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Sunday, May 31, 2020

“The Word Became Flesh...”

A sermon based upon John 1: 1-14
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday June 7th, , 2020 (6/10. How Jesus Saves.)

A British reporter who works for the renown newspaper The Guardian, decided to give up something for Lent. 
What she decided to give up was quite shocking.  For the 6 weeks she gave up her middle-class life-style.  This meant moving into a an apartment located in a low income area.  It also meant giving up her car and taking public transportation.  Most challenging of all, it meant reducing her income to live only on minimum wage.   Even though, she says she did ‘cheat’ a little by going to stay on weekends with family,  it was an eye opening experience she will not soon forget.
What that British Reporter resolved to do can be compared to the Bible’s claim of what God did for us:  (God) emptied himself, Paul writes, ‘taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness...and found in human form’ (Phil. 2: 7).  Or, as the rock singer Joan Osborne once put it: ‘What if God was one of us’...just a slave like one of us,  just a stranger on a bus, trying to make his way home’.   But it is the gospel of John expresses it most brilliantly: ‘...the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (Jn.1:14).
Biblical scholars call this the incarnation.  The word comes straight from the Latin incarnere; ‘becoming flesh’.  It’s the most fundamental Christian teaching about God’s saving work. This God who is eternal Spirit; in whose mind is the reason everything is, left the ‘glories’ and ‘perfections of eternity to become ‘one of us.’

The incarnation lies at the heart of everything Christians believe about God, but what does it matter and what does it mean for us?   
 Once I invited a student to find faith in Jesus Christ.  His response was: “Religion is worthless for me”, he said.  Maybe its proper for a museum, but Faith means nothing for the real world.”  He was honest.  In his communist upbringing, Christoph learned that life is only ‘material’.  There was no Garden of Eden, no human fall into sin, nor was there ever a Creator to sin against.  They only thing that matters is ‘matter’ because matter is all there is.   
The current of our own culture is still flowing in a materialistic direction.  It is said that humans are evolving toward the secular, not the sacred; toward high tech, not high temples; and toward having materialistic success, not achieving spiritual maturity.  You know this.  I know this.   But is this a form of moral development, or a continuation of human moral depravity?  The biblical revelation questions the overly optimistic outlook of human progress.  It suggests that spiritually, life always flows in one of two directions; either toward true faith or toward false idols.   In which direction do you think we are going today?
As you might recall, when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed that ‘the Spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak’ (Mark 14:48).  Today, we are more likely to be ‘strong’ in our flesh, but ‘weak’ In our spirit.  What happened?   Even that student I mentioned (Christoph) admitted that people used to believe that there is more to life than ‘flesh and blood’  but, he said, ‘we’ve moved beyond all that’. 
Now, that’s an interesting move, isn’t it?  We used to believe there was more to the life than what we see, but now we can only see what we see.  We used to believe there was more to life than mere physical matter, but now only the physical matters.  We used to believe that life is more than we know, but now we only know what we know.  And when it comes to thinking about the eternity, which we are headed toward at the speed of life, the only thing human knowledge knows for sure is that ‘when your dead, your dead!’  

Now to speak about ‘eternal’ and ‘spiritual matters’ today takes a lot of effort because it doesn’t matter that much to people who think they have more important things to do.   As one young person said about spiritual talk, ‘It’s so boring’! 
What that youth was saying is exactly the same as Christoph.  The only thing that matters is matter;  living in the flesh, as we wish to live, is what really matters not living for unseen, eternal matters of the spirit.  Since life is short, we want to enjoy every day to its fullest.  Living for eternity, living for what we can’t see and don’t yet know for sure sounds like a waste of time.  So, we think we get more out of life by focusing on self, on getting what we want now; living only with fleshly pursuits and ignoring our spirits or our souls.        
Recently, there was a report in the news that “Americans are Dying Younger at Alarming Rates”.   Suicides, drug overdoses, liver diseases, and other preventable causes has been driving life expectancy down for the past three years.  Despite spending more on Health Care than any other country, we Americans are not getting our money’s worth.  In a wealthy, civilized country like ours, deaths rates are supposed to be going down, but they are going up, up, up. 
“Something is terribly wrong”, the American Medical Association admits.  What is it?  Drug Addiction?  Distracted Driving due to cell phones?  That’s part of it, but what is already understood is that it’s not accidental, and it’s not occasional, but it’s a systemic change in society.  Ever since 1998 the United States has fallen behind other wealthy countries in Life Expectancy and the downward trend is speeding up.  We are fast becoming a culture of despair and premature death, even among youth.  Rather than being a culture of hope and longevity of life, we’ve are becoming a culture of weakness and early death.
I don’t believe it is accidental that in the middle of John’s discussion about the ‘Word’ as the source of ‘all things’ (v.3) also comes this conclusion: ‘in him was life.’  And this ‘life’ that comes from ‘him’ must also be sustained through him.   Without a  constant life-flow from the the life source living things die on the vine.   If you pull up the roots of a plant, it dies.   If you cut off a plant from its roots, it dies.  Or, if you cut off the supply of nourishment to the roots, the plant weakens and will die. 
This is why John not only says that ‘life’ come from Him, he is also saying that ‘life’ continues to be ‘in him’.  The words ‘Abide in I abide in you’ comes straight from this gospel of John (15:1ff.).  In other words, just like the ‘sun’ is the ultimate source of life to our physical world,  John is saying that human life depends upon spiritual light too. 
Don’t make this more complicated than it is.  Behind everything physical is a spiritual source that comes from God.   If you cut yourself off from God then you cut yourself off life’s spiritual source.   Do you think this could also be part of the human problem today?   Do you think that the more wealthy, materialistic and physically focused we become, the more we might cut ourselves off from the very spiritual source of our lives and end up with less life, less joy, and less fulfillment than with more? 
It is ironic, isn’t it?  When we deny or ignore our spiritual side, not only do we lose our spiritual sensitivities, but we lose physical strength and risk shortening lives of flesh and blood as well.  Isn’t this why the Bible says ‘there is a sin unto death’ or that ‘the soul that sins shall die’?  Whether through intent or not,  when we cut ourselves off from the source, like a ‘cut flower’ we may stand beautiful for a few fleeting moments, but our days are shortened, the source of our strength is blocked, and even in our prime of life, we can wither away.
Many people, when reading John’s ancient, poetic, theological language about Word and Spirit,  life and death,  or light and darkness, are overwhelmed with its grandeur.   But in reality, such lofty language points to the most basic, fundamental ‘truths’ of everyday life.  The world in which we live, move, and have our being all goes back to the mind and heart of God.  
And this God who is the source of our lives, desires to give us more life, better lives, and even to redeem our lives from corruption and destruction.  By becoming flesh, God wills to redeem our physical lives.  By overcoming the ‘darkness’ as ‘the true light’, who ‘enlightens everyone, through Jesus Christ, the man perfectly attuned to matters of the soul and spirit, even while living in the flesh, Jesus offers us the ‘way, the truth and the life,’ so that we might have more life, not less.


