Who is Easter for? The Woeful Exchange

Cross of ChristDespite the cultural forces that persistently sideline the celebration Easter in favour of Christmas, for most Christians Easter has retained its significance in their lives and faith. However, in my admittedly limited experience and therefore tentative opinion, many churches work against the church’s historical, traditional and deeply biblical emphasis on Easter weekend. How is this done? In South Africa some hangovers of Christianity remain, in even the most secular societies. Because of this, with some certainty, churches can predict unusually large numbers in attendance over Easter weekend. Those making their annual pilgrimage are – rightly or wrongly – deemed non-Christians. So Easter is considered an “evangelistic highpoint” or “mission focal point” in the year—and is treated as such. This ungainly pragmatism masked as evangelistic mindedness is almost as trite as it is tragic. It is, as the title of this post suggests, ‘the woeful exchange’. 

Some readers will be familiar with the similar phrase, which I am playing on, ‘the wonderful exchange.’ Though that exact phrase is not found in the New Testament the truth of it is plain throughout. One of my favourite occurrences is in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” You could spend an entire sermon unpacking the glorious truth wrapped up in that short verse, along with its context: Christ’s crucifixion is for our sins, in that he bears the punishment for rebellion against God even though he was only ever righteous. The purpose of his death was that we might become righteous, as we die to the self-destructive patterns of sin and live a life patterned after Christ’s. The effect of Christ’s death is healing, being made well or whole, restored to the image God originally created us in. Other verses are clearer that in the exchange we are credited with Christ’s righteousness (Romans 1-3). But this post is unfortunately about the woeful rather than the wonderful exchange.

It is Good Friday, the morning service at your church – kudos if you have any evening services over Easter – and the auditorium is packed, the stewards are frantically waving to each other in search of empty spaces or more chairs. The atmosphere is electric as the band does a final check on stage before your most energetic service (or worship) leader steps forward to start the show—I mean- church gathering. The vibe steadily grows as people speak over each other and compete against the carefully selected ‘outsider friendly’ playlist pouring from the speakers. It is almost time. This is it: ‘go big or go home’. Once the almost unrecognisably bare liturgy is out of the way we come to the Bible reading. But it is when the preacher stands up that the woeful exchange is at its ugliest. Instead of holding out the gloriously rich treasures millennia of Christians have celebrated at this point in the year the gathered church is told that Jesus died for our sins. In fact, the gathered church, probably making up the majority of those present, are forgotten entirely in order to present a lazily rehashed sermon about the cross. The woeful exchange leaves believers with almost nothing to reflect on because they were not even considered.

At this point some readers will be hastily offering a retort: ‘The same gospel saves non-Christians and transforms believers.’ True, if reductionistic. For example, if all that was needed to nourish Christian faith and mature believers was the cross why did God provide us with a gospel tapestry of 66 books? Why did he present his character and love in a range of genres, through a host of unique human voices and emphases? I mean, if it is the same gospel – i.e. the cross – why do we ever wander outside of the four passion narratives found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? If we affirm that all of Scripture finds its centre in the person and work of Christ then why do we retreat to a simple passion text and sermon on Good Friday? I have become convinced that the answer to my last question – the only one that was not rhetorical – is that many churches are guilty of the woeful exchange. Perhaps if we spent more energy in presenting the splendid riches of Christ’s work at Easter rather than offering the same old tired and predictable gospel presentations those visitors would be gripped by God’s truth. Do not ignore the fact that those in your church desperately need Easter themselves. Hold out the wonders of the gospel. Do not pragmatically trade it in this Easter.

This post fits roughly with a short series on the work of Christ. The first challenged the overly narrow view of Christ’s death as a legal event, highlighting for Christians the love of God. The second explored other aspects of the atonement, reminding Christians that God’s work is much richer than Christ in our place (the wonderful exchange), for faith is deeply transformative. Both posts bemoaned presentations of Christ’s work as merely external; it is rather the unparalleled evidence of God’s love that is effective in making us those who love like him.

What Easter Teaches Us About Prayer

Timothy Keller muses, in Prayer, “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances. It is certain that they lived in the midst of many dangers and hardships. They faced persecution, death from disease, oppression by powerful forces, and separation from loved ones. Their existence was far less secure than ours is today. Yet in these prayers you see not one petition for a better emperor, for protection from marauding armies, or even for bread for the next meal. Paul does not pray for the goods we usually would have near the top of our lists of requests.”

