~ Nailed by Love, Not Iron ~
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher rests upon the presumed burial site of Jesus. The day of His entombment marked the beginning of relentless and brutal persecution of His followers lasting three centuries. Archeological excavations, ordered by Emperor Constantine’s mother, that began after three hundred years could only approximate the burial site. Whether or not the church marks the exact spot where Jesus’ body once lay doesn't matter. It is the focal point on this physical earth of our awe and veneration of the Christ's burial and resurrection. And that's what really matters.
At the turn of the last century, in the years just before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Christian pilgrims would gather in total darkness of the church every Saturday before the Easter sunrise. Suddenly a forceful flame was ignited on the spot where Jesus once rested. From that fire thousands of candles and lamps were set flaming, joyfully held in the hands of the pilgrims, shattering the darkness like the light of the Redeemer exploding His radiance on His people. Torches from the sepulcher's flame were relayed by horseback and boat to Athens, Constantinople, Kiev and Moscow, spreading its light to hundreds of thousands of waiting, jubilant faithful throughout Christendom, symbolically celebrating their real spiritual connection and presence in the light of Christ.
We can prepare for such celebrations because we know and relive the story and experience. On that first Sabbath after Jesus’ death there were no celebrations of anticipated joy. His followers could only mourn and cry (Mark 16:10). In silent contemplation, we can feel just a little of the terrifying despair, pain, hopelessness, utter confusion and loss of heart lingering so thickly in the hiding room of Jesus’ beloved that even breathing must have been labored and speaking just too difficult to attempt.
The opening of Psalm 130 must have pierced their thoughts and saturated their tears: “From out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” How profound those depths! The psalm also exclaims, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, I put my hope in his word. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning.” Somehow though, their wait wasn't for anything, except, perhaps, a diminishing of pain over time. They expected the morning to bring nothing more than more mourning.
Jesus had taught His disciples much about this time and diligently tried to prepare them for it. Their understanding, however, would dawn on them in hindsight, through Jesus’ post-resurrection forty days, and finally, fully through the baptism or immersion of His Holy Spirit fifty days after His ascension.
Being flawed humans like the first disciples, we can experience with them the drama of struggle, pain, confusion, despair, hope, faith, love and joy that punctuates our pilgrimage into Christlikeness to which we are summoned. We have much to learn from them.
But try as I might, the knowing and feeling of Christlikeness, of Christ's suffering, yearning, joy and love, remain a profound yet beckoning mystery. It's like pondering the sun. I squint at its light and feel its warmth. I have an intellectual understanding of its size, mass, distance and how it works. But without the ability to do it and still live somehow, I just cannot begin to grasp what it would feel like to swim around in it and experience its power.
The mystery of Christ's love and redemptive sacrifice is even more incomprehensible. The emphasis of “Jesus as your personal Savior” carries the danger of fostering an egocentricity (or self-centeredness) that is anti-Gospel. Jesus taught the self must die and spoke of the saved as one bride, one body. We are not individual brides of Christ, we are parts of one body; alone, we are nothing and can do nothing without Him.
There also is the temptation to feel “special” and thank God we are not like some others we know, just as the Pharisee did in his temple prayer. Included is the sense that we may feel we are more pleasing to God than some others, even that God may love or favor us more than some people who curse Him and persecute His children. Through His suffering before and on the cross, Jesus provided absolutely no hint of loving some less than others, even asking the Father to forgive the brutal, inhumane Roman executioners.
If God loves someone with all His heart as He commanded us to love Him, His love is infinitely profound. Infinity possesses a sense of equality. God cannot love someone more infinitely than another. There is no “more” in infinity. When someone annoys me or triggers contempt for his or her behavior, it's helpful and humbling to remind myself how Christ loves that person to infinite depths, and loves me no more than him or her. Any annoyance or contempt I feel is an affront to Christ's love for others and to His redemptive work on that cross. I am reminded how far I am from being “conformed to Christ's image.”
The “personal Savior” emphasis can also blind us to the far reaches of Christ's redemption. “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:19-22, NIV).
When reading this passage we usually think of the wildlife and forests of the earth. (And, incidentally, I wonder how someone can be a maturing Christian and not be insanely awed and in love with the natural world.) Paul writes about “the whole creation.” The biblical basis for understanding “creation” is the Hebrew phrase bereshith, “in beginning.” The Bible opens with the declaration that “God created the heavens and the earth.” So I look up over the trees at the sun, moon, stars and at the center of our galaxy, thinking of the zillions more parts of the created heavens, physical and spiritual, and let Paul's words to the Roman church sink in. Somehow, all this vastness into the unimaginable reaches of creation has been hurt and damaged by sinfulness. Somehow, all of this is conscious in some way of the redemptive work and love of Christ, “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” for the fullness of that redemption. In his apocalyptic vision, John wrote, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1a, NIV).
The psalms call upon the animals, mountains and oceans to praise the Creator. We can cry out to the night sky, “Jesus is my personal Savior!” We should hear, by faith if not in our hearts, the moon and stars calling back, “Remember to include us in that, too!”
This is not poetic license. The creation did participate in Jesus’ crucifixion. For several hours the sun darkened and the earth quaked. As the God-with-us hung ragged and empty on that cross, something beyond the “shedding of blood” or our theological “substitutionary sacrifice” term was happening that even galaxies beyond our own felt. And for those of you that entertain the possibility that God created human-like beings on other planets (no comment on that from me), what was happening on that cross would affect them also, since “the whole creation has been groaning,” all the heavens and earth.
The psalmist sings, “This is all too great for me.” Indeed, I cannot truly fathom what is going on in a single “simple” hydrogen atom, let alone the cross of redemption. But we do know Jesus was not executed in the sense the other two who hung on each side of Him were. Jesus went to the garden knowing it was the time. We know He went out of the garden to meet the military force sent to arrest Him. Upon questioning, He told them He was the one they wanted and John (18:6) records how they all were knocked to the ground helplessly by an invisible power. It was obvious Jesus was volunteering for this work and was in control of everything, as prophesized. He was clear on this: “No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18a, NIV).
We also know how, just before His Spirit left His body on the cross, Jesus announced, “I thirst.” Odd thing for a person to say when he knew he was going to be dead in a few minutes. Was Jesus talking in physical terms? The Scriptures explain He “emptied Himself for us.” We know, however, He was not empty of love, for “He is love.” It seems His “I thirst” was not a “thirst for” but a “thirst to.” Jesus gave and gave until He was empty. Even then, His love thirsted to give even more. Only then could He finally announce to all creation to the farthest reaches of the heavens and earth, “It is finished.”
Before that point of completion, many mockingly challenged Him, “If you are really the Son of God, get down from that cross.” What a combination of pain and irony! Of course He could have left that cross with an instantly restored body. But that needed to wait until the third day. Jesus told them that several times during His ministry. Furthermore, He was there with His permission. It was a necessity. It was the Father's will.
Jesus is so thirsty for our love. His thirst call us to Him. But He also called to those of us who thirst for love and life to come drink living water from Him.
Love, not iron, nailed Jesus to that cross. Love, not trickery or deception, resurrected Him from His tomb. We cannot pretend to understand all this without egocentric arrogance. We can only respond in awe, wonder, humility, worship and love. To do so is redemption and joyful participation in ineffable mystery, forever.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © April 12, 2003
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