The Cross (Week 2): A God For All People - Kyle Hanawalt
Today is the Third Sunday of Lent in the church calendar — the 40 days that lead up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when churches mark Jesus’ death on the cross and then his resurrection. It’s a yearly rhythm to return to this pivotal part of Jesus’ story that supposedly more so than any other moment in history shows us what God is truly like.
This year, I got lent kicked off in a interesting way. At the beginning of March I was quoted in an article on the AV Club website. It was written by Randall Colburn, someone who is actually connected here at BLV and the article was a look back at the Movie “The Passion of the Christ” as it’s the 15th anniversary of the Movie’s release.
I would highly recommend the article, and not just because I was quoted in it but because I think Randall did a wonderful job of capturing what that movie meant to people like me who were teenagers growing up as Evangelicals.
The title of the piece was: The Passion of the Christ was the Blunt-Force Weapon Evangelicals Were Looking For
And that’s really resonates with how I grew up thinking of Jesus death on the cross. -- that in part by contemplating the brutality of Jesus’ death, I would develop a deeper sense of gratitude or appreciation for the sacrifice that Jesus made.
Not, just the sacrifice he made in general, but the sacrifice he made for me.
So, whether it was when I was watching the Passion, or it was when I was sitting at church while music played, I can still remember what it felt like to sit in that. The way it played out in my head went something like, every bit of suffering that Jesus went through was really mine to be had. I really deserved that punishment. That because of whatever thing I was feeling guilty about that week, that I lying to my teachers and parents about doing homework, or that I had joined in on teasing a kid a school, or that I had had some sexual thought come into my mind that I lingered on too long.
Whatever it was, I was guilty, that in the eyes of god, I rightfully should deserve some punishment for that transgression. Or I rightfully should need to do some pennance to make up for it. However, I get to experience a reprieve from that punishment, I get a pardon for my crime because Jesus took that beating, torture, and execution in my place. I would imagine it as if he literally, I was standing there and the sentence was given to me, but he pushed me aside, and said, I’ll take this for you. So, as I saw Jesus being tortured on screen, or as I sat there listening to music at church that so often utilized the violent imagery of the cross, things like washing in the blood Jesus, or your blood being spilled for me, or your blood covers me. I would find myself emotionally rising up. Find myself building up the passion, resolve, and motivation to live a life that wouldn’t make Jesus’ death in vein. This at least in the short term, produced a lot of very intense and earnest energy to be a committed and faithful Christian.
Something, that I remember feeling very important to me was that I was a real Christian, not a fake one. That the worst thing I could do would be luke warm in my faith. If I was going to do it, I was going to be sold out to it. This is something that I think Randall wonderfully describes in his article. Even in the title. “The Passion of the Christ was the Blunt force weapon evangelicals were looking for” The movie was never going to be a very effective tool for bringing unbelievers to faith.
However the extreme violence in the Passion might be the thing to shake up luke warm Christians. That seeing what was done to Jesus on their behalf might be just the thing to motivate them to be real, activated, and sold out Christians. And this was certainly the case for me. I was going to be sold out! Not one of those Christians who don’t live up the sacrifice Jesus made. Unfortunately, this also meant that I saw threat in things like doubt, and questions, and humility (As in acknowledging I don’t have it figured out)and learning from people who were not Christians, or at the very least - things those were things I had be very careful of, so that they did not lead me astray. So, when I inevitably came across doubt, and questions, I very quickly stopped going to church, because, in part it seemed like a thing of integrity to do. And I am not the only one I know that has experienced this. Vince and I have talked to many people who have told us that they don’t go to church because they are wrestling with what they believe and that it would be displaying some sort of lack of integrity to go to church while that was the case. Why? Well at least for me, it’s because my doubt was a sign that I was not sold out brought, that I would be a fake Christian, a Luke warm one. And honestly, it was better to not be there at all, if I could not be there and 100% sold out and certain in everything I believe.
