Behind Golgotha 5: Did Jesus Win?
Passage: Philippians 2:5–2:11
I think it is amazingly ironic that the central symbol of the Christian faith is the cross. People who lived during Jesus’ time would never have celebrated the cross, would never have thought that the cross could become a symbol of worship. The cross was a tool of Roman Imperial capital punishment. It was not just how they’d punish people they deemed threats, but it was how they would put on display the awesome power of Rome. Crucifixion was a very public way of killing someone. And as such half the point in crucifixion was to show others, to show the public, what happened when you crossed Rome.
In the first Star Wars movie the Empire captures Princess Leia who is working for the Rebellion. And they want her to talk, they want her to give up information on the Rebellion. Where is their base? Who are their leaders? Etc. And they have this Death Star. And so what do they do in order to try to gently persuade Leia to give up the information she has? They use the Death Star to blow up her home planet. It is a show of power. It is a show of might. It is what the kids call a flex. Give us the information we want or we will do this to other planets. Do what we want or we will hurt and kill more people.
So it was with the Romans. They crucified in order to show how powerful they were in the face of insurrection. We crucify your leader in a public way so that you, member of the rebellion, will know there are two choices: give up your rebellion and go home, or face a similar fate. They wanted to show quite publicly that, to mix my references, resistance is futile.
And here we are 2,000 years later and the cross is a symbol of power not for Empire, but for the powerless.
How is it a symbol of power? Why is it a symbol of power? How the cross went from a symbol of death and defeat to something else entirely is precisely what we are here today to discuss.
Last week we talked about different ways of talking about the meaning of the cross, different atonement motifs. Our focus last week was how the cross was an altar and Jesus was a sacrifice. That’s probably the most ubiquitous, the most well known, atonement motif. On the cross Jesus takes the punishment that was rightly coming our way. Jesus stands in our way, Jesus is our substitute. And through Jesus’ death we are shown mercy and grace.
Now some of you might rightly ask wait is there another way of looking at the cross? Jesus as sacrifice or Jesus as substitute is so ubiquitous that other motifs don’t always get as much play. And some might ask why do we need other motifs? Isn’t that just what the cross means?
Different motifs are meant to emphasize different aspects of the meaning of the cross. Only going with one can have some problematic effects. Because when we only focus on one what happens is we can easily go to extremes. For instance if we only talk about Jesus as a sacrifice we might get to the point where we become afraid of God. Crucifixion was a painfully horrible death. Is that really what God needed, what God demanded? How angry was God with us that he required that much violence in order to love us again? Oftentimes this ties in places in the Old Testament where God can be pretty terrifying. And so we can get to this place where Jesus saves us from God rather than Jesus saves us from sin. We aren’t meant to be saved from God. We are made to love God and be healed through knowing and being known by God.
So this morning I want to look at another motif. Something that can give a new layer and level of meaning to the cross. And that motif has everything to do with a symbol of punishment and death becoming a symbol of power and victory.
This motif starts with the most stark reality of our world. And that is we are alive in a world oriented towards death. My oldest son Patrick is five. And while he is quite precocious, he is already aware of death. One night he asked if I would die before he would die. And we talked about it. And a few days later he said to me, “Daddy I want you and me to die at the same time.” I told him that I didn’t want that, that I wanted him to live a lot longer than me so that if he had kids he can see them grow up and maybe have kids of their own and he can enjoy them. Then he asked if he would be sad when I died. And I tried to tell him that yes he would be sad but he’d be older and better able to handle it. And then he got very quiet. And looked away from me. And I asked if he was ok and he started to cry.
How quickly do we realize that not only is death a thing, a fact of our existence, but something that brings us sadness. And something to be avoided. And something to be feared.
Which is why capital punishment becomes the greatest punishment we can doll out. In every place we reserve the death penalty for the absolute worst crimes. Because what can we do to someone that’s worse than killing them? And when you have the death penalty and want to ratchet it up further, what can you do? Well you can potentially do two things: make the death gruesome and make it public. Roman crucifixion is based on the premise that death is the worst thing we can do and a public gruesome death is the worst way to die.
In 1 Corinthians Pauls describes death as an enemy. It’s certainly an enemy for us and Paul calls it an enemy for God to defeat. And this is not purely a Christian belief. Take two examples from popular culture. In Harry Potter, what motivates Voldemort more than anything else is a desire for immortality. He doesn’t want to die. He does everything possible, commits terrible atrocities, in order to ensure he can never die. And from the tv show Game of Thrones there’s this exchange between two characters: "Death is the enemy,” he says. “The first enemy, and the last." “But we all die,” says Jon, to which Beric replies, “The enemy always wins, and we still need to fight him.”
No matter who we are, no matter where we are death as seen as an enemy. To be avoided. To be resisted. To be fought. And as such we see that people who die as people who lost.
What does this do for us, what does this mean for us? It means deep down we are death averse. We do everything we can to avoid death, everything we can to keep death at bay. We work and work and work in the sure hope that we might be able to get out of life alive. We fear death, we fear decay, we fear anything that reminds us of our mortality.
