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Cross Purposes:  Why Did Jesus Die?
IV.   To Confront the Void

  Psalm 31: 9-16; Matthew 21: 1-11; Philippians 2: 5-11

Palm/Passion Sunday/ 20th March 2005

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

My friend, Lawson Brown brought his camera to worship this morning at Holy Trinity Church in St. Andrews, Scotland.  They are commemorating Palm Sunday with a live donkey processing down its medieval aisle in a church where John Knox (1514-1572) felt the call to ministry and from which he later called for the destruction of the cathedral during the Reformation.  I wonder what Knox would say about a donkey in his church?  Before I arrived at my previous church in Mendham, the church had a donkey on Palm Sunday one year – they covered the red carpet in the aisles with plastic in case there was a mess.  I’ve always felt this was a bit ironic because Palm Sunday is a mess – it’s the beginning of a messy week.  There’s nothing tidy about it!

For centuries, churches love to re-enact this biblical story – the procession, the donkey, the palm-waving, the crowds offering their Hosannas of praise, all the drama.  We like the celebratory Jesus on his donkey.  But isn’t it ironic that re-enacting the crucifixion, well, that rarely happens?  It’s like the re-enactors who go back with their Romantic imaginations and wonder what it was like to be a knight in the court of an English king or a soldier in the Civil War (or more recently the Second World War).  I have to be careful here because my brother is a Civil War re-enactor.  But I find it striking that no one (to my knowledge) is trying to re-enact the First World War or Vietnam – maybe because the horror is still too real and what it tells us about ourselves is too great to bear. Not unlike Palm Sunday in that it is all tinged with sorrow; it is tragic.  The crowds offer praise, or false or half-praise; they don’t know what’s coming by Friday.

It seems like I’ve always had an ambivalent feeling towards Palm Sunday.  I remember watching “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” or “Jesus of Nazareth” and getting to this point in the movie as Jesus makes his way into Jerusalem, knowing how it ends and there seemed to be a part of me wanting to say, “No.  Don’t go there.  Turn around.  You’re going to get yourself killed.  They don’t want you there!”  But he goes.  It is as if he it caught by ‘fate,’ (“as if,” because Presbyterians don’t believe in fate), bound by a series of events that were set in motion which he could not stop, so he must proceed.  But he’s the Son of God, this is Jesus.  He could have said, no.  Of course, we know what happened.

Or do we?  Can we really fathom what took place inside and outside the walls of Jerusalem?  Can we bear to look upon the cross?  There is considerable resistance on the part of the church and its members, for centuries, to pay attention to the honest truth unveiled before our eyes on that cross.  I can remember my mother explaining to me as a child that Roman Catholics emphasize the suffering and death of Jesus, that’s why they have crucifixes in their churches; Protestants emphasize the resurrection, the hope, the glory, that’s why Protestants have empty crosses in our sanctuaries.  There’s a lot of truth in this.  Wander through the medieval section of any museum and look at the number of ways the crucifixion stirred their imaginations.  You won’t find that in Protestant art.  It was only much later as an adult that I came to see this distinction as a false one and a bad one – maybe Roman Catholics need to focus more on the resurrection and Protestants need to have the courage to look upon the cross.  You cannot have one without the other.  As Lee Van Koten said last week after adult education class, “Maybe we need two crosses in our sanctuaries – one empty and one with Christ upon it.”

I was reminded of this last week at Pittsburgh Seminary, there for a General Assembly meeting.  In a tour of the library I came across the writing desk of perhaps the most important theological mind in the history of the church – Karl Barth (1886-1968).  It was sitting there in the library lobby, along with his chair.  Barth is one of my favorite theologians; when I first read him in college he turned my world and my faith upside down.[1]  To stand there was like coming upon the Holy of Holies in the temple.  Above the desk in Barth’s study in Basel, Switzerland was a painting by the medieval painter, Matthias Grünewald (c.1470-1528) from the Isenheim altarpiece.  A copy was placed above the desk in Pittsburgh.  The painting is a gruesome depiction of Christ on the cross suffering with the marks of the plague.  It was this image that served as a constant point of inspiration for Barth, the great Reformed theologian.[2]  At the foot of the cross is John the Baptist, with a finger pointing toward Jesus on the cross, “He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).”  The greatest Reformed theologian, whose thought is shaping the church today in profound ways, was inspired by this painting that calls the church to its primary task – we are called to witness, to point the way toward Jesus, to the crucified.

