What Jesus wants us to know about his death on the cross is nothing else than what has to happen when you are human. The cross is about us because it is what it means to be us. Lest we think that the cross is some sort of ultimate moment of divine atonement, Jesus sets us straight. What becomes human must die. What becomes incarnate, must realize its end. If in the two weeks ahead we think that there is some sort of miracle in Jesus being crucified, well, that’s not what Jesus says here. Do we want some sort of miraculous exchange to occur because Jesus died? Do we need reconciliation so bad that we think it can be that easy? Do we hope that Jesus on the cross will fix everything for us, between us and God, between us and Jesus, between us and every relationship that needs fixing? Think again.
Jesus reminds us here, before Holy Week, before even his parting words to the disciples, that his death is not the end at all. It is no accident that Jesus helps us make sense of the resurrection before he helps us make sense of the cross. The whole order of things is mixed up, turned on its head. Life is death and death is life. The cross is not the answer. It’s the question. It’s not the singularly grand moment that some want to make it into but a moment in the entire Jesus event, his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, that is God so desperately wanting to be in relationship with us. Whatever fixation we have had on the cross, well, here Jesus blows it out of the proverbial water.
Because the cross is not the end. Not a very popular statement two weeks before Good Friday, is it? We need to milk the suffering and death of Jesus for all it’s worth, right? Because somehow that would justify our own suffering and pain and explain every relationship that ended in despair and disappointment. But Jesus won’t let us go there. And this is no fast track to the resurrection either. Not at all. Just the opposite. The cross is not the end; it’s the beginning and was from the beginning. It is about recognizing, accepting, seeing, that God knows a relationship with God is complicated. And that Jesus is no easy answer.
Because, it actually matters that God became human, not just that God died. It matters that God wanted to know what it means to live like us and not just die like us. The cross and Good Friday are in the end, just the necessary complication to make life with God now and forever possible.
And to be honest the whole thing is enough to give you a headache. We’ve been thrashing around the meaning of Jesus death since it happened – and if we want to be honest about all this – who can say that we’re any closer to really getting it now any more than the disciples and John were then.
One of my favourite writers, Robert Capon, put it this as simple and straightforward as I’ve ever read it. In his mind there are three competing models of how we understand Jesus dying on the Cross for us or if you want the fancy theological language there are three models that the church has traditionally used to understand Salvation.
One is the High School year book model; salvation works by our remembering what God did for us in Jesus and then trying to pattern our lives accordingly. All the protestant churches you’ve ever been into with the Remember Me carved into the communion table stand as a testament to this model. Just remember Jesus, put yourself back into contact with him, recall all the good things Jesus did and be inspired by them to do likewise. There are a few problems with this model.
Remembering someone from the past is not the same as being in actual contact with them – anyone who has ever lost anyone the cared about could tell you that. And secondly, this model implies that we’re in charge of our salvation, because it’s up to us to do the remembering. So much for Grace and God’s free gift that the Bible talks about; and there is no cure for sin here – no matter how much I remember good people – It doesn’t make me one.
The other grand model of salvation Capon calls the “Ticket Window” model. This one holds that we’re saved because Jesus is the official seller of tickets to the “Heavenly Stadium” and that he sells them only to those with the moral or spiritual purchase price. Salvation becomes a commercial transaction like buying a new car. And in one sense it works, because God in Christ is the one letting us into the “Heavenly Stadium”. But like the Year Book model this one also fails because it makes some earning power on our part a precondition to getting in.
The third and last model Capon gives us is the “Heavenly Stadium open and free for all.” This model holds that everyone has a free ticket to get in because of the mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And not only have we been given a free ticket we’re already in the Stadium and been given free beer, banners and hot dogs. And now I know you want to say yes but. But before you do this is the only model that fits with the Bible on all counts. It fits with the parables about Grace that Jesus told: The King’s Son’s Wedding and the Labourers in the Vineyard: in both of these acceptance is based on grace and not on any kind of work we could ever do. The only thing required here is faith in the fact that we’re already in. This is also the only model that fits with the Gospel reading we heard this morning. “ I when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” That means everybody into the Stadium; except maybe those who refuse to go. And this is the only model that emphasizes, as the parables do, the fact that salvation is a party thrown for everybody, and not just a reward for a select few who measure up.
And since there is no way we can buy our way into the stadium our only response, the only appropriate thing we can do about this fantastic arrangement is just be quiet, believe it, and enjoy it – because we’ve already got it. All we can do is live a life worthy of the stadium seat we find ourselves in at the banquet we call life. We’re in – always have been – always will be.
And if you want to sit in the stadium and not believe you’re in – if you want to believe we’re all somehow condemned. Well you’re free to do that to. But all that’s going to do is ruin your enjoyment of the game, or banquet that we call life.
In the end it comes down to trusting that Jesus said what he said; “ I will draw all people to myself.” Or not. It’s crazy how difficult we people make our relationship with God. God in Christ stands before us open armed – ready and willing to forgive, and bless with such wonderful Grace. And we keep wanting to put up road blocks so that we can I guess mistakenly believe that we somehow we’ve earned it. The crucifixion of Jesus should if nothing else remind us that we haven’t, couldn’t and are not capable of earning our way into heaven. It’s either a free and wonderful gift – or we’re all in trouble. I for one am counting on it being a wonderful gift.