One subject that often does not come up in daily conversation is Christ’s crucifixion. It just isn’t one of those topics that tend to roll easily off one’s lips and tongue. In fact, spending time reflecting on the horrors of crucifixion is not something many of us prefer to do, even in our private times of prayer and devotion. And this tendency to avoid meditating on the excruciating ordeal that Jesus suffered on our behalf is not without good reason. Let’s face facts: the Roman practice of hanging someone on a cross and torturing them as the life force slowly drained away was one of the most horrendous, sadistic methods of execution dreamed up in the darker recesses of the human mind.
With that said, let me get to the point that I want to stress. I began with the aforementioned digression because it is the crucifixion that provides the historical backdrop for the theme I want to discuss.
I want to talk about the interrelated themes of grace and forgiveness.
Anyone even remotely familiar with Christian teachings understand that grace, forgiveness, and the crucifixion are part of an interrelated whole. Any attempt to separate these three critical components of Christ’s “Atonement” is at best futile and at worst, delirious. The cross was the method that facilitated the physical manifestation of God’s grace in the three-dimensional world and forgiveness was the practical, concrete outcome of the grace demonstrated on the cross. How ironic that God took the world’s most horrific act of execution, as well as the implement used to carry out that horror, and turned it in to an act of divine love and sacrifice and transformed what was a symbol of pain and death into an emblem of love, deliverance from death, and personal salvation.
I find it extremely difficult to wrap my mind around the extent of the physical suffering Jesus Christ experienced, starting with the flogging at the hands of the Roman soldiers, his crown of thorns, the tortuous journey through the narrow streets carrying his cross, and culminating in the unrelenting agony of crucifixion. From the first lash of the flogger’s whip until he uttered, “It is finished,” Jesus endured torment far beyond anything we can fathom.
Yet through it all he not only endured, he exhibited a sublime level of love that was seemingly beyond comprehension. Raised up high on the wooden beam, with spikes hammered through his wrists, each labored breath was far more excruciating than anything you and I have ever experienced. Yet at the zenith of his suffering and his tormentors’ brutality, he uttered these words:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Pause for a few moments and try to wrap your mind around that.
One of the most tragic things I hear Christians or potential Christians say is something like this, “You don’t know the kind of unspeakable things I have done. God would never forgive someone like me.” Friend, I don’t know what kind of nefarious, degrading sorts of things you were involved in, but I think it is pretty safe to say that it pales in comparison to flogging, mocking, and putting a crown of thorns on the head of Jesus Christ, and then murdering him by crucifixion. No, I doubt your worst acts come close to this sort of thing. Compared to what went on that fateful Friday, whatever your crimes might have been, they were small potatoes. With that in mind, now spend time letting this sink down into the very core of your being:
If Christ forgave his executioners, chances are your transgressions are also forgiven.
The fact is a major part of Christ’s mission to this planet was to facilitate the mysterious process that theologians call justification, which is a fancy way of saying the through the sacrifice of Christ, we have been restored to right standing with God. In a nutshell, our sins are forgiven and we are accepted by God, warts and all. To reject this forgiveness, which is a free gift of grace, is like refusing God’s most precious gift.
Further, the Bible tells us repeatedly that we are now wholly redeemed and acceptable to the Father and that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. In and of itself, that should be enough to allow optimism to works its roots deep into the soil of our hearts. Moreover, in Romans Paul reassures us that all things work for our benefit, even if we are sometimes blind to the fact.
In brief, God accepts us and blesses us. So, why is it that many of us have trouble fully accepting this free gift of grace? Why is it that a significant number of God’s family displays such a negative mindset? Why is it that church pews are often filled with people wearing either plastic smiles or, even worse, displaying such a sour countenance that visitors might think these folks had been baptized in vinegar instead of water?
Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that many of us, deep down in our spiritual hearts, just don’t believe that we have really been accepted. If we are among that number, our situation is such that we are actually rejecting the very gospel we proclaim.
A renowned Christian theologian, I think it was Paul Tillich, once said that the key to the whole Christian gospel was the fact that we are accepted by God. In fact, he went on to say that the way to appropriate God’s grace was to accept that we are accepted. I am no theologian and, at best, possess a second or third rate mind. But I am capable of comprehending the truth of this statement. We cannot begin the spiritual journey as outlined by Christ until we accept the gift of grace. And the most fundamental aspect of accepting God’s offer is to accept that we are accepted. Yet many Christians don’t seem to get this point. In fact, in their broken, weak state they can’t fathom that they are in any way acceptable to God. Something is wrong here. Very wrong.
The crown jewel in the center of the Christian message is that the lowliest, neediest, and most broken people are accepted if they have faith in Christ. Just take a look at the kind of people he chose to hang out with when he was on earth. He associated with thieves, lepers, tax-collectors, prostitutes, cripples, paupers, and even a woman married five times. It now strikes me as absurd to think that I, even with my hang-ups, sins, shortcomings, and defects of character, am beyond the loving pale of God’s grace. However, many people both within and outside the church feel they are unworthy of God’s grace and thus reject the gift that was designed for them in the first place.
