Showing items filed under “February 2017”

Theology Matters: Importance of Jesus' Suffering and Death

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“What is the great importance of Jesus’ suffering and death?” Another way to formulate this question is to ask, “Why did Jesus have to suffer and die the way he did?” 

For two thousand years the mystery of the cross has occupied the thinking of the greatest Christians: St. Peter, St. Paul, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker…you get the point. There are a lot of them. 

So, “Why the Cross?” Why did Jesus suffer and die in the most excruciating and humiliating way possible? Well, here’s one way to get at the question. 

  1. S. Lewis rightly points out that this world is enemy-occupied territory and the Christian story is all about how the world’s rightful king has slipped clandestinely behind enemy lines. Jesus, of course, is that rightful king. He is God in the flesh, and he is calling all of his followers to “take part in a great campaign of sabotage” (Mere Christianity). I like the militaristic imagery that Lewis uses because it illustrates both what the Jews were looking for in their Messiah, and who Jesus really is.

The Jews believed that when the Messiah arrived he’d regroup the scattered tribes of Israel, getting them into good fighting condition, and then mount a victorious military campaign against Israel’s enemies—namely the Romans. Well, Jesus does regroup the scattered tribes, albeit in a symbolic way. He gathers twelve disciples around himself. And he says and does things to get his followers into good fighting condition. He does this not by teaching them guerilla warfare or hand to hand combat, but by teaching them how to do spiritual warfare. He gives them authority over the devil (Matthew 10:1; Luke 9:1,10:17). He not only teaches his followers spiritual warfare, he also leads them into battle. Jesus has come into the world to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8b).

For the most part the Jews missed it. They didn’t recognize their Messiah when he came. But the devil didn’t miss his arrival. He recognized him. Almost as soon as the king has landed the enemy goes on the march against him.

Remember that peach of a man named Herod? When he gets word from wise men that there’s been a “child born king of the Jews,” he’s frightened, “and all Jerusalem [is frightened] with him,” says St. Matthew. (Let the reader understand.) Herod is the king and he’s not about to let a little child upset his gig. So he goes after Jesus, but fails to cut him down. However, he slaughters many innocent children in the attempt (Matthew 2:1-18). Like I said, “Great guy.”

The combat resumes after Jesus’ baptism. The devil goes out to meet him in the wilderness. He’s clever with his timing too. He meets Jesus after he’s fasted forty days and nights. Jesus is famished. How would you like to meet the devil when you’re exhausted? I wouldn’t want to meet him if I were well rested. Anyway, the enemy comes at Jesus with one cunning temptation after another, but he successfully resists, and the devil leaves him—for the time being (Matthew 4). 

Then Jesus enters public ministry. From the beginning he’s opposed. Of course, there are those who cheer him, but they grow fewer and fewer as his mission unfolds. Jesus goes to his hometown. Time to celebrate the boy-made-good, right? Hardly. They take offense at him. In return, Jesus is amazed at their unbelief and his ministry among them is hindered because of it (Matthew 13: 54-58). Ultimately, Jesus is a man with real authority, which threatens the Pharisees, and so they plot to kill him (Matthew 12:14).

By the time we reach the Passion narrative(s), all the evil forces, seemingly every form of human sin and dysfunction, come out to meet Jesus. Judas, one of the twelve, betrays him. The other disciples fall asleep in his greatest hour of need. Peter denies even knowing him. The Sanhedrin, meant to be a dispenser of justice, carries out an act of great injustice. Pontius Pilate knows the truth, but he refuses to follow through on it. The temple and Roman guards, full of blood lust, unleash on him a grotesque beating. Finally, as this innocent man hangs naked, nailed to a stake of wood, there’s the crowd standing by to mock him (Matthew 27).

“By his own goodness and perfection, Jesus draws out the ugliness of human sin” (Bishop Robert Barron). It’s a bleak picture of the human race, isn’t it? And please don’t start with any nonsense that you’re the one exception. Friend, be honest with yourself. I mean really honest with yourself. You’ve supped with the devil. We all have. We’ve all crucified this innocent man.

Jesus is crushed by the evil of the world. He dies. He’s buried.

