God’s presence. We know God as Abba, the loving Father, only because of Jesus.
4. The Lover.
Left on my own, I would come up with a very different notion of God. My God would be static, unchanging; I would not conceive of God “coming” and “going.” My God would control all things with power, stamping out opposition swiftly and decisively. As a Muslim boy told psychiatrist Robert Coles, “Allah would tell the world, everyone, ‘God is great, very great’... He would make every one believe in Him, and if someone refused, he’d die—--that’s what would happen if Allah came here.”
Because of Jesus, however, I must adjust my instinctive notions about God. (Perhaps that lay at the heart of his mission?) Jesus reveals a God who comes in search of us, a God who makes room for our freedom even when it costs the Son’s life, a God who is vulnerable. Above all, Jesus reveals a God who is love.
On our own, would any of us come up with the notion of a God who loves and yearns to be loved? Those raised in a Christian tradition may miss the shock of Jesus’ message, but in truth love has never been a normal way of describing what happens between human beings and their God. Not once does the Qur’an apply the word love to God. Aristotle stated bluntly, “It would be eccentric for anyone to claim that he loved Zeus”—--or that Zeus loved a human being, for that matter. In dazzling contrast, the Christian Bible affirms, “God is love,” and cites love as the main reason Jesus came to earth: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.”
As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “The bird on the branch, the lily in the meadow, the stag in the forest, the fish in the sea, and countless joy—fill people sing: God is love! But under all these sopranos, as if it were a sustained bass part, sounds the de profundis of the sacrificed: God is love.”
Jesus’ own stories about God’s love express a quality almost of desperation. In Luke 15 he tells of a woman who searches all night until she finds a valuable coin and of a shepherd who hunts in the darkness until he finds the one sheep who has wandered astray. Each parable concludes with a scene of rejoicing, a celestial party that erupts over the news of another sinner welcomed home. Finally, building to an emotional climax, Jesus tells the story of the lost son, a prodigal who spurns the love of his father and squanders his inheritance in a far country.
The priest Henri Nouwen sat in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, for many hours meditating on Rembrandt’s great painting Return of the Prodigal Son. While staring at the painting, Nouwen gained a new insight into the parable: the mystery that Jesus himself became something of a prodigal son for our sakes. “He left the house of his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through a cross to his Father’s home. All of this he did, not as a rebellious son, but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God . . . Jesus is the prodigal son of the prodigal Father who gave away everything the Father had entrusted to him so that I could become like him and return with him to his Father’s home.”
In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get his family back. God struck the decisive blow of reconciliation when he sent the Son on the long journey to planet earth. The Bible’s last scene, like the parable of the lost son, ends in jubilation, the family united once again.
Elsewhere, the Gospels comment on the extent to which God went to accomplish that rescue plan of love.
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. .
I remember a long night sitting in uncomfortable Naugahyde chairs in O’Hare Airport, waiting impatiently for a flight that was delayed for five hours. I happened to be next to a wise woman who was traveling to the same conference. The long delay and the late hour combined to create a melancholy mood, and in five hours we had time to share all the dysfunctions of childhood, our disappointments with the church, our questions of faith. I was writing the book Disappointment with God at the time, and I felt burdened by other people’s pains and sorrows, doubts and unanswered prayers.
My companion listened to me in silence for a very long time, and then out of nowhere she asked a question that has always stayed with me. “Philip, do you ever just let God love you?” she said. “It’s pretty important, I think.”
I realized with a start that she had brought to light a gaping hole in my spiritual life. For all my absorption in the Christian faith, I had missed the most important message of all. The story of Jesus is the story of a celebration, a story of love. It involves pain and disappointment, yes, for God as well as for us. But Jesus embodies the promise of a God who will go to any length to win us back. Not the least of Jesus’ accomplishments is that he made us somehow lovable to God.
The novelist and literary critic Reynolds Price put it this way: “He says in the clearest voice we have the sentence that mankind craves from stories—--The Maker of all things loves and wants me ... in no other book our culture owns can we see a clearer graph of that need, that tall enormous radiant arc—--fragile creatures made by God’s hand, hurled into space, then caught at last by a man in some ways like ourselves.”
5. Portrait of Humanity.
When a light is brought into a room, what was a window becomes also a mirror reflecting back the contents of that room. In Jesus not only do we have a window to God, we also have a mirror of ourselves, a reflection of what God had in mind when he created this “poor, bare, forked animal.” Human beings were, after all, created in the image of God; Jesus reveals what that image should look like.