Giotto - Kiss of JudasThe point, as Keller goes on to develop, is not that we should never appeal to our heavenly Father for change or respite during hardship and suffering, but that we must take care that our prayers are neither limited to nor led by these requests. As Paul writes in a verse most readers will be familiar with, “In every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). Paul then provides the antidote for anxiety, “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Prayer is entrusting ourselves in faith to God, not necessarily receiving our petitions, but knowing his peace. But what does that have to do with Easter?

In Gethsemane, Jesus models prayer that is submissive to the Father’s will despite remaining unanswered. As Mark Jones puts it in Knowing Christ, “He knew his hour had come; but this ‘hour’ would be his most difficult hour, and he would need strength from God to undergo the massive trial that was yet before him.” As I wrote in another post, Jesus is neither valiant nor stoical as he prepares himself for the task at hand. He pleads with the Father. He begs, “Let this cup pass from me.” His soul was deeply pained (Mark 14:34) and he experienced agony as he prayed (Luke 22:44). The disciples had not seen their master looking more pitiable and pained. Jesus looks weak. However, his faith is strong as he prays, “Not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’ faith is not challenged by unanswered prayer; it is evident through it.

Giotto - CrucifixionIn his short prayer, offered up three times, Jesus boldly entreats his Father yet is ultimately resigned to the Father’s will. And it is striking that as his enemies approach to arrest him, Jesus’ resignation turns to resolve, to fortified trust his God and Father. When the band of soldiers call for Jesus, he confidently answers, “I am he” (John 18:5). That shift takes place so quickly that we rarely appreciate what has happened. Prayer has emboldened Jesus’ faith despite being denied what he asked for. Prayer was Jesus’ means of entrusting himself to the Father’s will. Despite the God forsakenness that Jesus anticipates beyond his arrest and trial, having pleaded with the Father to take the cup from him, Jesus’ prayers ground his trust in the Father’s purposes.

Reflecting on Jesus’ prayers should cause us to reflect on and even change our own, both how we pray and what we pray for. The content of our prayers should not be entirely shaped by our circumstances. Our faithfulness in prayer should not depend on God answering us. As Jesus asked in Luke 18, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Many today would measure faith by the outcomes of prayer, when in Jesus’ life we see that faith is wholehearted trust in God despite its results.

Good Friday: The Cry of Dereliction

The day had turned to dark, long before the sun set, as Jesus Christ hung on the cross. His enduring faith in his Father in heaven had brought him to this end; obedience to his Father had culminated in the cross. But as he struggled to take his last few breathes, while his arms grew too tired to relieve the pressure on his chest, and the darkness enveloped and gripped him tightly he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). What are we to make of these final excruciating words? Michael Wilkins calls them “some of the most profoundly mysterious words in the entire Bible.” Derek Tidball writes that they uncover the awfulness of Calvary, which we prefer to forget. Alister McGrath goes further, arguing that Jesus’ cry shatters the moulds of our thinking and reveals the fundamental uncontrollability of God. The cross presents us with an unnerving and mysterious question: in what sense does God the Father forsake his Son at the cross?

“If it is possible, let his cup pass from me”

Icon Jesus prayingBefore attempting an answer, let us start with Jesus’ familiar, though often domesticated, prayer in Gethsemane; when the man of sorrows, despised and rejected, well acquianted with grief who had experienced the many hurts and hardships of human life balked at Calvary (Matthew 26:39). The prospect of the cross brought Jesus into tormented fear and dread. In his short life he had known suffering but his agonised prayer suggests a greater significance and uniqueness of what loomed ahead. Before he was stretched out on that cruel tree, Jesus could say, “I am not alone, the Father is with me” (John 16:32). And throughout his fraught life Jesus would have enjoyed assuring fellowship with the Father. But Jesus’ pleas and prayers in Gethsemane force us to ponder what Jesus was to endure. We must conclude that it was not merely physical suffering that Jesus feared, but the death that he was to die.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

In addition to the above, to answer our question we must consider Jesus’ use of Psalm 22. Some have called it total despair or claimed that Jesus is utterly disorientated, even confused about why he was dying. But when we consider the content of the Psalm, we can say that the cry is not entirely desparing because the psalmist anticipated divine intervention. Furthermore, Jesus was aware that he was dying for sins. In fact, something that is often glanced over, the Psalm expresses faith in Yahweh to vindicate. Even though Jesus’ suffering threw him into the darkest of places, he trusted his Father to the bitter end. Significantly, Psalm 22 moves from lament and despair, to prayer, and climaxes in Yahweh being entroned over the nations. Jesus’ faith was unremitting as he cried out to his Father, whom he knew would establish his kingdom, even when it seemed the gates of hell were prevailing against it. Jesus knew his death would not be the end of his story. So onlookers at his crucifixion, familiar with the Psalter, would have heard an affirmation of Jesus’ faith, clinging with certain hope to the will of his Father.

