Today marks the beginning of Holy Week.
“Holy” is such a churchy word and, as a result, carries a lot of baggage. So, let’s start by lightening the load. Holy means somewhat peculiar, somehow different, something unique, or someone set apart for a special purpose. This week, then, is different, unique, even peculiar. And yes, of course, we think that God is in and through all of it. But we believe that God is in and through every week. So, there is something special about this week that makes it different. For Christians, what sets this week apart is what happens at the end and what we learn through that event.
A man named Jesus died on the cross and through that death (and what comes next!) we have come to believe that he is God’s Son.
Jesus’ death is always a hot topic of conversation this time of year as Christians debate what was really happening on and through the cross. The Reformed tradition has described Jesus’ death with two words:
The long and short of it is that God’s justice demands punishment for the sins of humanity (penal). But, out of God’s great love for us, sent his Son to receive that punishment and satisfy that justice in our place (substitution). In this view, Jesus had to die so that we could receive God’s mercy. Honestly, this has never sat very well with me and I know it doesn’t sit well with many people who have left the church. In the extreme, people charge God with divine child abuse. For me, it offers a narrow view of justice and gives the impression that God requires a sacrifice of death in order to show mercy. The words themselves sound gross and weird and maybe even sadistic. But, rather than argue whether it’s right or wrong, let’s look at an alternative view.
We’ve spent the last six weeks at our church talking about what it means to be “washed in his blood” (also gross and weird, but hang with me). The biggest shift in thinking has been to think about blood as a sign of life and not death (Lev. 17:14). The difficulty in that shift is that we only see blood when it is coming out of us and that is never a good thing. If we lose too much blood, we also lose our life. But that only proves that point. Blood is life. For most of our lives blood does amazing, unnoticed things to strengthen and sustain and heal us. So, I take this to mean that when blood is given to God, what’s being given is a life and not a death. When we talk about being washed in Jesus’ blood, we’ve talked about being washed in his life, not in his death.
Two books of the Bible lay this out pretty well: I Peter and I John.
I Peter is addressed to those who are “sprinkled with His blood.” (1:1). Along the way you find words like these:
“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in his steps.” 2:21
“Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because those who suffer in the flesh have ceased with sin.” 4:1
I John says that the “blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.” Along the way you find words like these:
“The one who says they abide in Jesus ought to walk in the same manner as he walked.” 2:6
“We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” 3:16
The point of all of this is to say that Jesus was a “living sacrifice.” He lived his life to the point of death. In other words, he lived a certain kind of life even though it killed him. That life was devoted to God and rooted in love and sealed on the cross as he shed his blood. It’s a peculiar thing for someone to endure such misery and pain for others, even his enemies. I would undoubtedly lay down my life for my wife and kids. I love them that much. But how far does that love extend? Where that love ends, sin begins. It’s a different kind of person who is willing to die for anyone and everyone. Unique even. I’d say it’s holy. Jesus was set apart by God for a special purpose. Jesus lived to show us what a holy love looks like and calls us to do the same. God won’t despise those who are humble enough to admit that Jesus got life right and broken enough to admit they have it wrong (see Psalm 51:17; Isaiah 57:15-16) and God even enjoys helping them to work life out in their own lives (Phil. 2:13).
It’s at this point that someone would say: Well, then Jesus didn’t have to die did he? Only live.
Except that he did. He did have to die.
“Through death Jesus rendered him powerless who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and freed those who through their fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” Hebrews 2:14-15
Someday we’re all going to die and that can be a scary thing. If this life is all we’ve got then it’s best to make the most of it. “Eat. Drink. Be merry. Tomorrow we die.” Death makes us do all kinds of miserable and selfish and short-sighted things. Even if we don’t acknowledge death daily, it’s out there. It plays out in all the ways we sacrifice others for the sake of our own comfort and privilege (aka sin). The devil (insert “evil” if you prefer) uses death to toy with us and bind us up with grief and sadness and pain. So, Jesus had to die. Jesus had to die to show us that there was a kind of life that death could not defeat; a kind of life not bound by grief and sadness and pain; a kind of life that was eternal. He lived that kind of life and God raised him from the dead to prove his power of every enemy of life. Death is defeated and there is a life the d/evil cannot touch. Now, try as he might, the d/evil has no hold on me. I can resist the d/evil and he will flee from me because he has no power to hold over my head.
I’ve seen it in Jesus and the good news is that he’s willing to share. So I’m grateful for a Savior that would give up all of his comfort and privilege and come into this world and endure all of the pain and hostility in this world and still never give up on this world, so that there could be life in this world; and grateful that he set me free from the d/evil and death and sin and all the things the prevent me from enjoying a life that really is life.
That’s why I eat his body and drink his blood (I know, still gross and weird). Because blood is life. I’m tired of death and all of the misery it causes. But, I’m not afraid of death. So, I’m going to die a little bit to myself so that Jesus can become a little more alive in me. I want a taste of life. Jesus’ abundant life. His eternal life. You can taste it too. There is plenty to go around.
During this holy week, I’m going to try to do something peculiar, something different, something unique. I’m going to try to be a little more holy like Jesus was holy, loosen my grip on my own life, and give it to God by giving it to others. I’m not sure what it means for me exactly. I certainly can’t tell you what it means for you (except that it has nothing to do with chocolate or facebook). All I know is that Jesus got it right, I’m still working on it (with the help of his Spirit), it entails suffering some discomfort and sacrificing privilege and sharing life with everyone, even enemies. And, it’s definitely worth it.