And yet this is precisely what makes Christianity so difficult, from our perspective this is what makes the gospel so blasted difficult (and it is!) – the cross is forever getting in the way for both Christians and non-Christian, alike.  Sometimes I hear comments like – Why can’t we just focus on Jesus’ teachings, like love and peace and forgiveness?  Why do we have to talk about the cross?  Why can’t we just talk about the resurrection?  Because you cannot have blessing and resurrection without the cross.[3]  It is a stumbling block – it is supposed to make you stumble.  It is foolishness and yet here we find the wisdom of God, wisdom not as some idea or insight about God, not some moral virtue or life principal that is going to make our lives better, but wisdom embodied in Jesus whose body is torn and tortured by humanity at its lowest.  And this is precisely what makes it so difficult.  Somehow, it is this figure that is the locus of God’s revelation to us.  We cannot avert our eyes.  

As any psychologist will tell you, the human propensity to avoid the truth knows no end; we are proficient at running from ourselves, experts at living (sometimes an entire life) in denial, connoisseurs of con.  We all have blind-spots that prevent us from seeing the truth with any clarity.  There are truths that we cannot bear to see.  There are parts of ourselves that are locked away in deep, dark, dungeons – and we have thrown away the keys.  There are places of shadow and darkness within us that have never seen the light of day.  There are parts of us so cut off from who we are – from our feelings, our passions, so cut off from the pain and hurt which come with being daughters of Eve and sons of Adam.  There are parts of us so cut off from God – where we think are beyond the scope of God’s forgiveness, beyond our ability to forgive ourselves, maybe beyond our ability to forgive God.   Cut off from God we forget who we are and then vertigo sets in and in our alienation we begin to tumble and fall and fall and fall into an abyss, descend deep into caverns of alienation, bottomless chasms of despair from which we can never extract ourselves.  We finds ourselves estranged – detached, set apart, cut off from the land of the living.  We know all of this is within us, what Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) called “the heart of darkness;”  he was talking about Africa when he said this, but Africa – then and perhaps now – represents the darkness of the human heart that has lost its ability to be compassionate.[4]

But we also know this darkness is “out there,” this shadow and darkness of the world – we call it “Evil,” give it a name, a label, create a scapegoat and place upon it all the stuff we would rather not see.  But we can’t hide from it.  It is the power of death itself, not just the end of life as a biological issue, but death as a power of destruction and annihilation – we are up to our ears in it.  Our fascination with youth and health in this society, while good, is also the shadow side of this denial.  We are all going to die.[5]  This truth is all around us and through us and in various ways even infants are aware of it, seen in their fear of absence, the fear of losing the face of his mother or father when you leave the room.  Why do you think the terrible twos are so terrible?  A child is becoming aware of absence.  She will say No to you before you say No to her.[6]  These are all proximate forms of this absence that haunts our being.[7]

I’m stressing this because this is what killed God on Good Friday.  This is human nature at it’s worst; the most terrible day in human history was the day when humanity killed God.  It can’t get worse than that!  All of our inhumanity is focused there upon the cross.  And yet, miracle of miracles, it is precisely this inhuman condition – this inhumanity that really cannot stand to be in the presence of God – with which Jesus desired to identify and heal, so that we could become truly, authentically human.  This was beautifully captured in Paul’s hymn from Philippians, Jesus “being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name (Philippians 2: 8-9).”

Countless theologians and psychologists, philosophers and social workers, writers, poets, artists, composers, and filmmakers have all pointed to something within our heart and in all our relationships that is at odds with what God hopes for us and the world.  This is the void that is at the heart of all things.  It is there and it haunts us (even though we run away from it).[8]  And the more we reject it and ignore it, the more we deny it and run from it the more it plagues us, threatens us, hurts us, and destroys us.  It is the void that put Jesus upon the cross.  It is precisely this same void that Jesus exposed for us and chose to face upon the cross, because it is this void at the heart of all things that needs to be healed, that needs to be transformed.  But it cannot be transformed until it is faced.    Jesus’ decision to set his face towards Jerusalem was not forced upon him.  He could have said, no.  He could have turned around.  But he was determined to help us see what we are reluctant to see, helping us see what we cannot see and face what we cannot face on our own – the power of the void that wants to lead all things to nothingness.[9]

Jesus on the cross says to humanity – “If this is what it will take, then look at me.  Look at me and see what you are doing to yourselves.  Look at the way you are killing yourselves, even in the name of God.  The insanity has to stop.  The insanity has to stop.” 

