You have heard in the reading Luke 23:1-49 how Jesus was tried, flogged and crucified.
But there is another story about the end of Jesus’ life – that he did not die upon the cross but rather he appeared to die and was taken directly up into heaven – indeed one version of this story says that someone else was substituted for him on the cross – some say Judas Iscariot.
Have you heard this version of the story before?
If not, this may be, because it is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in the Quran.
So did Jesus actually and historically die on the cross?
Well we can be very confident that he did – we have the firmly established confirmation that he did: not only from the four gospels and the New Testament letters (which are of course Christian accounts) but also from non-Christian historians Josephus and Tacitus
writing in the late first and early second century.
Also Roman soldiers for whom discipline frequently involved execution tended not to make mistakes about whom they crucified or indeed whether they were actually dead
when they took them down from the Cross.
But why is this man’s death more significant, than the countless thousands who have been executed since he died, many of whom even in recent years have horrifically also been crucified?
What does Jesus’ death mean?
I am not sure how much thought I have given to this. For most of my life, I moved seemlessly from Christmas to Easter, without the intervening embarrassment of Good Friday.
For so many of us the church saying Jesus died for our sins means nothing…and if we give it any thought there is a sense of discomfort that one person (Jesus) should be executed apparently for another’s (our) misdemeanours. We find it difficult to accept that the God, we know, as a God of love seems to be vindictively punishing Jesus for the little we think we have done wrong in our lives.
And yet we know that the New Testament writers spend more time describing Jesus journey to the Cross than any other aspect of his ministry.
Paul in particular seeks to explain the significance of Jesus’ death in four ways:
Propitiation, Redemption, Justification and Reconciliation.
Now we don’t have to spend a lot of time on these difficult words.
Propitiation means assuaging God’s anger towards us
Redemption means having a ransom paid to release us from our slavery to evil and
Justification means being declared innocent of the charges of which we stand condemned (even though we are not innocent).
But really all three expressions are really metaphors for the fourth – for reconciliation; ways of speaking of our relationship with God being restored; ways of speaking into the culture of the time in which Paul wrote in a way that would help his readers comprehend; really grasp, what a terrible situation they were in and thus what fantastic news it was that they had been released from it and now had a restored relationship with God.
You see its like this. Our sin is an obstacle between us and God. Jesus on the Cross takes that obstacle and clears the way between us and God.
I think our biggest challenge today, is to accept that our relationship with God is totally dislocated; that there is an obstacle between us and God. And I think that situation is worse in the middle class West than really almost anywhere.
You see the worst possible situation for a human being is to imagine that he or she is not a sinner; that there is no ground for his or her relationship with God being dislocated; that he or she does not need saving; to say that that this is a CATASTROPHIC error, is no exaggeration.
One of our parishioners said to me this week, that when he reads all the terrible things that people are doing in the world in the newspaper, he can close the newspaper and he is tempted, because he recognised that this was not right, to fold his hands over his tummy and think ‘Well at least that is not me doing those terrible things’
It’s so easy to sit back and think that what we have done in our lives is not so bad what we have done is enough to earn our way to heaven that God must be happy with us so that we are not actually too fussed by the prospect of divine judgment, because we will be alright.
We have done it ‘our way’.
As our prosperity has increased, so has our sense of self importance, we become little gods, of our own domains. Our sense of controlling our own destiny is absolute. Our sense of not needing God.
Although we have not loved God with our whole heart mind and soul and our neighbour as ourselves. We have not loved him and them in every action and every thought in the whole of our lives; which is, by the way, the standard that God requires of us.
Although we are surrounded in society, and in our communities by the evidence of our dislocation with God. So many empty lives focused on ourselves, so much despair from broken relationships, so much addiction, anger, violence, hate and greed, all focused ultimately on self.
