I have never found the idea of Jesus’s death being a sacrifice a meaningful one. Quite the contrary. What sort of God needs to sacrifice his child in order to be at peace with what He has created? That sounds barbaric to me. I can understand why the first Jewish Christians understood Jesus death in those terms. They knew that His death, and more especially God’s raising Him from the dead, changed everything; they knew that it happened when lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple; they had been taught that God needed to be propitiated regularly for their sins, and that offering sacrifices was the means to do that. It must have been natural to them to think of Jesus’s death as the sacrifice that had changed everything.
But I’m not a first century Jewish Christian. I’m a twenty-first century Christian who knows from personal experience that God loves me unconditionally. As Paul wrote in Romans 8 “there is…nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” I seem to be unusual in having never known God as judgemental, but as accepting and loving. I guess that I owe that to my parents and the friendly little middle of the road Anglican church in which I grew into faith. But, if not as a sacrifice, what sense am I to make of Jesus’ death and resurrection?
The Gospels are clear that Jesus ministry began as a consequence of his baptism by John the Baptist, who proclaimed “a baptism in token of repentance [a change of direction], for the forgiveness of sins” [Mark 1:4]. Matthew was obviously embarrassed by the implication that Jesus must have had something to repent of, in order to come to John, and tries to explain it off. But I’m not convinced. I think it more likely that Jesus came for baptism precisely because He felt the need for forgiveness, and was then overwhelmed by hearing God speak to Him: “You are my beloved son, in you I take delight.” I think a spiritual experience of that magnitude is often preceded by a deep awareness of failure, but more of that later.
No wonder that He took Himself off into the wilderness to try and make some sense of this. If God loves him as a son, accepting & trusting him whatever he might have done in the past, without him offering any sacrifice, then what sort of God is this, and does this God want of him now, by way of a response?
When He returned He did so with a message rather different from that of John the Baptist. A change of direction was required not because of the threat of Divine judgement, but because the Kingdom of God is upon us, the Kingdom of the unconditionally loving Father God, of not just Jesus but of everybody. All are welcome in God’s Kingdom, as God’s children, no sacrifices are necessary. All that was required was that people trusted Jesus message about God, as some did.
In this Jesus was being feral, in trusting His own experience of God, rather than what the religious authorities of His day, said about God. He spoke with authority because He spoke from His own experience of God, not from what somebody else had told Him. Not surprisingly the religious authorities were not impressed: they felt threatened. Jesus was thrown out of the synagogue in Nazareth, and in time the religious authorities in Jerusalem would connive at His death.
The Gospel are full of Jesus teaching. He was a good Jew and taught that the key thing was that people should love God, and their neighbour, that was the fulfilling of the Jewish religious Law. But I’m fascinated by the fact that Jesus in His teaching rarely quoted the Jewish scriptures, instead it’s based on stories and incidents from everyday life, and most probably from His own experience.
He assumed that God would look after Him, and it seems that God did. Jesus was homeless, and there’s no hint that He ever expected or sought payment for His ministry. But angels were with Him in the wilderness, and angels in human form provided practical support [Luke 8:3 talks of women who provided for Jesus and the Twelve out of their own resources] and others welcomed Him & His followers into their homes. An anonymous man provided the Upper Room for the Last Supper. The loving God provided His son with friends & supporters.
Although He was thrown out of the synagogue in Nazareth, He managed to walk away unharmed. He we never arrested by the civil authorities. He must have known from the example of the Old Testament prophets that suffering was likely to be his lot, and that trusting His experience of God was unlikely to be an easy road, but would probably require Him to bear a cross on God’s behalf. He warned his followers about the need to take up their own crosses. But through it all He continued to trust the God Whom He knew. What He was doing He was doing for God, it was God’s calling that He was responding to.
Did He expect to be crucified? I’m not sure, but He must have known it was possible. Did He hope that the God Who had spoken to Him at His baptism, would rescue Him ? Maybe. But His cry of dereliction “My God, my God why have You forsaken me” was real and suggests that on the cross He wondered if He’d made a terrible mistake in his knowledge that he was the son of an unconditionally loving God. He doesn’t seem to have felt forsaken by friends & followers who had betrayed, denied and abandoned hIm, as He might well have done, but He did feel abandoned by God.
And then God raised Him from death, vindicating both Him personally, and perhaps more importantly, what He had taught about God being loving, accepting, and trusting. What Jesus made of that we have no record, He didn’t speak about it, rather He came to His followers with forgiveness, and the stories of their encounters are all about their being commissioned to continue His ministry, and promising them His continuing presence & support in doing so.
The Gospels begin and end with these very similar experiences like two bookends. First Jesus comes to John the Baptist to repent before God for something He did & to His surprise is overwhelmed by God’s response: an act of unconditional acceptance, love and commissioning. Then the Gospels end with the disciples full of despair & shame at their abandoning of Jesus, but then are overwhelmed by the Risen Jesus appearing to them with words of acceptance, forgiveness and commissioning. Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus follows the same pattern. Its one I know from personal experience and so do many others
I don’t believe that Jesus death and resurrection changed God into being a loving rather than a judgemental One, what it changed was human beings understanding of God. God revealed God-self through Jesus as delighting in all of creation, and offering all human beings a personal relationship which is loving, accepting and trusting, like the relationship Jesus had with God, and which He then showed to His followers after His resurrection: a relationship that transcends death as it does for Jesus. It fulfils the Jewish teaching about ‘Love God and love your neighbour’ as we seek to share the relationship we have with God with the rest of humankind. Much of the world doesn’t know this, and it wont be an easy road, but if we take up our own cross then we will find it as the way to Life as Jesus did.
Several things stand out for me.
Jesus died for God, for His belief in a God of Love. He didn’t die for us, He died because the religious institutions of His day found His message too threatening. His death & resurrection had huge implications for humankind, but He died for God.
He was led to do that because of His own personal experience of a God Who loved & accepted Him, and he incarnated that relationship with His followers. In doing so He trusted what he knew, over & above the religious wisdom of His day.
Our part, in the words of Malcolm Guite in ‘David’s Crown’ is to “Take up my part in the unfinished tale of Jesus’ risen life, once more renew My little role within the coming kingdom.”
For me that means following Jesus and, like Him, trusting my own experience of God, being open to God speaking through the everyday events of life, taking time apart to pray, and then trying to support other people in their following of Jesus, as they support me. There’s almost inevitably going to be a feral aspect to that, & some will find it threatening, but that’s just how it is.