Preaching against the Cross
by Ronald F. Marshall (September / October 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 5)
Some see Christ's crucifixion, the center of our proclamation, as depicting a God who uses violence and abuse. The author critiques these charges and suggests a way to preach the story as it has been given to us
Why is it that many more people are in church on Easter than on Good Friday? Could it be that we cannot stand hearing Isaiah 53 read on Good Friday? That reading is cast in the Good Friday liturgy to say that it was Jesus who was "stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted" for our salvation.1 It was Jesus and not some anonymous suffering servant in ancient Israel.
This divine attack on Jesus is hard to swallow. It leads to the bizarre belief that Jesus came "to save us from God."2 Jesus takes the punishment we had coming from God for our sinfulness. Rather than endure such a grotesque thought, Good Friday is skipped for Easter. Some churches aren't even open on Good Friday. Can you blame them?
But boycotting Good Friday is not enough. Many also want to change the message of Good Friday. S. Mark Heim is one of the most creative. Instead of having Jesus writhe on the cross — suffering under divine punishment — Heim imagines him as salvific fruit. This new paradigm unfolds miraculously. First Jesus turns himself into a mustard seed that carries divinity within. Next his followers throw the seed into a hole on a stony hill. Then a tree grows up from the seed, and its fruit is Jesus. Whoever eats of this fruit discovers God within — and enjoys the wonders of eternal life.
|Preaching the cross of Christ today therefore requires us to speak out against a cross that has gutted the crucifixion. As the Son bears our sorrows, so the Father bore his (Mt. 11:28-30). Abused children have no such comfort. But Jesus did.|
In this story the cross becomes a tree of life. In closing Heim laments how better off we would be "if Christians had made such a parable of spiritual self-discovery their text." Then we would not have been so "embarrassed by charges of victimization in our scriptures."3 But embarrassment would still plague Heim for his own ungrounded fantasy. In the end, all he accomplishes is to trade one embarrassment for another.
R. Kevin Seasoltz, general editor of Worship, has a less contentious idea. He proposes a shift of emphasis. Rather than seeing the cross as the place where God's anger is quelled or placated, it should be known as the place where God (1) decisively reveals the wickedness of violence and then (2) gives us the energy needed to resist the perpetuation of such unjustifiable violence.4
This shift will reconfigure worship as well. At the Eucharist we should not let the forgiveness of sins be prominent with its attending message of sin, shame, guilt, and sacrifice. We should instead celebrate not only "the Lord Jesus dead and risen but...also...ourselves and one another."5 The key theological justification for this is Seasoltz's view that the celebration of redemption should not turn God into "a child abuser. God did not choose the death of his Son as a solution to the problem of evil in the world. God chose to make people free and in creating them with freedom God permitted evil."6 But because Seasoltz fails to explain the difference between choosing and permitting, his proposal itself fails to improve the Eucharist in our time.
Heim and Seasoltz join the ranks of those many who see the traditional view of the cross as fostering a picture of God as a child abuser.7 God sends his only begotten Son into the meat-grinder of earthly humiliation, suffering, and execution so that his huge divine appetite for retribution may be finally satisfied. John 19:11 and Acts 2:23 clearly pin on God this violent attack on Jesus. "Against such an image of God the revolt of atheism is an act of pure religion."8 Therefore we should give up believing that Jesus "bore the weight of divine severity...and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God."9
But can we? As confessional Lutherans we are to hold that Jesus was punished "in our stead" and offered up his suffering "for us to his heavenly Father." By so doing he "bore the curse of the law and expiated and paid for all our sins," so that we could through faith in his suffering "re-enter the good graces of God."10 This is the good news. But how can we preach it if it is founded on divine child abuse?
Well, maybe it isn't. Maybe when Jesus bears his Father's wrath for our salvation, it isn't divine child abuse. Consider the following:
(1) There is no abuse in Jesus' passion because he is not forced to do it. He freely goes to the slaughter (Isa. 53:7).11 God's will is his will (Mt. 26:39; Jn. 12:27). Abused children are trapped and scared. Jesus is neither. At Gethsemane he expresses fear (Mt. 26:38), but this isn't because he feels trapped by God. It is rather because of the pain evil men are going to inflict on him. And even when he cries out against God on the cross (Mt. 27:46), there is still no abuse being registered. These words are not self-expressive. They rather are words spoken for us sinners, "in our name."12
(2) Jesus knew his death was for the good. By his death we are set free (Rom. 6:6, 22). This is glorious (Jn. 12:23). Abused children are sad and unfulfilled. Jesus was neither.
