My thoughts have been expanded significantly since then, particularly with regard to the significance of non-violence in the Gospel. However, the essential framework of sin, sacrifice and suffering continue to help me to draw meaning out of Easter. Here's a brief summary:
The predominant contemporary understandings of sin tend to be almost exclusively moralistic and individualistic. Most people see sin as a personal moral transgression, either against one's neighbour or against God. Certainly we all have a responsibility to act justly in our relationships, but a closer reading of the Bible shows a wider conception of the meaning of sin.
Jesus revealed sin as a structural device which divided his society. It was deeply embedded in the honour/shame dichotomy of the culture, just as it was (and continues to be) in all forms of racial and religious discrimination, gender-based oppression, socio-economic class distinction and a multitude of ways in which people are defined as 'them' and 'us'.
Jesus is portrayed in the gospels as consistently destroying these dividing structures in both word and deed. When he says “Your sins are forgiven” he breaks those barriers and challenges people's understanding of sin, the Law and God. By eating with sinners, he reinforces this. In Matthew's gospel, the defining symbol of this boundary breaking way of life is the tearing of the temple curtain.
What does it mean to say that Jesus is a sacrifice for our sins? Sacrifice as a concept is as unfamiliar to us today as it was common knowledge in the ancient world. In fact we recoil (quite rightly) at the violence inflicted upon animals (and people) in the name of sacrifice. The gap in culture and time causes us to hesitate and to question the motives of a God who would require such sacrifices.
The problem here is compounded when all of the Jesus story is compressed into a particular sacrificial framework that effectively discounts the rest of his life. Some Christians view Jesus life as meaningless without his death, however I see his death as meaningless without his life.
Jesus life has much in common with the Hebrew prophets before him. He called people into a renewed relationship with God and he demonstrated what this would look like. Why should his death be seen differently? In the first chapter of Isaiah, we hear “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? … Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
We live in a society that is desperate to avoid suffering. We rush to dull pain with medication, alcohol, almost anything that we think might help. We are just as uncomfortable with the pain of others, fumbling for the words that will make everything better.
When we read the Passion story, we might well ask 'Why do the women stay at the cross?'. We have here a different picture to our own natural inclinations. Two things stand out:
1. They understand that running away from suffering is not an option.
2. They are committed to what the cross means.
The uncomfortable reality is that death is painful and so naturally we spend most of our lives avoiding it. Yet some things are unavoidable. A truth common to both Christianity and Buddhism is that suffering is inevitable. We can only get through it by looking beyond it – something that the Christian gospel offers in the Resurrection.
When we understand that life is not about avoiding suffering,
but redeeming suffering, we begin to experience the possibilities of resurrection
in our own lives and the lives of those around us.
“Those who have a radical hope for the victims of this word, who are not convinced that resignation is the last word…can include in their experience a hope analogous to that with which Jesus’ resurrection was first grasped and can direct their lives to taking the victims down from the cross. Furthermore, those who, in the midst of this history of crucifixion, celebrate what there is of fullness and have the freedom to give their own lives will, perhaps, not see history as nonsensical… but as the promise of a ‘more’ that touches us and draws us despite ourselves.”
Jon Sobrino (Christ the Liberator)