This kind of spiritual logic should be simple to understand, but in our materialistically distracted, preoccupied lives, a lot of other fleshly pursuits get in the way.  The light has to come into the ‘darkness’.  John says.   The true light’ came into the ‘world’ so that life could improve, would continue—so life could go on.   

However, as the spiritual, saving story reports: “He came unto his own, but his own people didn’t accept Him.  This saving story tells how the eternal came to save lives, but again, the eternal and the spiritual was ignored, blown off, and pushed aside in rejection.  But the story of God becoming flesh to redeem our fleshly lives is a story of a spiritual, eternal love that not only never gives up, but will not and cannot die.   Do you see it?  His own people didn’t receive him.  They attempted to do away with him.  They rejected his kingdom based on a spiritually infused life.  Still, this love infused with eternal, spiritual light, does not die, but still offers life.  To those who did recognize him, and who will recognize him,  who (believe) upon his name’, he (gives)... ‘power to become children of (the eternal, redeeming, life-saving) God’.   

This logic of God’s love points us to God’s will for this world.   Life is not only about the will of the flesh.  Life comes from God’s will.  And it’s God’s will to love and give life.  This is a story of a spiritual love that redeems physical and spiritual life that will not die, that cannot die, and it is very logic of eternal love that overcomes the darkness and wills to enlighten every single human life with the light of eternal, redeeming love. 

This is what the ‘Word’ becoming flesh is about.  And this is the saving story that eternal love wants us all to know, for our own sake, but also for the sake of the one who loves us and wills to redeem both our physical and our spiritual life.  Can we, still understand such an eternal, spiritual, life-giving, flesh-becoming love?  Maybe a real-life story about eternal spiritual love infusing human flesh will help.

Rita Snowden tells a story from World War II.  In France, some soldiers brought the body of a dead comrade to a cemetery to have him buried. The priest gently asked whether their friend had been a baptized Catholic. The soldiers did not know. The priest sadly informed them that, in that case, he could not permit burial in the church yard. So the soldiers dug a grave just outside the cemetery fence. And they laid their comrade to rest.

The next day the soldiers came back to add some flowers, only to discover that the grave was nowhere to be found. Bewildered, they were about to leave when the priest came up to speak to them. It seems that he could not sleep the night before. He had been troubled about his refusal to bury the soldier in the parish cemetery.  So early in the morning he left his bed, and with his own hands he moved the fence in order to include the body of the soldier who had died for France.
My friends, this is a picture of how and why God’s love infused our broken, fleshly humanity with spiritual grace and truth.  God’s truth about our sin demands that we remain outside the fence.  But God’s grace moved the fence of justice be moved redeem us.  Jesus came in flesh to move the fence, to show, not only who we can be in our flesh, but to remind us, as Paul wrote, that ‘even while we were sinners’, and even in this life of brokenness and rebellion in our flesh, ‘God proves his love for us’ (Ro. 5:8-9).    

In Jesus Christ (v. 17), John says, ‘...we have seen his glory, as of the glory of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth (v.14).’  Using our ‘fence’ analogy, Jesus entered human flesh, not only to reveal God’s love for us, but also so that we can be restored to our best life in the flesh, because we see ’God’s glory’ lived in Jesus Christ who also lived in human flesh.  The ‘glory’ that can be lived our own lives because Jesus lived this ‘ glory’ in his own life, is the life-redeeming glory we must not miss,
An Atlanta pastor was rushing around, trying to make it to Christmas, and was much too busy to take on anything else.  Then a request came from a church member to visit a friend of a friend in the hospital. Frankly, it wasn’t a welcomed request. The pastor had plenty to do, and it was just one more interruption in an already hectic schedule.  But when the pastor stepped into that gloomy hospital room, there was an unexpected gift awaiting, more precious than any other gift to be received at Christmas."

The man in that room was dying, but this dying man had served as a pastor for many years.  In their sharing together, they both celebrated eternal life and hope in death, but the visiting pastor received a unique for life.  After the visit, that visiting pastor wrote: "When I left the hospital, I stepped out into a night that vibrated with the promise that God is more powerful than darkness, than even death itself. When I looked up, the stars were demonstrating the truth: just enough light and glory to prick the human experience to let us know that God is there behind the darkness—more love, more glory that we can bear to look at now, but ready to receive us” (Margaret Gatter Payne, Christian Century, Nov. 20, 1991, page 1085).

Into a world that becomes dark sin and death, the Word still speaks God’s eternal truth and grace.  But how could both the dying person and the living person have understood this logic of eternal, life-giving love, had God not spoken to the whole world through the ‘incarnate’, ‘made-real’, God in the flesh, life-redeeming love, known in Jesus Christ?   John says ‘the Word’  that became flesh ‘was God’.  Jesus made God’s loving, saving, and redeeming truth ‘known’ to us because Jesus is God.  As the early Christian thinker, Athanasius put it: Through Jesus Christ, God “became what we are that we might become what he is.”
Now, that’s the Spirit of who God is, made flesh for us.  Amen.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

“Forgive Them...”

A sermon based upon Luke 23: 32-43
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday May 31st, 2020 (5/10. How Jesus Saves.)