“The Incarnation shows man the greatness of his misery by the greatness of the remedy which he required,” said Pascal. In a most unsettling way Jesus exposed our failures as human beings. We tend to excuse our many faults by saying, “That’s just human.” A man gets drunk, a woman has an affair, a child tortures an animal, a nation goes to war: that’s just human. Jesus put a stop to such talk. By enacting what we ought to be like, he showed who we were meant to be and how far we miss the mark.
“Behold the man!” Pilate cried. Behold the best example yet of humanity. Yet look at what it got him. Jesus unmasked for all time the jealousy, the lust for power, the violence that infects this planet like a virus. In a weird sort of way, that was the intent of the Incarnation. Jesus knew what he was getting into by coming to this planet; his death had been decreed from the beginning. He came to make an exchange of the most preposterous kind, as described in the Epistles:
. . .though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
Who, being in very nature God ... made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
Our riches for poverty, deity for servanthood, perfection for sin, his death for our life—--the exchange seems entirely one-sided. But elsewhere in the Epistles can be found intriguing hints that the Incarnation had meaning for God as well as for human beings. Indeed, the suffering endured on earth served as a kind of “learning experience” for God. Such words sound faintly heretical, but I am merely following Hebrews: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” Elsewhere, that book tells us that the author of our salvation was “made perfect” through suffering. Commentaries often avoid these phrases, for they are difficult to reconcile with traditional notions of an unchanging God. To me, they demonstrate certain “changes” that had to take place within the Godhead before we could be reconciled.
During that wrinkle in time known as the Incarnation, God experienced what it is like to be a human being. In thirty-three years on earth God’s Son learned about poverty and about family squabbles and social rejection and verbal abuse and betrayal. He learned, too, about pain. What it feels like to have an accuser leave the red imprint of his fingers on your face. What it feels like to have a whip studded with metal lashed across your back. What it feels like to have a crude iron spike pounded through muscle, tendon, and bone. On earth, God’s Son “learned” all that.
God’s character did not permit the option of simply declaring about this defective planet, “It doesn’t matter.” God’s Son had to encounter evil personally in a way that perfect deity had never before encountered evil. He had to forgive sin by taking on our sin. He had to defeat death by dying. He had to learn sympathy for human beings by becoming one. The author of Hebrews reports that Jesus became a “sympathetic” advocate for us. There is only one way to learn sympathy, as signified by the Greek roots of the word, syn pathos, “to feel or suffer with.” Because of the Incarnation, Hebrews implies, God hears our prayers in a new way, having lived here and having prayed as a weak and vulnerable human being.
In one of his last statements before dying, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them”—--all of them, the Roman soldiers, the religious leaders, his disciples who had fled in darkness, you, me, who have denied him in so many ways—--”forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Only by becoming a human being could the Son of God truly say with understanding, “They do not know what they are doing.” He had lived among us. Now, he understood.
6. The Wounded Healer.
Goethe asked, “There the cross stands, thickly wreathed in roses. Who put the roses on the cross?”
In my travels to foreign countries, I have noticed the striking differences of the symbols used by the great religions. In India, where the four largest religions coexist, I took a brisk walk through the large city of Bombay in the course of which I came upon worship centers of all four.
Hindu temples were everywhere, even portable temples on mobile carts such as sidewalk vendors use, and each had an elaboration of carved, brightly painted images depicting some of the thousands of gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. In stark contrast, a large Muslim mosque in the center of the city contained no images; a soaring spire or minaret pointed skyward, toward the one God, Allah, who could never be reduced to a graven image. Looking at Hindu and Muslim buildings, virtually side by side, I could better understand why each religion finds the other so incomprehensible.
I also visited a Buddhist center that afternoon. Compared to the crowded, noisy streets outside, it offered an atmosphere of serenity. Monks in saffron robes knelt in prayer in the dark, quiet room suffused with the smell of incense. A gilded statue of the Buddha dominated the room, his sly smile expressing the Buddhist belief that the key to contentment lies in developing inner strength that allows one to surmount any suffering in life.
And then I came across a Christian church, a Protestant church of a kind that discouraged images. It most closely resembled the Muslim mosque, with one exception: atop the spire above the church stood a large, ornate cross.
In a foreign country, uprooted from my own culture, I saw the cross with new eyes, and suddenly it struck me as bizarre. What possessed Christians to seize upon this execution device as a symbol for faith? Why not do everything within our power to squelch the memory of the scandalous injustice? We could stress the Resurrection, mentioning the cross only as an unfortunate footnote of history. Why make it the centerpiece of the faith? “Why, that picture might make some people lose their faith!” cried one of Dostoevsky’s characters after viewing Holbein’s painting of the crucified Christ.
