Rediscovering Jesus on the Cross: Lent 2024

As we come to the end of Lent and prepare our hearts for Easter, it’s time for us to look back at our journey of rediscovery so far. At the start of Lent, I invited us to open our hearts to the possibility of encountering Jesus in places and situations we don’t expect - I hope that if you have been engaging with the blog series that this has been the case for you.  

First, we had Mo from SCM’s Trans Theology Group encourage us to consider the ways in which a queer interpretation of the gospels can allow us to meet Jesus again in the experience of LGBTQ+ people. They explored interpretations of gospels stories through a queer lens with Jesus coming out to his disciples, empowering us to leave unaccepting communities, and embodying trans energy. Then Jessica shared her experience of encountering Jesus in psychoanalysis. She told us that through analysis we can experience transformation both in our personal experiences and in our understanding of God - “in analysis we can see in some small part that, which in God, we see in full”. Nathan offered us an encounter with the very human Jesus shouting angrily at a fig tree in the gospel of Mark. “It speaks to something deep within about what it is to be human, and shows that Jesus is fully human as well as being fully divine”. Niamh gave us space to allow ourselves to rest, following Jesus’ example of sleeping in the storm. She reflected that, in modern capitalism, rest is not a luxury but an act of resistance. Finally, Rev. Charlotte Gale of St. Clare’s shared with us about encountering Jesus in art. She asked us whether we should try and portray Jesus as he actually looked, or as a reflection of how we look - recognising that by portraying Jesus in all our human diversity it allows us to recognise the image of God in each of us, and that we all make up the body of Christ. 

After all these moments of opportunity to rediscover Jesus, we arrive now at the foot of Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified and died, which we remember and celebrate this Good Friday. Yet, the question remains for many - why is the day of Jesus’ death described as good? Why do we remember and celebrate the brutal execution of a Palestinian Jew in Roman occupied Jerusalem in the 1st century? Here is where we return to the words of Marcus Borg, shared at the start of this Lenten journey of rediscovery in his book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. When considering the significance of the cross and what is referred to by scholars as atonement theory (determining in what way Jesus’ death is actually salvific) Borg invites us to consider story or narrative theology. Narrative theology expands our vision of scripture to recognise the stories present throughout, and how they are reflected in the life and death of Jesus the Christ.  

In Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Borg shares three significant stories which have been told about the cross since the early days of Christianity, and which continue to have relevance in the Church today. First, the Exodus story. In this narrative our problem is bondage to slavery in Egypt, a metaphor for sin and death in the human condition, and the solution is liberation. This story of liberation is not simply a moment in history but a journey which continues in our lives today, a journey with God and toward God as our ultimate end and true liberation. Through the cross Jesus shames and defeats the powers which bind us and offers us a path to liberation. Like in Mo’s blog on queer theology and Charlotte’s blog on Jesus in art, seeing Jesus as our Moses who leads us from Egypt out into the liberation offered and promised by God can occur as we rediscover Jesus in our particular experiences of exclusion, marginalisation, and unique identities. This could be understood as the Christus Victor model of atonement theory.  

Second is the story of exile and return. Grounded in the historical experience of Israel’s exile in Babylon, and their eventual return to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple, in this narrative our problem is separation from God. Without our true home we are lost in exile, and the solution is a journey of return. This experience of exile, like the exodus story, has psychological as well as cultural-political implications, as we saw in Jessica’s blog on psychoanalysis, and Niamh’s on rest. Experiencing exile “is marked by deep sadness and an aching loneliness”. Both psychoanalysis and rest can offer us tools on our journey with Jesus as we walk towards our eternal home. This story can be best seen in the moral exemplar model of atonement in that it offers us a vision of the cross which is revelatory and speaks to the truth of our human condition and situation.   

Third is the priestly story, grounded in the experience of ancient Israel’s system of temple, priesthood, and sacrifice. In this story our problem is that we are sinners who have broken God’s laws and who therefore stand guilty before God. The solution then is God’s forgiveness and redeeming sacrifice on the cross. As Nathan called us to remember Jesus’ humanity in his blog, it is only Jesus’ humanity that makes atonement possible in this story; he stands as the representative of all humanity’s sin and guilt. This narrative can be seen in the popular and often critiqued atonement theory of penal substitution. It is in this story that we encounter the vision of the cross which remains dominant in modern Christianity. Although I find there is much to critique in this story of the cross, I conclude along with Borg that in its most simple and radical form its message is that we are accepted and loved, just as we are. Wherever we feel shame and guilt, whether put on us by others or by ourselves, God offers us unconditional love to free us so that we can gladly declare “amazing grace how sweet the sound”.  

Borg argues that if we limit our understanding of the cross to the priestly story, as many do today, then we will encounter distortions in our understanding of the Christian life. Instead, if we allow the priestly story to exist as one of the various stories about the cross, we can recognise their common features. First, “all of them are stories of suffering and of being at an experiential distance from God”. Second, “all of them make powerful affirmations not just about the human condition but also about God”. Third, “all of them are stories of hope”. Finally, “all are stories of a journey. It is a journey of liberation and homecoming. It is a journey toward God that is also with God… In the context of a journey story, the priestly story means that God accepts us just as we are, wherever we are on our journey”. (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time).

Whichever narrative about the cross you relate to most, I pray that this Lenten journey of rediscovery stays with you as you venture on in your call to discipleship. The story of Good Friday offers us a moment to reflect on the various ways in which we journey back to God; whether from exodus to liberation, exile to homecoming, or shame to freedom. Maybe this Good Friday you will allow a moment to rediscover one of these stories of the cross in a new way, and in so doing meet Jesus again. If we choose to view them as stories, all of which can have differing meanings and significance dependent on where we are in our journey at this moment, rather than viewing them as competing ideologies, then maybe we will encounter the cross, and Jesus, in a way we didn’t expect. If we limit the cross to a single meaning or narrative, we risk missing out on the depth of meaning offered to us by each of the stories mentioned above. When we open ourselves up to these differing stories of the cross, we can begin to see Jesus in kaleidoscopic colour, not confined by our systems and theologies but free to meet us wherever we are.  

I encourage you to take a moment in prayer at a time that suits you this Easter to thank God for being present wherever we are on our journey. Feel free to use the prayer below:  

God of liberation, homecoming, and freedom,  

We pray this Easter to thank you for your faithful and unending love.  

Christ our new Moses, lead us from bondage to liberation.  

Christ our companion when we feel lost, lead us from exile to homecoming.  

Christ our high priest who understands our weakness, lead us from shame to freedom.  

Wherever we are on our journey toward you, thank you for being present and walking alongside us.