Thursday, April 2, 2015

What Type of God Kills His Son?

Tonight begins some of the most difficult, and meaningful, days for many Christians. As night falls, many of us are headed to church for the marking of Maundy Thursday. Depending on whether you are reading the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke or the more etheral narrative of John will depend on what will get the emphasis. The synoptics note that on this evening, the night before Christ's crucifixion, Jesus instituted the Eucharist at what has been called, "The Last Supper." However, many of us attending the Episcopal Church this evening will hear John's telling of the story in which Christ washed the feet of the disciples in a symbolic act of love and servitude. John's gospel is also where Christ gives an extended discourse to his friends about the most important commandment that they are now to follow: love one another as I have loved you. Pay attention to this speech and it's clear that, for Jesus, there absolutely is nothing more important to distinguish who is a true follower of "the way" than to show love to one another, and that means being willing to put aside the ego, the sense of "this is mine and that's yours" and instead view all things and all people with love. It was, and still is, a radical way of being.

Also in John's gospel is the dialogue with Nicodemus in which Jesus says the frequently quoted, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to the end that all should not perish but have everlasting life." This is another one of those phrases that my non-Christian friends look at and think it's craziness.

What type of loving God would allow his own Son to be killed so violently? That question can evoke in some an indignant response, especially if the questioner seems only interested in using the inquiry as a means to say, "Gotcha!" and dismiss the answer without listening to what the Christian might reply. A form of this question came up in a recent sermon at my church, and there was the immediate retort that God doesn't make bad things happen, even to Jesus. There was also the reaction that since Jesus is God, He knew what was going to happen to Him and that this was all part of the plan of redemption. I suppose that this would justify the words of the Collect for Wednesday in Holy Week:

Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be
whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept
joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the
glory that shall be revealed.

As my friend, the Very Rev. Mike Kinman of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis points out, Jesus wasn't all that "joyful" in accepting his being nailed to a cross. If we remember, again, from the story of this night as recounted in Mark, Jesus is in the garden begging to let "this cup pass" by him. He is troubled, and I would go so far as to say that he was terrified. Did he know precisely what was about to happen? I'm not sure that he did. I believe that Jesus knew he was going to be betrayed. I think Jesus knew the authorities were going to come arrest him. I don't think he knew he would be mocked and scorned or that Pilate would hang a sign over his head announcing that Jesus was the King of the Jews, possibly the closest thing we have in the Gospels to revealing the true brutality of the Roman governor. Pilate had the sign placed there as a warning to anyone else who might be thinking they should be an uppity counterculturalist that their end would not be pretty.

So, why would a loving God allow all this? Maybe instead of looking at the question that way, maybe we should consider again that moment in the garden, when a dread-filled Jesus is turning to God and begging, "Please, don't make me have to face this music." Mark tells this story that almost in the next breath, Jesus says that this is not his own will, but the will of God that would be done. As I think about that, I consider the many times that I, like Jesus, have cast my eyes and my prayers to God, begging that I not have to follow a call on my life that is making me beyond uncomfortable. It isn't in the next breath that I am filled with calmness, but once I have opened myself to being vulnerable to God's will, I find that I am often given some strange calm which permits me to go forward and do the thing that I believe I am being called to do. I don't know what the ultimate outcome will be. What I do know is that I am not abandoned because I can sense the presence of God in the inner calm of my being. This becomes the center of my action, reaction, and response.

Jesus, I believe, achieved that same sense of calm which then allowed him to undergo what was nothing short of a horrible and brutal death. As he was hanging there on the cross, we are told that he called out the words of Psalm 22: "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?" In this moment of agony, he is again returning to God and essentially again looking for whether this is God's will. Was it God's will that he be nailed to a tree? No, that was the action of human beings. But was God prepared to see Jesus through to the other side of this brutality? Yes! If God was not a God of love, then Jesus' death would have been the end of him. He would have been destroyed. Fear and loathing of love would have the final say. But that isn't the way this story ends. Jesus' willingness, *his* willingness to drop his ego and follow where God was taking him, resulted in one of the greatest stories of victory ever told. Not only did he rise from dead; His name endures to this day. His ethos is still taught. His message continues to comfort those who weep, and gives gladness to those who desire to see Love become the common language. Christianity may not be the most popular religion in the world, but it still lives on in the hearts and minds and souls of many.

Christ will die, but Christ will also rise. And, with God's help and our willingess to let go and be vulnerable to God, so will we.

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