Yet, the cross has to be more than an object lesson.  Jesus on the cross is peering into that abyss.  When Jesus chooses to enter Jerusalem and refuses to run from the cross it is because he wants to peer into the face of death for us, he wants to undergo what it feels like to suffer total estrangement and alienation from God. He confronts the void on the cross, in doing so Jesus takes God down into the void in order to experience it and take it on.  He descends into the complete and utter darkness of the grave, of Saturday (which we Protestants often overlook, too), so that even death itself will no longer hold us captive.[10]  This is not the work of inhuman beings; only the Son of God could do this.  Easter makes no sense – in fact, it is sheer and utter lunacy – without coming to grips with what put Jesus on the cross and what Jesus confronted there and why.  It is only here, paying attention to the cross, do we begin to sense that the cross has the capacity to grant new life.  As one contemporary theologian put it, “The grace of the cross in the life of the believer makes the whole universe tremble with the utterly new.”[11]

Reflecting upon all of this leads me to wonder….

Maybe this is why the ones who really know the power of the Christian gospel are the ones who have been to hell and back.  They know what the cross of Christ really offers. 

Maybe that’s why those who have the courage to look at the face of the void often find there the face of the crucified and find in him their hope.[12]

Maybe the reason why Christianity is on the decline in North America is because we’re not willing to face the void in ourselves or others, we’re not identifying with those who suffer.[13]  But that’s where Christ is.  Let me show you.

Come with me to North Carolina.  The scene is Thompson’s Children’s Home, a ministry of the Episcopal Church.  “Rev. Robin Szoke was there with the kids to celebrate their Children’s Sabbath.  She had the opportunity to sit for dinner with some of the boys, between ages seven and eleven.  Usual dinner conversation, favorite games, favorite subjects in school, favorite books, favorite food, spaghetti of course!  While they were talking Cameron, who sat on her right, took a copy of the New Testament out of his pocket and said, ‘This is my favorite book.’  Then he looked up at Robyn and asked, ‘Do you know why Christ died?’

After a quiet pause, she responded, ‘Cameron, why did Christ die?’  He said, ‘Because no one else but God’s Son could die for all the meanness, all the anger, all the hatred in the world.’ [Do you see how Cameron “gets” the gospel?]  Robyn later learned that Cameron has no one.  Neither mother or father, nor aunts or uncles, not even his grandparents, could or would care for him.  Cameron had been asked to leave ten public schools and he was seven years old.”[14]

Why did Jesus die?  “Because no one else but God’s Son could die for all the meanness, all the anger, all the hatred in the world.”

Oh to know what Cameron knows.


[1] Karl Barth, The Word of God and the Word of Man

[2] The importance of this painting emerges early in Barth’s life.  See  The Word of God and the Word of Man (Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie), first published in 1928.

[3] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “…the only difference between the Old and New Testaments…is that in the Old the blessing includes the Cross, and in the New the cross includes the blessing.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), 28 July 1944, Letter from Tegel Prison, Berlin.  Letters and Papers from Prison, Eberhard Bethge, editor (New York:  Macmillan, 1972).

[4] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902).

[5] “This is the perfect statistic, one death per person every time in a material universe that is ultimately destined to silence.”  James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs, CO:  Helmbers & Howard, 1989), p. 85.

[6] James E. Loder , The Logic of the Spirit:  Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1998), pp. 81ff.

[7] "The necessary condition for our saying not is that non-being be a perpetual presence in us and outside of us, that nothingness haunts our being."  Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), Being and Nothingness (1943)

[8] I am indebted here, as in so many places in my faith and thought, to the insights of James Loder.  See his explication of the void as one of the four constituent parts of human existence (the other three being the self, the world, and the Holy).  The Transforming Moment, pp. 80-84.

[9] Loder writes, “Void is the ultimate end of all creation and as such it is, ironically speaking, the ‘goal’ of evil.  Not every absence is evil, as for instance the absence of pain; but every absence that reflects the inherent brokenness in the self, aggravating the disability of the self to be spirit, evokes evil.  All evil presses toward the reversal of God’s creative action; God created everything out of nothing, but evil seeks to return everything to nothing (p. 83).”

[10]See Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2001).

[11] Anthony W. Bartlett, Cross Purposes:  The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement (Harrisburg, PA:  Trinity Press International, 2001), p. 254.

[12] Insight of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and others, such as, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) in Religion in the Making (1927), claim all religion is “the transition from God the void to God the enemy and from God the enemy to God the companion.” Cited in Loder, Transforming Moment, p. 88.

[13] Similar point argued by Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context:  Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003).

[14] Report of Rev. Robyn Szoke, Episcopal Office of Children’s Ministries, New York, NY, cited in Bartlett, p. 17.