(St Matthew's, Bloomington)
It feels almost presumptuous to say anything after reading St Matthew's Passion the way we’ve just heard it. Nonetheless, in order that the word of God not be obscure to anyone, in order that this too familiar but still overpowering story of one man's suffering and death be revealed clearly and compellingly as gospel, as good news, let me cut right to the chase. What's the point?! What in heaven's name is gained by such a gruesome sequence of events as Jesus experienced? And, if anything is to be gained, could it not have been gotten by some other means, some more elegant and less costly way?
Neither of these questions is particularly easy to answer, but the first one is less difficult than the second. What is gained by Jesus’ suffering and death? I can think of no more concise and poetic answer to this question than that found in the words of the prayer by which we will offer to God the bread and wine of this Eucharist: Holy and gracious Father, in your infinite love you made us for yourself . . . Now, there's a thought—God, our “holy and gracious Father”, made us...for himself; what better reason for living could we ask for? ...and when we had fallen into sin . . . Who among us has not fallen into sin? ...and become subject to evil and death . . . Again, who among us is not subject to evil and death? ...you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and father of all.
There's what's in it for us: we're reconciled to God. Somehow, the fact that Jesus“stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [his Father's] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world” means that the gulf which separates us from God as a result of human sin—our own sins, the sins of our ancestors, the sins of our friends and neighbors and enemies—the gulf of sin is bridged. Our sins are forgiven and our relationship with God is restored. There is purpose, meaning and direction for our lives. We are given a map by which to navigate the forbidding terrain of human experience in a way that leads not to despair, but to hope, not to alienation, but to unity, not to sadness, but to joy.
What is gained by Jesus’ suffering and death?
But, we may still ask, could this not have been accomplished in some other way? Quite honestly, I don't know if it could have been accomplished in some other way. God has not yet shared his mind with me on that question! I only know that he chose to do it in the way he did, by sending his “only and eternal son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us.”
To share our human nature, to live and die as one of us. We don't know whether God could have saved us in some other way. But these words from the liturgy give us a clue as to how the way God does save us works. It's really a pretty elementary principle, easily grasped by human intuition. But I'll illustrate it with science fiction! One of the more popular of the seven Star Trek movies—the seven that include the grown up Captain Kirk; I’m not counting the most recent one—has the crew of the Enterprise—for a very good reason which I won't go into here—travelling back in time 300 years, to the late twentieth century. As is usually the case, Captain Kirk meets a woman, and they're mutually attracted. The inevitable moment comes for him to beam back up to his ship and return to his own century. She wants to come with him, and he says, “No, you belong in your own time, jumping ahead 300 years would stress you out too much”, and all that.
Naturally, since he's Captain Kirk, he gets his way, and calls up to his ship, “One to beam up”. But just at the moment when the transporter beam locks on to him, his lady friend throws herself around him, and the beam, unable to distinguish between them, transports them both up to the ship. Since they were, at that moment, bound up with each other, their experience was one and the same. What happened to him also happened to her.
This is the way God saves us in Jesus. He binds us up with him, so that his experience and ours become one and the same. What happens to him also happens to us. Christ died—when we die, we die with him. Christ rose from the dead, restored to new and glorious life—we will rise from the dead, restored to new and glorious life. That's the gospel in a nutshell. It's about that simple.
But—stepping back to Captain Kirk and his lady friend for a moment—if Kirk had not been where he was when he was, that is, if he had not completely entered her time and her space, there would have been no transporter beam to carry her anywhere! Before she could share his experience, he first had to share hers. It works the same way with Jesus and us. In order for us to be able to share his experience, he first had to share ours, to fully enter and inhabit our time and our space.
In theology, we call this entry into our time and our space —our human experience—Incarnation. We usually associate the celebration of the incarnation with Christmas —”...and the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” But Jesus assuming our flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, in an important sense, only begins the incarnation. If Jesus had been snatched back up to the right hand of the Father without ever suffering death, his incarnation would have been of no effect. It would have been to no avail for our salvation, because he would not have fully identified with our experience. We have to suffer and die. There's no getting around it. A Jesus who doesn't suffer and die with us cannot save us. We cannot share his experience unless he first shares ours, and to share human experience includes suffering and dying.
So, there you have it. Straight, unadorned, without the sugar coating. This is gruesome stuff we celebrate this week. But it's our only hope. Amen.