There is, of course, the plain fact that Jesus commanded us to remember his death when we gather together in worship. He did not need to say, “This do in remembrance of me,” about Palm Sunday or Easter, but clearly he did not want us to forget what happened on Calvary. Christians have not forgotten. In John Updike’s words, the cross “profoundly offended the Greeks with their playful, beautiful, invulnerable pantheon and the Jews with their traditional expectations of a regal Messiah. Yet it answered, as it were, to the facts, to something deep within men. God crucified formed a bridge between our human perception of a cruelly imperfect and indifferent world and our human need for God, our human sense that God is present.”
I realized, as I stood on a Bombay street corner with pedestrians, bicyclists, and farm animals swarming around me, why the cross had come to mean so much to Christians, why it had come to mean so much to me. The cross enacts for us deep truths that would make no sense apart from it. The cross gives hope when there is no hope.
The apostle Paul heard from God, “My [God’s] power is made perfect in weakness,” and then concluded about himself, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” “That is why,” he added, “I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.” He was pointing to a mystery which goes several steps beyond the Buddhist way of coming to terms with suffering and hardship. Paul spoke not of resignation but of transformation. The very things that make us feel inadequate, the very things that plunder hope, these are what God uses to accomplish his work. For proof, look at the cross.
I wish someone with the talents of Milton or Dante would render the scene that must have transpired in hell on the day that Jesus died. No doubt an infernal celebration broke out. The snake of Genesis had struck at the heel of God; the dragon of Revelation had devoured the child at last. God’s Son, sent to earth on a rescue mission, had ended up dangling from a cross like some ragged scarecrow. Oh, what a diabolical victory!
Oh, what a short-lived victory. In the most ironic twist of all history, what Satan meant for evil, God meant for good. Jesus’ death on the cross bridged the gap between a perfect God and a fatally flawed humanity. On the day we call Good Friday, God defeated sin, routed death, triumphed over Satan, and got his family back. In that act of transformation, God took the worst deed of history and turned it into the greatest victory. No wonder the symbol never went away; no wonder Jesus commanded that we never forget.
Because of the cross, I have hope. It is through the Servant’s wounds that we are healed, said Isaiah—--not his miracles. If God can wrest such triumph out of the jaws of apparent defeat, can draw strength from a moment of ultimate weakness, what might God do with the apparent failures and hardships of my own life?
Nothing—--not even the murder of God’s own Son—--can end the relationship between God and human beings. In the alchemy of redemption, that most villainous crime becomes our healing strength.
The fatally wounded healer came back on Easter, the day that gives a sneak preview of how all history will look from the vantage point of eternity, when every scar, every hurt, every disappointment will be seen in a different light. Our faith begins where it might have seemed to end. Between the cross and the empty tomb hovers the promise of history: hope for the world, and hope for each one of us who lives in it.
The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann expresses in a single sentence the great span from Good Friday to Easter. It is, in fact, a summary of human history, past, present, and future: “God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him.”
The author and preacher Tony Campolo delivers a stirring sermon adapted from an elderly black pastor at his church in Philadelphia. “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s Comin’” is the title of the sermon, and once you know the title you know the whole sermon. In a cadence that increases in tempo and in volume, Campolo contrasts how the world looked on Friday—--when the forces of evil won over the forces of good, when every friend and disciple fled in fear, when the Son of God died on a cross—--with how it looked on Easter Sunday. The disciples who lived through both days, Friday and Sunday, never doubted God again. They had learned that when God seems most absent he may be closest of all, when God looks most powerless he may be most powerful, when God looks most dead he may be coming back to life. They had learned never to count God out.
Campolo skipped one day in his sermon, though. The other two days have earned names on the church calendar: Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Yet in a real sense we live on Saturday, the day with no name. ‘What the disciples experienced in small scale—--three days, in grief over one man who had died on a cross—--we now live through on cosmic scale. Human history grinds on, between the time of promise and fulfillment. Can we trust that God can make something holy and beautiful and good out of a world that includes Bosnia and Rwanda, and inner-city ghettoes and jammed prisons in the richest nation on earth? It’s Saturday on planet earth; will Sunday ever come?
That dark, Golgothan Friday can only be called Good because of what happened on Easter Sunday, a day which gives a tantalizing clue to the riddle of the universe. Easter opened up a crack in a universe winding down toward entropy and decay, sealing the promise that someday God will enlarge the miracle of Easter to cosmic scale.
It is a good thing to remember that in the cosmic drama, we live out our days on Saturday, the in-between day with no name. I know a woman whose grandmother lies buried under 150-year-old live oak trees in the cemetery of an Episcopal church in rural Louisiana. In accordance with the grandmother’s instructions, only one word is carved on the tombstone: “Waiting.” (257-275)
Link back to index.html