On October 2, 2006, Charles C. Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse armed with three guns. There were 26 students in the schoolhouse. He allowed the 15 boys, a pregnant female student, and three other adult females with infant children to leave safely, but held the remaining 15 girls captive and tied their feet together.
His deranged rationale for his actions was that he wanted to exact revenge for something that had happened in his past. Notes that he left behind indicate anger toward himself and God for the death of his newborn daughter almost nine years earlier. Authorities were alerted, and soon arrived on the scene. Not long after police arrived, Roberts started shooting, killing three children and himself. Two more children died later from their injuries.
In the face of such tragedy, one can only imagine the hurt and anger the loved ones of the victims might feel. In an extraordinary demonstration of forgiveness, members of the Amish community, including family members of the deceased victims, attended Robert’s funeral and comforted his widow. The Amish community did not stop there—they also offered financial support to Robert’s widow.
Jennifer Miller, at her own website, The Dynamic Catholic, tells about her own need to forgive.   She says, she ‘came home one night and found that someone had slid a letter under (her) apartment door.  (She) immediately recognized the handwriting—and only one person wrote out (her) full name like that.   (She) picked up the letter and smelled his cologne.
The letter was from her ex-boyfriend, Phillip.  They had dated for about two years, both looking for marriage.  “That was our goal from the beginning, and we had talked about it many times,” she says.   It was a big step, and her boyfriend was struggling.  But she was confident God was calling her to marry him.  Then one night, she watched him walk out the door after breaking up.   She thought to myself, “I’ll never see him again.”  Six months later, however, not expecting, a letter came that asked for her forgiveness and the possibility of a future together.   She said a trusted mentor had already asked her, “Are you mad at Phillip? Because you’re allowed to be.”  But she didn’t want to lash out at Phillip.   Instead, she says, she sought refuge in the familiar pages of her worn Bible.   
Miller writes that her Bible “is filled with highlighted passages, underlined words and phrases, and notes scribbled in the margins.  It holds her pain, her joy, and ultimately her trust in the God who has carried her through it all.   Her parents gave that Bible to her when she was young, she’s treasured it ever since.  It was her Bible that taught her about forgiveness
Perhaps you have your own story about forgiveness, or about forgiving someone who has hurt you.  There are many stories that could be told.   Most of these stories would be inspiring, but a few stories I know about are on the edge of sanity.  One of those is about the woman, Yvonne Stern, whose cheating husband hired three different hitmen to shoot and kill her, not once but three times.  They missed her twice but on the third attempt hit her in the stomach.  She survived.  When the case finally came to court, in spite of her husband attempting to kill her, not once, but three times, she told the court,  “I forgive him of his discretions.”
         Although you certainly can’t predict human behavior, there is something very ordinary about the human situation that requires forgiveness.    And this not just a biblical or religious teaching, its also supported by good psychological science.   That science says that ‘Forgiveness is vitally important for the mental health of those who have been victimized.’   Forgiveness is important, it is said because it ‘propels the victim forward’ toward a hopeful future rather than ‘keeping them emotionally engaged in an injustice or trauma’.  
         For Christians, the most dramatic example of the human need for forgiveness comes to us from the cross.  After suffering betrayal, humiliation, and during the unspeakable pain of being nailed the cross, Jesus spoke these incredible words, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23: 34). 
Luke’s gospel speaks more intentionally about human and divine forgiveness than any other book of the Bible, which has some to name him ‘the theologian of forgiveness par excellence’.   This is not to say that the other gospels don’t speak of forgiveness.  They do.  Each gospel, along with the book of Acts, as well as, other New Testament writings and the Old Testament too, all underscore the human need to forgive and be forgiven.   
The idea of the ‘Forgiveness of Sins’ (a phrase used 10 times in the NT, whereas the word is used over 144 times) has been understood, both in the Bible and in the history of the Christian Church, as one of the most essential components of God’s saving work through Jesus Christ.   As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it when he was charged with daunting task of helping with the healing and reconciliation after Apartheid, ‘Without Forgiveness, there is no Future!”   That’s true everywhere, not just in South Africa.

One of the most incredible stories of forgiveness comes out of the dark period of Apartheid, began with a black woman, whose child was murdered, took the stand to tell the truth.  After describing with painful detail how her child was wrongly murdered, even while the whole ordeal was watched and approved of by a white police chief, that mother then turned toward him and deliberately forgave him in one of the most heroic and historic reconciling moves ever recorded in human history.   
         What that story reminds us is that at its very core, forgiveness is a ‘gift’.   This is exactly what we see Jesus doing on the cross.   After Jesus was falsely and wrongly accused, he was taken to the cross to be ‘crucified’ between two thieves.  Then, even while soldiers were gambling over his clothes and as passersby were mocking him, Jesus unexpectedly says “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” 
         There are reasons that other gospels don’t include this word from the cross, just like there is very good reason Luke does.   This act Jesus takes us to the core of how Luke interprets Jesus’ death.  Jesus has come “to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. (Lk. 1:77 NRS).  
         God’s desire to forgive is quickly revealed in the Old Testament.  After God gave the Ten Commandments, God then gave instructions on how Israel’s priests where to carry out both the religious and communal practice of the forgiving sins (See Lev. Ch. 4&5).  Through animal sacrifice, burnt offerings, and the releasing of a scapegoat into the wilderness, ancient Israelites obtained forgiveness as a healing gift from their God.   Just like God had given Israel the law as a ‘gift’ for their life together with God, God also gave Israel ways to deal with their inability to perfectly obey God’s law.   Both where considered to be gifts from a holy, loving, life-giving God.
Perhaps we can also understand how, out of this ancient practice of sacrifice and forgiveness, Jesus came to be called ‘the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).   What is more difficult to explain is exactly how this ‘gift’ of forgiveness comes to those of us who aren’t part of that sacrificial tradition.   In Luke’s gospel Jesus is clearly asking God the Father to ‘forgive’ those Roman soldiers who were crucifying him because they were just doing their job.   That’s not so hard to grasp.  What is more challenging is to try to understand how Jesus’ death became a ‘once and for all’ sacrifice for the forgiveness of all sins (Heb. 9:26).   How did the death of a rejected Jewish Messiah make a way of ‘forgiveness’ for the whole world?    
 There has been, throughout 2,000 of Christian Faith, much speculation and theories the meaning of Jesus’ death.   We won’t name them here, but what we must recognize, beyond all those speculations, is that from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus’ own primary mission was to forgive sins (Mark 2).  Then, since the very first sermon ever preached at Pentecost, churches and their preachers have been proclaiming and offering forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ as God’s universal saving gift (Acts 2).
         Interestingly, we also find near the end of Luke’s gospel that the resurrected, but still unrecognized Jesus, explained to two of his unnamed disciples that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead so that ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins might be proclaimed in (Jesus’) name to the nations...’ (Luk. 24: 47).  Each in their own way; the gospels of John (20:23), Matthew (26:28), and Mark (2:10) make ‘forgiveness’ the most important ‘gift’ God gives to the world through Jesus the Christ.     
         When you go on to consider the Paul’s letters, which is the largest section of the New Testament, you’ll find Paul hammering (no pun intended) this most elemental truth over and over; that Christ ‘died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3).  And not only that, with even more detail, Paul wrote to the Galatians that Jesus ‘gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father...” (Gal. 1:4).  This understanding that Jesus died, according to God’s will, so that he would become the ‘atoning sacrifice...for the sins of the whole world’ is the most important result of the death of Jesus Christ (1 Jo. 2:2).  But still, we’re never fully told exactly how this ‘gift’ of forgiveness works.   We are only informed, as Paul wrote to the Romans, that forgiveness is ‘the free gift of God’ that gives ‘eternal life’ because ‘the wages of sin’ and ‘death’ have been overcome through Jesus Christ (Rom 3: 23-25; 6:23).
         Why are we never given any full, biblical explanation or speculation of how forgiveness works?  Perhaps the reason is quite simple.  As the Bible expresses it several times, God’s forgiveness works the same way it always has, ever since ‘the foundation of the world’ (Heb. 4:3, 9:26; 1 Pet. 1:20, Rev. 13:8).  For when you study sacrificial offerings in the OT, you’ll understand that forgiveness was never accomplished by humans, nor through priests, or animals, but forgiveness was already there, always present and available in the heart of God, even before the world’s beginning.   People never earned, paid for, or appeased God’s anger to receive forgiveness, but forgiveness was a gift that was constantly offered by the sincere acknowledging of sin, which was what all those forms of sacrifices where about (See Forgiveness in Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Abingdon Press, 1962).  
God’s forgiveness was there, all the time, deep within God’s heart of mercy and compassion, needing only to be appropriated through the proper approach and response of the sinner.   This is what it means to say that Christ was the sacrifice, who was already prepared before ‘the foundation of the world’.   God has always been ready and is always willing to forgive sin, but this forgiveness must be received with the proper attitude of heart and mind.  This gift of forgiving mercy is appropriated by approaching God with a ‘humble’, contrite, and repentant ‘heart’ (Psalm 51: 17, Isa. 57:15; 66:2,  James 4: 6-10).