So, years later when I returned to Church and starting rediscovering my faith. Jesus’ death on the cross was one of the pieces of my faith that took me the longest to return to. For me, the Cross just felt like a tool for emotional manipulation. In Randall’s words, a blunt force weapon, to invoke guilt and painful gratitude. Something to shame me into obedience. Think about the brualtity of what Jesus when through on the cross - the least you could do is be obedient to his commands And I have come to discover I am not the only one that has had a somewhat traumatic relationship with the cross. I know pastors, and spiritual leaders, who themselves talk of having to build up their relationships with God as a reliable, loving, trustworthy, non-aggressive and non-violent God, before they were able to again consider what Jesus’ death on the cross meant. when I was rebuilding my faith, I didn’t start with the cross, which as someone who grew up evangelical, it felt like I was doing something wrong. Everything begins and ends with the cross. Not to say that I think the cross as not important, but just to say that at that point of my life, I needed to find some healing to the hurt and trauma that the ideology of the Cross did to me, before I could rediscover what helpfulness it had So, as I started rebuilding my faith and began interacting with the Bible again, I found myself starting with two things from the Bible that were not Jesus on the Cross. 1st from the book of Genesis That we are all created in God’s image and thus we all have innate dignity that needs to be honored And we were made to be in relationship with God, and with other people. And then 2nd, from the Gospels, the Incarnation, that God became human, in Jesus, to help us in finding relationship with him and each other, who each have the divine within them. That the God of the universe became small so that he could come close. And over time those two things I think worked some healing in me, and after some years, I finally came back to the cross. And I found that it hit me in a very different way than it used to. And that I was seeing all sorts of meaning and value in the cross that I never saw when it was just a single use tool to manipulate me into guilt and a painful gratitude
And there is where I want to spend the rest of my time today, I want to show you the new meaning and value that jumped out to me when I first reread the story of the cross after a prolonged stretch of doubt and questioning in my faith. (PAUSE) Let me Read from Luke 23 -- one of the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ death on the cross. 44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 because the sun’s light failed. The temple curtain was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And after he said this he breathed his last. Which is a reference to psalm 31 when the famous Jewish King of old David in a place of despair said these words in hopeful surrender 47 Now when the centurion [or Roman guard] saw what had happened, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. Which in that culture was an act of sadness and regret 49 And all those who knew Jesus stood at a distance, and the women who had followed him from Galilee saw these things. There is a lot here and, if you didn’t hear Vince’s talk from the first week of lent, I would recommend it, because he I think really helpfully addressed a lot of the more challenging questions around the violence of the cross, that Jesus isn’t a sacrifice to save us from a God who requires violence. Jesus is God sacrificing himself to save us from our own violence which makes the statement of “Certainly this man was innocent!” feel more powerful to me.
However, I would like to draw our attention back to something that was in this passage that we might skim over as it doesn’t hold a lot of current cultural relevance.
And that is that at the moment of Jesus death, The temple curtain, or what was also known as the veil, was torn in two.
During the lifetime of Jesus, the holy temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life. Now, in the temple there was a veil or a curtain that separated the Holy of Holies—which was believed to be the earthly dwelling place of God’s presence—from the rest of the temple where men dwelt.
It was the veil that separated God’s presence from the rest of the world
And it was only the Jewish high priest who once a year was permitted to pass through the veil on the day of atonement.
When we read this line today, it just doesn’t mean much, it doesn’t stand out. However, to the original audience this would have jumped off the page in significance.
I had a Professor who once said that in terms of the eventual survival and spread of Christianity, this was the most impactful result of the cross.
Because, it meant that with Jesus death, he had torn down the curtain, opened up access to God presence to all the people of the world. It is often acknowledged by historians that key to the early success and growth of Christianity was that it was a faith available to all people. When the temple veil was torn, it showed this God does not just reside with one people group No nation has exclusive access to God No religion has exclusive access to God And no religious authority or elite is needed to access God (at the point of Jesus death the position of high priest was a political position that was bought with money and power.)