St Augustine described sin as ‘humanity turned in on itself’
Even though we see all of that evidence of dislocation with God around us, we reject the evidence of our sinfulness. We do our good works in our communities and imagine that we have done enough to earn our way to heaven, but fail to realise that (in the words of Isaiah 64): our good works are just ‘filthy rags’.
But in the slums of the world, amongst people who know that they are slaves, amongst people who know that they are prisoners, facing desperation every day, recognising what they have done, they grasp the good news of gospel with both hands, with joy, when it is explained to them.
Some friends of ours have just come back from South Africa where they visited a youth prison and were astonished by the depth of faith and worship and preaching of a group of Christian prisoners, some of them in prison for murder. ‘Why can’t we have preaching like that at home?’, they asked. Mind you they don’t live in Itchen Valley….
It is as much true today, as it has been at any time since the first century, and we really need to take this on board, even though it is incredibly tough to hear, Jesus says it to me, to US, His words in Matthew 21…. ‘the prostitutes and tax collectors are getting into the kingdom of heaven ahead of you’. The prostitutes and tax collectors, the murderers and the thieves – when they encounter the gospel, they recognise their sinfulness
It is only when we recognise and acknowledge our sinfulness; only when we recognise and acknowledge our need for God that we can confess our sinfulness repent of it and He can step in and help us by wiping it all away, as if it never happened. But I think so often we don’t recognise our sinfulness, we don’t recognise our need to repent.
I think we can only really understand the level of the seriousness of our situation by reflecting on the cure which God deems necessary, to restore us to a relationship with him.
When we consider earthly power : The most powerful nations, with all their nuclear weapons, the most horrific natural disasters, Tsunamis and volcanoes and meteorites…
This is as nothing; a mere flea bite in comparison with the power of the creator
who spoke the universe into existence, who flung stars into space.
The fact that that Creator, with all that power available to him, could think it necessary to come to earth in Jesus Christ in poverty and subject himself to the whims of a petty governor of a minor province of an earthly empire to be tortured and suffer death so that our relationship with God the Father might be restored.
That really gives us a sense of how far you and I are from a right relationship with God;
How serious our situation is and how far God is willing to go to restore that relationship with us; How far he is willing to go to give us an opportunity to choose to recover our relationship with him.
But what did Jesus do on the Cross and why did it make a difference?
He was our substitute. He took God’s anger at our sinfulness, that’s propitiation
He paid the ransom to release us from being slaves, that’s redemption
He paid the penalty for what we have done, that’s justification
People say ‘why cannot God just forgive’, why the song and dance about the crucifixion?
God cannot just forgive the sinfulness of all humanity, without changing who he is
The God who named himself to Moses by the burning bush: ‘I am who I am’
The God who is outside time, but who intervenes in our lives
The God who is Holy and unapproachable in his holiness, does not change, but wants us to be able to approach him, wants us to be with him for eternity
And so he, in Jesus Christ, carries the heat of the Father’s anger, instead of us, and so he, in Jesus Christ, pays the ransom to secure our freedom, instead of us, and so he, in Jesus Christ, pays the penalty, so that we are declared innocent.
Indeed the gospel is the TOTAL OPPOSITE to the Islamic story of the crucifixion in which man – Judas Iscariot or some other – takes the penalty, gets what Jesus deserves, where it is man, who is the substitute for God
in the New Testament – God, takes the penalty, God gets what man deserves,God is the substitute for man.
And everything with Jesus, is about the heart, and as I have said,
we are required to love God with all our hearts, minds and souls
But how can we love God? How can we love what seems to be an abstraction?
John Newton who was a slave trader in the 18th century, wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ as an outpouring of the love he felt for Jesus. The love he felt because of the forgiveness he had received because of what Jesus did on the Cross.
Once we realise, once we really understand, what he has done for us on the Cross
and we take advantage of what he has done by repenting; only then will we get this, only then will we love him; only then will we start to understand what loving God actually even means; only then will we start to love him, with our whole hearts, only then will we be reconciled to the Father.
And this is what Jesus did for us on the Cross.