The right attitude of heart and mind is necessary for forgiveness because not only is God loving and compassionate toward us, God is also holy.  And God’s holiness is not the flip side of God’s love, but God is a holy love that is true, faithful and life-giving.  As we all know too well, even the beauty of love, the greatest of all human virtues, becomes corrupted, destructive and cannot sustain life without a proper regard for what is right, what must be made holy, and must be kept sacred. 
I don’t mean to get too deep here, but coming to grips with how a holy God loves and forgives sin without becoming defiled or degraded by human sin has always required some serious reflection.  Our human desire to know this God who is holy love is part of what enables us to appropriate and fully receive God’s forgiveness.   For only the God who maintains the perfect balance of holiness and love has the capacity to give life, to sustain life, and has the power to redeem from sin.  Thus, to maintain God’s holiness and the sacredness of life, the wages of sin must be death and destruction.  But God’s love also provides a saving process for redeeming us, but because this is God’s gift, it will maintain this perfect balance of both holiness and love.   
Understanding God’s holiness as suffering love is how Isaiah came to predict that only God’s suffering servant could bear human sin (53).  Also, by knowing that God’s suffering love can only be fulfilled in perfect holiness is why Jesus said the Messiah must suffer many things.  And since God always maintains this perfect, life-giving, soul-saving balance of holiness and love, even the free-gift of forgiveness isn’t released into a broken, sinful world without there this balance being maintained.  It is this dreadful, but necessary cost of sin through suffering that reveals the cost that God’s love paid for our forgiveness on the cross.  This perfect balance of holiness and love is a balance that only God can maintain, and it is maintained by Jesus, who as God’s sinless Son, suffers both the wages of sin and the cost of holy love on the cross.   Through suffering love, this God of loves, maintains his holiness and forgives all our sin.    
  Without the wages of sin being maintained or paid, the balance of holiness and love wouldn’t be maintained so that life, love, and forgiveness itself would have no value whatsoever.  For only when the value of both holiness and love is maintained, can the redeeming value and power of forgiveness be maintained.  Although God eternally maintains the value of holiness, love and forgiveness within God’s self, this isn’t realized in a sinful, rebellious and broken world unless we choose to accept and share this value for ourselves.  And this is exactly why the death of Jesus is one death that human history must recall, remember and reverence.  Only in Jesus’s death, do we have the perfect revelation of God’s nature as holy, but forgiving love.
Valuing God and the costliness of forgiveness is not unlike the value we place on most everything, including money.  When as a child I asked my Dad what gives money its value, he pointed me to the gold at Fort Knox.  Then, when I went on to ask what gives gold it’s value, Dad’s surprising answer to me as a child, was simply that we humans do.  There is no value behind the value of anything, he explained, except the value we give it.  If we stop placing value in something, everything loses value.  It’s the same way with forgiveness.  If we lose ever sight of the great cost, suffering and pain that it takes for a holy God to forgive sin, then the value of life, love and holiness crashes into the darkness of nothingness and hopelessness.   
This deadly, unending and destructive loss of value, which can and does happen within the freedom God gives to humanity, is what Jesus himself named as the ‘sin (or blasphemy) against the Holy Spirit’. (Mark 3:28-29)  When humans cease to value what God values, or as Isaiah expressed it, when we ‘call what is good evil, and call what is evil good’ (Isa 5:20), we work against the life-giving, forgiving, Spirit of God who is holy love and maintains life through holy love. 
By our own choice not to value who God is, or not to value what God values, God’s power to redeem us is severed.  God’s power to save hasn’t stopped flowing toward us because we’ve committed some unforgivable sin, but in our own freedom and by our own choice not to value God or what God values, we have ‘shorted out’ God’s holy, redeeming, saving love because we make no value of it.  As my Dad explained, even what is valuable loses all value when place no value in it. 