Was the Son truly forsaken or the Father fully absent?

Crucifixion IconAs Jesus hung dying, being publically mocked and humiliated, it appears that God is absent from Golgotha. As Wayne Grudem comments, Jesus’ sweet fellowship with the Father, his source of unfailing strength and the element of greatest joy in a life full of sorrow, appears dashed. But as Alister McGrath writes, instead of understanding Jesus’ God-forsakeness as total privation we should see God’s presence in the most remarkably paradoxical way. Martin Luther called this the hiddeness of God at Calvary. As the sky is literally tarred, figurative darkness descends on the Son and God’s familiar protective presence and love was withdrawn from Jesus. In biblical symbolism, darkness is separation from God who is light. Jesus’ experience extends beyond deep spiritual darkness to enduring God’s wrath. Darkness is stressed by each Gospel writer, emphasising that God had not only turned away from the Son and their close communion but towards his Son in judging sin. Alone Jesus hangs, being made sin and fully identified with sinful humanity. And it this – the penalty of sin, not the Roman punishment – that weighed most heavily on the suffering servant. Calvin wrote that it was Jesus’ soul that bore the worst torment, the terror of God’s condemnation. As John Stott said, Jesus was plunged into that engulfing darkness for us; our sins blotted out the sunshine of the Father’s face.

Conclusion

When we ask in what sense the Father turned his face away from the Son on the cross we must agree with the authors of Pierced for Our Transgressions that the language of ‘abandonment’ or ‘forsakenness’ is a metaphorical way of referring to divine judgment. But it is not that simple, as we have seen, for the God who abandons his Son is fully present at the cross resolving the problem of sin. This great paradox prevents us from giving a glib answer to our question. Luther viewed the cross as a great mystery. Calvary should both humble and move us to adoration; while we cannot fully explain the enigma of Jesus’ cross or even grasp the anguished horror, suffering and abandonment that Jesus went through, let us not forget that he endured it on our behalf, so that we do not have to. If we understand none of the cross and Christ’s experience, praise God that it will never be ours.

Holy Week: What Lies Ahead

‘The hardest action to take is the course previously unexplored.’ That is a line from William Horwood’s Duncton Quest, an epic tale about heroic perseverance amidst tragedy and hopeless circumstances. There is much truth in Horwood’s words: the unknown is daunting. But was that the reason for the trepidation with which Jesus went about his task? Was Jesus unaware of what would be demanded of him? There is a wonderful theological word in Christology: nescience, meaning that – as a man – Jesus knew only as much as God the Father revealed to him. Should we conclude then that Jesus was in the dark regarding his messianic task? In this short post I want to explore that question, a fitting reflection for Holy Week.

Jesus ChristIf you have not formally studied theology then are forgiven for being unfamiliar with Albert Schweitzer’s contributions, especially in the search for the historic Jesus. To my shame I have not read Schweitzer and must resign myself to the perils of drawing on secondary sources to represent him, though the point I will be touching on is widely reproduced. One such place is in the writing of N. T. Wright, who borrows Schweitzer’s analogy in Simply Jesus (p183): Jesus is said to desperately throw himself onto the wheel of history after his actions had failed to bring about the kingdom of God. According to Schweitzer, Jesus expected the kingdom to arrive in the immediate future during his itinerant ministry but he was painfully mistaken. David Seccombe summarises Schweitzer’s position like this: after nothing monumental had taken place during his ministry, Jesus was forced to rethink his position and die in order to bring about the denouement. Seccombe continues, “For two years Jesus he had believed that God would intervene to reveal him as the glorious Son of Man and establish his kingdom. Now he realizes…God does not break into human history” (The King of God’s Kingdom, p558). Jesus, previously left in the lurch, at the last, recklessly abandons his life in vain hope; and the cry of dereliction, that tortured utterance of despair, is Jesus’ moment of inglorious truth.

