God Became Like Us So We Could Be Like God

Last week we began our seven weeks of Lent with me critiquing a popular view of why Jesus died on the cross. I said that if we think what the cross shows us about God and people and justice is that God hates us, or that God needs to punish before God can love, or that God uses violence to get God’s will done, then we’ll hate ourselves and one another more, our notions of justice will be too punitive, and we will be prone to violence ourselves.

And I tried to begin to share one reason Jesus died – which is to show us what God is really like. To show us that God is love, and that in particular, God is self-giving, co-suffering, all-forgiving love. 

Lydia will be preaching next week, and the week after that Ivy will be leading us in another one of our participatory liturgies – these weeks when we skip the sermon on Sunday, and experiment with alternative ways to use our time and space for worship together. 

But today, I want to explore a second reason why Jesus died. This is one of the oldest answers to that question. When the early teachers of the faith, the fathers and mothers of the church 17, 18, 19 hundred years ago were asked about Jesus, one of their shortest, most powerful ways of talking about the good news of Jesus, including the death of Jesus, was to say: He became like us, so that we could be like him.

Jesus became like us, so that we could be like Jesus. 

God became like us, so that we could be like God. 

I want to talk about that meaning, that belief, that hope today. And in particular, I want to talk about two different ways of reading that sentence, which reflect two different views of God, and two different views of all of us too. 

Can we pray first, though? 

We’re looking at the Cross this year through the lens of the Seven Last Words of Christ – the seven things that Jesus said as he was dying. We have a much deeper daily dive into this in our Bible guide. Each week, Monday through Friday, we give you a short passage from the Bible, sometimes a related poem or image, along with a few comments from me or some weeks from Lydia, and an encouragement for a prayer you might pray and a short spiritual practice you might try. The guide is different every day, but the spiritual practice stays the same every day for the week, to give you some chance to try it on for a while and see what it might do for you. This guide is really the heart of our Lenten experience. It’s on our website at reservoirchurch.org/lent. We’re emailing a link to our mailing list each week too. And we’re keeping a few paper copies in the lobby as well. Week two starts tomorrow, and if you missed week 1, no worries, just start tomorrow – no need to try to go back and catch up or anything. 

And this week, our second phrase from Jesus comes from Luke right where we left off last week. Sometimes this is called the Word of Salvation. 

Let me read the passage for us, that is also printed on your programs.

Luke 23:32-43 (NRSV)

32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

We talked last week about what a cruel scene this is, and that continues. Jesus isn’t just tortured and killed – his clothes are stolen. He’s mocked. People lash out at him in anger.

But there’s this other interesting thing going on here. The Romans post this sign over Jesus’ head that says, “This is the King of the Jews.”  By doing this, they get to mock Jesus – like to say: ha, what kind of a fake king are you! And they get to mock the whole colonized Jewish people as well, saying: look at this failure, this pretender. The only king you have is Caesar, who could do this to any of you if you step out of line .

It’s interesting, this provokes something of a debate about what it means to be a king, and what Jesus can and can’t do as he’s dying. And if Jesus is God’s chosen human leader – what they call the Christ, the Messiah, if Jesus was even fully human and fully divine, well, then what does it mean to be God in the flesh, or to be God period? 

Our two criminals highlight this tension.

Both of them want to be saved. 

Both of them want to be noticed, to be remembered. 

Both want God to be God to them, as they understand God to be.

But they have very different versions of what that means. Criminal #1 sees Jesus, and Kingship, and Messiah the way most of the crowd does. If you have power, then take over. Be strong. Win. Get me off of this cross, or you’re a fraud, Jesus. While we’re at it, get yourself off the cross, or you’re a liar. Ease or eliminate my pain, or you’re dead to me. 

Criminal #2 takes issue with their view of Jesus – and maybe with their view of power, of kingship, of what God’s like, maybe all of it, we don’t know. But criminal #2 sees there is nothing wrong with Jesus, there is nothing lacking in Jesus because he either doesn’t have the power to change this pain, or he can’t use that power, or he has a different kind of power entirely. 

Criminal #2 turns to Jesus, and says: what I want is to be remembered. Can you make sure I’m not alone, Jesus? Can you make sure this isn’t the end? Can you make sure this means something, that I mean something? 

And Jesus says: yes, in fact, today you will be together with me, in Paradise. 

