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.