Most of you would read this post will disagree with Schweitzer on a few points, the most glaring being that Jesus was in fact God breaking into human history, as the Son of God incarnate. Other points of departure might be over the timing of God’s kingdom, which in Jesus’ parables is both inaugurated and incremental; the remarkable signs Jesus performed in his ministry indicative of restoration and redemption; and whether the cry of dereliction reveals Jesus’ abandoning his mission or fulfilling it. But I want to challenge Schweitzer’s view of Jesus’ knowledge, which is where we started.

Holy WeekSchweitzer would have us believe that Jesus was largely unaware of God’s purposes, seen in him having unfulfilled expectations during his ministry and most clearly demonstrated in the cross being no more than a last throw of the dice. This ‘recalculation theory’, as it has been called, does not square with what we read in the wider Gospel accounts. For starters, if my post on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 4 is right, which I think it is, Jesus was tempted from the outset of his ministry to avoid the messianic rejection, suffering and death. But if that sounds too assumptive, C. H. Dodd (in The Founder of Christianity, p62-64) highlights Jesus’ uniquely personal and intimate relationship with the Father and how that energised him for what in glimpses appears as an unbearable mission; “Certainly we cannot miss a pervading sense of dedication to a mission, which at times was a terrible burden…It is not surprising that there should have been moments when the sense of isolation in an unresponsive society became almost intolerable”. Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45), early on in his ministry we are told that he set his face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:53), and at his baptism he fails to renounce John the Baptist’s proclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Jesus knew full well what his task entailed; indeed it is his self-sacrifice that gives fullest meaning and significance to the incarnation. We do not follow a man who did what he thought best, acting boldly despite inadequate information. We worship the Son who did his Father’s will even though the knowledge terrified him.

Jesus’ course was, returning to Horwood’s phrase, previously unexplored and incredibly hard. But we must retain that this was only because Jesus had never known anything other than happy and unbroken fellowship with his Father. The depth of Jesus’ work is not seen in Schweitzer’s vision of a desperate Jesus throwing all caution to the wind, unsure whether it would bring about any real change; it is seen in the deliberate Jesus, sure that that through his death the world would be forever changed.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: From Death to Life

C.S. Lewis NarniaThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is undoubtedly the most widely read and publically praised of the Narnia series. That makes writing this post harder than the previous one. For many people are familiar with this canonical piece from C.S. Lewis. The axis on which the book turns is both impossible to miss yet ironically, or conveniently, frequently overlooked: the death and resurrection of Aslan. So in this post I am going to concentrate on that central event, while hopefully bringing its surroundings into focus.

Narnia, where it is always winter but never Christmas, barely resembles the young, vibrant and vivid creation we encounter in The Magician’s Nephew. Lucy’s first meeting with Mr Tumnus the faun is awash with reminiscing of summer, when the forests were alive. Narnia is awaiting restoration, an irruption of new life. Signs of this transformation are manifold as the narrative moves towards its climax at the Stone Table. From the appearance of Father Christmas to the early marks of spring, Aslan comes nearer and Narnia anticipates renewal. Even Edmund, travelling in the terrifying presence of the White Witch can sense the change: “All round them though out of sight, there were streams, chattering, murmuring, bubbling, splashing, and even (in the distance) roaring. And his heart gave a great leap (though he hardly knew why) when he realized that the frost was over” (p164). The servile dwarf knows what they are seeing, “This is no thaw, this is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed” (p166).

C.S. Lewis NarniaBut we are getting ahead of ourselves. Another crucial aspect of Lewis’ tale is a theme he reproduced in much of his writing: the impotence of evil and the omnipotence of good. Leaving miserable Edmund with the self-proclaimed Queen of Narnia for a while, we come to the other Pevensies, and another loveable Narnian, Mr Beaver. With the news that Aslan is on the move, the children find in themselves an overpoweringly strange feeling evoked by his name, “like the first signs of spring, like good news” (p146). When they ask about Aslan, they are told that he is the King who will make all things right and rescue those in the Witch’s captivity. Then Mr Beaver recalls an old Narnian rhyme:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bears bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again

Aslan Stone TableWhen asked if the Queen might turn Aslan into stone, as she does all her enemies, Mr Beaver laughs for no power can oppose the King of the wood, son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Though far from safe, Aslan is fully good. Another old rhyme is the reason the Queen is so interested in Edmund, along with all sons and daughters of Adam who might happen on Narnia: “When two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on those four thrones [at Cair Paravel], then it will be the end not only of the White Witch’s reign but of her life” (p148). Thus the danger is not in any way that the Queen might resist Aslan’s unchallengeable sovereignty; she must keep the Pevensies from him, that is her only chance of impeding the promised spring, new life wrought by Aslan himself.

