Friday, 29 March 2013

Good Friday : He came back

There are so many different understandings of Christ's death as a sacrifice.  Some of them even go so far as to suggest he was being punished in our place, which is a completely incomprehensible understanding of sacrifice.  But today, on Good Friday, I want to focus on something far more simple: his death as our hope.
As we imagine Christ dying, if we are to take this seriously as an act of sacrifice, we have to ask the question, ‘What is dying?’ No family is untouched by death. Yet so often all the church offers is a shoulder to cry on and something so spiritualised that in reality it feels as if it barely really addresses what has happened.  I don’t believe that we can look at the death of Jesus as something isolated. The starting point for understanding his death must be to look at it through the eyes of our own experiences with death. After all, over and over again you will have heard me say that Jesus was fully human and fully God. I've written elsewhere about how his blood was shed to make the new covenant between God and humanity, a covenant that can only be kept because Jesus, as human, keeps it for us. So we are happy to declare that Jesus was human, but then rather too often we go on to spiritualise everything that happened, ignoring the brutality of the fact that Jesus died.

Jesus died.

Jesus stopped breathing. His heart ceased to beat. He died. Really and truly died. Let’s for once not spiritualise it, because if it is going to have any meaning for us as a sacrifice then we need to get our heads around the reality of death.

So what is death? Do you ever wonder whether other creatures think about it like we do? When the gazelle spots the lion at the last moment and leaps off at the fastest rate its adrenaline pumped muscles can manage, does it contemplate its own cessation? Do Orangutans sit in their nests at night pondering their demise? Or is it just humans? Are we the only ones who fear whether or not we will survive death?

One of the difficulties we have to struggle with is that there is a branch of theology which suggests that we should see death as a punishment. It is widely felt that the story of Adam and Eve and their fall into sin means that if there had been no sin, then they wouldn’t have died. This is based on a reading of Genesis 2 where God tells Adam that if he eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil then he will die.  But when they do eat of that tree, they don’t die. In fact God expels them from the garden in order to stop them from eating of the tree of life, which would mean they would live forever, remaining in that state of being fallen from grace with no way back.  We need to recognise, deep down, that this story is a metaphor; it’s not factual and it’s not even internally consistent. But it is a very early story, predating the seven day creation story. Some people think that it may even have been written around some kind of internal race memory of a simpler time when humans lived off the land easily without having to toil.  It’s possible that it may be more to do with the shift from being hunter-gatherers, living in harmony with nature, to being an agricultural and city society that had to work hard to make the land bear fruit, with a recognition that somehow this was second best.

So I’d like us to be set free from thinking of death as a punishment. I don’t believe that’s what we find in Genesis. Therefore I need to say something which is obvious but about which we rarely stop to think.

Death has been a part of God’s plan for the animal kingdom all along.

There was no time when all was well and the animals walked happily in the sun, arm in arm with Adam and Eve. It’s a story, perhaps rooted in a wished for simpler existence, that explains why life is hard work.  But it doesn’t explain why we die. We die because, as Rob Bell puts it, ‘Death is the engine of life.’ Without death the planetary eco-system would have crashed long before mammals took over from dinosaurs. We die because that is the natural order of things that God has always intended. Without death there is no new generation, no new ideas, no possibility of evolution and growth. Death is a necessity. You, me, we all need to die.  But unless we’re in an awful lot of pain, either physical, spiritual or mental, we really don’t want to die do we. By the law of averages I’m probably past the halfway point in my life now. For some of you, you have already had a very close brush with death, and maybe more than once. Yet you’re still going to die, and so am I. So if death isn’t a punishment, just part of the natural order, what was accomplished by Jesus dying?

To answer that question I think we have to turn to the opposite of death, which is of course life. Jesus said, in John’s Gospel, that he came in order that we would have life, and have it in all its fullness. Everything that he said and did was so that those who wanted to follow him would receive life. And ultimately that is what his death accomplished, quite simply because, and putting all the theology aside...

...he came back.

And what’s more, looking ahead to Sunday morning, when he came back he was more alive than he had been before, because after his resurrection he wasn’t simply a human like us, he was a resurrected person. He could appear inside locked rooms. He could eat and drink. He was solid and yet somehow he was more. And in him the promise is that death is not the end. He sacrificed his life to show us this.

For those of us who are bereaved and lonely; for those of us who wake up and the bed is too large; for those of us who so long to get on the phone and say, ‘Hiya, how’s the day panning out for you? How’s my nephew?’; for those who just simply want one more hug; for those of us who know that our time on this planet is nearly complete, the death of Christ in all its gory detail says this simple truth:

Death is no longer final.

He came back.

Jesus could not have been more dead. The Romans were experts at enacting punishment. He was so weakened by the flogging that he couldn’t even carry his own crosspiece. There was no escaping from a sealed tomb and somehow getting well again - that’s a ridiculous idea by the uninformed. Jesus died. But God the Father didn’t let him stay that way.

He came back.

Jesus sacrificed his life to give you and I hope, that however much it hurts right now, and however empty the house seems, and however much we want to pick up the phone to someone who can’t answer, and however hollow this ache is that you feel, or however bad the night terrors are that you have to face at your own decline: death is not the end.

He came back.

Sometimes it does indeed feel like angels tread on our dreams, and everyone one of us will have to make the journey through the veil. But it’s not the end. He came back. And he offers that hope to us too.

But it still hurts because we’re only human. It still hurts because we have to wait. It still hurts because the bed is too big, the house is too quiet and the ‘phone does remain unanswered. But we have a God who understands this and who says to us, ‘It’s not just about the hope of being reunited in the future; the sacrifice of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit means I am here with you right now.’

So amidst all the talk of penal substitution etc etc etc, sometimes the death of Christ just means something so much more simple.  Death isn't final.  He came back, more vital and alive than ever.  And our hope is that one day he will do the same for us.

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