         We prove the value of God’s free gift of forgiveness, not only by understanding it, but by practicing forgiveness ourselves and forgiving others.  We begin to practice the forgiveness that has come to us through Christ, by making the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Cor. 5:18) the high calling of our lives.  
         This is why in the Lord’s prayer, the request for God’s forgiveness for our sin is always linked with forgiving others (Luk 11:4).  It isn’t linked this way because God’s power to forgive depends on forgiveness, but our desire to forgive others proves that we have rightly understood and fully appropriated the cost and value of God’s forgiveness for us.
Forgive and you will be forgiven,’ Jesus also says (Luke 6:37).  And we ‘forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven us’ (Col. 3:13).  This means that we also offer forgiveness, even to the person who doesn’t deserve it, because this is what holy love offers to us.  It is not ‘out of the goodness of our own hearts’ that we forgive, but it is out of the goodness of God’s heart.   God seeks reconciliation with us, even when our lives are still broken by sin, and this message of reconciliation must also become our own ministry of reconciliation with others too.  
Len Sweet quotes an old Chinese proverb which offers this wise advice: “the person only seeks revenge should dig two graves. In other words, Sweet explains, ‘an attitude of unforgiving is ultimately an unforgiving death sentence.  Keeping and maintaining an unforgiving attitude, with an entrenched stance of hatred and vengeance, only leads towards one’s own spiritual death.  This is true because being “unforgiving” towards others is, ultimately, being “unforgiving” towards one’s self.’ The promise of peace and forgiveness isn’t received by us because we have ‘shorted out’ the flow of God’s holy, forgiving love.    
But Christ’s suffering love can still point us back to the free gift of God’s forgiving holy love.  For this gift to be realized in us, however, it must also be realized through us, by learning to trust in the same spiritual power that raised Jesus from the dead.   It is really incredible, isn’t it?  According to Luke, the very first thing the risen Christ does after his resurrection, was not to seek vengeance on all those who rejected or denied him.   As Luke reminds us, this holy, loving, and forgiving Jesus returns to send his disciples out on a mission to take God’s message of ‘repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations’ (24:47).   
Recently, I came across a most interesting article of hope and reconciliation in a Christian Magazine, reporting about a new church that meets every Monday night in a Barbershop in Durham, England.  James Rainey, who goes by the name Rusty (because of his red hair), started that church in the most unlikely place to find a church.  Rusty is also the most unlikely preacher because he has a tattoo across his throat the way folks in prison and gang members do.  Rusty is an unlikely Christian too.  He grew up in a local village where he was mistreated by his mum and dad.  He understands why some young people choose homelessness, and sleep outside in the cold to avoid their often addicted and abusive parents.  Rusty said that he tried going to church but also says he “couldn’t understand a word.”  
The Monday Night Church got started when Rusty and his friend Dan Northover, who now leads this work, began to invite people to come to the barbershop on Monday nights.  Dan, a university student minister working at Christ’s Church, was always interested in reaching people on the margins. Dan is an accountant, working three days a week to support his ministry habit. He says, “No one would ever choose me, a middle-class civil servant, to reach these guys.” But God has strange ways of reaching those he loves most.
This informal church gathering, made up of mostly homeless, ex-cons, on-again, off-again drug users, and otherwise marginalized people, was supercharged to grow when one of the most notorious offenders in Durham, with more than 100 convictions to her name, had been banned from being with children in her own family.  She met God while contemplating suicide in a prison cell. After coming to Monday Night Group, “she literally went ’round and banged on doors in the estate, telling people, ‘Come along, this is the most amazing thing,’” Dan recalled. The group grew from 15 to 35, outgrowing the barbershop.  After a failed stint at a Methodist church (“we freaked them out”), they found a home with the Salvation Army.
Dan speaks of the Monday Night Group as the greatest experience of church he could imagine. “I absolutely love it,” he said. “I can’t imagine going to church anywhere else.”   These are folks who’ve been kicked out of other churches, banned from whole cities, done hard time. Not a few are still addicts and alcoholics and have been for decades.  But they love God and they love one another. They still slip up and hate themselves for doing so. With their criminal convictions, many can’t get proper work. Dan admits,  “I learned early that our church is going to look more like Corinthians than Romans.” 
The focus is on everyday struggles, not lofty theology. The Monday Night Group is never going to feel pious, and moral failures will always have a life-or-death element to them. And they don’t rely on sudden conversions. Their model is less St. Paul on the road to Damascus and more St. Paul in the desert for three years preparing for his ministry.  Things are not that simple for the Monday Night Church.  Sometimes members vanish for months at a time—in prison or on a bender—and return asking for  forgiveness. This has been their pattern for decades. Everyone they love or who once loved them has given up on them. Not God. And so not this church.
The biblical model for this church is in the story about Jesus meeting the woman at the well in John 4.  Jesus confronts the woman with “everything I have ever done” in a way that is becomes good news for the woman.  Jesus knows her, but doesn’t condemn her because he loves and forgives her anyway.  After receiving such unexpected mercy, she goes back home to evangelize the people who’d long rejected her.
“These folks know they’re sinners,” Dan said. “They’ve been terribly hurt, they’ve hurt other people terribly. . . . These folks know they’re not all right. Everyone else in town knows it too.  But in a barbershop in Durham, England, God, still “welcomes the people no one else wants”  And this is exactly what has been in God’s heart since the foundation of the world.  It is the forgiveness of sins made possible, not based on what we’ve done, or not done, but it’s a forgiveness made possible through Jesus’ death for human sin on the cross.  Now, the opportunity to receive this holy, redeeming love has reappeared again, in a red-headed barber in northeast England. (Story is from the print edition of The Christian Century under the title “Monday night church.”,  Dec. 2019).
Could this story of holy, forgiving and redeeming love show up here again in our midst, on a Sunday, a Monday, or any other day?  I believe it could, because when we see the cross, lift up the cross, and live the cross, we are still revealing the forgiving and saving nature of God’s heart.  This forgiveness is God’s gift to us too, when we understand the cost and we humble ourselves before his cross.  Amen

Sunday, May 17, 2020

“Crucified...God’s Son”

A sermon based upon Mark 15: 21-39
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday May 24th, 2020 (4/10. How Jesus Saves.)

There’s no disputing that Jesus was crucified as a rejected, humiliated, and failed Jewish Messiah.  John’s gospel put makes that clear: ‘He came to his own, and his own did not accept him...” (1:11).   As a result, Jesus was horribly executed in a manner reserved for rebels and slaves, the lowest of the low. 
But what is so incredible is how within only a few years Christians were ‘boasting Jesus’ humiliating death (Gal. 6:14).  One wonders why they would have even repeated this story at all, let alone recall with such detail.   And why did they dare make the cross, not the resurrection, the focus of the church’s preaching?  The church’s first missionary wrote: ‘...For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.’ (1 Corinthians 2:1–2 NRSV). 
Did you catch that?  The apostle Paul was only interested in preaching the cross.  Why the cross?  He had just admitted how scandalous this is: ‘...we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:22–23 NRSV).  Have you thought about it?  How did an extreme method of execution become the central image of Christian faith and devotion?  Why isn’t Jesus’ death forgotten like all those thousands of others so cruelly executed by the Romans?  Again, why the cross?
We have 4 gospels telling us the same basic story about Jesus.   Nothing basic to any of those stories is contrary to another.  And what is most remarkable is that none of them try to hide, deny or cover up what happened to Jesus.  They spell it all out with the same, gruesome, horrific and even derogatory detail.   The central, climatic event  shared by all four gospels is the same: after a brief three-year ministry, mostly among the poor and the marginalized, then within one single week, when Jesus from Nazareth came to the big city of Jerusalem to make an argument for his message, he was quickly betrayed, arrested, put on trial, mocked and then cruelly crucified as a blasphemer and the worst kind of criminal, all at the wish of his own people.  
Because Churches have retold this story over and over each year and for centuries, especially at Easter, we tend to forget how strange it really is.   And even stranger still, we still preach that this gut-wrenching, graphically violent, depressing and disgusting event is ‘good news’.   We have called this the ‘most important story ever told’ in all human history, because we claim that this is how God has come to save the world through the death of our Savior, Jesus Christ.   

