By his wounds we are healed. –Isaiah 53:5
Then lay your rose on the fire, The fire give up to the sun, The sun give over to splendor In the arms of the high holy one.
For the holy one dreams of a letter, Dreams of a letter’s death, Oh bless thee continuous stutter, Of the word being made into flesh. –Leonard Cohen
I came to faith in Jesus Christ when I was 22 years old through an experience of God’s love. It was several years before I became genuinely aware of my own “sinfulness.” My guess is that this experience is common. It was certainly true of many new believers during the Christian renewal movement of the 1970s. We came to faith because we experienced a loving God’s astounding presence and power, not because we understood that we were sinners.
Perhaps this was our relative youth. I’ve certainly known believers for whom their initial faith in Christ brought about an immediate freedom from terrible feelings of guilt and shame. But I think it’s often a mistake for us to share our faith by emphasizing sin. The language of sin is simply incomprehensible to many people and can needlessly push people away. And it’s artificial for someone who has no real feeling for their sinfulness to be asked to intellectually assent to that belief. New believers come to faith in Jesus in many ways, and tutored by the Holy Spirit can subsequently grow into a genuine understanding of the need for Jesus’ atoning sacrifice.
As one matures, however, that understanding is lifesaving. Not the rote intellectual doctrine, but the deep assurance that even our most terrible mistakes and misdeeds have been forgiven. At the heart of the Good News about Jesus Christ is the message of healing and restoration: that Jesus died to free us from all that oppresses and blemishes our humanity.
Our paradoxical humanity
According to the Scriptures humankind is created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). We are made to experience God’s love in its fullness and to express that love back to God, to others and to all creation in joy. We have been entrusted with the responsibility in love to shape the world with creativity and justice. We each carry in ourselves the imprint of what is Good, True and Beautiful. We are even better than we think we are – wonderfully so!
Yet something is clearly wrong. That’s easiest to see when we look at the world as a whole. In spite of the existence of tremendous good, we can’t help but recognize that something is terribly amiss. We too often turn away from our truest identity and destiny. G.K. Chesterton, the British essayist and author of the Father Brownstories, once quipped that humanity’s innate corruption was “the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable.” Wars, injustice, oppression, racism, and horrific crimes throughout history, and our own individual misdeeds, show the truth that we are not what we should be — sometimes far from it.
If it wasn’t clear already, the Romans’ unjust execution of Jesus – the official murder of one who expressed the very character and work of God — fully revealed truth that this world badly needs to be repaired. The dominant structures of society regularly trade in violence and injustice. As Jesus had taught, the “rulers of this world” demand to be considered “benefactors” of humankind (Luke 22:24-26). But they mercilessly crush any threat to their power, as the Romans did Jesus.
Yet we all individually fail to be the healers we could be. As Nobel laurate and Russian Gulag prisoner Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
At the root of humanity’s wrongdoing is idolatry. Idols aren’t just stone images. Idolatry is the allegiance as the most important thing in life to self-interest, wealth, power, status, security, pleasure, nation, party, ideology, “tribe.” Idols are also distorted views of God that are cruel and life-destroying. When we give our highest allegiance to any of these falsehoods, we become its prisoner. We become enslaved by what we worship.Inhuman actions (“sins”) follow. We are unable to fully live out our purpose as human beings reflecting God’s self-giving love.
The Good News is that God loves us so much that he has acted in Jesus to free us from idolatry, absolve our wrongdoing, and heal our brokenness. God is restoring our best identity and purpose. No matter how bad our behavior or disastrous our mistakes, our captivity can be ended, our guilt erased. We can experience union with God and his immeasurable love. We can start growing in the likeness of Jesus’ loving faithfulness to God and self-giving love for others. We can become God’s co-workers repairing a damaged world.
But why Jesus’ death?
The question arising for many is, if God wants to forgive and repair our lives, why wouldn’t he just do that? Why Jesus’ death on a cross? The answer is that genuine love is costly. Forgiveness and healing costs God.
We ourselves sometimes voluntarily take on ourselves the costs of wrongs done to others by those we love, in order to save our loved ones from consequences too heavy for them to bear. This sin-bearing love requires a kind of death – a voluntary acceptance of pain, a self-sacrifice for others.
In this way we understand that forgiveness and healing are costly, and we can relate to the idea that in Jesus’ death God takes the cost and consequences of our wrongdoing on himself in love. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” God loves us, and acts to make things right, but at a cost to himself.
I sometimes wonder if Christians who dismiss Jesus’ death for our sins simply haven’t sinned badly enough to understand its meaning (or perhaps it’s their awareness that’s lacking). But for many of us who are acutely aware of the harm we’ve done to others and of our wrongs against love and justice, Jesus’ death as the basis of our forgiveness and healing isn’t a bizarre and incomprehensible doctrine. We feel deeply that Jesus’ death is enough – as nothing else could be.
