Salvation and the cross

14 Sep

This week we begin some reflections on the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
It’s such a big topic and so important:

It’s important to people, and sometimes therefore it can be a ‘touchy’ conversation; and so important too because it is the heart of the Christian message, and one so easily mis-represented. Many people who reject Christianity do so because of the way this topic has been badly presented.
I’ve asked my class to read a number of chapters from Tom Smail’s excellent book Once and for all: a confession of the cross.
In his introduction, he sets out his approach, which is nicely presented under the idea of three confessions: the confession of faith, the confession of sin and the confession of praise. He goes on to explain that all three of these come together in a trinitarian and scriptural confession of the cross.
Here I am going to consider his first main chapter. The chapter is titled ‘One Cross – Four Gospels’ and reminds us of the danger of running the four gospel narratives together in a way that smooths out and loses their distinctive perspectives. Then he gives us the specific emphasis of Mark and Matthew, with their focus on the cry of dereliction, ‘My God, my God, why …? By contrast, Luke’s account presents Jesus the compassionate one, praying for forgiveness of those who crucify him, and John’s account culminates in the divine accomplishment, ‘It is finished.’
But these all need to be held together to get ‘the full story’. Then Smail asks about Jesus’ own understanding of his death, as seen from the Gospel accounts, and here he very helpfully relates Jesus’ death to his baptism, his preaching of the Kingdom and his struggle in Gethsemane, and then the Last Supper. From this final element he draws out the themes of Passover, New Covenant and New Humanity.
This is just one chapter, so do not think this is Smail’s whole account, or ‘confession’.
But what is of great value here is the way he closely ties whatever he has to say about the death of Jesus to the life of Jesus. The cross cannot be understood without close integration with the life and message of Jesus. Indeed as I have thought about this class, this is one of the two key choices I think students of Christology have to make: here, the choice is between an understanding of Jesus’ death, and then trying to understand his life in the light of that, or understanding his life and message and seeing his death in continuity with that. Of course there is always some two-way aspect to this, since the gospels were written after Easter and from the perspective of Easter faith. But it seems to me crucial to follow the gospel narratives here: from the life to the death and resurrection, and then to see how in fact the life is given even greater meaning through the latter.
The other important choice is one Smail sets out in his introduction also: he suggests that it makes an enormous difference whether we basically see humans as victims or villains. Again he allows for some combination of these, but I think he is right. Approaches in salvation theology, soteriology, are largely determined by whether we see the need of salvation in terms of guilt and failure, or suffering and oppression. Surely both are issues to be addressed. In this class I am presenting material from Paul Fiddes’ excellent book Past Event and Present Salvation, which in turn draws upon Frederick Dillistone’s superb work on the multiple biblical ‘frameworks of interpretation’ of God’s salvation. Dillistone suggests there are four major frameworks, all of which are used in the New Testament to understand atonement and salvation through Christ: redemption from slavery; covenant imagery; repentance and renewal; and vicarious suffering.
I think we need also to consider the many dimensions of our ‘problem’: we might identify human need in many ways. There are many dimensions in our experience: shame, guilt, despair, suffering, injustice, violation, outrage, estrangement, oppression, and what we might just call the unfulfilled aspect of our lives.
When thinking about these, it is helpful to identify different aspects of these problems: what we might call the objective and the subjective; the individual and the personal; the communal and the structural. Not all aspects apply equally to all these issues. But in it all, there is much we know very intimately, and much which itself is a mystery to us. Just why do we behave this way, the Apostle asks in Romans 7: we know what is good and right, but we don’t do it, and the wrong we choose not to do we still end up doing!
So here is a massive topic, but so very relevant. Theology is a subject that invites us to deal with the realities of our lives, and the hopeful, faithful response to the Gospel message: we are not just left to wallow in our failure and need. There is redemption, salvation and healing. There a new beginning, here and now. Thanks be to God.

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