At the very center of this story, however, Jesus himself shouts a question that still haunts us: WHY?   Why is the great question from the cross and it is the greatest question about the cross, that we continually ask and confront, if we want to understand ‘why’ Jesus had to die in such a dastardly act of agony and torture. 
We should keep asking why, because it takes us to the heart of everything we should be considering about the cross.  Why did Jesus walk straight into this trap, knowing full-well what would happen  (Mark 8: 31, 14:7)?   Why did Judas, one of his own, betray this well-loved preacher for money, then hang himself (Judas 14:43)?  Why did the Roman governor allow this to happen under his watch, against his wish, realizing how ‘trumped up the charges were (Mark, 15:14)?  How could the crowd celebrate his arrival on Sunday but demand his crucifixion only six days later (Mark 11:9)?  Why did Jesus not speak up for his own defense  (Mark 15:4-5)?  Why did his closest disciples abandon him so quickly (Mark 14:50)? 
There are many other questions about this story, but when you step back from it and consider the whole ordeal, the most questionable part is how and why this God, who is said to be love, would abandon his only son.  Why did the Father allow his ‘beloved Son’ (Mk. 1:11; 9:7) to be mocked, humiliated, and to suffer like he did?   Why would God allow such a horrible, unjust, and demoralizing end to Jesus’ ministry and life?  Even if such a blood sacrifice was necessary to save us from sin (Heb. 9:22), why couldn’t Jesus have died in a more respectable, dignified and distinguished way.  Even sacrificial lambs received more humane treatment than this.
According to gospel accounts, Jesus asked the same question; not once but at least twice.  We are told that in the garden of Gethsemane, during the night just before he was arrested, Jesus prayed to the Father, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass? (Mark 14:35).  Somehow God’s will was no.  Then later, in his final moments of agony, Jesus is said to have let out a blood curdling scream: ‘My God why?  Why have you forsaken me!  (Mark 15: 34).   Neither on the cross, nor at the cross, are we given any direct answer from God, from Jesus, or from any gospel writer.  In all four accounts Jesus dies without commentary, without explanation, and in utter despair. 
There was nothing pretty, nothing attractive, and nothing glorious or boastful about this cross, so how could Paul dare glory in it (Gal. 4:14, KJV)?  And why did Peter, one of the disciples who denied Jesus, start preaching about the cross in his very first sermon (Acts 2:23)?  How did this horrible symbol of criminal execution, like a hangman’s noose, or electric chair, become the the primary image of the Christian faith?  How did crosses get to be adorned on churches, glorified on altars, and even glamorized on jewelry?  And why in the world did the church come to call the day Jesus was crucified ‘Good Friday when there’s most obviously nothing ‘good’ about it?
It really is ironic, don’t you think?   Some would even say it’s quite morbid too, that at the center of a faith that preaches love and peace stands the cruelest from of human or maybe even divine violence?  Yet, the cross is still proclaimed to be the definitive, saving, redemptive act of God (Eph. 2:16) and to be the way God reconciles himself with the whole world (2 Cor. 5:19).  So, if God did plan it, approve it, or even demand it, then why did God allow the cross?
To raise this question of ‘why’ is even more urgent and necessary for us to take seriously today.  For most faithful believers, the cross has gone unquestioned for centuries, but with so much increasing violence in our world, whether it be increasing public and mass shootings, or be with the constant threat of ‘terror’ in the name of a religion,  now, more than ever, we need to reconsider ‘why’ God allowed the violent way of the cross as the way to pay the cost of human redemption. 
To get the ‘cross’ wrong, would not only lead to more misinformation, it could even make the God of our salvation seem to be a ‘moral monster’ (as some have named him),  who demands violence as the way to save and redeem.  It makes God look like nothing more than one of those primitive ideas that demanded that a beautiful maiden to be thrown into a volcano to placate the anger of the gods.  Is this what the cross of Jesus must be reduced too; God throwing his Son Jesus ‘under the bus’ so that we can be saved?   Isn’t this the kind of misunderstanding we need to correct if the gospel will have a positive and saving impact today?  
A good example of a mistaken, and possibly even dangerous misunderstanding of the cross comes from Tony Jones, a former youth minister who currently teaches Christian Theology.  Jones tells of once taking his youth to a Christian camp where there was a very charismatic preacher.  In his preaching one night, he told them long, detailed story about a poor peasant woman in Russia who lived with her toddler daughter in a dismal, Soviet-era apartment. They had a horrible life, he told, but at least they had each other.
 Then, one night as they were sleeping, the shoddy Communist construction gave way during an earthquake, and the building collapsed on top of them. The mother was pinned beneath a huge piece of concrete. Miraculously, the young girl was unharmed, but they were both trapped in the rubble, with no way of escape.
A day passed, but no one came to their rescue. The little girl began to grow weak, and she complained to her mother that she was hungry and thirsty. Another day passed, and the mother began lapsing in and out of consciousness. She knew that her young child would die of dehydration soon if she didn’t do something.  On the third day, the mother realized that she was going to have to make a sacrifice for her daughter. So she reached out for a piece of broken glass, and she slashed open her palm and directed her daughter to drink her blood in order to survive. The girl did as she was told, and she was finally rescued. The mother died.”

After telling this story, the speaker concluded: “Jesus is like that Russian mother.  He loved you that much!  When Jesus died, he saw your face!  God hated you because of your sin, because when a holy God looks at you, all he sees is your sin.  But on the cross Jesus stood between you and this holy, angry, untouchable God.  Now, when God looks at with holy and righteous anger, he doesn’t see your sin anymore, he only sees Jesus.  But this only happen because Jesus’s blood was shed for you.  Tonight, you have a chance to drink the blood from Jesus’ hand.  You can either stay and pray with a counselor, or there is hot chocolate and popcorn out in the lobby.
”(Did God Kill Jesus?: Searching for Love in History's Most Famous Execution by Tony Jones, Kindle Ed.  P. 3).

What that youth evangelist preached may have a lot of emotion and sincerity too, but it was also full a lot of misunderstanding and half-truths.  At its heart, this misunderstanding wrongly separates Jesus as God in the flesh from God as the Father, who is in heaven.  When that evangelist claimed that God ‘hated us’ or that God ‘hated Jesus’ on the cross for us, that speaks contrary to the core Christian understanding given by Jesus who said ‘the Father and I (the Son) are one’ (Jn. 10:30).  In perhaps what could be considered the most important word about the cross, Paul said: ‘Even while we were sinners, God proves his love for us (not hate, Rom. 5:8).  This means love is why ‘one has died for all’ (2 Cor. 5:14), not hate.  Again, in the most clarifying word of all, Paul explained about the cross, that ‘all this is from God who reconciled us to himself’ through the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, for he makes is plan that this was NOT God killing Jesus for himself, nor for us, but that “ Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and has given us the ministry of reconciliation’ (2 COR. 5:17). 