If that’s the end of the story, the answer to “What is the great importance of Jesus’ suffering and death?” is “It’s of no importance whatsoever” (1 Corinthians 15:13-19). But thanks be to God it’s not the end of the story! In the resurrection, Jesus conquers evil with God’s love. When he returns to those who had abandoned him, he speaks peace, shalom, to them (John 20:19). Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has swallowed up all human sin. The cross of Jesus shows us our sin. “The author of life came, and you killed him,” says St. Peter (Acts 3:15). But in the resurrection of Jesus, God conquers the sin of the world with his infinitely greater hesed, i.e. loving-kindness and tender mercy.

What is the great importance of Jesus’ suffering and death? We’re saved because of it. The cross saves us because Jesus becomes “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). He absorbs sin into himself, and by his resurrection God has canceled the debt of sin.

“We adore you, O Christ, and we bless You, because by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world” (Stations of the Cross). Amen.



Posted by The Rev. David Miller with

Theology Matters: Virgin Birth

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What do we mean when we say that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and became incarnate from the Virgin Mary? 

Sometimes Scripture leaves open and mysterious that which we would prefer were more buttoned-down and specific. Such is the case with the conception and incarnation of the Son of God. Such debate as there is on this deals with the “how” of it: how was Mary impregnated by the Holy Spirit? How did the biological act of conception occur? How can new life, which we know to be a combination of genetic material between a mother and father, come about when there seem to be 23 missing male chromosomes? Yet the gospels of Luke and Matthew, which tell the story of Jesus’ conception and birth (and do so in quite different and distinct ways), do not seem terribly interested in these matters, and are absolutely content to leave the biological questions unanswered. The ancient world, after all, didn’t know or understand the science of procreation as we do today. But rather than seeing this as a source of frustration, the lack of biological explanation of the how of Jesus’ conception can allow us to more properly stand in awe of the why. For if we’re able to move beyond the resolution of a question the answer of which is doomed to be inadequate and unsatisfactory (if we claim it was purely miraculous and God provided those missing chromosomes through purely divine action, some will dismiss the story as the unscientific nonsense of mythology; meanwhile, if we claim that Joseph provided those missing chromosomes, then others will resist a seeming diminishment of divine power and possibility), then we can actually get to the heart of what the story is really all about – that is, what we are really saying when we claim that Jesus “was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit” and “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary.”

For when we make that statement, we are actually making two bold and profoundly important claims: we are saying that this child is fundamentally like, and also unlike, all other human beings. Like, in the sense that he was born from a human mother just like all of us. He didn’t “apparate” out of thin air like some magical or heavenly creature. He didn’t float down from the clouds, or materialize from an alternative world as a fully formed divine creature. He was born in the same way we all are. He grew inside his mother’s uterus and passed through all the same developmental stages each of us did until he was finally birthed into the world. Someone had to cut the umbilical cord that connected his little body to his mother’s, and he had to nurse like every other child of his day during his infancy. Our Savior was very much, in every way, a human being. This is important, because the gospel of Christ is not myth or fantasy. We are dealing with the real stuff of life, and God sent his Son into our messy, chaotic world in the very same way each of us enters it: as a naked, crying, vulnerable infant.

And yet, the Church teaches that Jesus was also distinct from every other creature, every other human being. He was the Son of God, and therefore, he was also divine. The gospels attempt to explain how this could be so by telling the story of his unique conception. Matthew points out that Mary became pregnant before she and Joseph, her betrothed, had ever had intercourse, and in Luke’s gospel, when Mary questions how this could be so, she is told that the “Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Which is to say, Jesus was conceived by an act of God. God made this child through divine agency. He was truly and completely human, yet he was not like everyone else. Yes, he was a child of God in the way we’re all children of God, and yet he was uniquely, particularly the Son of God. And so it had to be, for without his two natures, his humanity and his divinity, he could not have been the Messiah, the Savior. His humanity draws all of us further into the divine life of God, and reveals the fullness of what we are all intended to be as human beings, and his divinity demonstrates that God is truly with us (“Emmanuel”), and it makes possible his perfect, sinless life.

So you see, what we mean when we talk about the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit is much more than a plain question of biology. It is at the heart of everything to do with God’s plan of salvation, and God’s intention to stop at nothing to rescue us and redeem us and be with us forever. God named all Creation good in the beginning of time, and God demonstrated the full capacity for goodness by choosing to be fully immersed in it, even to the point of entering the womb of a girl from Nazareth


Posted by The Rev. Casey Shobe with


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