Before we talk about Jesus’ answer, about what his words might mean, I want to talk some more about these two views of power, and how they’re examples of two different views of God. 

I insult the great Protestant reformers and their ideas all the time. That 16th century reformer Martin Luther, for instance, was an unhealthy, kind of unhinged anti-Semite. But to give credit where credit is due, I think Martin Luther did have a brilliant idea about God, and how our view of God shapes all kinds of things.

Luther said that followers of Jesus tend to live either a theology of glory, or a theology of the cross. 

Here’s some of what he meant by that. 

A theology of glory needs to win, win, win no matter what! It’s a need to triumph, to be on top, to not experience failure, pain, shame, weakness. 

A theology of glory starts with the usual human stereotype of God, a God that above all else is power. Disatant perhaps, sometimes angry and fed up with us, but holy in perfection, and unlimited in sheer force.

Those of us with a theology of glory need to be first and best – ourselves and our groups too. This means avoiding problems if we can’t fix them, and it means despising weakness and supposed fault, our own and others. Those with a theology of glory also tend to be really moralistic, because they long for perfection – so whether it be morals of the so-called right or left, what’s most conservative or what’s most woke, those with a theology of glory want perfection that requires conformity, and are impatient to plain mean when they don’t get it. 

A theology of the cross makes peace with what is – with our mixed outcomes of winning and losing, of joy and pain, of success and failure, health and sickness. 

A theology of the cross starts with a God that is revealed most fully on the cross. A God that above all else is love. A God who is most fully revealed to us in the fully divine and fully human person of Jesus. Who is particular – a Jewish child of a carpenter. Who is relational. A God who enters human bodily weakness and mortality. A God whose path to life is through suffering. 

Those of us with a theology of the cross can be first or last. We accept weakness, limits, and woundedness in ourselves and others because we know this is what is part of our beautiful humanity. We are not surprised when things don’t work out as we hoped. We long to improve ourselves and the systems we are part of, but we are unsurprised that things are not as they should be, and we reform and change with acceptance, patience, and the kindness that comes from those things. 

Now the first communities of Jesus followers had a theology of the cross. They couldn’t help it. Even though they worshipped Jesus who had risen from the dead, even though they announced that God had beaten death in the person of Jesus, even though they lived with less and less fear, still their God had been killed on a Roman cross – what the powers of their age used to terrorize and disgrace and punish the lowest class offenders of their age. They didn’t wear crosses or put crosses up in their places of worship – to do so would be dangerous and embarrassing. Still, they couldn’t help but be associated with the cross and so connected with shame and suffering. 

The first followers of Jesus also had many among them who were slaves, who were severely poor, like hungry most of the days of the year poor. And they didn’t have middle class to rich suburban and new urban churches and poor to middle class all the rest of the churches like America does. They had small, mixed class communities dedicated to caring for the needs of each member. They couldn’t possibly imagine themselves as best, or perfect, or without fault or problem. 

But this changed over time.

The cross became an emblem of Christianity in the 4th century, when during a Civil War in the Roman empire, one of the rivals to the throne – Constantine – claimed he saw an image of the cross in a dream, just before a big battle.  Legend has it he saw this image of the cross in the sky, and heard the words, “Conquer by this.” He won the battle, so he converted to this symbol’s religion, Chrisitanity, and changed the course of religious history. 

And Christians have been conquering in the name of the cross ever since. If you’re Muslim, the cross is an image of colonialism, and of the Christians who’ve been trying to take your land and draw your borders. If you’re Jewish, the cross is an image of anti-Semitism, of the people who’ve blamed you for the death of God and tried to exterminate your race. And if you’re American, especially if you’re Black in America, the cross has been the image of White supremacy, of a White nationalist Chrisitanity that has set crosses aflame as they’ve terrorized you. 

The cross went from a picture of God’s solidarity with our weakness and death and suffering and shame to an emblem of victory and triumph. And ever since, it has again and again been really bad news for the world. 

On the one hand, this is just important to know if you associate with Jesus, that the means of his death, and the dominant image of our faith has become a colonial image, an anti-Semitic symbol, an emblem of white supremacy and of culture warrior faith. All sad, but true. Christianity has in many ways become, in Luther’s term, a religion of glory.

