The Empty Cross of Christ
A number of years ago during a day long spiritual retreat known as a “Quiet Day” for students at Trinity School for Ministry, my classmates and I joined members of the faculty at a Catholic retreat center.
For those of us students with families, and the accompanying stresses and strains of everyday life piled on top of our rigorous theological training, one of the first things that happened when we reached our rooms was to take a nap.
“Sometimes, taking a nap,” says author Richard Foster, “is the most spiritual thing you can do.”
On this occasion, as I drifted off to sleep, my eyes were fixed upon a crucifix that hung above the door to my room. There on the cross, Jesus lifeless body remained fixed and motionless.
This image occupied my mind throughout the course of my nap and, to my surprise, I awoke from my slumber disturbed. Naps are supposed to be refreshing. Why was I bothered?
Over the course of the remainder of the Quiet Day, I believe God showed me the reason for my internal disquiet: It was the image of the Crucifix set in my mind. Something was not right.
The problem was with the lifeless body of Jesus nailed to the hardwood of the cross upon which he gave up his Spirit and died. If that image represented the end of the story of the Christ Event, then my faith was futile and my wrestling with the powers of sin and death in my personal life were in vain.
I look back on that particular Quiet Day with a profound sense of thanksgiving to God for showing me the difference between a dead, incomplete faith and a life-giving faith based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
For Jesus rising again from the dead could only have happened if the powers of evil and death had been dealt with in full. New creation and new life can only begin when sin and death have been condemned.
Each Sunday morning, as we celebrate the Holy Eucharist here at All Saints Anglican Church, we gather as the body of Christ to offer our thanksgiving and praise to God for His inestimable love shown to us, and to all of mankind, by sending His own son Jesus Christ into the world to save it from the effects of sin and death.
If you listen carefully as we pray the liturgy, you’ll hear the following request towards the conclusion of the Prayer of Consecration:
“And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice; yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service; not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord…”
To “beseech” someone is to ask them fervently and urgently to do something specific. In the Prayer of Consecration, we are pleading with God to accept our offer of thanksgiving and praise fully realizing we have no basis for doing so other than through the unmerited favor shown to us by our Lord Jesus Christ through his sacrifice on our behalf.
This request to “not weigh our merits, but pardon our offenses” is the heart of the meaning of Easter Sunday.
The theological term for Jesus Christ’s self-sacrifice on behalf of all who would follow Him is substitutionary atonement.
The notion of substitutionary atonement is a significant theological premise pointing to a spiritual reality every Christian soul should understand so that they may fully live the abundant life Jesus Christ calls His followers to live.
So, what does this term mean?
One of the most powerful examples of the notion of a substitutionary sacrifice is found in the life of Fr. Maximillian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan Friar who freely volunteered to offer his life in the place of another man.
After a small group of prisoners in the Auschwitz death camp were captured after a failed attempt to escape, German soldiers randomly selected ten (10) prisoners to die a slow death in order to deter further escape attempts.
When one man pleaded to be spared for his wife and children’s sake, Fr. Kolbe stepped forward and moved into the place of a man randomly condemned to die.
In doing so, Fr. Kolbe chose to serve as a substitute for a fellow innocent man, taking upon himself a punishment that did not belong to him.
Fr. Kolbe and the nine (9) other prisoners were confined to a bunker where they would be left until they died of starvation. Fr. Kolbe lived for two (2) weeks without food and water and was the last of the condemned men to die. At his death, Fr. Kolbe freely offered his arm for a lethal injection by German guards having outlived the punishment of death by starvation.
Fr. Kolbe’s sacrifice remains one of the most notable and vivid examples of a man literally laying down his own life for another in the form of a substitutionary sacrifice.
On a much grander scale, this is precisely the action Jesus Christ took when he offered his own life as an atoning sacrifice for the sin of all mankind.
Through his voluntary death and resurrection from the dead, Jesus defeated the powers of sin and death that he lured into one place, a place known to us as the Cross of Christ.
Where Fr. Kolbe offered his life on behalf of one man, Jesus Christ served as the representative sacrifice of all mankind. This is why Jesus is referred to as “the Lamb who was slain.”
In the world of the Old Testament, the sins of the people were heaped upon an animal like a goat or a new born lamb, then the animal’s blood was shed at the altar of the Lord or it was sent out into the desert to die.
In both cases, innocent blood was shed or an innocent life succumbed to death in order to make atonement for the problem of sin.
This brings us to the second half of the term substitutionary atonement.
What is an atonement? At its most basic level, an atonement is reparation for a wrong or an injury. Atonement is making amends for the wrong one has done.
A few months ago, someone drove their tall vehicle into our family’s mailbox, knocking the base of the brick column off its foundation. We might say the unknown assailant sinned against me and my mailbox by causing damage to an otherwise intact and stable object.
If I had any evidence of who might have rammed into our mailbox, I would ask them to atone – or to make amends – for the damage they did to my property.
In this case, the atonement would take the form of a payment for a third party to fix the mailbox by resetting the base – or – the atonement could take the form of the person who caused the damage fixing the mailbox themself.
Either way, the one who caused the damage – the sinner - would atone or make amends for their sin by fixing the damage they caused thereby correcting the problem and repairing the damaged relationship.
Of course, when it comes to the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on behalf of all mankind, the sin of knocking over a neighbor’s mailbox pales in comparison to the significance of condemning sin and death on the Cross of Christ.
The problem with human sin against a holy God is that we are powerless to fix the problem through our own actions or on the basis of our own merits. There is no human possibility of “fixing the mailbox.”
The sin that entered the world through the disobedience of the First Adam can only be repaired through the shedding of the innocent blood of the Second Adam, Jesus Christ.
In an essay on the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, author Thomas Schreiner suggests the substitutionary view of the atonement:
“holds that the most fundamental event of the atonement is that Jesus Christ took the full punishment that we deserved for our sins as a substitute in our place, and that all other benefits or results of the atonement find their anchor in this truth.”
Again, this is the core of the message of Easter and the basis for our prayer for God to “not weigh our merits, but pardon our offenses through Jesus Christ.”
So, what does this mean for us?
Understanding the principle of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement opens up for the follower of Christ a whole new way of viewing and living life, both now and for eternity.
We can think about sin and evil as forces that grips us. In and of ourselves, we have no power to release ourselves from this grip. No amount of good works or personal merit can undo the grip of sin and death.
By offering himself on our behalf, and by dying on the cross and rising again to life, Jesus releases the grip of the power of sin and death over us, condemning sin and death and thereby setting us free.
In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul puts it this way:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering” (Romans 8:1-3).
St. Paul says that God “condemned sin in sinful man in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).
So, there are two ways to live this life we’ve been given.
We can live as those comfortable and accommodated to the grip of sin and death, as those whose minds are set on what the sinful nature desires. This route, says St. Paul, leads to a spiritual and eventually an eternal death.
Or, we can choose to live as those who are “in the Spirit,” where God’s Spirit dwells within us. This is a path that leads to “life and peace.” This is the route that says “yes” to Jesus’ offer of abundant and eternal life through faith in Himself.
For those found to be “in Christ” through faith and trust in Him, abundant life begins now and extends into all of eternity.
For “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).
The promise of Easter and the reason we celebrate today as a day of ultimate freedom, is that Christ has set us free from the powers of evil and death once and for all.
Jesus lifeless body was removed from the cross and laid in a borrowed tomb. After three days, Jesus rose from the dead and it is upon Jesus’ Risen Life that we set all of our hopes and proclaim our freedom.
And if Christ has set you free, you are free indeed.