With God’s love so carefully and concisely explained in Scripture, how could this youth evangelist have overlooked it?  What made him preach that God allowed the cross so he could love sinners, when John 3:16 most clearly states ‘For God’s so loved the world that he gave his only son’?   How could that preacher so carelessly have declared that Jesus had to die such a terrible, bloody, violent death so God can look us in the face and find a way to save ‘dirty rotten scoundrels’ like us?  

Is this really the biblical understanding?   Is this what Paul and the early church found reason to boast about?  Did the cross enable God to love us to save us, or does God save through the cross because God already loves us?    

         I’m sure some of you are thinking what does this matter.   What does it really matter whether God killed Jesus so he could save us or whether Jesus died because God loves us?   It’s all semantics, right?  It like a bunch of preachers arguing about how many angels can sit on the head of a pin.  It’s a mystery we can’t understand.  Right?
Well, while there is certainly a mystery to the cross that no human can completely fathom, there is also a most basic message to cross we desperately must understand for God’s sake, for goodness sakes, for our own sakes, and for the sake of the world too.  This message is to clearly state why Jesus came as God in the flesh to suffer as a ‘single sacrifice for sins’ (Heb. 10:12) for ‘the forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 5:31, 13:38, Col. 1:14, and to give his life ‘as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45, 1 Tim. 2:6).   
JESUS DIED BECAUSE OF SIN.  If you read just a couple of lines after Paul spoke of God being ‘in Christ’ reconciling the world back to himself and how God now gives us ‘this ministry of reconciliation’, you’ll read something else about the cross.  This line takes behind the ‘bright side’ of ‘love’ at the cross, speaking directly of the cost and even the demand of having such love.   Paul wrote, For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21). 
We come to the fulfilment of Jesus being ‘made’ sin, and paying the cost of God’s love, when on the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me!”     While this was certainly Jesus quoting from the Psalms (22),  Jesus quotes this Psalm that begins in suffering but ends in deliverance not by accident, but Jesus quoted from this Scripture because Scripture was being fulfilled in his experience of suffering and forsakenness in a way that had to happen.   This kind of ‘suffering’ had to happen so that on the cross God’s holy love could be revealed as a suffering love that that is for sinners,  rather than against sinners, so, as Paul said, ‘we might become the righteousness of God’.  
Here, I think, is what that Youth Evangelist was trying express, but did so badly.   When he said ‘God hated you because of your sin’ and that ‘when God looks at you, all he sees is your sin’, he was trying to make a point about how bad sin is.   That’s definitely a point youth everyone still needs to understand.   All of us, not just youth, need to understand what sin does to us.   Sin is not only ‘to fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23), but sin is also about what can become evil, what is destructive to us, others, and this world, and what will eventually overtake us as ‘death’.  Sin is indeed, about some very real, painful, and dangerous matters.   We may want to avoid talk about it, facing it, confessing it, and live in denial of it, but sin is, as one person put it, the most objective, verifiable truth in the Bible and in the world.   As the Lord had the first very serious talk with a human about sin, when Cain became jealous of his brother’s sacrifice,  “If you do not do well,  sin is lurking at the door; it’s desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7).
Sin is serious stuff, and it was sin that cost Jesus his life, but is it correct to say that God hates us or hates Jesus because of our sin?   Isn’t this to read Christ’s ‘forsakenness’ in a most negative way?   And isn’t this also a way that could make people think of the God of the Bible as a ‘moral monster’ rather than as the God who is “gracious’ and shows ‘mercy’ (Ex. 33:19), as he revealed himself to Moses?   
In thinking about how people still misunderstand God’s anger at sin, I recall what one of the former communist youth in Germany asked me many years ago.  I was trying to explain the concept of sin to him, for the very first time when he asked: “Why does God hate us, when we are the only people God has?”  That’s how a young person once misunderstood the good news of the gospel, but it’s also how that youth evangelist was misunderstanding, and how many others still misunderstand what it means when the Bible says Jesus ‘was made to be sin for us’ and experienced being ‘forsaken’ by God on the cross.   
In the Scripture we are told that God is holy (Lev. 11:44), and that God demands a ‘holy sacrifice that is pleasing and acceptable (Rom. 12:1).  But God’s demand for holiness isn’t about God hating sinners but God’s holiness is about God’s ‘hate’ of sin and what sin does to us and his creation.   Certainly God ‘hates’ what our sin does to does to our relationship with him and with each other?    Sin is destructive and this is most certainly why God hates sin.  
Furthermore, let’s be clear, it wasn’t God who put Jesus on the cross, it was human sinfulness that put Jesus on the cross, not God.   Thus, it is most correct to say that Jesus died on the cross because of our sin.  It was human sin that put Jesus on the cross.  You can see human sin everywhere around the cross.  You see it in Judas who betrayed him.  You see in in the High Priests who had him arrested and tried him.  You see it in the people who turned on him.   And you see sin in the political power games of the Roman empire, who crucified him.   One way to rightly understand the cross is that the cross is about how a humble, innocent, and blameless life was being taken away and snuffed out by the destructiveness of human sin.
JESUS DIED FOR OUR SINS   It is also important that we understand that Jesus’s death was more than Jesus dying as an innocent victim due to human sinfulness.   This is exactly what lead to the church’s boasting about the cross, and the very key message of the cross, about this “Messiah” or Christ who ‘died for our sins in accordance to the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3).   How did it move from Jesus dying because of sin, to Jesus dying for our sins?’
You can observe it already happening in Acts 2, when Peter preached the very first Christian sermon on the day of Pentecost.   After Peter preached about God’s saving work in history and he made the most obvious point to the Jewish crowd, that ‘this Jesus, you crucified’ (v. 36); died because of their sin. 
But then, in the very next breath, Peter quickly went on to explain how God ‘raised Jesus up’ (v. 32) and how he now ‘sits at God’s right hand of power (v.33).  Hearing this, being ‘cut to the heart’, fully recognizing their own complicity in this injustice, which was not only against Jesus but against God, they asked the disciples:  What we should do’?  The answer Peter and the disciples gave took them immediately beyond the guilt, shame, blame or remorse, saying: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:38).   
Isn’t this the impact God intended the message of the cross to have all along?   After God raised Jesus from the dead, the people came to see their own sins at the cross.   But they were able to understand their sin not because God hated them because of their sins, but here, on the other side of the Resurrection,  people began to understand that even at the cross, even while they were killing Jesus, and even while we were enemies of God,  and we were at our lowest, weakest point, ‘at the right time’, Paul says, ‘God demonstrated his love for us’.   As one theologian has put it, God doesn’t give us the full understanding of sin, until we first begin to grasp how much God loved us when  died for our sins’ or as Paul also says,  when Jesus made the ‘atoning sacrifice’ for our sins on the cross.
