The Easter season continues today with one clear and overpowering theme: the love of Christ. It is the love of Christ which empowers Peter’s healing and which connects Peter to the Holy Spirit, which emboldens his speech before the authorities who had him arrested. It is the love of Christ that has allowed the stone the builders rejected to become the cornerstone.
It is the love of God which fills the 23rd Psalm, which leads us besides still waters, restores our souls, comforts us in the darkest valley, and prepares a reconciliation table in the presence of our enemies.
In our Epistle, 1 John, the author writes “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us…” and in our Gospel text, Jesus says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”
On Easter Sunday, we celebrate the truth of the resurrection. Today, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, we begin to look a bit more at why the crucifixion and resurrection became necessary.
Obviously, our texts for today are pointing strongly to the crucifixion and resurrection as being bound by God’s love. This is a dominant theme in the Johannine texts, the Gospel and three Epistles of John, which may not have been written by the same person, but were written in a consistent style. It is a theme famously laid out in John 3:16, perhaps the best known verse in the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Or, more simply, as put in 1 John 4:8: “The one who does not know love does not know God, because God is love.”
It is difficult to talk about this divine love in a human context because so often we think of love as a romantic feeling, and when we start to talk about self-sacrificial love we can start to enable and empower abuse. Many of us might know the story of the Giving Tree. I assume there are many people here who love this story. Generations of protestant ministers like myself have held it up as a model of Christian, self-sacrificing love.
In the story, written by noted children’s author Shel Silverstein, the tree provides various gifts to the boy, changing as the boy ages. At first, those gifts are innocuous things that both can share—branches to climb and swing, shade in which to rest, then to things the tree has in excess or can replenish, like apples, which the boy can sell for money, and finally, the gifts escalate into the destructive—branches from which the boy can build a house and, eventually, the trunk for a boat. Throughout the book, each gift ends with a refrain that the tree was happy. At the end, though, the tree is sad. The tree is just a stump and has nothing left to give until, finally, the boy, now an old man, says all he needs is a place to sit, at which point, the tree is once again happy.
If we are to adopt the story of the Giving Tree as a Christian allegory, we must also see the problems. We must realize that this is a story of the crucifixion without the resurrection. Like Jesus, the tree gives until its death. Unlike Jesus, there is no new life to end the story. There is no new growth emerging from the stump, there is no restoration of the tree to its full glory. The tree may, ultimately, find satisfaction in being able to finally provide a place for the boy-turned-old-man to rest, but the tree, if not necessarily the boy, also recognizes that a shady spot to rest is preferable to one that is not. The tree finally recognizes that, in prioritizing only the boy’s welfare for so long, both the tree and the boy ultimately lose.
There is a long theological history of placing the weight of our salvation on the crucifixion rather than the resurrection, of churches and theologians arguing that Christ’s torture and death satisfied a divine demand for suffering as part of justice, of suggesting that Jesus paid that price on our behalf. For all the dominance of these theories of atonement in the contemporary church, they are not as old as we might think.
The symbol behind me on the wall, the empty cross, became common in churches around the fourth century. The empty cross, like the empty tomb, shows that Jesus is not there. Christ is risen.
The crucifix, a cross with the figure of Jesus still upon it, which remains common in Roman Catholic churches, did not become a common symbol until around the tenth century, when theologians started to link the figures of God and Jesus to feudal lords whose honor could be offended in ways that required corporal punishment. They asked: “if human lords could demand satisfaction through bodily punishment, how much more punishment could our divine Lord demand?” and began to emphasize the suffering of Jesus on the Cross in part to justify the suffering of peasants for the honor of their lords.
The problem with these theologies is the problem of the Giving Tree: they stop too soon. If the point of Jesus was to die, we have no need for the resurrection. If the point of Jesus was to suffer, then God has nothing left to give. The problem with these stories is that they cut short scripture.
The glory of the resurrection and of Easter is that we know these things are not true. The Gospel does not end with Jesus’ crucifixion, does not end with Jesus laying down his life. The Gospel continues to Jesus taking it up again. As today’s Gospel says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”
Jesus does not die for our sins as a substitution. Jesus dies because of our sins. Jesus does not die because God demands it. Jesus allows himself to die because we demand it, because our limited capacity creates the requirements for punishment rather than reconciliation. Jesus died so that Jesus might again be raised because the love of God is not a love that exhausts itself on the cross, is not a love like that of the Giving Tree, that gives until there is nothing left, but is a love of abundance that grows as it gives and so even as we think we have used the cross to bring God down to our level, God uses the resurrection to lift us up. The resurrection tells us that our power to take ultimately gives us nothing and leads to death, but that God can lift us out of that cycle with new life.
The love of God is the love of the resurrection. The power of this love is such that not even death on a cross can defeat it, not even death on a cross can separate us from God, that even at our worst, God’s love always calls us to new life.
This is what we must remember when we are asked to share and practice God’s love. When our Epistle writer says, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” he is not calling us to destroy ourselves, he is not calling us to trade places with our sibling-in-need, but to share our abundance so that neither of us may be in need. We are called to share from our abundance so that all may have new life and so that, to paraphrase the psalmist, we may all dwell in the house of the Lord.