Being God’s Beloved: Day 33: The Cross and Redemption

Yesterday we reflected on how Jesus, hanging dying on the cross, looks down and sees, really sees, his mother and his best friend John, and how he extends himself for their benefit, establishing a new community, a new family. In so doing, he begins to undo the effects of sin – those effects that fragment and rupture relationships, which we have repeatedly seen are central to God’s experience of being God.

Luke 23 relates another encounter of Jesus with the people around him. This version does not explicitly say that Jesus saw or looked at them, but given the depth of his responses, it seems fair to accept that Jesus did see them.

Jesus is crucified with two criminals. The one “hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us’” (Luke 23:39). The English “hurled insults” is, in the Greek, eblasphemei, from which, of course, we get our English word, ‘blaspheme’. It is amazing, but sadly true, to what extent arrogance and hostility towards God can continue even in the midst of judgement and suffering. This man, on the brink of death, continues to express bitterness and rage against the best that the world has to offer.

The other criminal, however, recognises that Jesus has no reason for being there – he is innocent and undeserving of death: “But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong’” (Luke 23:40-41).

What is most striking about this man is this combination of taking ownership of his own wrongdoing and resultant punishment, and recognising Jesus’ innocence and thus unjust punishment. And then, to cap it all, he says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Not only does he recognise Jesus’ innocence, but he also recognises Jesus as Lord and King. He takes a remarkable leap of faith.

Perhaps Jesus ignored the taunts of the first man. But the second man catches his attention. Jesus responds, as he always has, to expressions of faith, no matter how profound (here we think of Peter’s “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” in Mathew 16:16, or Thomas’ “My Lord and my God” in John 20:28) or how tentative (perhaps the woman who was bleeding in Mark 5:28).

Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

This is redemption. Today, this very day, you will be with me, in paradise with me. Truly, I tell you. Amen!

Jesus Christ redeems this man on the cross. Here, as we saw yesterday, Jesus extends himself, beyond himself, to care for another human being. It is instinctive for him to do so. It was so throughout his ministry. It was so as he hung dying on the cross. And it remains so today. Christ Jesus extends himself for those who turn towards him.

One of the amazing things that we can take out of this narrative is the fact that this criminal could do nothing to win his salvation. He was nailed to a cross. He could not get baptised or confirmed. He could not sign a membership form at the local church. He could not take Holy Communion. He could not serve in God’s mission. He could not make amends to the people he had harmed while doing crime. He could do nothing to earn his salvation. He could not even work out his salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). All he could was to turn to Christ in faith and receive the salvation offered to him.

This is a profound example of salvation by grace through faith. Paul says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

  • Salvation by grace means that salvation is something that God gifts to us – it is not earned or deserved. Indeed, this criminal deserved to be punished (perhaps not on a cross, but in some way he had earned punishment). Salvation was not something he deserved. And yet God extends salvation to him anyway.
  • Salvation through faith means that once salvation is gifted to us, we receive it on faith, by just accepting it, empty-handed, open-hearted – we just accept it. The criminal shows us salvation through faith because his hands are nailed to a cross – he can do nothing but receive what Jesus offers him.

Sometimes we tie ourselves up in knots over redemption. We know that we are saved by grace through faith, but we still feel that we have to do something to earn it. We must pray so much per day or read so much per day or attend church so many times or tithe so much or serve so much or feel remorseful so often or perform so many rituals. Any or all of these things may help us to work out our salvation – to enrich and express our salvation as we journey through life – but they add absolutely nothing to our being saved.

This is redemption. We are saved only by the mercy of God – by grace through faith – who loves us so much and so unconditionally that we are offered this gift as a gift; no strings attached, no small print, no terms or conditions.

But imagine, if you will, that there is a small family gathered near the cross. They are there to watch the execution of the criminal. He did something terrible to this family. Perhaps he raped their daughter or murdered their father. They have come to see him die, to satisfy their rage and grief. And they hear Jesus offer these words of reassurance to this criminal – the promise of salvation and life in paradise. How hard that must have been for them! He in paradise, while their loved one lies maimed or dead.

God’s capacity to forgive is far greater than ours. And as much as we want God to save us, we may want God to not save certain other people. That is human. But God is not human. God loves you. God loves all of us – even criminals, even monsters, even the most evil person you can imagine. It is terribly hard for us to get our hearts around this, and sometimes we cannot accept it; sometimes we deeply desire to reject this. But God still loves them and desires their salvation and works to reconcile them to God.

This is the great and challenging message of Christ regarding forgiveness and salvation – it is open to everyone, even those we deeply desire to not have it. All we can do is trust that God’s love is all embracing. All we can do is believe that God knows people’s hearts – ours and theirs. All we can do is pray to have God’s heart and God’s eyes.

This is redemption. Other people are saved only by the mercy of God – by grace through faith – who loves them so much and so unconditionally that they are offered this gift as a gift; no strings attached, no small print, no terms or conditions.

Just before this narrative about the criminals, Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is the theme of this passage of Luke. Redemption or salvation is about forgiveness – undeserved, unmerited. God forgives out of the generosity of God’s love, out of God’s persistent desire to reconcile with us, to be in relationship with us. For us, forgiveness is a hard thing to do. But for God, forgiveness is an inevitable expression of persistent love.

Here, Jesus, having just been hung up to die, prays that God will forgive those who crucified him. He sets an example that very few of us can emulate. For me, forgiveness is something that I journey towards over time. It is not an on-off switch. It is a repetitive, spiral process of increasingly letting go of anger and of my sense of being entitled to retribution or compensation. And psychologically, I think that is right for us as frail human beings. But Jesus sincerely forgives in that moment and opens his heart to those who have harmed him, those who have taken his life.

This is redemption. God chooses to let go of anger and of the fully justified right to exact punishment or retribution. Divine forgiveness is God choosing to set us free of the debt that we owe for our sin, with the hope that we will reconcile with God. And that freedom is salvation.

Jesus promises the second criminal that they will be together in “paradise”. The Greek word here comes from a Persian word meaning garden. Many of us think of paradise as puffy clouds and white robes and harps – all rather ethereal and disembodied. But Jesus was thinking of something quite tangible and earthy – a garden! With trees, and shrubs, and grasses, and flowers, and soil, and birds, and insects, and lizards, and a stream running through it.

This is redemption. For Jesus, paradise is a return to the Garden of Eden. This is a turning back of world history, a turning back of the consequences of sin, a turning back of evil and judgement. To be saved is to return to Eden – to that garden in which our ancestral mother and father dwelled in harmony with God, with each other, with the world and with themselves – humanity prior to the Fall. Paradise is that place where everything that went wrong with us has been made right again.

Paradise is the place where we fully love and are fully loved by God. This is redemption.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on the meaning of redemption. And on divine forgiveness. What does it mean to you that God has redeemed, saved and forgiven you? What does this say about your being God’s beloved?

Prayer for the Day

Oh Lord, my redeemer, my saviour, I thank you for your freely-given gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. How amazing is your love! Help me to take hold of this salvation, to fully accept it, to immerse myself in it, so that I may be transformed by your love into the image of your beloved Son.

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Being God’s Beloved: Day 32: The Cross and Community

Jesus is put through a trial and sentenced to death, paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying his cross, battered and torn, mocked and ridiculed. He is nailed to a cross and left to die – a horrible, protracted and excruciating death. What an end to a man of peace, love and forgiveness. What an end to the Son of God, God incarnate. It is unthinkable, unimaginable, unspeakable.

Hanging there, Jesus looks at those who gathered to watch. He is not so wrapped up in his pain and anguish as to be disconnected from the world around him. John 19:25-27 tells us that Jesus looked down and saw his mother. And he saw the disciple whom he loved, John. We reflected on Day 28 on what it means when Jesus ‘sees’ people. When Jesus sees you, he really sees into you, he sees the authentic and whole you. On the cross, Jesus looks and he sees his mother and he sees John. Even at such an extreme point of his suffering and humiliation, Jesus continues to see people. He is persistently turned outwards, expressing love for those around him. Jesus transcends his own suffering and connects with the suffering of someone else.

And seeing into his mother, Mary, he sees her not just as his ‘Mum’, but as a human being, as a beloved person, as someone’s mother, as someone who will become for many the supreme example of motherhood. And so he calls her “woman”. This is not a cold or impersonal address. It is not like saying, “Hey, you”. It is Jesus speaking to the human being who is called Mary. He speaks not so much as her personal son, but as her personal Creator. And as Creator, he recognises her anguish as she witnesses the life drain out of her son. And it is to that grief that he responds with love.

It reminds me of Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5, where we learn that God knew us before we were born, before we were even conceived:

O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
(Psalm 139: 1, 13, 15-16)

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.
(Jeremiah 1:5)

God has a picture of us in God’s heart, God’s mind; a picture of our authentic self, much loved. We are all individuals to God, occupying a unique and sacred space in God’s heart; each one beloved.

As Jesus hangs dying on the cross, he sees this woman, who is his mother, and his heart is moved with compassion. He was there when she was knit together in her mother’s womb, preparing her for the great task of bearing the Christ in her own womb. He knew her intimately and fully as a child of God, and he loved her.

God is always present to bind up the broken hearted and to carry those who are weak. The events of Good Friday through Easter Sunday are the darkest and most horrific experiences in the life of the triune God. And yet even here, God the Son, operating in harmony with God the Father and God the Spirit, invests in the expression of love. This is because love is at the heart of God. The very fabric of God’s being is comprised of love. God can do nothing but love – love is an expression of being of God.

Let us be in no doubt that God looks at us. And when God looks at us, God sees us. And when God sees us, God still loves us. If this is true at Jesus’ lowest point, at the bottom of the kenotic U that we looked at on Day 20, how much more is it today, when Jesus is dwelling in perfection within the bosom of the Godhead? God looks, sees and loves. God cherishes and celebrates the individual that you are, a unique and beloved creature, a blessed creation emanating from the hand of God. God sees you and God loves you.

But there is more.

As Jesus looks down from the cross, as his life ebbs away, he sees also a broken community.[1] His disciples have scattered. Judas has betrayed him for a handful of coins. Peter has denied him. His movement for peace and love, for spiritual regeneration, has been shattered. His community is a fallen community. Sin, once again, impedes God’s wonderful vision for a flourishing human community.

We saw on Day 4 of our reflections that God created a community of people, people-in-relationship, rather than merely two individuals. God was interested in community, because God is a community: three-in-one. God did not wish to create merely individual persons. God’s desire was to create people in relationship with one another, with creation and with God, so that we could experience the same joy of fellowship that God had enjoyed for eternity.

On that Friday, community was once again fractured.

Community was first shattered in the Fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3. Both Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden – a shattering of fellowship with God. The relationship between Adam and Eve became one of dominance and subordination – a shattering of fellowship with each other. Eve suffered in childbirth – a shattering of fellowship with one’s body. Adam had to toil to produce fruit from the ground – a shattering of fellowship with nature. The result of the Fall is, primarily, a shattering of community.

We see these results to this day in the spiritual apathy of much of the world, showing so little interest in God; in domestic violence, rape and child abuse; in psychological problems like anxiety, depression and schizophrenia; in illnesses like cancer, tuberculosis and HIV; in the prolonged wars in Africa, the Middle East and Ireland; and in the negative impact of human civilisation on climate. Sin manifests in broken community.

But Jesus, in his dying moments, works to re-create community, to turn back the effects of sin, to undo evil and death. He creates a new family.

Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

John is Jesus’ best friend. Mary is Jesus’ mother. These are the building blocks of community – friendship and family, kith and kin. And Jesus unites these two by giving his mother another son and by giving his friend a new mother. He could just as well have said, “Dear woman, dear man, you are family.”

“At the darkest moment, we see this community coming into being at the foot of the cross.”[2]

Can we think of this as part of the Great Commission? Can we consider this to be part of Jesus’ last will and testament? To re-establish communities. Can we, in our neighbourhoods and our churches and our workplaces, participate with Christ in crossing the social barriers that divide? Can Christians reach out to Muslims? Can straight Christians reach out to gay people? Can male Christians reach out to women? Can wealthy Christians reach out to those who are poor? Can white Christians reach out to black Christians and vice versa? Can Christians step across the boundaries to encounter those who are different from ourselves?

Imagine if Jesus came in the flesh to your community, and saw you and someone who is unlike you, someone you’d rather have little to do with, and said to you both, “Here is your mother. Here is your son.” Surely, if Jesus said that to you, you would, like John, take that person into your home. You would take them in as family. You would form a family. You would discover in your heart the capacity for boundary-crossing love, for free and generous love. If Jesus came in the flesh and said this, you would do it, wouldn’t you? How could you do anything else?

The truth is, Jesus has come in the flesh, and he has actually said this. He has called us to cross boundaries and to establish Christian families, where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This is a community that mirrors the community we see in the triune God, a community of love.

Meditation for the Day

Consider the extent of God’s love for you, even in his darkest hour. Consider that he has the same love for those whom you find unlovely. What does it mean for you that Jesus worked on the cross to re-establish community?

Prayer for the Day

My God, the reconciler, fill me today with such an excess of your love, that I cannot but love those around me. Give me courage to step across boundaries.

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[1] Radcliffe, T. (2004). Seven last words. London: Burns & Oates, pp. 33-36.

[2] Radcliffe, p. 33.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 31: The Cup of Suffering

Today we start a week of reflection on the cross. The cross is, for most Christians, the centre of their faith – the key representation and demonstration of God’s love. If we want to know what God’s love looks like, they say, look at the cross, for it is here that we see the extent to which God is willing to sacrifice on our behalf. However, the cross is also a picture of pain and suffering. It raises profound and difficult questions for all of us as to why it was necessary for Jesus to endure such agony on our behalf. Why does the Father allow the Son to suffer so? These questions are particularly poignant for those who have suffered in abusive relationships.

And so, as we start this week’s journey, I invite you to be sensitive and generous towards the range of views that there are on the meaning of the cross and the different spiritual responses that it evokes in people of genuine faith. You may not agree with everything you read this week – that’s okay. Just consider what you read, mull it over, and use it to strengthen your own understanding.

After the Last Supper, Jesus goes into the garden of Gethsemane to pray. Matthew 26:36-46 narrates this event in great detail and with much pathos. He uses a great deal of emotive language to describe Jesus’ experience, more than any other section of the Gospels: Jesus was sorrowful and troubled, overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.

Matthew does this to highlight for us as readers that this experience was among the most challenging for Jesus. It serves to guide us into a deep appreciation for the tremendous psychological and spiritual conflict that the cross evoked in Jesus. This was no walk in the park! We should think about Gethsemane as the central crisis in Jesus’ ministry. Although the cross itself was profoundly traumatic, it is in Gethsemane that Jesus must confront the horror that lies before him and choose whether or not to follow that path. Choice is often the hardest part of a difficult course – once chosen, the taking of the course is acceptable.

Sometimes when we think about the cross, we split the human and divine natures that coexist in the person of Jesus Christ. We may say, for example, that it was Jesus’ human nature that suffered or doubted, while his divine nature was protected from suffering and not vulnerable to doubt. But this creates an artificial split in the whole person of Jesus Christ that is at odds with our belief that the two natures are fully present and indivisibly connected in the one person. Think of the crisis as involving Jesus’ whole person and then one gets some sense of the awful bridge that he faced and had to cross.

In this passage, Jesus speaks about a “cup”, which we should understand as a metaphor for the suffering that he must endure. It is the Cup of Suffering. Three times he prays about it. First, in verse 39, he asks God to take it away from him. The second time, in verse 42, he asks that if it is not possible for it to be taken away, that God’s will might be done through it. What we are seeing in these two brief verses is a summary of an extended and heart-wrenching grappling with God. Jesus here is fighting with God much like Jacob did with the angel at  Peniel (Genesis 32:22-32). Initially Jesus wants to be utterly rid of the cup. Yet he recognizes that God’s will for the redemption of humanity is somehow tied up in the dreadful cup. And so he continues to grapple. Later, he reaches a point of recognizing that the cup is inevitable and necessary and prays that his drinking of it will be worthwhile and effective. Yet, still he prays the same thing for a third time. This is no easy prayer, and acceptance of the path of suffering is hard in coming.

What does Jesus see as he looks into the cup?

He sees the dregs of humanity. Everything about us that is wrong is in that cup – the cup of suffering. It is full of our hatred, our unbelief, our selfishness, our pride, our arrogance, our apathy, our anger, our petty mindedness, our stigma of and discrimination against those who are different from us, our quickness to judge and belittle, our fear, our lust and greed, our tendency to turn away from God rather than towards God. The Cup of Suffering is a Cup of Sin.

