Good Friday is a great day to get lost in the doctrinal language relating to theories of atonement. In short, the theory of atonement seeks to answer, “Why did Jesus have to die?” “Why is the cross the way to eternal life?” For centuries, theologians have quibbled to find an answer that makes sense. But as St. Paul reminds us, a sensible answer is an impossible task for the cross doesn’t make sense according to human wisdom.
I remember attending a clergy day where various priests from around the diocese shared different theories of atonement. And instead of growing deeper in the knowledge and love of God, I am afraid, we as clergy, only grew deeper in love with our own theories of atonement.
Ultimately, what happened on Good Friday for the salvation of the world cannot be reduced to a doctrine. While these efforts to explain the crucifixion may certainly open us up to the mystery of the salvation found on the cross, no doctrine alone can sufficiently explain why Jesus had to die. Each theory can only contain a parcel of the truth expressed by Christ crucified.
In that vein, I’d like to explore with you one parcel of the truth revealed in Christ crucified. During his testimony before Pilate, Jesus is asked, “What is truth?” And like the Johannine Jesus is prone to do, Jesus does not give an answer to Pilate’s question. I would assume then, the question Pilate poses, “What is truth?”, is a question that is meant for the readers of John to answer. What is truth?
Those who have read John’s gospel will remember Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” In other words, God’s truth is revealed most fully in Jesus. The fullness of God’s truth can only be known through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And Jesus is not a doctrine to be understood. Rather, Jesus calls us into the knowledge and love of God and God's truth through a relationship.
This is huge because the Old Testament scriptures tell us that God’s truth is so bright and so powerful that no mortal can look upon it and live. Moses has to veil himself before looking at God. God’s truth is so big that he must send his Son to reveal his truth in human flesh. And as we remember today, humanity will go to every length to try and extinguish God’s truth from the world.
I am reminded of a scene in the movie A Few Good Men. Col. Jessup played by Jack Nicholson is being interrogated by Lt. Kaffee played by Tom Cruise. Lt. Kaffee keeps pressing Col. Jessup on the facts that to the death of a Marine. Lt. Kaffee demands to know the truth. And in response, we get classic Jack Nicholson. Col. Jessup finally cracks and belts out the famous line, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” And then Col. Jessup goes on to tell the truth. When he is finished, the courtroom is completely stunned and quiet.
The truth of the matter is that God’s truth is not something we as human beings are capable of handling. We can’t handle the truth. In particular, there are two ultimate truths that we cannot handle. We cannot handle just how destructive we as human beings are, and we cannot handle just how merciful our God is.
And because we can’t handle the truth, because we cannot handle the gravity of our sin, because we cannot handle God’s inexhaustible love, we consume ourselves with half-truths and lies that ultimately lead us to create false gods and false saviors that we ourselves become masters over.
We consume ourselves with half-truths and lies that build ourselves up while tearing the other down. We consume ourselves with half-truths and lies that convince us to reject God’s truth because if we accept the truth of God in Christ then something about us must change, something about us must die.
For this reason, Jesus – the bearer of God’s eternal truth – died. Jesus died to change us. Jesus died to change how we see and act in the world. Jesus died so that the world may know and seek after truth, a truth that saves us from the destructive forces of sin and the fear of death.
Jesus died to expose the lies and half-truths that we have convinced ourselves to live by. Jesus died to reveal the truth that we as humans are incapable of seeing and accepting – a truth that is vindicated with his resurrection. Jesus died so that we might die to the lies of the world and live for the truth of God.
As I child, my dad wrote me lots of letters usually to apologize about something. He communicated much better on paper than he did in person. I’ll never forget something he once wrote. He said, “I just want you to know the difference between right and wrong.” Similarly, Jesus on the cross is God’s love letter to humanity. On the cross of Christ, God is trying to communicate to the world, “I just want you to know the difference between what is true and what is false.”
And on the cross, the world is shown that difference between what is true and what false because on the cross Jesus shows us that love of neighbor is more powerful than the love of power and control for if we love power and control, then we can only love ourselves.
On the cross, Jesus shows us that relationships, even relationships with the enemy, are more life giving than the rigid application of a religion that can often be used to exclude the enemy or the “unclean”. On the cross, Jesus shows the world that eternal life isn’t found by winning a popularity contest. Rather, eternal life is found by giving up whatever privileges we think we might need in order to restore the dignity of another.
On the cross, God in Christ exposes the lies of the world, lies that we think we need to live, lies that tell us we need power and control and wealth and popularity, lies that are ultimately exposed as weak and pedantic on the cross.
And by exposing the lies we convince ourselves to believe in, the cross of Christ sheds light on the truth of God in such a way where we can handle both our sinfulness and God’s endless goodness, in such a way where we are no longer paralyzed by fear and shame but inspired by love and hope, in such a way where we aren’t afraid to change and die and commit our own lives to exposing the lies that are destroying humanity and proclaiming the truth that is saving the world in Christ.
Beloved sisters and brothers in Christ, you alone can’t handle the truth, but through the cross of Jesus Christ you are given access to the truth that is saving the world. May God give you the grace to live daily to live toward the mystery of the cross and may you know and feel in every fiber of your being that the way of the cross is the way of life and truth. Amen.