Is It Finished?
John 12:31-36; John 19:28-30
"...if the Lord's death is the ransom
of all, and by his death 'the middle wall of partition' is broken down,
and the calling of the nations is brought about, how would he have called
us to him, had he not been crucified? For it is only on the cross that a
man dies with his hands spread out. Whence it was fitting for the Lord to
bear this also and to spread out his hands, that with the one he might
draw the ancient people, and with the other, those of the Gentiles, and
unite both in himself. For this is what he himself has said, signifying by
what manner of death he was ransom to all: 'I, when I am lifted up,' he
says, 'shall draw all men unto me.'" (St. Athanasius, On the
Incarnation, par. 25)
Does the cross of Jesus unite? Or does
it divide? Is it perhaps that sword he came to bring when we all thought
it was peace he was to proclaim? I guess it is. Whether it's supposed to
be is another story.
Paul knows both poles of the irony. In
a single epistle, 2 Corinthians, he says that the gospel he preaches
divides believer from unbeliever, being the sweet aroma of life to the one
and a nauseating, necrotic stench to the other. And yet he characterizes
his gospel as a message of reconciliation! A strange sort of
reconciliation which produces a new fault-line in the already fragile
foundation of the human race.
Maybe his point is that the
reconciliation is between the human race and God. But only some heed God's
call to a truce, and the ones who don't turn against the ones who do. This
is just what happens when denominations merge. Two of them come together,
but some individual congregations don't like it, so they sit it out and
form yet another new splinter group! Unity on one front produces
fragmentation on another.
As the writer of Ephesians put it in
our New Testament reading this morning, Christ's death was not just
intended to reconcile God and mortals ("God and sinner reconciled" as we
sing in one Christmas carol). True, his cross was like a
spanning heaven and earth, but it also paved the way for the reunification
of sundered fragments of the human race: Gentiles were allowed to
participate alongside Jews as full partners in a common worship of God.
Why? Because the death of Jesus on the
cross took the Mosaic Law out of the way as a barrier. How did it do this?
Maybe, as we usually read Paul, Christ stultified the Law, superceded it,
nullified it for Jew and Greek alike. So Torah-observers would no longer
be separated from non-Torah observers since everybody would henceforth be
Or he may have meant that Christ's
death established an alternate route of access to Christ for the
non-Torah-keepers. Jews would keep the Torah as usual, but Gentiles need
not bother. Each could come to God his own way.
So the cross of Jesus Christ was meant
to bring people together where religion had once divided them. Has it in
fact done that? Has the cross done its work? Or did it fail in its
What a notion! For the cross to have
done only half its job! A few years ago the Unificationists were
pilloried, even by the liberal National Council of Churches!, for saying
that Christ's death had provided spiritual salvation, but not physical
salvation. To say it had done only part of the job? Blasphemy!
The Calvinists debated this some
centuries ago. Here's a bit of abstruse theology for you. Have you ever
heard of the doctrine of the "limited atonement"? It's one of the 5 points
of the Calvinist "tulip." You see, Calvinist theologians got to thinking
(and they were no doubt among the thinkingest theologians the church has
And they began to surmise that if
Christ's death did not in fact save every single human being, if just half
of them believed in the gospel, let's say (though Calvinists were probably
a lot more pessimistic than this), would the implication be that Christ's
death was half in vain. He died to save the rest of the human race,
but it didn't work, because they either didn't know it or didn't want any
part of it. What about them?
Was Jesus' death, then, like the labor
of the sower in his parable, who scatters many more seeds than ever take
root, but is more than rewarded anyway, since those few that do take root
produce a harvest all out of proportion to the ones he lost?
Too bad I wasn't around to suggest the
analogy! Because the Calvinists didn't go that way. What they said instead
was that God the Father knew in advance who would believe and who
wouldn't, and that when Christ came to die, he was just coming for his
predestined elect. The rest, quite literally, could go to Hell!
Do you see what they were getting at?
They were trying to come up with some way of saying that Christ, on the
cross, had accomplished just what he had set out to do. He didn't miss any
he had come for. Those who are perishing in their unbelief? Well, he
didn't die for them anyway.