But this is also not just historical. We see theology of glory religion alive and well American Chrisitnaity, where being a Christian makes you more – not less likely – to racist or just inhospitable takes on immigration or on the discrimination experienced by people of color. Christianity doesn’t have the corner on theology of glory in our moment either. You see it in radical White Christian terror, and you see it in radical Islamic fundamentalist terror, and you see it in India right now in radical nationalist Hindu violence against Muslims. 

Regardless of our faith, what shapes our view of God or life shapes everything. If you’ve got a fix-or-avoid every problem, gotta be the winning team faith, you’ll need that to stay true to that faith – immune to criticism and problems, always on top. You won’t be able to be humble, to welcome criticism of your churches and systems, to respond to it. And you won’t be able to have healthy interfaith relationships, or peacefully and respectfully participate in a pluralistic society. 

This can be really personal. 

I come from a family that was really shaped by a theology of glory. We were raised to be stoic. I was talking with a family member this weekend who just got out of the hospital after a surgery. And she was like: yeah, I spent last week in the hospital, I’m on a bunch of different medicines for pain, and I can’t lift my arm anymore, but really, I’m fine. 

Always fine, right?

And we were nothing with one another if not critical and defensive. 

I’m trying out a spiritual practice for Lent. It’s an idea I got from a guy I met recently. We were talking about spiritual practices in our lives. And this season of Lent came up. A lot of people fast in some way for lent – give up a type of food or something else. Others pray – we have this daily Bible guide that has a recommended spiritual practice each week. Others traditionally practice generosity. And this guy had a really particular way he practices generosity during lent – not just a financial generosity, but a relational generosity. 

Every day during Lent, he reaches out to a different person he hasn’t been in touch with recently. Sometimes it’s a lot, and sometimes it’s just a text that says hi. But as soon as I heard him talk, I felt in my gut that this was for me. This was the Spirit speaking to me. And so we’re only a few days in, but I’m on it. 

A thank you note one day, a how’s it going text another. A few days ago, I remembered this sad, sad moment in my family life a decade ago, and realized I wanted to send an apology note to my dad. 

Here’s what it was for.

When I was a teenager, I was really into music – singing mainly. But I thought about studying music theory, which required picking up some basic keyboard skills too, though I’d never had any piano lessons.

And during that time, my family – which was always really short on cash – managed to pay for voice lessons for me the last three years of my time in high school, and then later, they bought this electronic keyboard I could use too. These sacrifices were made for me by parents who had themselves met in a high school choir, so you’d think when music came up, it would be this sweet thing in our family life, just full of connection and gratitude. 

You’d think that. 

But there was this time I was maybe 19 or 20 and I was home to visit my family on a vacation. I think it was late morning, and my dad and I were home, and I was playing this hymn by Johann Sebastian Bach and singing along. 

In English, it’s called “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” It’s a song about the cross. It’s a really sad song, but a song with a ton of love and devotion in it too. It’s like: Jesus, you have known all my wounds and faults and felt the pain of those when you were dying. And as it goes on, it becomes a love song too, an expression of connection and gratitude. 

And I think I was feeling it – music tapping our emotions and all. And my dad had come up behind me without me realizing it, and when I stopped, he just said something like: I love that song. It’s always been a favorite. 

And I remember turning and saying something like: you don’t exactly show it, Dad. I mean how does your life show that you love God?

It was awful. It was an accusation barely hiding inside a question. It was all my religious zeal and hypocrisy of that moment of my life turned against my dad, whose faith practice didn’t look like mine at the moment. It was probably some surprise at finding my dad having witnessed this moment of emotion I hadn’t wanted him to see, and that turning to defensiveness. And it was probably other resentments I had about my father that had nothing to do with this, just finding a convenient outlet here.

Whatever was going on for me, my dad raised his voice for a moment, I don’t remember what he said. But he stormed away, and we never spoke about it again. Not once. 

That was kind of the way things tended to go. 

Now a faith, an interior life shaped by a theology of the cross would have been OK with my emotional life being witnessed. And it would be curious about my father’s spiritual life, that seemed different than mine, rather than critical. A family life shaped by the way of the cross would mean if I criticized my dad so harshly, so randomly, so meanly, he might look at me and tell me that was strange, or that hurt, or wonder why I was being so mean. 

But this family system, and these inner lives and relational lives colored by what Luther calls “theology of glory” didn’t know how to do any of that. Weakness was scorned, criticism was common, and we all had these highly-tuned defensive instincts and tactics to avoid each other’s barbs and stay away from those parts of each other. 