Jesus “bore our sickness and carried our sorrows”
In his crucifixion Jesus made himself one with each of us in our most desperate circumstances and conditions. The cross was an excruciatingly painful form of execution for those who were considered worthless — criminals, rebels, outcasts. In Jesus God himself was a victim of injustice and violence. He has identified with and united himself to the most marginalized and rejected among us, and to all of us in our deepest pain and sorrow. This is the measure of his immeasurable love. Jesus’ crucifixion tells us that no one – not us, and not “the least of us” — is beyond the pale of God’s love, or ours. Who could not love such a God in return?
Isaiah 53 talks about a “Servant of God” — an innocent victim, mistakenly thought to be punished by God, who suffers the full repercussions of the people’s idolatry and wrongdoing as a substitute for others. Those consequences, as prophesied by Moses, were destruction by the malevolent material and spiritual powers dominating the world. According to the New Testament this passage reached its fullest meaning in the crucifixion of Jesus by Rome and the spiritual powers animating it.
Some Christians mistakenly think that on the cross God was punishing Jesus for our sinfulness, supposedly to propitiate God’s wrath or satisfy God’s justice. But Scripture nowhere says that, and this view gives a badly distorted picture of what God is like. Jesus’ death was needed for us, not for God. Scripture tells us that human idolatry and wrongdoing have intrinsic consequences – they carry with them their own punishment — that can’t be simply wished away.
The Good News is that in a profound expression of love, God himself in Jesus absorbed the full assault of the destructive forces we’ve unleashed by our human idolatry, so that in union with him we could find peace and healing. On the cross God “condemned sin” (Rom. 8:3) – not Jesus and not us.
I’m reminded of a story, perhaps apocryphal, about evangelist Billy Graham asking Indian diplomat J. Krishna Menon what it would take for him to become a Christian. Looking Graham in the eye, Menon replied, “I’d have to see one.” The reality is that many people today don’t see Christians exhibiting Christ-like self-giving love. Quite the opposite. (To be sure, we may think of Mother Theresa as a very public answer to Menon’s challenge!).
Why is this? Many of us who believe in Jesus are building on our faith in worthless ways, with “wood, hay and straw,” fit only of burning (1 Cor. 3:11-15). Worst of all some who profess Christ as Lord worship a false image of God and live lives that contradict Jesus’ way. They seek power and privilege, spreading hate rather than love. Of these, Jesus will say, “I never knew you!” (Matt. 7:21-23).
Another story is about an evangelist knocking on the door of an old Mennonite and asking him, “Are you a Christian?” The old man replied, “Well, you’ll have to ask my neighbors about that.” Where faith is genuine, we allow God’s grace to transform our lives in love. We are learning to live for God and others, acknowledging our failures as we grow. We are no longer our own, but Christ’s.
Authentic followers of Jesus are on a life-long journey in which our ego-centric self is in a process of being put to death and we are being made new by God’s Spirit in the likeness of Christ’s self-giving love. “I have died with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
“The Kingdom of God is Among You!”
The cross, along with Jesus’ resurrection, was God’s decisive act inaugurating the repair of creation – the dawn of a world of love and justice. We carry forward this repair by growing, albeit in fits and starts, in self-giving love, replicating Jesus’ love on the cross.
We live in a world of broken relationships. In particular, people who are impoverished; members of racial, ethnic and cultural minority communities; women who are abused; exploited workers; and others, are expected to submerge their identities and submit themselves to those who have power over them. This is not the kind of sacrifice or self-denial to which Jesus calls his followers.
Just as Jesus stood up to the powerful and self-righteous, and as he drove the moneychangers from the “Court of the Gentiles” in the Temple to make a place for outsiders, so today he empowers by the Holy Spirit those who are oppressed to seek liberation.
Even at times and place where it may not be possible to seek such changes in society at large, vital church communities can be places where marginalized members of the human community can express their true selves and be honored in their dignity and their giftedness. This occurred in the churches of the early Christians, who had no power to advocate directly on governmental policy. Such churches model God’s Reign to the world.
Jesus calls those of us living with advantages to examine ourselves and, like Jesus, “not cling to [our privileged status] or use it for our own advantage” (Philippians 2:5-8), but instead to humble ourselves in service to others. Jesus’ death on the cross doesn’t mean accepting the world as it is. It means being spiritually empowered to help bring new creation – as we await “the new heavens and new earth in which justice is at home.” As a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the world is a place of hope, not a lost cause.
We cannot fully understand how Jesus’ death frees us and set in motion the world’s transformation. But we can catch a glimpse of the incredible wonder of the selfless love of the Creator for his creation, and the lengths that God has gone to unite us to himself and to repair our world. This is the Gospel — the Good News of God’s immeasurable, unconditional, sin-bearing, violence-ending, liberating, world-repairing, creation-healing, unstoppable love. That love is all we really know, and all we need to know.