who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:5-11
When I was in middle school, we had this crazy youth minister at church named Josh. Josh had an endless supply of energy and very little shame. He was always playing pranks on us during mission trips, finding new uses for Silly String, and once ripped out his nipple ring trying to do the worm on the youth room floor. Ouch.
But Josh was more than a goofball. He challenged us in our spiritual journey as well. Sometimes that meant using dramatic images to re-frame our assumptions about our faith.
One in particular has stuck with me. Our topic at youth group that night was the cross, so Josh took a picture of Pope John Paul II and put it up on the projector screen. The Pope was wearing a big cross around his neck and reaching out his arms in blessing over a crowd.
Josh asked us how we thought the cross went from being an instrument of torture to a popular piece of jewelry. To help us remember the original purpose of the cross, he switched slides to a photoshopped picture of the Pope. In place of the cross around his neck was an electric chair.
It had the intended effect. We were all surprised, caught off guard, and maybe a little offended. But that image has stayed with me for 15 years, and I think of it frequently. It was a helpful, if jarring, reminder not to romanticize or domesticate the cross.
Our Scripture for tonight says that Jesus “humbled himself to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Paul emphasizes “even…a cross” because, for Jews in the Ancient Near East, crucifixion was a shameful way to die. Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
I woke this morning to a sickening reminder of the role hanging on a tree has played in this nation’s history. Late last night, someone hung a noose from a tree on the campus of Duke University. We don’t know who did it or why, but the community’s reaction has made it clear: a noose is not an April Fool’s joke.
For those of us observing Holy Week right now, the noose was a jarring reminder of the complex legacy of the other tree of shame from which Christ hung 2,000 years ago.
The Cotton Patch Gospel puts these two trees together. It retells the story of Jesus as if he were born in rural Georgia in the mid-20th century. Some of the retelling is humorous—Jesus’ humble place of birth is Gainesville, Georgia; after being tested by the devil, the angels bring Jesus a sack of chili cheese dogs; and the Last Supper includes biscuits. But parts are much more serious, like when Jesus died not on a cross but on at the end of a rope.
This version of the Gospels was written by Clarence Jordan, who founded Koinonia Farms, a community where blacks and whites lived together in the Jim Crow era. This is what Jordan says in the introduction to Matthew and John:
“…there just isn’t any word in our vocabulary which adequately translated the Greek word for ‘crucifixion.’ Our crosses are so shined, so polished, so respectable that to be impaled on one of them would seem to be a blessed experience. We have thus emptied the term ‘crucifixion’ of its original content of terrific emotion, of violence, of indignity and stigma, of defeat. I have translated it as ‘lynching,’ […] ‘See to it yourselves,’ he told the mob. And they did. They crucified him in Judea and they strung him up in Georgia, with a noose tied to a pine tree.”
Clarence Jordan’s interpretation might offend some of us. And it should—the cross should both comfort and offend. It should be a promise of deliverance from death and a reminder that we crucify Christ anew when we do violence to our brothers and sisters who bear the divine image.
There are a lot of ways to talk about what happens on the cross, and many of them have to do with Jesus getting punished for our sin, or God taking out God’s wrath toward humanity on his own Son. These are all atonement theories—explanations of how the cross saves us from sin, interpretations of what we read in the Bible and understand in theology. But many of these atonement theories just don’t sit well with me. I don’t connect with ideas of imputed morality or cosmic battles between good and evil or mathematical substitutions. And it doesn’t help me when I think of how the cross was the electric chair or the lynching tree of its time.
But there’s another approach to understanding the cross, and that is the approach of the Eastern church. This approach had a heavy influence on John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Eastern theology tends to look at sins more like wounds in need of healing than bad behavior in need of punishment, and that affects their view of the cross. For the Eastern church, their model of atonement is a therapeutic one, a healing one. The Trinity is opened up to us on the cross so that we might participate in the divine life and thereby be healed.
John Wesley never put on paper a systematic account of the atonement. Wesley was a theologian, but he was first and foremost a pastor. So in thinking about the cross, he was more concerned with the practical and pastoral implications than with the theological mechanics of it all. He was less interested in explaining the cross than living it.
What I love when talking about a theology of atonement is the fact that “atonement” itself is a made-up word. It’s an English term that actually came from “at-one-ment”—so when we talk about the cross, we’re talking about how God makes us one with Christ and with one another. And when we’re talking about union with God for our salvation—well, it seems like it’s more important to give thanks for that than to explain it.
One of my favorite things about Methodist theology is that Methodists aren’t afraid to surrender to mystery. We do it in our approach to the cross, to communion, to faith itself. We acknowledge that although God is intimately known to us, at the same time we cannot know all things—and we don’t need to.
Perhaps we would do well to surrender to that mystery more, in theology, in worship, and in our own lives. Richard Lischer writes, “Christians have always been better at absorbing suffering than justifying it, anyway. They are better at walking the Stations of the Cross than explaining why there has to be a cross in each of our lives. They are better at praying than defending the efficacy of prayer.”
Sometimes, instead of explaining the cross, we just need to sit in its shadow. A dear friend of mine posted a response to the noose found on Duke’s campus, reminding us that we don’t need to find out who did it or whether it was a joke in order to know it was wrong. She said that we must acknowledge “that the noose, in innumerable invisible ways, hangs in our schools, on our streets, on our church lawns, and in our hearts.”
I am better at listening to my black brothers and sisters express their grief than explaining the relationship between the cross and the lynching tree. I am better at confessing my sin and complicity than understanding why I do wrong and how I benefit from systems of injustice. I am better at taking communion than describing to you how bread and wine become flesh and blood. We come to salvation not by accurately explaining the process, not by figuring out all that is wrong so that we might fix it. We come to salvation by walking the difficult but necessary journey of participation in the divine life.
And here is the key to participation: God takes the first step by participating in our own humanity. Paul writes that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” God came down—all the way down—and was born, lived, suffered, and died with us. Jesus took part in the entirety of the human experience, and whatever we go through, we can rest assured that God has been there, not in a figurative, spiritual way, but very literally and concretely.
Our suffering is not redemptive. God mourns our suffering and takes all of it into his own body on the cross. The lynching tree is not redemptive, the electric chair is not redemptive. Only the cross is redemptive. Our suffering cannot save us, but God’s suffering will.
God redeems us by drawing near to us in our suffering, by participating in our suffering. God participates with us in our humanity so that we might participate with him in his divinity. Jesus participates with us in our suffering and death so that we might participate with him in his resurrection and eternal life.
Jesus gave his body to be at one with us. Jesus felt our pain so that we might feel God’s love and by that love be healed. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell