When I began this series, while I certainly challenged the idea of looking at the cross primarily through a penal substitutionary atonement lens (which is closely related to a ransom lens), I do not want to give the impression that that lens should be ground into dust. On the contrary, fully understanding the cultural context which allowed such a paradigm to exist is critical to interpreting the texts which are replete with references to this rendering of the cross’ meaning. I respect the view. But I do not resonate with it, because I don’t live in a time when such a worldview is prevalent. Staying in the substitutionary atonement zone requires a person to transport themselves back in time, into a worldview that in my opinion is antiquated and difficult to jibe with contemporary culture. If you are able to pull this off, then by all means, stick with it! The majority of church culture in the Western world revolves around it – you’ll find plenty of support. I just ask that you respect the fact that there are completely reasonable, alternative, biblically-informed ways to understand what we can take away from Jesus’ death via an ancient, barbaric, humiliating, horrific form of capital punishment used liberally in the Roman era. Besides, the whole point of the cross – and the reason we’re still talking about Jesus at all – is Easter.
It’s always been about getting to Easter.
If experiencing Christ alive again after being dead for three days hadn’t happened, the story would have ended. I’m not even sure any of Jesus’ ministry would have been remembered in history. But seeing death defeated, witnessing with their own eyes that there was more beyond this life’s flesh and blood changed everything. As Isaiah put it, through Easter God exchanged beauty for ashes, strength for fear, gladness for mourning, and peace from despair – the afterword of the call on Jesus’ life to bring hope to the brokenhearted, good news to the poor, and release to those in captivity (Isaiah 61). Easter/resurrection changed the paradigm for viewing reality, and defining reality. God held the final say, and God was not limited to this plane of existence. This is why the disciples were courageous as they experienced torture and death, and why the Good News is so good.
Easter isn’t just about an afterlife, however. Easter communicates the possibility of renewed life, restoration, resurrection wherever the tinge of death exists. Wherever there are ashes, beauty is possible. Wherever there is mourning, gladness is available. Wherever there is despair, peace is also there. Everything about Jesus’ ministry was about getting to Easter – and long before he died on the cross. Every healing, every word of hope, every act of grace, every confrontation of corruption, every act of service was Easter. Restoration. Renewal. New life. Wholeness. Shalom.
By the way, I am fully aware that I am teaching this on Palm Sunday. You may think that with all of this Easter talk that I’ve got my dates mixed up! Nope. We’re still in the cruciform series. Here is a startling reality: you cannot get to Easter apart from the cross. The path toward Easter is cruciform. The way to the renewal, restoration of all things, new life, etc., is in the shape of the cross.
Where would you like to wave a magic wand today? What would you like to disappear? Syria’s civil war? Terrorism? World hunger? Human trafficking? Domestic violence? Addictions? Extreme poverty? Wiping these off the face of the planet would be an act of Easter, a renewal to the nth degree, a true restoration of all things. Even these massive issues can be “Eastered” – I believe God is already moving (and always has been) toward shalom in each of these and every ugliness in the world. This means we already have God with us, God’s strength making up for our weakness. But remember, getting to Easter goes through the cross.
The cross represents a choice and a stretch. To pursue the restoration we dream after is a choice. The choice between status quo and moving forward. The choice between relative comfort and being uncomfortable. Choosing Easter is essentially saying yes to join God in God’s healing work, to be part of the solution instead of the problem. Part of the problems of the world are the bystanders who watch and do nothing. To say yes to God is to no longer be a bystander. That’s a choice we have the full freedom to make. To follow or not. In obviously big ways as well as nearly imperceptible ways.
The reason we all don’t make the choice to join God in the restoration of all things – Easter – is because we are aware that along with the choice comes a stretch. This is where the uncomfortable part comes. When we choose Easter, we choose to be stretched in our way of thinking, the way we hear, the way we speak, the work of our hands, the direction of our feet, the recipients of our resources – pretty much everything gets stretched at one time or another as we follow God in pursuit of Easter, of renewal, of the restoration of all things. Jesus chose to join God to bring about Easter. It stretched him in every way possible. Getting to Easter comes with a choice and a stretch.