 And all this meant we couldn’t be with each other very well, which is always true in a theology of glory. It’s good at winning, but not at relationship. It doesn’t know how to be gentle in its criticism, so it’s harsh instead. And it doesn’t know how to accept and be curious about weakness and fault, so it’s super-defensive when others criticize. And so it builds walls, not paths to one another. 

This propensity toward criticism and defensiveness is one area my life has called out for transformation from God, for a gentle God to join me in the human experience of bitter attacking, as we read today Jesus did, and for Jesus’ unguarded, gentle generosity to reshape my heart and actions instead. 

Jesus had a vision of social transformation, that the will of God would be done on earth as it is in heaven, and that God’s kingdom would come on earth, to use Jesus’ language. And part of that is also a one by one by one personal transformation, that we would become like Jesus, as Jesus has become like us. 

We see this personal hope throughout the New Testament, in places like this excerpt from Paul of Tarsus second letter to the house churches in Corinth, where he writes:

II Corinthians 3:18, 4:7 (NRSV)

18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

By looking at, worshipping God in the person of Jesus; by relating and connecting to God in Christ, we participate in this union with Jesus that transforms us into – ironically – a kind of glory. The beautiful, wholly loving nature of God, into pure goodness and freedom. And that happens even as – in this life – we remain weak and humble and limited. 

We can even hear echoes of this hope in Jesus’ promise to the second criminal, as he dies next to Jesus: Today, you will be with me in Paradise. 

This is a good place after death, communion with God beyond the grave. But this is also, in the next life and in this one, the destiny for the character and relationships and identity of all people of Jesus, to be where Jesus is, and to be our versions of who Jesus is: broken but whole, full of life in the face of suffering, full of love in the face of fear. 

This is part of the gospel, the good news of Jesus. It’s the most common formulation of the good news of Jesus in the so called Eastern branches of Christianity. He has become like us so that we can become like him. Renewed into our full selves, not erased but completed. God has become like us so that we can be like God. 

Gentle with our weaknesses, secure even in our imperfection. Kind and patient, even when we need to offer criticism or try to change things in our world. Loving fiercely without controlling. And in an age of loneliness and competitiveness and fear, living not just for ourselves but for the greater good and living boldly and connected and unafraid.

Here are my closing invitations for the week. 

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

Give and receive criticism with room for weakness – less personally, more gently, with more curiosity and compassion.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

This week, you’ll be invited to hold our wounds and sin and failings before Jesus, to ask for mercy, and to ask Jesus to grow the life of God in us in their place. 

(Let’s try that now, those of us that want to…)

Write down one aspect of yourself, your experience, your life, or our world that is most marked by sin or death – something we are entangled in that is far from God. Hold the word or phrase in your hand and offer it to Jesus, praying the ancient prayer, “Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on us.” Ask Jesus what aspect of the life of God Jesus would like to grow in you and your world in place of what you are offering to Jesus.  

Now I am not a public health expert or anything, but this past week, you could see Corona virus fear sweeping our country.

Now, at church, we’ll do what we can to be prepared. Our staff are having some conversations, and we may remind you now and then in the weeks to come to stay home from your community groups or Sunday services if you have flu systems. And we’ve told parents and volunteers with our kids the same. And we could all do to step up our handwashing habits, and our not touching our noses and eyes habits and stuff like that. And if this flu outbreak gets worse, you’ll be hearing this and more many times, in many places. We’ll have more to share perhaps in the weeks to come.

But as a church, I’m also asking: how do we have a Jesus-informed, cross-centered approach times of threat or fear? 

How do we not look for someone to scapegoat or blame anyone for our brush with mass illness? I know I did my civic duty and ate in Chinatown last night.  

How do we use it as an opportunity to do what we can for our own and others’ health and safety, but also to make peace with our own weakness and mortality? 

How do we cultivate a careful, but unafraid approach to sickness and even, God forbid death, that allows us to be people of compassion and generosity when our friends and neighbors are overcome with fear? 

These are some of the preparedness questions I’m asking right now as a follower of Jesus. I hope to keep asking them together with you. 

For today, though, I want to say to you, friends, that no matter what happens in the weeks and months to come, we are accompanied and held by a God who has become one of us, who has suffered and died with us, and who loves us fiercely and tenderly in all of our fears and limits and wounds and weakness. 