Jesus looks into this Cup of Suffering. He does not want to drink it. It fills him with horror! It fills him with terror, shock, despair. This Cup of Suffering is the most awful thing he has ever encountered. He wants to get as far from this Cup as he possibly can.

Let us remember that Jesus was without sin. He had never sinned. Of course, he had lived his whole life in the midst of sin – his parents, his brothers and sisters, his friends, his disciples and those he ministered to were all sinful human beings, just like me and you. Jesus was not unaware of or protected from sin. But he had never experienced sin in his own body, in his self. Drinking this Cup of Suffering entailed a personal encounter with sin. For the first time he would know sin – really know sin. He would take that sin, our sins, into himself, onto himself, and experience it first hand. It terrifies and horrifies him.

“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. … My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

Eventually, Jesus, realising and sharing the Father’s will, looks into the Cup of Suffering. He stares into the depths of human depravity, brokenness and sin. It is ugly.

But as he gazes, he begins to recognise that the Cup of Suffering is not just a cup of sin in the abstract. Rather, it is a cup of the sins of people: people with lives, with histories, with relationships, with hopes and fears, with conflicting and contradictory feelings, thoughts and behaviors. People with names. People he loves. Jesus starts to recognize names: Adrian, Trina, Erin, Anne, Michael, Theo, Nancy, John, Marianne, Cathy, Keith… He recognizes me. He recognizes you!

This Cup of Suffering is not merely a cup of horror. It is also a cup of people! It is not just a cup of sin. It is also a cup of love! These are God’s beloved. These are Jesus’ beloved. These are the ones he came to earth for in the first place.

These are the beloved. That changes everything!

It does not make the cup any easier to drink. It does not take away the horror. But it provides meaning and purpose. And meaning and purpose provide motivation. And motivation generates resolve. “May your will be done.”

Jesus decides to drink the Cup of Suffering.

The cross is a drinking of the Cup of Suffering. On the cross, Christ drinks the dregs of humanity. He drinks the dregs of me. He drinks the dregs of you. He drinks because he loves. He loves me. He loves you. And so he drinks. Were there another way, he’d have seized it with both hands. This was a deep and bitter cup. But realizing there was no other way and embracing his love for you and me, he drinks, to the bottom.

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

And then a remarkable thing happens! A miracle!

The Cup of Suffering is transformed into the Cup of Salvation.

It seems impossible, but it happens. By God’s grace and mercy, by the triune God’s extravagant and unmerited love, a love that is willing to risk everything, the Cup of Suffering becomes the Cup of Salvation.

This shocking event that we call ‘the cross’, which was intended to destroy – to annihilate – the Son of God, becomes the preeminent means of grace. The horror of the cross is transformed into the path of redemption. This place of hatred becomes, by God’s generosity, a place of supreme love.

It is the triune God who works this miracle for us. The cross itself is inherently an object of suffering and death. There is nothing glorious about it. It is not to be admired. It is a symbol of shame, of the worst that humanity can dish up. But God redeems this symbol, showing God’s capacity to redeem even the very worst of humanity, to transform what is most ugly into what is most beautiful. The Cup of Salvation!

The cross can and should evoke in us conflicted responses. On the one hand, we should shudder with disgust and shame, we should flinch away from the terrible thing that we did to God’s one and only, God’s delight, God’s Son. But on the other hand, we should be amazed at the profound expression of love, demonstrated by Jesus, in drinking the Cup of Suffering. And we should be in awe of God’s ability to transform evil into good, shame into glory, death into life.

This Gethsemane partnership between Jesus and his parent, God, establishes a model or a path that we experience as we journey in faith with God. God, our parent, takes everything that is broken about us, and transforms it into something beautiful and whole. Those many aspects of our own lives that are wrong, turned away from God, even evil, are able to be changed into something good, something that honours God, something divine. If God was able to transform the Cup of Suffering into a Cup of Salvation, surely God can transform one individual, transform you!

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on the Cup of Suffering that confronted Christ Jesus. What sins of yours were in that cup? Take ownership of your own contribution to Jesus’ ordeal. How could Jesus’ transformation of the cup be evidenced in His transformation of you?

Prayer for the Day

Precious Saviour, I am sorry for my sin that you chose to drink on the cross. Please forgive me. Thank you for your amazing demonstration of love in both drinking and transforming the Cup of Suffering. Please transform me.

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