Many atonement theories begin with the human condition. What is our basic state as humans. And go on to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross saves us from our human condition. Last week we talked about Jesus being a sacrifice. Our starting point, the human condition, was that we are guilty of sin. And we needed a new birth, a fresh start, in our relationship with God. And in being our sacrifice, in being our substitute, Jesus made necessary restitution for our sin. And in looking upon Jesus lifted up on the cross we can see that our sins are forgiven.
This week our human condition is people who are oriented towards death even as we fear that death. Death is the final, the ultimate power over us. Death is the enemy. To answer how Jesus’ death on the cross saves us from that human condition we need to look at a piece of Scripture commonly referred to as the “Christ hymn”. It’s from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Scholars believe that in Paul’s letter here he is quoting a common hymn of that day. One of the earliest hymns that highlights one of the earliest understandings of the meaning of Christ’s death. It talks about Jesus sharing in God’s nature and taking the form of a servant. And being a human being Jesus suffered death. But notice the words of the hymn, it says Jesus humbled himself to death. The way the verb functions in this sentence Jesus doesn’t passively meet death like death happened to Jesus. Instead its almost as if Jesus chose death, Jesus welcomed death, Jesus took death. When the Romans put Jesus on a cross believing it was going to end his movement they were actually playing into Jesus’ hands. It’s what Jesus wanted.
Which is so bizarre for us. Death is defeat. Death is losing. Death is the end. And here Jesus welcomed it? Jesus humbled himself to death? He could have prevented it but he didn’t? For us who spend our time, our energy, our money trying to keep death away as long as possible this is downright unintelligible. Someone who had the power to prevent death didn’t? It simply doesn’t compute.
But what happens when Jesus humbles himself by becoming obedient to death is the key. What happens next is the way that God saves and redeems and atones for this particular human condition.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
God raises Jesus Christ from the dead. And in doing so Jesus defeats death. God in Jesus Christ reveals He has the power over death. God in Jesus Christ humbles himself to be obedient to death. Because death isn’t the ultimate enemy. Because death isn’t to be feared above all else. Because our God is the living God, our God has the power of life, our God has power over death. Our God in Jesus Christ was obedient to death because with God death doesn’t mean defeat. Death doesn’t mean it’s over. Death doesn’t get the last word. The last word is a word of life spoken by our God.
But the hymn doesn’t just stop there. The hymn doesn’t say God just raised Jesus to new live. No, instead God did so much more. God exalts Jesus to the highest place. The highest place. So that at his name every knee shall bow and every tongue confess.
And this works on two levels. The first level is the level of history. The Caesars crucified Jesus and other political threats to show their power so that at the name of Caesar every knee should bow. They wanted to show that Rome was the ultimate power in the world. And to say to every conquered people bend the knee, toe the line, or face the unstoppable might of Rome.
When God raised Jesus from the dead God showed that the Romans had know power, the Emperor had no power over God in Jesus Christ. And so what we see happen after Jesus’ resurrection is a group of people who, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday cowered in a locked room out of fear, emerged from that room determined to spread the message of Jesus’ resurrection to all the world. The threat from the Romans was still there. Crucifixion was still at thing that could happen to them and in many cases it was a thing that did happen to them. But they still went anyways. Because if God can raise Jesus Christ from the dead what can Rome do to me that God can’t undo? And Christians for centuries faced persecution, faced imprisonment, faced public deaths in the arenas and still refused to bend the knee, refused to say anyone other than Jesus Christ was Lord because if God can raise Jesus Christ from the dead what power does anyone or anything have over followers of Jesus Christ? None! God in Jesus Christ is the highest power in the world!
Which moves to the second point of how this functions and that is in our lives. That is in our world. You see we don’t have to operate out of a fear of death. We don’t have to operate out of a fear of decay. We don’t have to accept the premise that our world and our lives are oriented towards death. Death doesn’t have to have power over us. Because in Jesus Christ God defeated death. God showed God’s power over death. God showed us that the key of the universe, the grain of the universe runs in the direction of those who give up of themselves out of love for others.
Mother Theresa. Martin Luther King Jr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They all gave of their lives and gave their lives in the service of love and justice. Were they failures because they didn’t achieve all they wanted, instead succumbing to death before seeing their movement through? Or do we say they are heroes, do we look at their lives and say they’re beautiful because if God raised Jesus Christ from the dead death doesn’t have to mean defeat? Can we see the ways in which their lives moved with the grain of the universe and the only way that makes sense is because in Jesus Christ God defeated death and God defeated sin and God defeated evil? So we can oppose those things in this life and even if it costs us our live we didn’t lose? Because God in Jesus Christ declares us winners. God in Jesus Christ declares victory.
We are getting closer and closer to remembering and retelling and experiencing anew the story of the cross. Remembering Jesus being tried and convicted and beaten. Retelling the stories of abuse and abandonment. And experiencing anew the suffering and the pain and the loss. But the story doesn’t end there. Instead a burst of God’s light erupts to obliterate the darkness of Golgotha. And God’s light and God’s life reveal a risen Christ, in whom death is defeated and sin has power over us no more. We are free. We are victors. What will you do with your freedom? How will you celebrate this victory? Let us pray.