Putting Cruelty Aside

These past few months, I’ve thought a lot about a conversation I had with a parent a while back. The parent was asking me: How do I explain to my daughter why Jesus died? Because my kid asked me that question, and I started to answer, but realized I didn’t like what I was about to say and I wasn’t sure I even believed it myself. 

I asked her a little more about what it was she thought but didn’t say about why Jesus died, and she told me this theory to do with how bad we all are from God’s perspective, and how much God needs to punish us, and how Jesus got punished instead of us, which takes us off the hook. And as I was listening, I was nodding my head because I knew this version of the story. I’d believed and told parts of that story myself at one time. But I could get why it wasn’t something she wanted to pass on to her daughter. 

Because it makes God seem so cruel. Does God really think we’re all so awful? Not just the villains of humanity, but our saints and heroes and legends? Our young children? That would seem to be a harsh perspective. And does God think we’re so awful that we all deserve to be punished badly, continually, forever, if God can’t find someone else to punish instead? If that’s what God is like, so be it, I guess, but it does sound cruel. 

Now, to be clear, I don’t think this is what God is like. I don’t think this is the best way to understand the death of Jesus either. There’s more to the story. And over the next seven weeks, here on Sundays, and in a blog series I’m writing, and a daily Bible guide that Lydia and I are writing together, we’ll explore the truest and deepest and most beautiful ways we know for considering why Jesus died, and what happened on the cross. More about that later. 

But I start with this story because we’re learning more and more that so much of what has been called justice is not just but is cruel. And some of the things we’ve thought and said about God and ourselves aren’t that beautiful and just either, but cruel. 

And we can do better. 

One place that’s gotten people thinking and talking about all this is a really popular TV show that sadly just finished its run. It’s called The Good Place. How many of you have watched this show? 

It’s a comedy, but it’s a comedy that for the past few years has brought us some really rich reflection on the meaning of life. And I want to show you a little clip from the final season. 

For those of you that haven’t seen it, The Good Place begins with four people waking up after death to find they’re in a kind of heaven, what’s called The Good Place, but one of them knows she’s there by mistake. The show takes a lot of twists and turns, which I won’t spoil for you, but eventually these same four people have the opportunity to redesign the afterlife. To try to make it fair and just for people. Stakes are high – if they can’t pull it off, the Judge of all things will use the powers of this not-quite-robot-not-quite-person named Janet to cancel earth itself. The main character speaking here in this two-minute scene will be a man named Chidi, who in his earthly life was a professor of moral philosophy. 

Let’s have it. 

Good Place Scene from Season 4, Episode 10

Chidi raises the problem of cruelty. They’re talking about our criminal justice system, for sure, but they’re also talking about the afterlife. Chidi wonders why many people should go to Hell, or what the show calls The Bad Place. In most cases, he says, “The cruelty of the punishment does not match the cruelty of the life that one has lived.” Or as his love interest Elanor says, “This is a problem of justice.”

They never mention God or Jesus or the cross, but we could ask the same question about all that. Does the cross tell us that God is cruel, but that we’re lucky to escape that cruelty? Or does it tell us something else?

For the next seven Sundays, we’ll be looking at bits of what happened on the cross through the lens of the seven things Jesus said as he was dying there. Here’s the first:

Luke 23:26-34  (NRSV)

26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

This is such a cruel scene. There’s an African immigrant or refugee – Simon of Cyrene, modern-day Libya. And he’s forced by the Roman soldiers to march with Jesus, helping him to carry the tools of his own execution. 

There are these women who admire Jesus, and they are beating their chests and wailing over the cruelty and injustice of his arrest and torture and impending death. But as they wail, Jesus warns them even grimmer days lie ahead for them under Rome. They’ve not seen the worst of it.

Suffering piles up upon suffering, in this place called the Skill, where hardened soldiers bet over dead men’s clothing, and where Jesus and two criminals are strapped to wooden crosses with rope, nailed down by their hands and feet, and hung up to asphyxiate and die. 

It’s an incredibly cruel scene. Luke is using this powerful literary technique called juxtaposition, where you contrast two really different things so that you’ll understand them both better. 

With his words he’s panning around the cross, capturing all the cruelty of the moment. And then in contrast, there’s Jesus and he is so generous and gentle. Jesus too looks out over the cruelty of it all, and says to God, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” 

Jesus views all the participants in his death, the spectators to his pain, more charitably than they deserve. He asks God to hold none of this against them. Jesus uses his dying breaths to love them.

Both the Bible and the best Christian thinking about God have said that Jesus is the clearest picture we’ll ever get of what an invisible God is like. You want to see what God looks like? Look at Jesus. You want to hear what God sounds like? Listen to Jesus. 

And here, despite the cruelty all around him, Jesus is gentle, and is fiercely loving kind. Co-suffering, self-giving, radically forgiving. 

So where did my friend and so many of us get this idea that the story of God we find on the cross is cruel? 

Well, one theory of what happened on the cross is known in technical terms as “penal substitutionary atonement.” Penal substitutionary atonement – it’s kind of an unfortunate name for a theory, because if you say the first word just a little bit wrong, as I have several times – penile – well, then it sounds like a very different kind of theory. 

But what penal substitutionary atonement means is: that we’re so bad as far as God is concerned that God needs to punish us. That instead God punishes God’s child Jesus, who is also in some ways God’s self, by letting him be killed, even though he isn’t bad. And this punishment satisfies God’s anger and sense of justice, so that God can forgive people that trust this system to work for them. 

Now there are a few places the Bible says something that if you read it a particular way, sort of sounds like this theory. And now and then, in Christian history, there were bits and pieces of this theory that were expressed. But it really got popular based on the teaching of a Swiss Protestant reformer named John Calvin who – not surprisingly – was trained as a lawyer and so thought a lot about crime and punishment and thought of God on these terms. 

But this theory has a lot of problems. 

For one, as I’ve shared, many of us don’t want to share it with our children. It seems to portray a vindictive, violent, punishment-obsessed God, a God who would also kill his own child to save others. Awkward.

Two, belief in this theory has not borne the best of fruit in the Prostestant-influenced Western world. Worship of a sometimes violent God has usually made it easier for people to do violence on one another. There’s this deep and true phrase: we become what we worship. Worship a violent God, and well… Christians with this view of God have happily colonized, enslaved, and executed others in the name of this God.

Three, a belief that justice mainly requires punishment has helped us make peace with things like mass incarceration. But – as even The Good Place implied – we have learned that most of our practices of punishment aren’t just and don’t heal or change the world for the better. So, most of us parents for instance don’t beat our kids anymore. If we ever did, we regret it. It’s not even legal around here anymore. 

And four, this theory just doesn’t sound like good news to most of us. The story and life of Jesus – including his death – is supposed to be cleary good news to us all. But this makes God seem cruel. 

On our blog, and in our Bible guide, and in the sermons in the weeks to come during Lent, we’ll share some other understandings of what was happening on the cross, and why Jesus died there. 

But I want to first point out that God forgiving humanity our cruelty isn’t something God figured how to do on the cross when Jesus died. It’s always been what God is like. 

The psalms, written hundreds and hundreds of years before Jesus died, will now and then celebrate how good it is that God forgives God’s children, that God loves us and that it gives us freedom to make our mistakes and faults known to God and know that God hasn’t rejected or abandoned us. 

The Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, also mainly speaking and writing hundreds of years before Jesus, are wrestling with the public and social sins of the nation – with messed up religion, with economic injustice, with public cruelty and foolishness – ancient versions of all of today’s dilemmas. And they do this in colorful language, full of threats and warnings, but underneath it all, they do this because they take for granted that their community is in relationship with a God who wants better for them but is also happy to put all their history behind them once they’ve made amends. The God of the prophets wants to stay engaged with the people because God loves them and will forgive them their grave public errors.

The law of the Old Testament too makes provision for people’s understanding that before God, you are not the sum of your worst thoughts or worst qualities or worst actions. Sometimes at great expense to the lives and blood of small mammals, people were to have these visual, sensory reminders that God loves to clean the slate, that God loves second and third and fourth chances. 

When Jesus calls his God, Abba – Father, this is part of what he assumes to be true of this God. 

This isn’t easy for all of us. We’ve spoken often about how when Jesus or the Bible calls God Father, it’s not implying God is a man. God is mother to us all as well, and there is language about this in the Bible as well – not as much as Father language to be sure, but it’s there. 