Now you may have problems, as I admit I
do, with the whole idea of a blood sacrifice saving anybody, much
less everybody. But don't get distracted by that piece of ancient
imagery. Here's the real sticking point: can we really imagine that if
Christ set out to save anybody he didn't set out to save
Otherwise, aren't we talking about
membership in an elitist club? Kind of like a political candidate asked
how he can stay a member of a segregated country club? It's no good to
say, "Well, I didn't make the rules, and I pity the poor blacks who can't
join, but I'm happy enough to belong."
I said Calvinists came up with this
doctrine. Not Calvin himself. He never heard of such a notion. True, he
believed in predestination, but he also believed that Jesus came
to die and did die for everyone, even though not everyone is going
to buy into the idea. Calvin said it's not the death of Christ that makes
the division. He did die to save everybody without exception. The sheep
get divided from the goats further along the line: at the point where the
gospel, the saving message of Christ, is preached. Some are
inclined to accept it, others aren't. Those who are, why, they feel "the
effectual call." God's call is ineluctable: finally you can't run away
I want to take as my own a part of the
doctrine I have just summarized. I will say that Christ's cruciform work
is not finished yet because when he died he issued a cry, a call, that has
not yet been fully heard or heeded. And as long as it hasn't, as long as
we are deaf to it, the saving work of Christ remains a half-done job.
So Christ died for everyone, to
reconcile everyone. But it hasn't worked! Why not? The preaching of the
cross seems to have merely introduced another occasion for division into
the world. When missionaries go out to preach it, say, to Muslims (who
believe in Jesus but do not believe he was crucified) what happens? Ask a
missionary to the Muslims. There is an increase of strife, not of much
else. Just what we needed!
There is something we are missing. We
have this idea that if we can get everyone to convert to the same
religion, then we will have a united humanity. And if we could get
everyone to change their skin pigment, they'd all be in the same race. And
if pigs had wings they could fly. Not likely. The very suggestion is
divisive. If that's your strategy for getting everybody together, you're
just working at cross purposes with yourself.
When you preach the cross as a standard
all must rally to, a creed all must accept, you are dividing the sheep
from the goats. You are creating unbelievers in the same moment you
Billy Graham, do you bemoan the
unbelief of all those unbelievers? You yourself have created it! They
were neither believers nor unbelievers till you tossed in the apple of
discord! You are making a division where there was none.
Thus does the proclamation of the cross
defeat its own purpose, sowing the dragon's teeth of war when it meant to
sow a harvest of peace.
So what do we do instead? How can we
make the cross a reconciling agent? By listening to its message again
ourselves and letting it lead us to do what it says God has done. If we
are like the God who Paul says commissioned him to the mission of
reconciliation, we will no longer hold the unbeliever's unbelief against
him. We will forgive him for the imagined sin of not agreeing with us, not
sharing our faith.
Tell me, is it really possible that God
is upstairs in heaven seriously worried that someone has the wrong set of
religious beliefs? Or is God so insecure as to be worried about it? Does
God root like a fan of a football team when his favorite religion racks up
a few more converts than its rivals? Don't tell me that he does! Surely
you haven't scaled God down so far that he is as petty as us!
Harvey Cox said that our New Testament
reading, Ephesians 2:8-20, is his favorite passage of the New
Testament—if, that is, we read it as a charter for human solidarity.
It must be said right away that the
reconciliation accomplished by God to which the church testifies is not
one based on the acceptance of some kind of common world-view... The
Gospel offers no world-view as an option along with others. It is a
reconciliation accompanied by restraint. It does not reconcile people by
converting them. It frees people to live with each other despite
radically conflicting ideologies, theologies, and politics, as men with
men. [The Secular City, pp. 227-228]
If Christians take the cross of Jesus
as a bridge to accept the Other in his otherness, the non-Christian
in his or her non-Christianity, then we will have cast the sword of
Christ from us, beaten the sword of truth into a ploughshare. Then the
work of Christ on the cross, where he has all this time been reaching,
stretching, to link hands with the estranged and bring them together, will
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