Friday, April 18, 2014

". . . where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet"

The widely acclaimed and deeply confronting life-size Crucifixion sculpture 
in St Peters Church, Plymouth, by Jacquie Binns, 
unveiled in November 2007. 

Anglicans should recall that the Canon of our Prayer Book Mass describes the death of Jesus as “. . . a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”, echoing the teaching of the Apostle Paul who said that “for our sake he [the Father] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (Romans 2:21).

In his book, God is not Angry, Ian Petit OP takes us into the depth of this mystery. Having shown us how we as guilty sinners have removed ourselves from the relationship with God for which we were created, he explains what God in his amazing love has done to set us free:

“Jesus did not simply pretend to be incapable of being in God’s presence; rather, he took our sins on himself at the crucifixion and actually experienced banishment . . . The consequence of sin is more than physical death; it is a wounding that separates us from the Father.”  (God is Not Angry, Page 42)

In Mysterium Paschale, the great Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar goes even further when he says:

“Jesus does not only accept the . . . mortal destiny of Adam, He also, quite expressly, carries the sins of the human race and, with those sins, the ‘second death’ of God-abandonment.” (Mysterium Paschale, Page 90)

Balthasar then says that this

“is not an anonymous destiny that he obeys, but the person of the Father.”

The idea that the Cross is the “trysting place where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet”# is an affront to the old fashioned liberal theology that plays down the supernatural and uses the Christian faith as a collection of metaphors to “nudge us along the path towards spiritual fulfilment” - the kind of wimpish theology that that H. Richard Niebuhr caricatured back in 1937 when he wrote:

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” (The Kingdom of God in America 1959 ed., page 193)

The Bible is more realistic about human nature, more aware of the horrific dimensions of sin, and more cognisant of the mysterious demand for justice that seems to be written into the fabric of our being. It tells us that Joseph was to name Mary’s Son "Jesus" because he would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21), and that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

It is authentically human to cry out for love - unconditional love. Our instincts, if not our experience of life, tell us that such love exists. We all seek it. In Jesus we discover that we are loved “with an everlasting love”. 

But - even in our post-Christian age - it is just as authentically human to cry out for justice, which is why today - Good Friday - is truly awesome. Today we stand at the foot of the cross as the precious Blood is shed, atonement being made for the foulest sins ever committed. “O trysting place where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet”.#

Balthasar shows just how central this theme is in the New Testament:

“The injustice is not cleared away by half-measures and compromises, but by drastic measures which make a clean sweep of it, so that all the world’s injustice is consumed by the total wrath of God, that the total righteousness of God may be accessible to the sinner. That is the Gospel according to Paul who sees the fulfilment of the directional meaning of the entire Old Testament in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ . . . God, as the man Christ, takes upon himself the totality of ‘Adam’s’ guilt (Romans 5:15-21) in order that, as the ‘bodily’ incorporation of sin and enmity (2 Corinthians 5:21, Ephesians 2:14), he might be ‘handed over’ (Romans 8:3), and as the Life of God, which died in God-forsakenness (Romans 4:25) and was buried, to be divinely ‘raised for our justification’ (Romans 4:25). That is not myth, but the central biblical message and, where Christ’s Cross is concerned, it must not be rendered innocuous as though the Crucified, in undisturbed union with God, had prayed the Psalms and died in the peace of God.” (Mysterium Paschale, page 122)

Ours is an age when in the once Christian West many important Church leaders are so desperate for the approval of a cynical and unbelieving world that they will play fast and loose with just about anything God has revealed to us - and not just in the areas of morals and sexuality - though that's bad enough - but in terms of the basic Gospel itself. They don't understand that we do not actually help those around us who are not yet believers if we destroy the power and wonder of the Cross by watering down either the unconditional and profligate love of God that is embodied there, or the absolute horror of that first Good Friday when Jesus became sin for us, bearing in his own body on the tree the self imposed consequences of our having pushed God out of our lives. 

The following is not really great poetry, but it is the kind of prayer we should all whisper today:   

Was it the nails, O Saviour,
That bound thee to the tree,
Nay, ‘twas thine everlasting love,
Thy love for me, for me.
O make me understand it,
Help me to take it in,
What it meant to thee, the Holy One
To bear away my sin.
(Katherine A M Kelly 1869-1942)

# “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” by Scottish Presbyterian Elizabeth C. Clephane, 1868,(published posthumously).


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