It’s also hard because not all of us have known fathers, or mothers for that matter, to be full of love and forgiveness, or very good at expressing it. A few of us have known outright cruel parents. Most of us have known parents that tried their best and never wanted to be cruel, but were cruel on occasion nevertheless, sometimes cruel without wanting to be, sometimes cruel without even realizing that was the effect they were having.

Jesus seemed to get this, when he said, you parents are evil. (And I’m paraphrasing here, but only a little – it’s in Luke 11 and Matthew 7.) He said: Even though you’re evil, for the most part, when your kids ask you for bread, you don’t give them stones. When your kids ask you for fish, you don’t give them scorpions.  (Unless you live in a part of the world where people eat scorpions, which Jesus didn’t, so we’ll forgive him this insensitivity.) How much more, Jesus says, will a perfectly loving parent like God give you all that you need, especially the kindness and compassion and forgiveness that you need. 

God’s not a crueler or meaner parent than us. God is not obsessed with punishment and blame, bound by the need to satisfy his own anger before he can associate with us. Our instincts that tell us this can’t be true, and so does Jesus.  

Jesus shows us this on the cross as well when surrounded by cruelty, he says: Father, my Abba who loves to forgive, forgive all these people too. 

If the cross is the center of the life of Jesus, and Jesus reveals what God is like to us, then we can say that the nature of God is and always has been forgiving.

God is love, and not just generally, not just sentimentally. But as the contemporary theologian Brad Jersak says, God is self-giving, co-suffering, all-forgiving love.

There’s an irony to this with the excerpt I showed you from The Good Place. Because The Good Place highlights that at least some traditional religious conceptions of God and justice and the afterlife are inherently unfair and cruel. And they’re right.

Hang with me on just a quick bit of moral philosophy here, since we’re in a college town and all. 

The philosopher that Chidi mentions in the episode wrote about this too. Judith Shklar taught down the road at Harvard and she died across the river in Boston just a few years before this church was founded in the 1990s. The essay Shklar wrote that Chidi is referring to is titled Putting Cruelty First. She’s arguing that cruelty is the first of our vices, that it should be at the top of any list of moral evils. But in that essay, she argues that we have to be thoroughly secular, non-spiritual, non-religious, to put cruelty first. Because religions need their problems to be affronts against God and God’s standards of moral purity. So Christianity has for instance headed up its traditional sin lists with pride, an affront to God. Shklar notes that cruelty is not one of the church’s traditional seven deadly sins, it’s not outlawed in the 10 commandments either, maybe because it’s not an affront to God, merely a horrible way to treat one’s neighbor. And if churches haven’t put cruelty first, no wonder that historically, many churchgoers have been – along with their non-churchgoing neighbors – really cruel. 

I love Shklar’s sense of morality here. I too think we need to put cruelty aside, in the ways we treat friend and stranger and self in this life. But the genius of Jesus is that love of God isn’t a barrier to this, it requires this. Jesus taught that love of neighbor was inextricably tied to love of God. He even taught that we love God through our love of neighbor, and his first followers taught that if we can’t love other people but say we love God, then we are liars. 

And Jesus showed us that cruelty is in fact an affront to God, one of the gravest of sins, because God is not one bit cruel, so cruelty is a repudiation of the nature of God. 

If our God sounds cruel, it is us talking, not God. And if our conception of what happened on the cross sounds cruel, then we are not listening to what Jesus said there: Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing. 

The God we confront on the cross is a God who confronts cruelty by entering into it, suffering its effects, and by countering it with fierce lovingkindness, and with all-forgiving love. This is a good and beautiful and just God, who has no cruelty in Godself, and wants to love the cruelty out of us all as well. 

I want to wrap up with a couple of implications or invitations I see in this, about how we see Jesus, and forgiveness, and the cross, and about how we see ourselves and one another.

With Jesus, part of how we ended up with this punishment-centered, cruel version of what happened on the cross was that we turned a subject into an object. We turned a person into a formula. Our logical minds want to understand – if Jesus’s death is tied to our life, and if part of that is that Jesus’ death is connected to God forgiving all our cruelty and all our other sin, then we want to understand exactly how this works. 

We want a formula. Our problem was X. Jesus did Y. And so the outcome was Z. Who said we couldn’t put a little algebra in our sermons? 

