My first sermon took place in my home congregation of Montreal West United. I had just completed my first year of theology. Wanting to impress the congregation with the breadth of my knowledge, I chose as my topic the meaning of the atonement, the reconciliation of God and humanity through Jesus’ crucifixion. In the sermon, I examined the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, as an appeasement of God’s wrath, as a victory over the evil powers and as the ultimate example of self-giving love. I preached for a full 45 minutes. A retired McGill philosophy professor happened to be in the congregation. At the close of the service, he said to me, “Mr. Hilliker, I came here anticipating some food for thought, but I never expected an avalanche.”
What is clear from my beginner’s eagerness is that the historical unfolding of atonement theories in Christianity has resulted in distinctively different understandings of the cross. Instead of a single teaching on Jesus’ death, we have a number of theories that have been given different weight from denomination to denomination. Some of these interpretations have found a lasting resting place in the hearts and minds of believers. But other people have sometimes viewed these same interpretations as a distortion of the true nature of God.
Today, when we think about Good Friday, we are really pondering two events. We might even say two crosses. First of all, there is the cross that speaks of the historical event of Jesus’ crucifixion. But there is also the cross that symbolizes the theological interpretation of that event. That is, there is Good Friday then and there is Good Friday now. But what does then have to do with now?
When we gather for public worship on Good Friday, we bring with us our individual private truths — the meaning we personally attach to Jesus’ death. Frequently, this private truth is at odds with the public truth conveyed through the Good Friday hymns that we sing, the prayers that are offered or the sermons that are preached. When these clashes of meaning occur, we end up leaving the service with an unsettling sense of disconnect.
The truth is that no one can fully understand the meaning of the cross. Even the symbol by itself can have a transformative effect. A woman that I know was sexually abused by her father when she was less than five years old. While this horror was still continuing, she came across a painting of Jesus on the cross. At this point in her life, she had never even heard of Jesus, let alone God. As she fixed her eyes on the haunting image, a sudden awareness came upon her that she was not alone in her suffering. She remembers how tightly she held on to that picture, for it empowered her to endure the unspeakable.
In Helen Waddell’s engaging biography of the medieval theologian Peter Abelard, she describes an exchange between Abelard and his friend Thibault. The two are conversing outside when they are suddenly interrupted by the anguished cry of a rabbit caught in a trap in a nearby woods. Thibault frees the bedraggled little animal, only to have it expire in his arms. The incident starts the friends talking about God’s place in the world’s suffering. When their discussion turns to the crucifixion, Thibault points to a fallen tree beside them that has been sawn through the middle. “That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ’s life was: the bit of God that we saw,” he says.
Thibault is affirming that in Jesus, we see most clearly what God is like. Jesus is the one who came to nourish our hunger to know who God is and how God is toward us. If we share this affirmation, then any interpretation of Good Friday in which God becomes a different-natured God because of Jesus’ death on a cross needs to be rejected. It means turning away from any suggestion that God had to wait until Jesus died on the cross in order to be a forgiving God.
Somewhere I heard it said, “God does not dispense forgiveness. Rather, we live in the eternal mercy of God.” Therefore, just as a dark ring not only is visible where a tree is cut through but runs the whole length of the trunk, so too can we rightly affirm with Thibault, “We think God is like that forever, because it happened once with Christ.”
Rev. Wayne Hilliker is minister emeritus at Chalmers United in Kingston, Ont.
Keep it free!
If you enjoy reading our online stories about ethical living, justice and faith, please make a donation to the Friends of The Observer Fund. Supporting our award-winning journalism will help you and others to continue to access ucobserver.org for free in the months to come.