If I am remembering correctly from a sermon I heard a few weeks ago[i] there is a story about a Chinese teacher who takes his students on an outing to a river/lake side as a time of respite after a grueling period of instruction. Out of all the students and the teacher, only two of them know how to swim; only one of them is a student. This one student, believing he is a strong swimmer, decides to go for a swim. After some time of swimming this student develops a leg cramp and can swim no longer; beginning to drown the rest of the students start panicking, imploring their teacher, they only other one who knows how to swim, to save him. Going to the water side the teacher watches as the student struggles to keep himself above water. The teacher stands by watching as the student flails in the water, going under and coming back up multiple times. Finally, the student goes under one last time and does not come back up this time. At this the teacher dives into the water, grabs his student and brings him back onto shore to begin to revive him. After some time, the teacher does revive his student, and at this the other students begin to rebuke their teacher—wondering why he took so long to save their fellow student. Gathering himself, the teacher responded to their questions by explaining how if he had jumped in sooner, the drowning student in his strength would have taken them both under and they both would have drowned. It wasn’t until the student was at his weakest that he could truly be saved.
This past week the whole of Christianity celebrated the Holy Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Each and every year we mark these days, we observe them in various ways, and we celebrate the way in which God chose to save humanity from the perils that our sinful nature brings; eternal death and separation from God. Every year the assigned lectionary gospel reading comes from the Gospel of John;[ii] it is the gospel account of Christ’s Passion that is the most detailed of all the accounts; an author of a website dedicated to the Gospel of John’s account of the Passion even goes as far as to call it a masterful blend of suffering and triumph.[iii] When we dive deep into this account of Christ’s Passion, when we look at the way in which God went about this feat, it is hard not to wonder why God did what God did in the way God did? Why suffer death, especially the gruesome form of death on a cross? Why did God choose that particular time in history?
While we can never fully understand why God did, or does, anything, as we are not God and cannot fully comprehend the complexities of being God, we can however draw logical conclusions as best as our feeble understandings will allow. The first question is easy: why suffer death? As the Apostle Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death….”[iv] Because we are sinful human beings from birth, the punishment required for our sins is death. But as the Apostle Paul also writes, “…the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[v] Out of God’s immense love for humanity God chose to take that required punishment of death for us. God did not want is loved ones to be eternally separated from him, and so God made a way for us to not be through the death of Christ. But why the cross, the next question begs to ask? The cross was the preferred form of capital punishment at that time. Jesus and his ministry had set itself in opposition to all that thought they had any authority, and that could not be allowed to happen. The Jewish leaders wanted to silence Jesus because he was claiming to have equal authority with God, thus putting himself above them. Because of this, the Jewish leaders made sure that the Roman authority, the penultimate authority of that time and place, saw that Jesus was a threat to their rule as well. Since crucifixion was the capital punishment of choice for the Romans for those who defied their authority, that was the death sentence Jesus received as well. But as the Easter story shows, not even their authority over a person’s life and death could stand up against God’s ultimate authority over eternal life and death as death could not contain God’s love. Jesus rose from the dead showing that he indeed was the Son of God; God himself!
The last question that we then have left to answer is why God chose that particular time in history? If we look back at the history of God and God’s people as told through the Old Testament, we notice a pattern occurring. People find themselves in trouble and despair God rescues them from their despair, they follow God for a time then turn back to thinking of themselves as not needing God, which brings them back into trouble and despair all over again. It is like the story that I began this post with. When people think they are strong they will not allow anyone to try to save them. It is not until they have reached their weakest point that they are actually in a position to be saved. Again, the Apostle Paul writes, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[vi] In the midst of our sin, in our weakest state, God came down to earth to die for us in order to save us from eternal death and separation from God.
Often times in our lives, weakness is seen as a bad thing; something that should never be displayed. But when it comes to salvation weakness is actually strength. God embodied weakness in order to face death on the cross for our sake, which in turn gives us the greatest strength there is: God’s own love. This is not of our own doing, as the Apostle Paul writes, but is “the gift of God … so that that no one can boast.”[vii] And for that we exclaim with joy:
Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
i. Rev. Bill Zeige, “Therefore, God…,” (sermon) April 14, 2019.
ii. John 17-20:18, NIV.
iii. “The Passion John’s Gospel,” The Passionists, 2006, https://passionofchrist.us/the-passion-johns-gospel/ (accessed April 23, 2019).
iv. Romans 6:23a, NIV.
v. Romans 6:23b, NIV.
vi. Romans 5:8, NIV.
vii. Ephesians 2:8, NIV.