Penal substitutionary atonement fills in this formulal nicely. It says our problem is that we’re horrible. And innocent, non-horrible Jesus took God’s massive punishment of us all onto his dying soldiers, so we can be free of punishment, declared innocent and just and so able to live at peace with God in this life and the next. 

The formula has a certain legal logic to it, except it kind of doesn’t make sense. No court randomly punishes the wrong people and calls that justice. And every time there’s a crime, you can’t go back and punish the same person again and again – the person who didn’t do the crime at all –  call that justice. That’s just weird. And, as I’ve said at length, this formula implies that God is cruel, and that God has a hard time loving us as we are. Both of which are disastrous to healthy private life and healthy public life. 

This formula breaks down because it isn’t the truth, it’s a metaphor. It’s an image to get at one little piece of a bigger truth. And it’s well known that if you push any metaphor too far, it breaks down.

This is why the Bible gives us so many metaphors for what happened in the life of Jesus to make things right again. I write more about this in part two of the series on the blog, “Why did Jesus die?” but a psychologist I like named Richard Beck has this table of 22 metaphors the New Testament uses to describe what happened between God and people in the life of Jesus.

There’s a legal metaphor. Our problem is guilt, Jesus is punished, we are free. But there are at least 21 more. Our problem is sickness, our doctor Jesus’ prescriptions for life are medicine, and we can be healthy. Our problem is alienation, God adopts us into a big family with God’s kid Jesus, and so we are kin.  Our problem is aloneness, but God in Christ joins us in all our suffering, so God is with us. And on and on it goes. 

So many metaphors to understand the real and true person of Jesus at the heart of all the good news. Jesus, good news, an eternal kind of life — all that stuff is not metaphor. But we have lots of metaphors to help us welcome it all into our minds and hearts. 

If nothing else, take this away from today and from this whole Lent. God is not cruel. God is self-giving, co-suffering, all-forgiving love, delighting in being good to us. 

This Lent, we take an image – the cross – that has been cruel to many. An image of colonization and war to Muslims, an image of anti-Semitism to Jews, a flaming image of racial terror to Black Americans, an image of God’s cruelty to many of us, and we reclaim it as the worst thing humans could do to one another reclaimed by God as an instrument of all that God has, which is fierce and holy, gentle and kind, love for us all. 

Forgiving love isn’t God’s back-up plan to make things right again. It isn’t an exception to God’s character. Forgiving love is at the center of God’s nature. 

And then With ourselves, we become like what we worship. If we worship a God that fights cruelty with love, that has no cruelty inside of God, then we will inevitably have more inclination and more power to put cruelty aside ourselves. And to confront the cruelty we see in ourselves and in others and in our world with fierce and gentle love. 

I know myself, what I regret most in life isn’t my pride, it isn’t my moments of being irreligious, it is my cruelty. Things I’ve said or done, or left unsaid or undone that have been cruel to my children. That have been cruel to the students or communities I’ve served professionally. That have been cruel to my family, cruel to my friends, cruel to my wife. Even the attitudes I’ve had about God and self and world that have led to me being cruel to myself, causing myself wounds and pain that God never wanted for me. If I could take anything back in life, it would be all this cruelty. 

Whenever we discover someone we admire was horribly, horribly flawed, as I did just yesterday morning for instance, we realize that a part of them was so still so mean or so broken or so unhealthy, that they were cruel there. 

The cross tells us that this is not our destiny. This is not the end of our human story. 

Jesus forgives us our cruelty, if we’re humble enough to admit it and to want to make amends – to chart a healthier and more just future for ourselves. And in worshipping this forgiving, gentle Jesus, we’ll grow in our desire and power to be like him, to put cruelty aside for fierce, gently, just, forgiving love. 

More next week, friends. 

Two invitations for this week:

Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing

In your personal and public life, how can you reduce cruelty and magnify kindness, gentleness, and forgiving love? 

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Give Lent a shot this year. Our guide starts today and continues M-F until Easter. 

I’ll talk a bit more about Lenten practices next week, but this week: engage this daily devotional guide. If you miss a day, so be it, but they’re shorter than they used to be, and I hope you’ll give it a whirl. Go to one of our community groups and talk about it, or find a friend or two to connect about it. Read the blogs too if you want – that’s bonus. Lots of other great things going on – a group to unpack your baggage if you need a restart to your faith. Lots more. But this season is for you, all of you, take advantage of this time.