This brings us to Aslan. When the Pevensies meet Aslan, for the first time, we read, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children ever thought so, they were cured of it now” (p168). Later, we are told that Lucy could not figure out if playing with Aslan was more like playing with a thunderstorm or a kitten. Aslan is at the same time both frighteningly indomitable and invitingly friendly. The children cannot endure his “great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes” without trembling and averting theirs (p169). But Lucy boldly pleads for Aslan to save Edmund, his reply is heavy with anticipation of what is to come, “All shall be done. But it may be harder than you think.” And for the first time, Lucy notices sadness on Aslan’s face. As we skip ahead we can contrast this with the “look of fierce joy” on the face of the Witch, following her discussion of the Deep Magic with Aslan (p176). After issuing battle plans to Peter, Aslan sets off for the Stone Table, with Susan and Lucy following quietly behind, “He looked somehow different from the Aslan they knew. His tail and his head hung low and he walked slowly as if he were very, very tired” (p179). The glorious King heads up the hill towards the Stone Table, to his own death by cruel hands, greatly saddened and alone.

Importantly, the tension here is not between good and evil, for we have already noted that evil has no claim over good in Narnia; what we are invited to witness is how Aslan surrenders his life, better yet, lays it down, to save the one who betrayed him. This heart-breaking scene is not a defeat but the grandest demonstration of both his love and sovereign power. Ironically the Witch asks: “Now, who has won? Fool…you have given me Narnia for ever, you have lost your own life and you have not saved his. In that knowledge, despair and die” (p181).

C.S. Lewis NarniaSusan and Lucy approach the dead lion feeling unbearable sadness and utter hopelessness. Aslan lies dead. But the story does not end with death, it heaves into the great newness of life promised by spring. For “though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know…if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned…She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (p185). Evil does not triumph over good; Aslan’s absolute love puts all wrongs right and brings all sorrows to an end.

 

Why We Don’t Do Sacrifices

alreadyI’ve finally reached the point in my Bible Education curriculum (part of my ministry is teaching Bible Ed. at a Christian school) where I get to draw all the threads of the Old Testament up and tie them to Jesus. One of the most powerful threads is obviously that of the sacrificial system. The sacrificial system not only explains the necessity of Jesus’ death but makes sense of it. Interestingly the sacrificial system is one of those opaque areas of the Old Testament that lots of Christians get confused by.

A while ago I posted on the point of the sacrificial system saying that it had three functions: to remind, to teach and to promise. It reminded God’s people that death came as a result of sin, it taught them that payment for sin was costly and it promised them Jesus. The annoying thing about being a teacher is that half the time kids come up with questions you never imagined. The question that was posed to me as I tied Old Testament sacrifices to Jesus’ death was “why don’t we still do sacrifices?”

Fortunately I could quickly explain that those three points change with the death of Christ. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, death has come as a result of sin. After Jesus’ death, we know how costly it is to pay for sin. After Jesus’ death, we no longer await the fulfillment of the promise. It turned out that this was an adequate answer for the class but one question hung on my mind (which was actually raised in class but fell away for the child as I explained the above).

Surely the reminder is still relevant? Surely the instruction is still important? Even if those aspects of the sacrificial system have been fulfilled, isn’t it still important to remember and teach those things?

Lords-Supper2Enter Mark’s gospel. I was reading it again this morning tracing an entirely different thread when all of a sudden the Mark 14:22-25 leaped out at my face, narrowly hitting actual cognitive function. The Lord’s supper!

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.

Now it seems almost too obvious to be posting but it’s still exciting enough to me. Jesus’ death completes the sacrificial system and communion commemorates Jesus’ death. Communion reminds and teaches what happened on history’s first day of Easter! We don’t do sacrifices any more because the system is fulfilled. The instructional element of sacrifices continues though in the form of the Lord’s supper.