JESUS DIED WITH US IN OUR SIN.  What does this mean for us today?  What does it mean and what should it mean that Jesus ‘died for our sins according to the Scripture’, or as Paul explained elsewhere to the Romans,  that ‘God put (Jesus) forward as the ‘atoning sacrifice’ (NRSV, CSB) or the ‘propitiation’ (KJV, NASB), which means something like an appeasing a god, a payment for a debt, or as Jesus himself said, a ‘ransom’ for sin in his own blood (ROM 3:25).   How does this work?  How did it work then, and how does it work now?   If God doesn’t hate us because of our sin, and God desires to forgive us of our sins, why did Jesus have to die to become the final ‘atoning sacrifice’ for sin?
         Interestingly, the New Testament doesn’t tell us that this means anything other than that this is what God did to demonstrate his love for us.  This propitiation or  ransom was being made by Jesus who was God himself reconciling us.  In that moment, at that place and in this person of history, Jesus of Nazareth, we have the ultimate, unmistakable revelation of God’s love for sinners and the God’s own sacrifice to forgive sinners, which is made known in the suffering of God’s son. 
God was not sitting in Heaven with hate for us, demanding that Jesus satisfy God’s thirst for blood, his wrath or his righteous angry heart.  When Jesus gave his sinless life for life lived under the rule of sin, substituting himself to death, so the God’s wrath and the wages of sin do not eternally fall upon us,  Scripture makes is clear that no one, not even God the Father, actually took Jesus’ life, but as Jesus himself explained,  I lay it down of my own accord. ‘I have the power to lay it down,’ Jesus said, ‘and I have the power to take it back up again.  This is the command I have from my Father” (Jn. 10: 18-19).   
According to this, through Jesus, God bore our sins and took our sin and sin’s consequences fully upon himself.  God ‘commanded’ Jesus’ death because God himself came down and was ‘in Christ reconciling the world to himself’.    There must never be any separation between what Jesus does and God does, or you will make God out to be a moral monster.   It is only in Jesus that we know the true nature of this God ‘who loved the world’ and is love in the world   This is what it means to say that Jesus not only died because of our sin and for our sin, but Jesus also died with us in our sin.  Jesus paid it all because, through Jesus, God came to be with to take it all upon himself.    
This suffering and ‘crucifixion’ of God in Christ for us matters because Christian faith is cross-centered.  The cross fulfills what the prophets dreamed of long ago, when they hoped for God to come down and be “Emmanuel”,God with us’.  To be God with us meant that God had to become one of us and suffer sin and death just like we do, even though he was without sin’ (Heb. 4:15).  Through God’s suffering love, the cost and consequences human rebellion and brokenness has been paid by this God who suffers for us, loves the whole ‘world’, and still wills to redeem it.   
 “By his stripes we are healed...” Isaiah prophesied.   The way we receive this healing and salvation, is when you, ‘by grace, through faith’ receive this ‘gift of God’ that you can never give yourself, the gift of God’s forgiving grace and his undying love. 
         I still feel like I haven’t fully explained what this means for us today.   Yes, it means that Jesus died because of our sins too, and Jesus died for our sins, and that Jesus died with us, and we can die with Christ, as the Scripture says.  But since I gave you a story about how a Youth Evangelist got it wrong,  I feel I need to conclude by giving you an example of how we can ‘get it right’; how we can make Jesus’ ‘atoning sacrifice’ mean something to us, that is most practical, for our every-day lives.   
Of course, the cross can mean many things, but this is one thing about bearing sin and changing us with ‘dying love’ that we must know.   The story comes from another youth minister who was teaching a Sunday School class uses three students to point to what Jesus’ death means.
He asks one student to pretend to step on another student’s toes.  “Now, how do you naturally want to respond when someone hurts you?”  He asks.
Of course the answer is that you want to respond by hitting back, getting even, and making the person pay for hurting you, and what happens in most situations is that this can get out of hand really fast.   This is the way sin works.  It happens all the times between individuals, between families, and even between nations.   Normally, this is the stuff of our human brokenness; hurt, anger, revenge and violence which results in ‘wars and rumors of wars’ on and on.    This what we do to each other, and it’s what we do to God too.
“What happens in sin is not so much breaking a rule or a law”, the youth minister explains, but sin is what we do when we hurt somebody.   The same is true of our relationship with God.   We hurt God when we deliberately choose to ignore him and do our own thing.    Adam and Eve’s sin was so much that they disobeyed a rule God set up, but it was that ‘God, we don’t need you, want you and we will do our own thing!’  That’s the heart of what sin is.
But what if, the youth minister says, when these two students are ready for a final showdown and about to hurt each other more, that another student jumps into the middle, protecting them from each other’s blows and taking all the blows upon himself.   Then, after taking all the blows, this third student gets up and embraces the other two.  He loves them.  He forgives them and now they can forgive each other.  This cycle of revenge and violence needs to be put to an end  (From Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross,  Mark Baker, ed,  p. 73-76).    
Jesus loved to the end and came back from the dead and sent his disciples into the world with a message of God’s forgiveness and love, not anger and revenge. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, reconciling us back to God, now we can be reconciled to God and to each other too.
So, where does this leave us as we walk away from Mark’s picture of the cross.   As I said, there’s no real explanation or commentary, except from a by-standing Roman Commander who could not hold back, and after considering everything that just happened before his yes said, ‘Truly, this was the Son of God’. 
Now, this Roman probably didn’t mean how we might mean it.  When he saw God’s suffering love revealed right before his own eyes, he was saying that Jesus died in the same way a god would die?  For you see, the title Son of God was reserved only for Caesars, rulers who were understood to be divine on earth. 
Little did this Centurion realize how he spoke, not just a truth, but the truth, which still the truth that can transform human hearts.   This solider shows us how his own heart was already being transformed by this Jesus, who was not only dying like a god, but who was truly God’s son on the cross.  How and when do you know that a man is dying like a god would die?  The answer is when that man is dying, not because of himself nor for himself, but when this man is dying for something or someone other than himself, then too can be transformed by such undying love. 
What about you?   Have you been transformed by God’s love revealed for you on the cross of Jesus Christ?  God didn’t send Jesus because he ‘hated you’, but God hates what sin does to your relationship with him and with each other.  This is why God allowed Jesus to die in the shape of outstretched arms.  This is God's love in the man dying on the cross.  Amen