(3) Jesus knew Golgotha wasn't a dead end. Resurrection and exaltation would quickly follow on the heels of his crucifixion (Acts 5:31; Phil. 2:9-11). Hope was in his eyes. Abused children, on the contrary, are hopeless. Unlike them, Jesus could see the light at the end of the tunnel (Eph. 1:20-22).
(4) Jesus was held up with fatherly grief when he suffered and died. Just as Jesus wept when Lazarus died, so did the Father when his Son died, for those who have seen the Son have seen the Father (Jn. 11:35; 14:9). At Jesus' death the Father suffered the sorrow of "Sonlessness."13 As the Son bears our sorrows, so the Father bore his (Mt. 11:28-30). Abused children have no such comfort. But Jesus did.
(5) Jesus asks his beloved to suffer with him (Mt. 16:24-26; Acts 5:41; Col. 1:24). What he endures is good enough to share with those whom he loves. He has no horror stories to tell about his Father. Abused children do.
(6) Jesus' suffering and death doesn't make all sorrow, shame, and pain good (1 Pt. 4:15-16). Distinctions matter. But abused children can't think so clearly. They have been hit too often and too hard. Jesus had the peace of mind to see the differences between good and bad pain (Jn. 10:17-18; 2 Cor. 7:9-11). He was no abused child. He was too clear-headed for that.
These half dozen points substantially weaken the charge that God is a child abuser because of his substitutionary plan of salvation.14 They do so by placing that plan in the clarifying and justifying context of its origin.
Preaching the cross of Christ today, therefore, requires us to speak out against a cross that has gutted the crucifixion. I believe that the charges of divine child abuse have done just that. They must therefore be opposed.15And this is as Jesus would have it, for he himself "opposed whatever was not in keeping with the primary and fundamental truth of the Word."16
The case of the church during the Third Reich shows us how. Hitler, we are told, had "no objections to Christians who confessed that Jesus is Lord; but he was enraged when they confessed that Jesus is Lord and Hitler is not." In this case we see how "the negative exists...for the sake of definiteness and clarity."17 Adding the condemnation, "and Hitler is not," made all the difference for the positive confession that Jesus is Lord.
Our stand for Christ and him crucified must therefore be negative. We must put the lie to the charges that God abuses Jesus. In the face of these charges we must glorify the cross that now sits in a land of deep darkness. Indeed, we have been "beguiled by our established status to forget that to be a Christian is to be made part of an army against enemies." Indeed, we should preach "so truthfully that people will call us terrorists."18 And this "contestation" should not discourage us, for it "puts the Church into a situation that is surprisingly similar to the one in which it started out."19
Martin Luther King, Jr. knew about this need for changing the social status of the church. The year before he was gunned down, he warned that we are "conditioned to expect success and personal fulfillment; our preachers like to preach 'nice little soothing sermons on how to relax and how to be happy' or 'go ye into all the world and keep your blood pressure down and I will make you a well-adjusted personality.' But 'my Bible tells me that Good Friday comes before Easter,' and the cross is not a piece of jewelry you wear but something you die on."20 These riveting and faithful words should be sacrosanct for all preachers. They should be posted where we craft our sermons to keep us on track.
Now, a good sermon on the cross could well move through three verses. It could begin with, for instance, "Many of you live as enemies of the cross of Christ" (Phil. 3:18), move on to, "We are saved from the wrath of God by the blood of Christ" (Rom. 5:9), and then end with, "I will glory only in the cross of Christ" (Gal. 6:14). This would be its formal structure.21
For the sermon's content and commentary on the sermon's above verses, the first verse could make use of my seven points against the charges of divine child abuse. For the last two verses, material from the venerable Luther and Bonhoeffer could be used.22
First, these words from Martin Luther could be used for elaborating Romans 5:9:
If God's wrath is to be taken away from me and I am to obtain grace and forgiveness, some one must merit this; for God cannot be a friend of sin nor gracious to it, nor can he remit the punishment and wrath, unless payment and satisfaction be made. Now, no one, not even an angel of heaven, could make restitution for the infinite and irreparable injury and appease the eternal wrath of God which we had merited by our sins; except that eternal person, the Son of God himself, and he could do it only by taking our place, assuming our sins, and answering for them as though he himself were guilty of them. This is [what] our dear Lord and only Saviour and Mediator before God, Jesus Christ, did for us by his blood and death, in which he became a sacrifice for us; and with his purity, innocence, and righteousness, which was divine and eternal, he outweighed all sin and wrath he was compelled to bear on our account; yea, he entirely engulfed and swallowed it up, and his merit is so great that God is now satisfied and says, "If he wills thereby to save, then there shall be salvation."23
And for the elaboration of Galatians 6:14, these early words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's children's sermon could be used:
When God's Son said to God the Father, "I am drawn to the people," God-Father said to the Son, "It will have to be a path of degradation and humiliation that God's Son will walk among the people." And the Son answered, "I want to travel along that path." The God-Father speaks, "My wrath is great because of the evil of humanity. I have to deliver a severe punishment." And the Son speaks, "Lay all your wrath and your punishment on me. I will stand before you in the place of the people that you created and will obediently carry the burden of your wrath for the sin of the world." The Father speaks, "Son, my wrath is great." And the Son answers, "Father, your love is greater. I want to be the herald of your love while carrying the burden of your wrath and all humiliation. I myself want to be your love, which also goes where sin and malice and misery are, the love that will love the criminal, that tastes what it is to be abandoned by God, and proclaims that your love is brought even to those who lost faith in it. Wherever I will be on earth, there will your love be." Then God-Father kisses the Son with a holy kiss.24
These venerable words of Luther and Bonhoeffer could still fall flat if the preacher's heart isn't in it.25 Orrin Stone's prayer helps stir up the preacher. Pray it. Believe it. Memorize it. Then you will be ready to preach the cross. And may there be open and eager hearts to hear you, for we live in a time of a "lack of appetite" and "starvation amid plenty."26
O Lord, give me...the eye of an eagle that I may see sin from afar...Illumine my brow with a holy light that I will make the fires of hell look like a tallow candle. Bow my head down in humility, in that lonesome valley where the pearl of truth is much needed to be said. Grease my lips with possum oil to make it easy for love to slip out.... Turpentine my imagination; electrify my brain with the power of the Word. Put perpetual motion in my arms. Fill me full of the dynamite of Thy awful power; anoint me all over with the kerosene of Thy salvation, and then, O Lord, set me on fire with the spirit of the Holy Ghost. Amen.27
Ronald F. Marshall is pastor of First Lutheran Church of West Seattle, Seattle, Washington.
1. On the historical justification for "Isaiah-based Christianity," see John F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge: University Press, 1996), 4 and passim. For an argument against the strict association of Jesus with Isaiah 53, see Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 149. On Martin Luther's Commentary on Isaiah 53 (1544), which favors the strict association, see Marc Lienhard, Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ, trans. Edwin H. Robertson (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982), 359-69. The same association is in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1999), "By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant (§615). For a current defense of this association see Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 423, "The morphological fit between Isaiah 53 and the passion of Jesus continues to bear testimony to the common subject matter within the one divine economy."
2. Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 21. On God's violence toward Christ, see B. Hudson McLean, The Cursed Christ: Mediterranean Expulsion Rituals and Pauline Soteriology (Sheffield: Academic Press, 1996), who notes that while "God was active in transferring the curse from Christians to Christ," it does not follow that "it was God's cure" that was transferred (137).
3. S. Mark Heim, "Rethinking Christ's Sacrifice: Jesus as Visible Victim," The Christian Century (March 14, 2001), 19-23.
4. R. Kevin Seasoltz, "Human Victimization and Christ as Victim in the Eucharist," Worship 76 (March 2002), 98-124, 118-119.
5. Seasoltz, "Human Victimization and Christ as Victim," 109, 123. Note also that confessing our belief in the Communion of Saints is quite different from celebrating ourselves. We, unlike Christ Jesus, do not contribute to the salvation of the world, and so we should not be celebrated along with him in the Eucharist.
6. Seasoltz, "Human Victimization and Christ as Victim," 122.
7. For defenses of this allegation, see Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique, ed. Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn (New York: Pilgrim, 1989); C. J. den Heyer, Jesus and the Doctrine of the Atonement: Biblical Notes on a Controversial Topic, trans. John Bowden (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998); Darby Kathleen Ray, Deceiving the Devil: Atonement, Abuse, and Ransom (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2000); Jan McAvoy, The Satisfied Life: Medieval Women Mystics on Atonement (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2000); op. cit., Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary Contexts.
8. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity: Reclaiming the Missing Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001), 155.
9. Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) 29. We are also told to deconstruct "God the Omnipotent, God the Divine Child Abuser, God the King" (195). Omnipotence and kingship are also implicated in this critique because it requires a more massive overhaul of Christian teachings than is usually supposed. We are indebted to Brock and Parker for pointing this out.
