13 March 2013

Followup Questions, Theology of the Cross

[[Dear Sister, thank you for your post on the cross. When I was growing up we heard the idea that  our salvation was bought with every stroke of the whip and every stroke of the hammer. We also heard that our sins were like adding strokes to those. It is confusing to think that Jesus' suffering per se does not save us but that it is his obedience that does. Can you help me understand this? . . .]]

Thanks for the chance to clarify what I have already written. When we think of the extremity of what Jesus suffered, not just physically, but in terms of failure (because his project did look to end in failure) and shame as well, I think we begin to see more clearly how difficult obedience (openness and responsiveness to God) really was for him --- and also how critical. The temptation to close ourselves off from suffering, to shut down physically, mentally, emotionally, psychically, etc is never stronger than when we are in pain. This will usually include the kind of shockiness we experience when we are betrayed or treated with incredible insensitivity and cruelty. It can include all the mental gymnastics or defense mechanisms we "naturally" fall into regarding blame, justification, defensiveness, refusal to stay in the present moment, etc.

The problem here is that when we start to shut down, or when we act in ways which seem to allow us (ourselves) to regain some control, we shut down to other things as well and we will not be WHOLLY dependent on God to bring what he can both within and out of the situation. (We may open to God afterward and ordinarily this seems to be the reasonable thing to do, but we do not usually remain open to God during such situations. In other words, we may pray AFTER the situation is over, and we may call out to God to take us out of the situation, but we tend not to pray the situation itself.) Obedience in the NT sense is very difficult for us because we really are sinners, we really are estranged from God. Jesus, who was not estranged from God, prayed the whole situation and what he found was human betrayal, desertion, and divine abandonment! Even then he remained faithful and trusted in God. Even then he remained open to whatever God would do with him and with this situation.

Because of his openness every bit of Jesus' suffering was unmitigated --- including his experience of God's absence. We see this symbolized in his refusal of the gall-laced-wine; we see it in his refusal to speak in front of Pilate (no defenses, no explanations, no mitigation), we see it in his experience in Gethsemane and his cry of abandonment on the cross (surely the very worst thing Jesus himself experienced!). And yet, this unreserved openness to suffering was the measure of his openness to God's will as well.

Still, unless God enters into the situation it speaks mainly of sin's victory over God's anointed one. If Jesus had merely remained good and dead, his suffering would have been for nothing. More, it would have proven the God he believed in so exhaustively does NOT have the power to definitively overcome sin and godless death and human cruelty, ambition, etc, etc will have the last word. The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed would have been a fraud --- or perhaps Jesus' delusion. As Paul says so tellingly, [[If Jesus is not risen from the dead we (Christians) are the greatest fools of all.]] So, while I am not saying that his suffering was unimportant (it was critical in deepening and extending his obedience to God) it was not his suffering per se that was salvific.