Saturday, April 3, 2010

But for the grace of God ...

Yesterday was Good Friday, the day we Christians commemorate the death of Jesus Christ, and on the Sojourners blog yesterday a couple of the discussions centered on the old question "Who was responsible for His death?" Of course that's a thorny issue because the issue is murky and fraught with political and religious implications. (I have to watch my words carefully here because I belong to a historically-Jewish fraternity and some of my brothers may be reading this.)

This much we do know. Jesus was born during a time of super-patriotism among the Jewish people of that day similar to today's "tea parties" and, while they understood the Old Testament prophecies about the coming "Messiah" (translated "anointed one"), they believed that he would overthrow the then-occupying Roman government. (This is why he rarely used the word.) And there was precedent -- after all, a couple of centuries earlier they had stood up to the Greeks, which is why to this day they observe Chanukah. That said, His fresh teachings, outreach to the outcasts in that society and withering criticism of the religious establishment certainly didn't endear him to the leadership of that day, which understandably saw him as a threat to its authority.

Only at that point did Rome get involved. Some time earlier the Jewish religious leaders had cut a deal with the Roman government, which had outlawed execution for all but civil charges, so the religious leaders were actually finding an excuse to hand Jesus over to the Romans to have Him taken out -- when He started referring to Himself as a king, that gave them the opening. Add to that His refusal to take on Rome directly and it's obvious why virtually everyone had turned on Him. (There's a delicious irony in that, when Pontius Pilate asked if He were their king, some of the people responded, "We have no king but Caesar.")

But here's the rub. While on that cross Jesus said, "Father, forgive them -- because they don't know what they're doing." I get that. And it would be arrogant for me to assume that, had I been a Jew at that time, I would have recognized who He was. (Those people who have said that such things as the Holocaust represent judgment on the Jewish people for rejecting Jesus are not only dangerously wrong but miss the point.)

In January of 1984, the lowest point of my life, I attended a church retreat at which Christian singer-songwriter Michael Kelly Blanchard, who was friends with the previous campus pastor, was the speaker. The only thing I really remember about it, however, was the pre-lunch communion service, during which I completely broke down; afterward, I returned to my room and sobbed some more. What happened? For the first time in my life, I got a glimpse of the gravity of my own sin. (Keep in mind that I had already been a Christian for not quite five years, so I already had an intellectual understanding that it would no longer be held against me.) Later on during a small group discussion one of the women, who understood my tears, referred to Jesus "whom we killed."

I think that's the point. Trying to find a "scapegoat" for His being nailed to the cross isn't really the issue -- it's the recognition that He represented the ultimate sacrifice to pay for the sin of mankind, which was God's plan all along. Rather, let's consider the grace that He showed us in the process, realizing that we fall short of His standards and that he has the right to zap us at any moment but doesn't, because He has a greater purpose.

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