Consider the familiar story of the Prodigal Son as told by Christ in the fifteenth chapter of Luke. We are so familiar with this tale of a wasted life saved through love and redemption than we often loose the impact that it should have on our lives. Especially if we are wastrels and rogues like the wandering Prodigal. Perhaps more than any other passage in Scripture, the parable of the youngest son of a wealthy landowner illustrates the incomprehensible, counter-intuitive love of God. Brennan Manning speaks succinctly about the Prodigal in all of us and God’s incredible acceptance:
When the prodigal limped home from his lengthy binge of waste and wandering, boozing, and womanizing, his motives were mixed at best. He said to himself, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of Hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father”. (Luke: 15:17-18). The ragamuffin stomach was not churning with compunction because he had broken his father’s heart. He stumbled home simply to survive. His sojourn in a far country had left him bankrupt. The days of wine and roses had left him dazed and disillusioned. The wine soured and the roses withered. His declaration of independence had reaped an unexpected harvest: not freedom, joy, new life but bondage, gloom, and a brush with death. His fair-weather friends had shifted their allegiance when his piggy bank emptied. Disenchanted with life, the wastrel weaved his way home, not from a burning desire to see his father, but just to stay alive.
Yet even with these mixed motives, borne as much from desperation as from contrition, the wastrel was accepted by his father and a celebration ensued. Of course it is best if we respond to God’s offer with a pure, contrite heart and full acknowledgement of our failure and powerlessness. Yet how many of us are actually capable of this? Not many I suspect. I know I am not. But God accepts our response to his offer in spite of our conflicted hearts and spirits. In fact, if one is to believe what Christ teaches in the parable of the Prodigal, then he in accepts our desperation just as much as he accepts our repentance. This is truly “radical grace.”
So what is our response to what God has done? What are we to do if we truly and sincerely want to partake of God’s marvelous offer to accept us, love us and empower us to be better people? What are we to do if we genuinely desire to become Children of the Light? First, we should deeply reflect on just what it is that God has done through Christ and what He is continuing to do through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. Brendan Manning again puts it in cogent and moving words:
“We should be astonished at the goodness of God, stunned that he should bother to call us by name, our mouths wide open at his love, bewildered that at this very moment we are standing on holy ground.”
Just how do we go about accepting this radical offer made by God? We just accept it. It is really that simple. There is no great mystery here, no elaborate initiation rites, no secret oaths or pledges. We just accept it because God offers it. We accept it on faith and leave God to work out the details and understanding later. The comfort we find in accepting God’s love comes after faith, never before it. Remember, it all begins with and hinges on faith.
Christians seem to have an uncanny knack for taking simple truths and complicating them through debate, dogma, and doctrine. The “Doctrine of Grace” is one thing; the reality of God’s grace is quite another. It is freely offered to all who would humble themselves enough to receive it. I suspect that each of us has his or her own way of resisting God’s grace. Some of us, as mentioned above, feel we don’t deserve it; some of us are too prideful, feeling that we can fix ourselves on our own; others think the concept of grace is just too simplistic. Whatever our reasons for struggling with this basic Christian principle, until we resolve our conflict, we will not advance very far on the spiritual journey.
I can attest to this fact from my own experience. Paul says that the idea of “Christ crucified” as the means of salvation would be foolishness to the Greeks. Well, for many years it was foolishness to me. I much preferred the complexity of Buddhism and Hinduism, or the sanity of New Thought. Still, somewhere down in the pit of my being, the Hound of Heaven was nose to the ground and hot on my trail. God was unrelenting in his pursuit of me and I, like Jonah, headed for the hills more than once. Still, God’s grace kept surrounding me and I could not escape. In fact, I came to treasure the comforting feeling of being surrounded by God. Finally, I accepted that I was accepted.
Once I stopped running; once my struggles with God came to a halt, it was like a whole panorama of spiritual reality opened before my eyes, including a deep sense of optimism and hope. As a result, I began to view the world, including its problems and pain, with a greater degree of compassion and a genuine desire for healing involvement. Once I truly encountered the reality of divine acceptance at an experiential level, grace became more than a doctrine – it became a living reality. I was in a real sense born from above and with that new birth I gained a profoundly different perspective on life in general and myself in particular.
With the help of the Holy Spirit, I came to understand at a deeper level that I was in fact accepted. Accepted in my weakness because this is where the strength of Christ is seen. Accepted in my brokenness because this is where the healing of Christ is seen. Accepted in my faithlessness because this is where the fidelity of Christ is seen. Accepted in my wandering in the wilderness because this is where Christ’s true and stable mansions are eventually discovered.
© L.D. Turner 2015/All Rights Reserved