CrossWalk has designed her belief statement from the biggest themes found in the Gospel of John. In the middle of the account of Jesus’ ministry, we see where his choice led him to stretch in ways that wouldn’t necessarily come naturally. He knelt in service to everybody, regardless of their faith, medical condition, social class, or morality. He spoke forgiveness and mercy to people who had been told by everybody else that they had earned a fast pass to hell. He developed a pattern of breaking away to connect with God while the party was still raging where he had done incredible teaching and healing ministry. And he chose to be near people in their lowest times of humility and ugliness as well as time of great joy – because the presence of God is intimately incarnate all the time with everybody everywhere. Even on the cross we see Jesus’ choice stretch him to behave in surprising ways.
While in excruciating pain, his mind was on others’ needs, too. He knelt one more time in service as he instructed his disciples to care for his mother. He issued grace so powerfully when he asked God to forgive those who put him there (which indicates he had already forgiven them). He cried out with unashamed honesty to connect with God who felt so distant as the fullness of hatred closed in. Yet even in agony, as another condemned criminal was terrified in his last hour, Jesus was present to him, offering assurance and hope that there was more to life than what they were experiencing. Jesus’ pursuit of Easter was a choice that stretched him to kneel in service to others, offer grace where it was needed, connect with God, and incarnate the presence of God with one who felt terribly alone.
God is always about getting to Easter, which carries a choice and a stretch that leads us to kneel, grace, connect and incarnate.
Mahatma Gandhi heard the same call toward Easter, chose it, and stretched in similar ways. Beloved by his fellow Indians, he used his popularity to call for non-violent protests in order to change the relationship between India and Great Britain. He even used a personal hunger strike to get their attention. On one occasion, as his strike endured, would-be militants pledged to drop their swords. In addition, Gandhi was remembered telling a man who hated Muslims to adopt a Muslim orphan boy and raise him to be a faithful Muslim as an act of healing and restoration (watch video clip from the Gandhi movie here). Gandhi’s work moved the ball of greater freedom far down the field. And then he was shot and killed. But the movement toward Easter remained.
Martin Luther King, Jr. heard a similar Easter call – a call to restoration, of renewal, of justice, of fairness, of equality. The call to join God in the Easter call came with a choice and a stretch. He chose to join God in the movement, and it stretched him to pursue justice through non-violent protests when everything in him likely wanted to fight back (which would only have led to more bloodshed). He found himself kneeling in service, gracing where hatred loomed, calling out to God, and being with people in their most intimate spaces – all in pursuit of Easter (enjoy U2’s tribute to him, “Pride” here). MLK’s work moved Easter forward significantly. Then he was shot and killed. But the movement toward Easter remained.
It’s unlikely that you’ll get shot and killed, but choosing and stretching in response to God’s invitation to sing the Easter song will mean you take some shots. To your ego, to your calendar, to your budget, to your emotions, to everything about you. But it is a pursuit of the most important cause, fueled by the very power of God, for the benefit of everyone who lives today and will live in many tomorrows to come. The Easter pursuit is alive and well at CrossWalk, by the way. Think about what it has taken for Darlene Tremewan and Helen Simpkins and Karie Nuccio and all the Food Pantry team to bring food to the hungry. Think about what it means for our Project Hope volunteers to take food to the homeless. Think about about it means for CrossWalk as a campus to be the home for hundreds pursuing recovery from addiction. Easter isn’t just about nationally-recognized movements – it’s happening every day in every corner wherever people hear the song and join in.
Jesus himself extended the bold invitation to his followers, and God has not stopped extended the invitation from the beginning of time:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” – Matthew 16:24-26 (New LivingTranslation)
Or, paraphrased another way:
Then Jesus went to work on his disciples. "Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat; I am. Don't run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I'll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self. What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for? – Matthew 16:24-26 (The Message)
God has always been about getting to Easter. But getting to Easter carries with it a choice and a stretch that leads to a very different way of life for a much bigger cause than just our little lives. The call to Easter is before you. A call to the cross. What is your choice? Will you stretch?