Note from CM: Today we welcome Rob Grayson, one of our readers from across the pond. Rob is a freelance translator living in the middle of England. He finally pulled his finger out and began blogging last year, and since then he’s barely looked back. He writes on theology and faith in an attempt to strip away layers of Christian culture and find the truth embodied in Jesus. Other than writing, his hobbies include playing the piano and guitar and buying more theological books than he can possibly read.
I’m looking forward to a good discussion on Rob’s post today — in which he sets forth some interesting and challenging ideas about the Cross, which of course is a central theme in this Lenten season.
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Sacrificial religion and violent power have been close allies since time immemorial.
By sacrificial religion, I mean the belief that God must be appeased through blood sacrifices. And by violent power, I mean the enforcement of one’s will through coercive means. Each of these on its own is problematic; put them together and place them in the hands not only of individuals but of nations and empires, and they wreak havoc.
In the Bible, we first see them come together when Cain kills Abel. The same old story is then re-enacted in myriad ways and forms down the centuries: violent power is used to impose the will of a people group, a nation or an empire on others, and sacrifices are offered to various Gods – including Israel’s God Yahweh – to keep them happy.
Fast-forward to first century Palestine. The ingredients are in place: a religious machine geared towards maintaining an almost unending flow of blood to keep God happy, and a mighty occupying force determined to keep the people under its heel. And notice how the occupying power is quite happy to collude with the religious system, and vice versa, if it is expedient for both of them to do so.
And so we have it: sacrificial religion sentences Jesus to death, and violent power supplies the apparatus of execution and supervises the gruesome proceedings. It’s the perfect marriage: Caiaphas and Pilate working together to murder the Son of God. No doubt they congratulated themselves on the neatness of their solution: for Caiaphas, it was expedient that one man should die for the people, and for Pilate, the life of one wandering Galilean was an inconsequential price to pay to keep those troublesome Jews from rising up and making trouble. Job done, everyone happy, the world rolls on.
But watch now: what neither Caiaphas nor Pilate realise is that their own lust for power and control will be their undoing; one might say they are hoist by their own petard. They think that, by violently taking Jesus’ life, they are protecting their interests and keeping the well-oiled machine working. But God is ahead of the game; He gets inside their plans and uses their own evil schemes and deeds to expose and rip apart the very system they are bent on protecting.
In short, God makes a brilliant, subversive and game-changing move. Neither Caiaphas nor Pilate took Jesus’ life; the blameless Lamb of God laid it down in the supreme act of self-giving sacrifice. And three days later came the crowning move, the pièce de résistance in God’s master plan. In rising from the grave, Jesus made a public spectacle of the principalities and powers: he exposed the sham of sacrificial religion and showed up violent power for what it was – the broad road that always and without fail leads to destruction.
Jesus did not die because God had an anger problem and needed to be appeased. God does not change; as He is about reconciliation now, so He always has been about reconciliation. No, Jesus died to take on the effects of our malice, rivalry and self-centredness and reflect them back at us in all their undisguised ugliness. He died because it was the only way to expose the inescapable fact that the wages of sin is death.
In short, God did not have an anger problem; we had a violence problem.
Sacrificial religion and violent power might look impressive and keep society’s winners and losers in place for a time, but they are both ultimately antichrist and lead to death. Those who live by the sword die by the sword, and those who swear by sacrificial religion might just end up being the ones lying dead on the altar one day.
God did not kill Jesus; Jesus’ death was the result of our sins sinned into him at Calvary. Let us not make the mistake of thinking that, had we been in Jerusalem that fateful day, we would have clung to the foot of the cross like the beloved John, faithful to the end. Much more likely, you and I would have been in the crowd baying for blood and shouting Crucify him!
What Jesus did was to show and make possible a new way in which the only sacrifice is self-sacrifice and the only power is the weak power that chooses to lay down its life. Of course, to those entrenched in sacrificial religion and violent power, this new way makes about as much sense as a quiet picnic in the forest does to a warring street gang. But the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!