10. Solid Declaration (1577), III.15; V.20. The Book of Concord, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 541, 561. On this Lutherans agree with Roman Catholics. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, "[Jesus] offered his life to his Father...in reparation for our disobedience" (§614). "Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father" (§615). "Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven" (§618). So we have good Lutheran and Catholic reasons to agree that "we dare not...reject...the notion that [Christ] bore His Father's punishment for our sins, for in this truth lies the very nerve of genuine Christianity. It is the major reason the cross is...an offense (1 Cor. 1:18)" John MacArthur, Jr. "Open Theism's Attack on the Atonement," 95-108 in Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism, ed., Douglas Wilson (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 201.
11. Richard John Neuhaus calls this freedom "collusion" between the Father and the Son. See his Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (New York: Basic Books, 2000) 221. Note also that my reading of the Bible is a canonical one that does not capitalize on individual biblical perspectives.
12. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §603.
13. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 243. See also Christina A. Baxter, "The Cursed Beloved: A Reconsideration of Penal Substitution," 54-72 in Atonement Today, ed. John Goldingay (London: SPCK, 1995); "There is no free lunch at the end of the universe even for God. But the cost of forgiveness is a cost to God; the cross is God's declaration and payment of that cost" (72).
14. This is so in spite of Richard Cross's ingenious argument in his article, "Atonement Without Satisfaction," Religious Studies 37 (December 2001): 397-406. In it he argues that we can make "sufficient reparation to God for our sins" because they "cause God no loss" (407, 403). But Cross can only muster this critique by disregarding the impact of sin on divine holiness. See Genesis 6:6 and Hebrews 10:26-31.
15. On this need see James R. Edwards, "The Jesus Scandal," Christianity Today (February 4, 2002), 76-77, "History requires a sad admission: Nowhere is Jesus more scandalous than among believers and in the church" (77). This does not mean, however, that these condemnations of God are obviously false. No, God cannot finally be exonerated on rationalistic grounds alone. In the end God also will have to be trusted for doing the right thing in sending Christ to die on the cross.
16. Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), Sign of Contradiction (New York: Seabury, 1979), 86.
17. Arthur C. Cochrane, The Church's Confession Under Hitler, second edition (1962; Pittsburgh: Pickwick, 1976), 211.
18. Stanley Hauerwas, "Preaching As Though We Had Enemies," First Things 53 (May 1995): 45-49, 47, 49.
19. Peter L. Berger, A Far Glory: The Quest for Faith in an Age of Credulity (New York: Free Press, 1992), 77. This point is also expressed in the call to destroy the argument in 2 Cor. 10:3-6.
20. Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America (New York: Oxford, 1995), 231.
21. For this structure see Apology XII.29. The Book of Concord, 185-86.
22. On the nobility of using classical materials in contemporary sermons, see "When Pastors Plagiarize," Christianity Today (December 9, 2002), 29, "[Sermons rightly understood are] not individualistic efforts but the work of the church."
23. Martin Luther, Sermon on Luke 24:36-47 (1544), WA 21:259.9-24; Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols., trans. and ed. John N. Lenker (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 2:344. Anthony W. Bartlett says this position of Luther's is "the most exaggerated expression" of substitutionary atonement theory in church history (Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement [Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press, 2001], 92). The Eastern Orthodox Church would criticize Luther similarly. On this critique see D. Bentley Hart, "A Gift Exceeding Every Debt: An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation of Anselm's Cur Deus Homo," Pro Ecclesia 7 (Summer 1998): 333-49, esp. pp. 343, 345, 347-49.
24. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Young Bonhoeffer: 1918-1927, trans. Mary C. Nebelsick (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 519. On how the atonement changes us for the good, see Robert C. Roberts, "Virtues and the Atonement of Christ: Analysis and Some Pastoral Proposals," Faith and Philosophy 19 (July 2002): 275-90, "[Through Christ's atonement] we are animated, out of gratitude and holy shame, to put on that love that is ours but perhaps still hanging, too little worn, in our closet" (288).
25. On this need see Paul W. F. Harms, "Persuaded Preachers, Forum Letter 29 (April 2000): 7-8, "If...the words and meaning of 'Christ nailed to the cross' is seen...as food and...oxygen, then the matter of preaching the cross indefatigably will have the tonal color of over-awed heralding rather than of the malaise and torpor of boredom" (8).
26. Fred B. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel, revised edition (St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2002), 24.
27. For All The Saints: A Prayer Book For and by the Church, 4 vols., ed. Frederick J. Schumacher with Dorothy A. Zelenko (Delhi, NY: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1994-1996), 3:1076-77. I changed the pronouns to make the prayer more personal.