The End of Despair 5-17-15

What does the cross symbolize for you? Tony Jones, the author of a new book called Did God Kill Jesus, claims, in line with our recent sermon series that the cross, rightly understood symbolizes the love of God. He shows why the cross gets misunderstood on the way to showing how to reclaim it. This passage from Ephesians illustrates another important early Christian understanding of the life of Jesus as the one who brings God’s presence on earth as it is in heaven. Listen.

Ephesians 1:15-23 From the time I first heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and your love for all the holy ones, I have never stopped thanking God for you and remembering you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Savior Jesus Christ, the God of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation, to bring you to a rich knowledge of the Creator. I pray that God will enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see the hope this call holds for you—the promised glories that God’s holy ones will inherit, and the infinitely great power that is exercised for us who believe .  You can tell this from the strength of God’s power at work in Jesus, the power used to raise Christ from the dead and to seat Christ in heaven at God’s right hand, far above every sovereignty, authority, power of dominion, and above any other name that can be named—not only in this age, but also in the age to come. As God has put all things under Christ’s feet and made Christ, as the ruler of everything, the head of the church, and the church is Christ’s body; it’s the fullness of the One who fills all of creation.

May 17, 2015

The End of Despair

This last Sunday of Eastertide we celebrate Jesus ascension to heaven after appearing to the disciples numerous times in resurrected form. What we really celebrate in that ascension is our belief that God has reclaimed our world, reclaimed the earth to potentially remake it into what God in Christ really wants it to be – heaven on earth.

We seem to be a long way off from realizing that vision of heaven on earth – as we witness train accidents this week and reports every week about more conflict between police and the community, how can we Christians make any kind of claim like that? How do we keep from falling into despair when God’s vision does not seem to be realized among us?

We read the Bible each week looking for help from divinely inspired insight and wisdom from the earliest Christian communities. We tend to trust that early wisdom more than recent interpretation and preaching and today will be one example of that.


One of the questions that came to me in our confirmation class this year was, “Why do crosses in the Catholic church have Jesus on them and in our church the cross is empty?” If you grew up Protestant, you probably have an answer for that question that implies that it’s because Protestants know better than Catholics – that we Protestants want to emphasize that Jesus is resurrected and Catholics – well, we don’t know why they leave him up there.

When I went to El Salvador in Central America, I felt a new appreciation and understanding for Catholics who appreciate the Christ on the cross who identifies with their suffering and oppression. My sense is that people who are in touch with the reality of war and injustice often relate more to the Jesus of the cross, to the suffering servant who knows about the suffering of this world.

This real presence of God in Christ in our Good Friday world is one of the unique aspects of Christianity and an important meaning of the cross. It’s one of the reasons we as Christians claim with confidence that we know where God was on Tuesday evening – God was in the crumpled up Amtrak cars with the people as they worked to free themselves and reassure each other that help was on the way.

Before we get too far away from the mistaken notion that Protestants are better than Catholics, let me remind you of one way that Protestant pastors over the years have misunderstood the meaning of the cross. Tony Jones in his book Did God Kill Jesus? (which question he answers, by the way with a simple “No, God didn’t kill Jesus”), tells the story of a pastor who yelled at a gathering of youth. He told them that God hates them for their sin and Jesus had to die on the cross because of their sins and their faults.

The pastor went into great detail about how excruciating Jesus’ death on the cross was – like The Passion by Mel Gibson, he went into detail about the whippings and blood and suffocation on the cross. And then he said, “And when Jesus died, he saw your face! He whispered your name. Because you are a sinner, and he had to die in your place! Jesus stood between you and God’s anger at your sin, and died as a sacrifice for you.”

This understanding of Jesus dying for our sins and being an atonement sacrifice for our sinfulness is quite prevalent in some Christian churches and denominations. It is so popular that you might have trouble articulating a different meaning of the cross. Why did Jesus die on the cross? If Jesus was God personified, then Jesus chose to die, to sacrifice himself, right?

Tony Jones argues against this kind of theology in this book Did God Kill Jesus? He says that this “payment model” is the majority opinion, the most popular explanation of the meaning of the cross. He shows why he thinks it is problematic and offers 5-8 other interpretations of the meaning of the cross.

One of those interpretations led me to another book titled Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker. These are two authors I like a lot, so I immediately ordered the book. I haven’t gotten very far, but they open the book with an amazing claim.

They say that they went to the Middle East and Turkey looking for early depictions of Jesus on the cross – and the earliest depiction they could find was from the year 965 CE – the 10th century! Earlier than that the dominant artistic expression of Christian theology they found was of Jesus’ triumph, Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus’ restoration of the paradise of the Garden of Eden, of a world made whole again.

Brock and Parker argue that Christianity veered off course when we began in the Middle Ages to emphasize the violence of the cross over the triumph of the ascension. They say that this wrong turn has led to Christians mistakenly “calling torment redemptive, sanctioning war as holy, deeming invasion to be liberation, and invoking self-annihilation as love.” (p. 399)

Tony Jones argues in his book that the dominant understanding of the Jesus being sacrificed on the cross for our sins does not finally pass the smell test for him because it does not adequately portray or understand God as a God of love. As I have been saying all this year, in the two sermon series I have given so far, (1) God does not leave us alone because (2) God is a God of love. God is love. Whatever our understanding of the cross is, it must be infused with and completely compatible with that basic understanding of who God is.

Brock and Parker go even farther to contend that God’s love is for all of God’s creation. They would appreciate our reading from Ephesians this morning that portrays Jesus’ ascended and in charge of creation. They claim that Christians for at least 9 centuries believed this to be the basic message of our faith: that God through Jesus has reclaimed creation and re-established that creation as the place where paradise is possible, where joy is possible, where God’s love is pre-dominant, where we live as part of Christ’s body with Jesus as our head, the “fullness of the One who fills all Creation” who is our all in all.

“Shout to the Lord, all the earth, let us sing power and majesty, praise to the King. Mountains bow down  and the seas will roar at the sound of your name. I sing for joy at the work of your hands, forever I’ll love you, forever I’ll stand. Nothing compares to the promise I have in you.”

Responsive Hymn:  2074 Shout to the Lord