May 1, 2019
Easter Day is truly a gala day as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. His resurrection underscores the validity of the Christian faith. Without it, we are lost.
That said, our Easter celebration raises interesting questions: ‘Why isn’t an empty tomb the symbol of Christianity?’ ‘Why is the symbol a cross?’ In today’s age when feelings and political correctness trump facts it would surely make much more sense if we focused on the themes of new life and hope that the resurrection symbolizes.
Yet, despite the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion was a bloody and brutal affair, the cross remains the symbol of the Christian faith.
In the opening scene of Luke’s ‘resurrection chapter’ we read: But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body (Luke 24:1-3).
Despair. There was no joy in the hearts of those women that morning. They had watched Jesus die and now were grief-stricken and despairing. They had believed that he was God’s Messiah and were looking forward to a new age of justice and peace, of laughter, love and joy. Now, their only thought was to give his body a proper burial.
We can picture them trudging to the tomb in the grey light of the dawn, burdened by their own thoughts and laden with heavy jars of oils and spices for the burial.
But that was not all: when they arrived at the grave, they saw that the huge stone closing the tomb had been rolled away. Was this some underhand action on the part of the authorities?
While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them… (24:4). They had despaired at Jesus’ death and now they were terrified: they could only bow their faces to the ground at the dazzling appearance of two angels. And when the angels spoke, the women were even more confused: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” ‘You’ve come to the wrong place.’
Remember! “Remember how he told you while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise again…’” (Luke 24:6b-7a).
The angels could have explained the empty tomb. Instead, they told the women to remember what Jesus had said to them. The focus of Jesus’ words they quoted is important: ‘The Son of Man, the Messiah had to suffer and die and then rise again’. Suffering and death were essential to the work of God’s king.
Which brings us back to the subject of the cross. Richard Dawkins, with others, reckons that to say, ‘Jesus died for our sins’ is vicious and disgusting. ‘Why couldn’t God simply forgive sins if he so chose?’ he asks.
In every age Jesus’ death has been an enigma – even for his first followers. Yet during the course of his ministry he had foreshadowed both it and his resurrection. Indeed, in his public ministry he revealed that he had not come as a political Messiah to bring in God’s kingdom through force.
Rather, he came as a savior to address our greatest need – our broken relationship with God. He alone could deliver us from God’s just judgement and open the doors of God’s new age.
This theme infuses Luke’s gospel. At Jesus’ birth the angel announced that God’s savior had been born. And when he met with Zacchaeus, Jesus summed up his ministry saying, “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
Furthermore, his words at the Last Supper are key to the meaning of his death: “This is my body given for you…” “This is my blood shed for you…” These words are amongst the oldest statements of Christianity. We find them in 1 Corinthians, written around 50AD, as well as in Matthew, Mark and Luke, which were written no later than the 60s.
In fact when we read Luke as a whole we come to see that Jesus’ death is about God’s love and justice – central aspects of God’s character. Some say that Jesus’ crucifixion was a form of child abuse – a father punishing a son for someone else’s wrongs. But we need to remember Jesus’ words in John 10 where he said he would lay down his life voluntarily.
The movement of the Bible tells us that without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins (Leviticus 17:11; Hebrews 9:22). God, the wronged party, entered the world and bore the punishment that we wrong-doers deserve. God, as the judge, paid in full, once and for all time, the fine owed by the accused who have been found guilty.
When we understand in this way Jesus’ words at his Last Supper: “My body given for you,” it is no wonder that the cross, once an instrument of Roman brutality, became, and remains today, the symbol of God’s extraordinary love for the world.
© John G. Mason – www.anglicanconnection.com
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Note 2: Material for today’s ‘Word’ is adapted from my commentary, Luke: An Unexpected God (Aquila: 2019, 2nd Edition).