Friday, April 2, 2010

Making Sense of Good Friday: Sin, Sacrifice and Suffering

There's nothing like having to teach on a particular subject that will make you put that extra bit of effort into learning about it. The first time that I had to preach on Good Friday uncovered a whole range of anxieties, doubts and discomforts that I had been suppressing for some time. However it also became clear that I would no longer be able to hide from these but would have to face them in some way, to make sense of these most central parts of the Christian story for myself, if I was ever going to be able to communicate them in a meaningful way to others.

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.

When we understand sin as separation, we are called to live more inclusively


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.”

When we understand Jesus sacrifice as being more about the life he lead
than the death he died, it compels us to give our lives sacrificially as well.


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)


John T. said...

So, did Jesus die on the cross to bear the punishment for my sins so that I do not have to suffer the punishment when I die? Is this what salvation is?

I do not think so but this seems to be the basis of the christian celebration the execution of Jesus.

I notice you do not refer to substituted punishment in your considerations of Easter so I suspect you do not believe in it either.

Substituted punishment theory is not just one of many diverse ways of understanding Jesus that we should be tolerant of. It is just plain wrong, a lie, a fraud and has nothing to do with the bible story.

As for my take on Easter - there is no easter in the bible, it is a bullshit construction of Rome. At the last supper Jesus clearly located his life, mission and death in the context of the passover festival - the celebration of liberation from slavery - real political, economic and material slavery and liberation, not substituted punishment for personal sin.

The evening passsover sacrifice, that Jesus and the disciples had prepared for in the last supper and Jesus would have presided over had he not been arrested, was as much about liberation from Caesar as it was from Phaeroh. This is the real meaning of easter. The resurection has nothing to do with victory over my personal sins but is the victory over Roman domination of the holy land no matter how brutal that empire chose to be.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for these very articulate words about the meaning of Easter. They have helped give me some perspective on the passion narrative in the context of my broader faith and allowed me to be challenged again by the message.

Melissa Bantock.

David said...

If the death and resurrection of Jesus had something to do with destroying the power of sin and death, I'm not sure it really worked.

Evil is still present in the word. Maybe Jesus had better get back on the cross and have another shot at it.

To those more traditional Christians, the question could be asked, "Did Jesus die for the sins of Satan too?"

Should we be praying for the conversion of Satan to Christianity? It seems that if this can be achieved, all of those other problems would vanish.

So, this Easter, love your ultimate enemy, Satan. Don't waste your prayer time on trivialities such as world famine, cot death, and childhood cancer. Go for Satan's soul.

I'm sure deep down, that's what God really wants.

JDK said...

Sometimes the things you don't say can communicate as much as those things you try to put into words. And sometimes both strategies fail completely ;-)

David said...

I'd be careful about thinking highly of God just because he morphs into human form and does a three card resurrection trick. Jumping in and out of graves and walking through walls must be a walk in the park for God.

Of course, Christians are absolutely amazed at it all. And in this sense would prefer that it remain a mystery, to avoid the feeling of disillusionment that can come with understanding how a magician does his tricks.

The question I have is why God just doesn't magic the world better. As the world stands now, it's a really poor testimony to God's nature. God must be one really screwed up person.