Matthew 27. 57-66
The cross is a sacrifice for freedom, not for sin!
Johnny Hart was a “re-committed” Fundamentalist Christian. At least, that’s how The Comics Journal described him. He taught Sunday School, every week. And he was the creator of the comic strip B.C. In the strip I saw on Facebook, this morning, two cavemen were looking out over the world discussing a theological quandary.
In the first cell, Peter says, “I hate the term Good Friday.” Curl asks, “Why?” In the next cell, Peter says, “My Lord was hanged on a tree that day.” Curl asks, “If you were going to be hanged on that day, and he volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?” In cell three, “Peter says, “Good.” Curl walks away, hands behind his back, “Have a nice day.”
Now, we could spend time discussing the etymology – the genealogy – of the word Good. And the English major in me would love to do that! But this isn’t the time … or the place … Tonight, it’s more important to understand the cross! And so much of it boils down to Curl’s statement, to Curl’s assumption. “If you were going to be hanged on that day, and he volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?” According to popular religion in America, that’s the $64,000 question! You see, that, for most American churches, is what Good Friday is all about. That’s why Jesus came. To volunteer to take our place!
It’s called Substitutionary Atonement and it’s one of the fundamentals of Fundamentalism. One of the core Values upon which the American “conservative” church is built. Substitutionary atonement. And it’s all about sin. Doing what god told us not to. Not doing what god told us to. And it goes all the way back to Eden. It’s because of sin that – according to popular opinion – Paradise was lost. Every sin, every trespass, every indiscretion (both major and minor), comes with a price, a consequence. And that price, that consequence, must be paid. Paid to the last cent.
According to the substitutionary theory of atonement, god hates sin. God detests it, loathes it. And contrary to popular opinion, god hates the sinner, as well. That’s why all the hoopla about the ten commandments on the courthouse lawn and the courthouse wall. Why all the fuss, all the commotion, about fire and brimstone! Wrath and retribution! Hell and damnation! And faith? Well, it’s not so much about reconciliation and redemption, as it is judgment and condemnation! God hates sin! Anger! Fury! Rage! Sin must be prevented! Stopped! But most of all, it must be punished! And that’s where – according to the substitutionary theory of atonement – Jesus comes in …
If god just has to punish someone … Since god just has to … Jesus comes and takes our place! Just like Curl says in the cartoon! “If you were going to be hanged on that day, and he volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?” Jesus comes to the Father and says, “Let it be me!” There’s no compassion! At least, not from god! There’s no mercy! No love! Just a desire, a drive, to punish! Sin must never be condoned! It must never be tolerated, at any cost! And so, god does to Jesus what god would be doing to us! God does to Jesus what god should be doing to us! And according to popular religion here in America, it’s called love. It’s called love. “For God so loved the world, that god took it out on his one and only son.” The gospel of the Lord. Praise be to Christ. But what is fair … what is righteous … what is just … about making an innocent person pay for the wrongs of the guilty. As if suffering in and of itself balances the scales. And to call it grace? To call it charity? To call it love? “If you were going to be hanged on that day, and he volunteered to take your place, how would you feel?”
But there are other ways, other theories, of understanding this moment. There is at least one way … a still more excellent way … A way not rooted in sin, or in punishment, but in love! in a real, honest-to-god kind of love!
Two days ago, at sunset, the Jewish holiday of Passover began. And it will continue until sunset, April 16th. It’s a kind of Fourth-of-July, Independence Day, for the Jews. You remember the story. It was three thousand years ago, Jacob and his family flee to Egypt to escape a drought back home. Over the course of generations, the refugees become slaves. Egypt sets taskmasters over them. Oppress them with hard labor. The Hebrews groan. They cry out. And sin … sin has nothing to do with it! Not sin! Not punishment! God hears the groans, the cries. God takes notice. God comes and sets the people free! God leads them out of Egypt, through the sea, into the wilderness. And eventually, God brings the people home. And sin has nothing to do with it! Not sin! Not punishment! The Passover lamb? The one that was slain? Whose blood was put on the door posts and lintels? That lamb wasn’t a sacrifice for sin. It was a sacrifice for freedom! For deliverance! For redemption!
That’s what THIS night is about! This sacrifice! This “Lamb!” According to this “theory,” Jesus isn’t taking our place, enduring god’s irritation, god’s displeasure. He’s suffering and being crucifies and dying and being buried and descending to the dead not to pay for our sins, but to free us from them! Our sins aren’t, merely, our debts! They’re our taskmasters! They’re our pharaohs! Sin isn’t simply something we do. It’s something that binds us! Something that holds us captive! And Christ – the cross – sets us free! This night isn’t about wrath. This night isn’t about retribution. There’s no fire, no brimstone. This night is about love! A love that comes to us! A love that suffers and breaks and bleeds and dies for us! So that we might be free!
God loves us! God loves us like we love our children! God loves us like we were loved by our parents! Not merely in spite of, but, even more so, because of! God loves us because we’re god’s! We’re god’s! We share god’s name! God’s blood runs through our veins! God’s DNA is buried deep within every fiber of our being! It’s not just a legal thing. Substituting one person for another. Balancing the books. Dotting i’s. Crossing t’s. It’s personal, for god. All this is personal. Deeply. Profoundly. Extremely. Personal. God loves us and this cross shows it! God loves us and this cross proves it! This cross and the one held in its arms! It shows what god will do. It shows how far god will go. Willingly. Wantingly. And sin, sin and punishment, have nothing to do with it!
It’s the love that makes god holy! It’s the forgiveness that makes god righteous! It’s the lack of lines that makes god perfect! Loving both good and bad! Loving both sinner and saint! Loving grain and loving chaff! Loving wheat and loving weeds! Loving sheep and loving goats! Hate the term Good Friday, my friends? I ask you … I ask you all … what better word could there be for this day? What better word could we use for this night?