You can have Jesus’ last words from the cross bleak and agonised as in St Matthew and Mark. You can have them peaceful and serene as in St Luke. You can have them victorious and triumphant, as in St John’s ‘It is accomplished’. All these are valid ways of reading the cross. Golgotha means many different things. But on Good Friday, the liturgy chooses the passion according to St John. His gospel tells of a man destined for a victorious throne where he is ‘lifted up’. It is nothing less than the cross where he finishes in triumph the work he has come to do: the work of love.
Love. For me there was another, more important, epiphany earlier in the service. The preacher was speaking about the cross as the eternal sign of God’s love. In the course of a powerful sermon he said that the problem with ‘punishment’ theories of the atonement is that they are experienced not so much as focused on divine love as on my own sin, my guilt, my shame. In this we are self-concerned, driven by the need to placate angry gods who deal only with forensic transactions without which there can’t be forgiveness or reconciliation. This sinful idée fixe subverts the very idea of love freely given.
Let me go on in my own words. This is not to deny the central place that forgiveness and reconciliation have in the gospel. Far from it. ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ says Jesus in St John. It’s a question of how we understand love. If we see it in punitive terms, God exacting a penalty in his own Son for the sins of the world, we miss the fundamental point about the nature of love. Its categories are not legal or ceremonial but personal. It is self-forgetting, self-giving, self-emptying. There is no higher category with which to define it. Love is simply what it is. He loves us because he loves us. It costs everything and gives everything. William Vanstone puts it like this in words we also sang, drawn from his profound book Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense:
Love that gives, gives ever more,Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, its all expends.
I have lived too long with punitive theories of the atonement. I don’t deny that they have a long pedigree in the church (though I do dispute the view of an online conversation partner today that substitutionary atonement is ‘orthodox’: there's never been an orthodox definition of atonement as the preacher pointed out). Nor do I deny that the New Testament draws on legal and ritual categories, nor that it affirms the idea of a victim freeing another person by standing in his/her place. I have defended the place of this imagery in some of my writings. But the point is precisely that these are ways of speaking: imagery, analogy, metaphor. They are not the heart of the person-person relationship which is where in human life we learn everything we know about the character of love.
At the Archbishop’s enthronement at Canterbury last week, we were invited to sing a song that contains the line ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’. I am not alone in questioning whether it can be right to speak about a Son who placates an angry Father. It drives a wedge right through the Trinity. It collapses God’s love into an impersonal transaction. Anyone who has ever loved knows that this is not how love is. It is more costly, more risky and more generous than that.
The cross shows us what it means to love to the end. As Vanstone’s hymn has it:
Therefore he who shows us GodHelpless hangs upon the tree;
And the nails and crown of thorns
Tell of what God’s love must be.
On Good Friday, the darkness is transfigured and the sun breaks through the clouds. We recognise love enthroned on the cross and say 'yes' to it with all our hearts in the hope, the conviction, that one day it will be enthroned in all the globe. For amor vincit omnia. Love overcomes in the end. 'Love so amazing, so divine.'