The Why of the Cross

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a sermon for Desert Mission Anglican Church on February 18, 2018 (The first Sunday in Lent)

by Fr. Nathan R. Hale

Passage: 1 Peter 3:18-22

The purpose of Lent to consider both the cross we have been called to carry, and the cross that Jesus carried on our behalf. Today, this first Sunday in Lent, we turn our attention to the cross of Jesus. Why would an all-powerful God would come to the Earth to suffer? Why would he subject himself to something like the humiliation, pain, and seeming defeat of death by crucifixion?

When we take the time to contemplate not just what Jesus accomplished, but why he carried his cross so willingly, it helps us to follow in his steps.

We have our own calling of self-denial that is revealed to each us by the Holy Spirit, and the why of Jesus’ cross helps us understand the why of our cross.

The Epistle today opened with this powerful phrase:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit,” (1 Peter 3:18, ESV)

Christ suffered. We know, of course, about the physical pain of the cross, and the humiliation and loss of being mostly deserted and abandoned. We also know that the greatest suffering is something we can’t fully understand, as he took our sin and its consequences on himself, even the sins on himself in a mysterious way. This is why we talk about the weight of sin—the weight of everything in the world that is not as should be. All of humanity’s brokenness, all of creation’s corruption somehow rested on the person of Jesus as he hung on the cross and offered up himself in our place.

Jesus was—is—literally the only human person that has ever existed in perfect, right relationship with God. This is what it means that the righteous suffered for the unrighteous. This is our first clue in this passage from Peter as to the why of it all. He did it because he was the only one that could. And being in perfect relationship with God, he wanted to bring us to God, so we can enjoy a restored relationship with him. So that even though we will die physically the same way Jesus did, we can also be joined to him in his resurrection.

In his death, he conquered death, and because he was raised from the dead, we have proof that there is truly nothing that can separate us from the love of God. If we find ourselves in Jesus by believing in him and confessing him as Lord, we will live again after we die. We will be raised with him to an eternal life of love, acceptance, peace, restoration, re-creation. That’s the kind of God that God is!

The answer to why Jesus took up his cross and suffered is, of course, love.

He did it because he loves you. He did it because he loves every person made in his image and everything living thing that he has made. God did not create anything that he isn’t committed to see flourish.

Ever since men and women fell away from God in the Garden, God has been promising to bring them back and reverse the curse that came on creation. This promise was even hinted during the time of Noah.

We read today of God’s covenant (a covenant like a solemn promise) that he would never again destroy the world with a flood, and he makes this covenant not just with Noah, but with “every living creature of all flesh” (Genesis 9:15).

And then he places his bow in the sky. It’s an act of goodwill that’s part of a peace treaty. He sets his war-bow down. But this is much more than perhaps even Noah new, because it hints at future New Covenant that would be instituted and inaugurated by Jesus. When God places his bow in sky, it is of course, pointed at himself.

In the new covenant, God won’t simply cease fire, but will self-sacrifice even for those that would try to kill him. God in Christ would die to save his enemies from death.

In the new covenant, it’s not simply starting over with the same sinful tendencies and broken earth, but redemption and restoration and transformation of every creature, human, animal, and every piece of matter in the universe.

In John’s vision of the fullness of the New Covenant being made manifest, he hears God himself speak:

…he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

This is clearly a crucial part of the vision that God wanted John to remember, because:

Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”” (Revelation 21:5, ESV)

The New Covenant has been inaugurated; it’s been kicked off by the Resurrection of Jesus. And you and I are part of it! We are invited to begin living in this renewal of all things. We are invited to begin living in light of the end of the story today.

We need reminders of this, though, don’t we?

We are so tempted to become cynical and prone to forget that we are participating in a reality that is in fact much more sure and solid than we usually perceive with our senses. Certainly as Christians, we have no reason to fall into fear or hopelessness!

Because our trust is in Jesus, we use our Lenten disciplines—like fasting, and going to confession—not as ways to atone for our sin or somehow earn God’s goodwill, but as reminders that God is sustaining us. God desires so much for us to live that he would subject his own Son Jesus to death. And the reason he desires us to live so we can know him. So we can be in relationship with him and share that relationship with all of creation.

This means that as Christians, we can have a wholistic approach to good works and evangelism. Without abandoning a constant, explicit, verbal call to repent, believe, and be baptized into Jesus, we can also wholeheartedly embrace our role to manifest within the church and minister to the world all the benefits of the New Covenant.

We witness to the peace that God has made by living lives of peace with one another, and with the world. For instance, systems or ways of doing things that oppress women or minorities or that encourage division have no place in the church. Instead of working so hard to get ahead of others, we can—in the power of the Holy Spirit—gladly give up our place in line for one another. We are empowered to outdo one another in showing honor, as Paul encourages us in Romans 12:10.

We can recover our God given mandate to care for all living things and steward the earth instead of simply using the earth and its creatures. I think that God cares for every living being. We can’t forget that Jesus also died to deliver the whole creation from the effects of our sin. Christians could be the best environmentalists! We have a divine mandate and biblical vision that could allow us to set the example in how we treat animals, dispose of our waste, cultivate our food, manage natural resources.

And we can show the world there is such a thing as hope for new life and a renewal of all things because we don’t hold on to our own current life or our things too tightly.

In the ancient Roman world, when plagues were ravaging cities, sometimes claiming up to 5,000 lives a day, lots of people were running away, heading for the hills. You know stayed to take care of sick and dying, often becoming sick and dying themselves? You guessed it, Christians! They weren’t too worried about dying. That’s powerful! The world took note. The Roman emperor Julius that ruled in the fourth century tried to encourage charity via the traditional pagan religion and governmental endorsement, but it never caught on.

He wrote in a letter that he felt it was “disgraceful” that “no Jew is a beggar and the impious…[Christians] support our poor in addition to their own.” (emphasis added).[1]

The church didn’t have tell the pagan emperor to be ashamed of himself. Their actions spoke with power about the reality of God in their midst.

I long for the day when the church of Jesus would be the conscience of our nation, and not just by lobbying and campaigning for influence. Don’t get me wrong, I think we can and should advocate for just laws, but there is a big difference between telling people what to do, and showing people how to live by our example and witness to the person we claim as Lord.

Christ suffered to bring the world to God—we suffer to show the world Christ.

You can only live this out, though, if you are willing to go to God with Christ in the power of the Spirit.

He is ready to begin the work of mending your relationship with him, of purifying your spirit and making you more like him, but he will not force you.

This is where Lent and its associated disciplines come in. This is a special season and an ideal time for honest self reflection to see where you might be holding something back in your relationship with God. Journaling and fasting are helpful practices for this.

Ask the Spirit to show where you have fallen short in thought, word, and deed—and accept forgiveness so you can grow in your restored relationship with God.

Sometimes it is helpful and necessary to confess your sins another Christian. This is a deeply Biblical practice. As your priest, I am always available to hear your confession in confidence and offer absolution in the name of Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God. May we each live in light of his redeeming work, in light of a restored relationship between God and people, and in light the renewal of all things.

Amen.

[1] Quoted by David Roseberry in Giving Up: How giving to God renews hearts, changes minds, and empowers ministry. p. 78