By Terry M. Smith
Prisons and slums, natural and human-made disasters and deaths, wars and other forms of suffering all illustrate that our world is far from what it should be. In the midst of all of this, how can we be aware that God is good and worth knowing? How can we be confident that God cares and cares enough to act?
The Christian answer might seem a strange one. It calls on us to examine a particular life—that of Jesus of Nazareth—and to focus on a place known as “The Skull” outside Jerusalem and then, later, on an empty tomb nearby.
A Strange Scene
Three figures were suspended from crosses. Religious leaders and two dying freedom fighters mocked the centre figure, Jesus: “He saved others; himself he cannot save,” they said. “He is the King of Israel. Let him now come down from the cross and we will believe on him” (Matt. 27:41-42).
Roman soldiers gambled for his clothing so close to Jesus that they could hear his laboured breathing. Many viewed the scene, including the disciple John, mother Mary, and other women.
How can we see God in a situation like that? Isn’t it really an injustice, a case of innocent suffering? It might seem that God was not there. Jesus felt abandoned (Matt. 27:46), just as many have felt abandoned by God. Some people would counsel us to say Jesus was abandoned–call him a martyr perhaps, but don’t say God was there.
And yet, as Christians, we do say God was there.
A Revealing Scene
Look at the Life, Jesus, that led to this moment on the Cross. The Triune God acted to share our existence in Jesus and to heal us and our planet. Jesus’ daily life and ways of relating to people of other cultures and races; to men, women, and children; his grace and teaching; his healing of bodies and minds; his delivering from demons; his concern for the poor, daily bread, and social justice—all are healing, revealing, and instructive.
Yet the ultimate revelation of God in Christ is shown in the Cross followed by the Resurrection. “This is how we know what love is,” the Elder John wrote, “Jesus Christ laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). “This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NIV). Jesus’ loud cry (Mark 15:37) included the pain and sin of the world. In a real sense, Jesus was abandoned so we would not be—ever—so long as we wish to be kept by Him.
In the words of the apostle Paul, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting humankind’s sins against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). In the Cross there is a revelation of God unlike any before or since. Paul put it this way, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly….God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). Then it was punctuated on Easter Sunday with Jesus’ resurrection—showing that what Christ did, he did for us.
A Comforting Scene
This is how the Apostle Peter described it shortly after the events took place: “…Listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by wonders, miracles, and signs, which God did among you through him. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep his hold on him…Therefore, let all…be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:22-24, 36).
Peter’s words reveal that God isn’t indifferent, unfeeling of our suffering. God became human to share our lives of pain and suffering. He took the worst that humans could do to Him—rejection and crucifixion—and turned that into healing for us and the planet. Through the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection, God in Christ ultimately conquers sin, death, and hell.
The Christian Church today has many critics. Some people say it is irrelevant; others say it isolates itself from the world around it. The Church is imperfect. Its history is mixed. As a result, some choose to leave. Many stay. More would do well to stay. More need to come and all are invited. Why? Because, as Peter said to Jesus, “You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68).
People have flocked around Christ through history. In his presence, we find ourselves accepted and forgiven—and following the God come and revealed in Him. We might have questions and yet we have accepted the offered Answer, God in Christ. “And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20).
All of this is of grace—the Triune God, his involvement in history, grace and life revealed in Jesus, and the strength to believe and follow. In Jesus, in this grace revealed in and through Him, we dare to take hope this Easter.
Terry M. Smith is an ordained minister who serves in the EMC national office. This article is indebted to many leaders past and present, including Michael Ramsey, Hans Kung, Harry E. Fosdick, Fulton Sheen, Ellwood M. A. Hill, Fleming Rutledge, and Layton Friesen.