Did you celebrate Easter last week? I gathered with my church community via live-stream to celebrate Jesus’ “victory over death” (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 285) and how his resurrection “took away the sting of death” (Book of Common Prayer, pg. 504).
And today, 2,000 more people are going to die from the coronavirus alone, and even more than that from all the other things that people die from each and every day.
That many families and more will grieve. They will feel the loss of a person whose life was not so long ago inextricably linked to their own. Today, thousands of people will lose their jobs while thousands of leaders of hundreds of organizations will weigh the costs of keeping employees or letting them go into the uncertainty of unemployment. Doctors will decide who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t. Thousands of people will make thousands of impossible decisions, and those who have systematically had their freedom to make decisions stripped away over years of both blatant and veiled oppression will look on as their communities are ravaged disproportionately yet again.
Last week I heard that Jesus’ death and resurrection took away the sting of death, and my response is, “for whom?” Ask anyone who has watched a family member die or received an unexpected call that someone they loved is gone. Does it sting any less today than it did a week ago? Was it any more painful the day before Jesus was crucified than three days after? My guess is no. So what are we to make of Easter, the celebration of resurrection and new life, while death and its sting continue to encroach on all sides?
It has been one week since we experienced together Jesus’ final meal with his friends, his agonized prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, his arrest and trial, his suffering and violent death at the hands of the state, and ultimately his mysterious resurrection in the pre-dawn darkness three days later. Over the history of the Christian tradition, theologians have tried to make sense of why Jesus died and what it meant for humanity and for God, or even for death itself. Some have said Jesus died in order to take away Satan’s power. Some say it was the necessary sacrifice to God in order to repay the debt caused by human sin. Some say it was in order to defeat death itself.
Let us think back, though, to Maundy Thursday, that night when Jesus, in great fear and trembling about the tensions swirling around him, cried out in agony to ask God to take away the suffering that he saw laying ahead of him in the coming hours and days. He asked first that that “cup” be taken from him, and then finally, in a moment of surrender, came to a new request; “not my will but thine.”
For many this episode in the garden has been understood as Jesus asking God to change God’s will that he die on the cross, with the assumption being that God required Jesus to die on the cross either as a sacrifice for our sins, or in order to be able to forgive humanity. But, if this was all part of the plan, all part of the will of God, and Jesus knew it, why would he, the very next day, cry out those words from Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”? How could Jesus believe, after years of telling his disciples that this would happen to him, if this was all part of the plan, that God had forsaken him? Jesus’ own words on the cross seem to indicate something more going on than his obedience to some divine plan which includes this suffering.
Similarly, three days later, when he makes his first resurrection appearance to his disciples in John’s gospel, Jesus’ command to them hints at some deeper ongoing truth of the cross than a one-time cosmic paying of a debt to qualify for God’s forgiveness. Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This post-suffering, post-cross, post-resurrection commissioning to forgive would make no sense if there had just been a once-and-for-all act of forgiveness on the cross. It seems that what Jesus started is not finished. The cross was not a final requirement for forgiveness, but the spurring forward of a forgiveness momentum that the disciples are next responsible for, and we now with our place in the lineage of that commissioning are responsible for today.
We have been told that Jesus “died for our sins,” that he was sent by God in order to be killed, a necessary sacrifice for our sins to be forgiven. We have been told that all these events were part of God’s original plan for creation, and that Jesus was simply obeying the command, even to the point of suffering and death. Which would mean that his cry of anguish in the garden on that night before he was arrested was in vain from the moment it left his lips. Do we think that it was God’s will that Jesus died on the cross? Do we think that it was God’s will that he suffered so violently? Do we think that it was God’s will that a member of an oppressed group be unjustly murdered by the very empire that was oppressing him so that God could finally forgive us? What, in that upper room commissioning from Jesus, seems to be the catalyst for forgiveness, both from one another and from God? It doesn’t seem to be the cross. It doesn’t seem to be a blood sacrifice. Instead, it seems to be the disciples. It seems to be us!
What if Jesus’ suffering and death was never “part of the plan?” What if there is no “plan” at all? What if we, like Jesus, are just living this all out one moment at a time? If this is the case, then our actions are not predetermined at all but are actually up to us. We are responsible. Our actions are ours, and they have not only an effect on the people around us, but on all of creation, and even on God. Every terrible, painful, challenging moment of suffering in our lives and the life of the world is then not a pre-processed moment in the plan of God, but instead a novel opportunity for us to respond to suffering, and an equally novel opportunity for God to respond as well. Might this free us to, rather than acquiesce to what is, respond with the desire bubbling up in us for what could be? Maybe even what should be?
Imagine for a moment that the premise for all these theological conclusions is wrong. What if Jesus did not come to die, neither as a sacrifice to buy forgiveness nor as a way to end death?Maybe, instead, Jesus came to change the world and usher in the kingdom of heaven, and somewhere along the way, as his ministry progressed and the tension with those holding authority mounted, it became clear to him that that mission would almost certainly end in his death and assassination.
Martin Luther King, Jr, on the night before he was assassinated, shared with a large crowd in Memphis, Tennessee that he “might not make it to the promised land with them.” Was his assassination God’s will? Part of the plan? By no means! Like Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus, the prophet, the Son of Man, the anointed one, the healer and savior of the world, simply walked the steps of his journey, fulfilling his mission, as they unfolded before him.
When we see Jesus on that night in Gethsemane, when the writing was on the wall, and he knew he had been betrayed by one of his closest friends, and he knew the violent powers of the world were closing in, we hear him say, in a genuine prayer, “please God, let this not be the end.” And finally, after hours of prayer in the garden, we hear his resignation to the truth of what lies before him, “I wish it hadn’t come to this. But what is most important is not my salvation, but the salvation of the world. Not my will, but thine”
Like the prophets and liberators that had come before and would come after, Jesus lived every day into a mission and ministry that was bigger than himself and encompassed the whole world, which he referred to as “the Kingdom of God.”
And then on the cross, when all his liberating, saving, healing attempts had landed him finally in these last violent moments on the cross, by the hands of the oppressors, he lifted his voice in anguish and asked, genuinely, “My God, my God, how could the mission you called me into possibly end like this? Why have you forsaken me? Can this, of all things, possibly be used for liberation, for healing, for salvation?” And this question would hang there, in the air, lingering in the ears of all who could hear him for three days, until the answer would finally come early on the third day, at the gaping mouth of an empty tomb, in the astonishment of hushed hopes and whispered possibilities; “Why, of course it can.”
And so here we are, still picking up the pieces and trying to put them back together. If Jesus’ death was not some cosmic chess move in God’s plan for defeating death, nor a payment of debt, then what are we to make of death that still stings, and even more, what are we to make of Jesus’ death and what it reveals to us in this moment of global suffering and uncertainty?
Stay tuned for the next two posts as we explore these questions in the coming weeks.
This is part one of a three-part series. Make sure to check back for parts two and three!