With Jesus death, and the tearing of the veil, God showed his heart to connect with All people in all cultures, and that he doesn’t require anyone to have to convert their culture to have access to him Before this, the belief was: if you wanted to connect with the good and loving god the Jews talked about (instead of some other ancient god), you had to convert to Judaism… which didn’t just mean what you believe about God, but also your cultural identity. This became the source of so many of the disagreements and fights of the early church. The most well known being the argument around circumcision. Jesus, and the way of Jesus that his first disciples began preaching, was magnetic to so many people -- this felt like water on dry land to people who were oppressed by the Roman empire or who were shamed or excluded or left in despair by the religious traditions they came from. So now suddenly there were all these people following Jesus who weren’t Jewish, who weren’t circumcised, there were people who came from different cultures, different nations, and different religions In fact the first recorded conversion from the book of Acts in the Bible was an Ethiopian Eunuch. Someone who was a cultural outsider Someone of a different race Someone of a different religion Someone from a different nation. What do we do with this new multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-perspective reality? Was a big question for the early church And it was during that time the Gospel of Luke was written to advise the early church -- drawing people’s attention to the temple veil being torn: Remember, that is what Jesus’ death on the Cross did! This God is a god who is for all people and all cultures! So what do we do? Whatever it is, if we’re not communicating a God for all people, then we’re not talking about the God of Jesus.
Now I stack this message of the Cross up against the “blunt-force weapon to manipulate” message I used to see. And, wow, they could not make me feel more different.
This feels kind to me. It feels inline with the rest of the life of Jesus. And with the kind and good God that I’ve encountered in my daily life when I pray. Not one that wants to guilt me into compliance, or manipulate me into devotion, but one who wants me to feel honored for where I uniquely come from, AND at the same time invite me to leave my small world and see more than just me, see more than just “my people.”.
This is random, but I was just talking to friends about the show Queer Eye and we were talking about how uplifting it is, how the goal of the show is not to transform someone into a something else, but rather help them find and walk in confidence of the person they really are. And one friend who grew up in churches said to me, I wish that is what evangelism looked like, what it looked like to help introduce other people to Jesus. Not telling them they are really terrible people who need to become different people altogether to be ok, but rather that God wants to honor where they come from AND help them become the most them they could ever be at the same time.
And that is kind of what I have in my mind when I think of Jesus’ death on the Cross resulting in the temple veil being torn.
God is constantly BOTH reforming and affirming people’s culture at the same time.
Every culture has blind spots, every culture had broken parts of it. And in those areas God is constantly reforming.
As an american living in a deeply individualist culture i see God affirming that I believe that I can change the world around me and that my effort can make an impact on the world, However, I think he is reforming me where I tend to think I only bear responsibility to myself, I find him reforming my sense of responsibility to others. And I have friends who come from highly collectivist cultures, where I see God affirming the instinctual care they have for other’s experience of life. But they also tell me that there can be a lot of pressure to do what is expected, and they feel God reforming their sense of value and belonging even when they don’t meet expectations. And this to me is The powerful implication of the veil being torn for us today, that God is here to engage us, meet us, resource us directly. God isn’t guilting us into obedience. He is dynamically leading us - not that we all need to become to the same or conform to some singular Christian ideal. No, he is compassionately affirming who we are and then uniquely healing and reforming the parts of who we are that need challenge or change And this feel so different than the anxiety I used to feel around being a real Christian.
The fear of being Luke Warm or not sold out enough, really motivated me to mirror the people around me that fit neatly into the real Christian camp. Yes, it produced some change, so I would feel more secure in my standing. But, it never lead me to ask some of the deep and hard questions of, what about me and where I came from, what about my worldview, or default assumptions need to be challenged and reformed. What uniquely about me is God reforming? And that is what I have discovered since, that God doesn’t want me to fit into a mold, he want me to become the best version of myself that nessiarily will look different than it looks for you.
So I think this all may put many of us in a place where some prayer right now might be helpful (perhaps you, like me, are trying to leave a message of guilt trips and manipulation behind when it comes to your relationship with Jesus?) so I’d love to pray for us!
But , there are two things you might try as a takeaway from this morning: First, ask yourself these two questions we’re getting at (or even direct them to God) What is God affirming about where I come from? What is God reforming about where I come from? And, second, who is someone you know, to whom you can extend God’s affirmation? Affirmation of where they come from and who they are.
Stand with me, and I’ll pray for us...