The next Discussion Group is on Easter Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Hard to imagine a more appropriate day to be reflecting on just what happened to Jesus as he died on that fateful day; a matter of supreme importance to every human being on this little planet if the Biblical record is to be accepted in any way. Some of you may in fact feel it would be more appropriate just to be in silence before the mystery. You may be right: can we ever know?
From the beginning, Christ’s death was not separated from his apparent victory over death, experienced by at least some 500 people in powerful and personal (and collective) resurrection experiences; and from the action of the Holy Spirit to the group of 120 in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. The early disciples looked back at his death not from the point of view of despair but from a place of empowerment and the overwhelming sense that Christ was alive. What did it all mean?
At a superficial level, why he died does not seem hard to explain. He upset legitimate authorities to the point that they could justify having him executed. He wasn’t one of them, and yet people flocked to him; and miraculous and healing powers validated him as someone under a different authority to theirs, of which they were not part.
What was harder to explain was that he clearly intended to die. He had purpose in his own death. He let it happen. No, he encouraged it to happen. That was much harder to explain.
The Apostle John in the fourth gospel saw his death as a scapegoating. Christ’s death meant the whole nation would not perish; such was the uproar Christ had created that the religious authorities feared a major Roman reprisal. The high priest Caiaphas pushed for his death for that reason. But John goes on to write: Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation. And not for the nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad. One to die instead of the many; in other words a sacrifice to appease a serious threat.
In recent times there has been a renewed interest in the phenomenon of scapegoating, largely through the research and writings of the French critical theorist and anthropologist Rene Girard. He believes spontaneous scapegoating in human community is the origin of religion and culture, and their central institution of sacrifice. His key point is that in most sacrificial ritual the victim is in fact innocent of the crime or crimes the mob thinks he or she is guilty of. The mob baying for Christ’s death believed him to be guilty of crimes worthy of death; Christ’s disciples knew that not only was he innocent, but that he had spoken the truth; and the city’s religious authorities were duplicitous. They knew the truth but covered it up. This has often been the role of religious authorities Girard maintained; no institution in society has been more skilled in the art of the coverup than religion. But all supposedly in aid of a good cause; the keeping of the peace.
Such a scapegoating theory however does not fully explain Christ’s intention to die at that point, believing it was his destiny. What was that all about?
There have been various theories about the possible deeper meanings of Christ’s death and the subsequent movement of the Spirit that changed history forever. Probably the most influential in the modern world, at least in popular Christianity, is referred to as the penal substitutionary theory: Christ suffered the punishment in his death due to every other human being. In its extreme form, Christ suffered the wrath of God for our sinfulness, so God could be true supposedly to both his love and justice. Others find this theory unacceptable; at the least it implies that God can only forgive after he has punished.
It is agreed generally I think that Christ’s death was horrific. All crucifixion was of course. But in Christ’s case the evidence suggests there was a whole lot more going on, insight into which we begin to see in the story from the Last Supper and Garden of Gethsemane on. The true suffering of Christ was inward, spiritual. I think we need to grasp that.
In fact, I think our thinking and appreciation of the meaning of Christ’s death can take on new dimensions if we think of it as the culmination of his whole life as one led by the Spirit that fell upon him without measure in the Jordan under John the Baptist. The fixation with sin and Christ’s death is understandable given the huge influence of the sacrificial ritual of the Temple on the early Christians. But what if we stand back and view his death as part of the unfolding and outworking of the Spirit in Creation and History. What then?
So I warmly invite you to the Discussion Forum on Easter Saturday, 4.30pm for 5.00pm at Open Sanctuary. Apart from some discussion there will be silent meditation and prayer.