Holy Cross Sunday: 16 September 2007
(Isaiah 45:21-25/Psalm 98/Philippians 2:5-11/John 12:31-36a)
The Elephant In The Creed
THE BLIND MEN AND THE ELEPHANT
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ‘tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“’Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
John Godfrey Saxe
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. These words are the Elephant in the Creed. We all stand before them like the blind men of Indostan; each of us gropes about in the dark for some hint of this great mystery of the death of our Lord. Like the blind men of the poem, we may stumble on the truth or be guided to it, but it will always be partial truth at best. What is required then is a great deal of humility. Yes, we know something but no, we do not know everything. We need dialog with other blind Christian brothers and sisters – dialog that spans tradition, culture, geography, and generations. We need a composite understanding that accounts for those features of the Elephant that we have yet to touch ourselves.
The historic church, in its Scripture, worship, and traditions offers just such a composite understanding. Read Saint Paul for instance; scattered throughout his epistles are several different images or descriptions of the meaning and purpose of the death of Jesus Christ. Each of them answers some of our questions and each of them raises even more questions.
God is a righteous judge before whom we must all stand and give account for our sins. Justice demands that God – And do you see the problem that idea raises? Something, anything, making demands on God! – justice demands that God render a fair and impartial verdict: guilty, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And, since the penalty for sin is death – And do you see the problem here? Why must the penalty be death? If God decides the penalty could he not decide otherwise? –since the penalty is death, that verdict places all of humanity, all of God’s fallen image-bearers, on death row. Then Jesus intervenes. He willingly takes on himself all the sins of mankind and submits himself to God’s righteous judgment, dying in our place. Christ in his love and mercy satisfies the righteousness and justice of God. This juridical image – the law court image – is one of Paul’s descriptions and it is true, as far as it goes. The problem comes when we insist that this image is the full and sole truth regarding Christ’s death, when we believe that it completely explains everything and exhausts the depths of the mystery. The Elephant is a wall.
Paul also presents Christ’s death as a ransom paid to free us from bondage, again an apt and true analogy. Of course this raises questions: To whom was the ransom paid? Who held us in bondage? God, Satan, sin, our fallen nature? Again, this image is part of the answer and also part of the problem if we focus exclusively on it. The Elephant is a spear.
Under the Old Covenant the atonement for sins required blood sacrifice; where there was no blood, there was no forgiveness of sins. The New Testament presents Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, a spotless lamb offered upon the altar of the cross. This is powerful imagery that connects us to the story of God and his people – makes us part of the ancient story. But it is not without problems. How did the death of an animal purify its owner from sin? How does Christ’s death do the same for me? The Elephant is a snake.
And we could go on with biblical image after biblical image, all of them pointing to a feature of the truth and none of them completely revealing it. Theologians endlessly debate and argue and break fellowship over which image of the atonement is right
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
I say all this so you will know that whatever we say here today, necessary as it may be, is also necessarily incomplete. I say all this so you will have some sense that in the atonement of Christ we are approaching the Holy of Holies of the great Mystery. Whatever else we do, we must take off our shoes – for we are on holy ground – take off our shoes and fall before our Lord Jesus Christ and worship him. We must take our place with the four living creatures, with the elders, and with many angels numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand as in heaven they sing their great hymns of praise to the Lamb.
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth” (Rev 5:9-10, NIV).
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise” (Rev 5:12, NIV).
As usual, any unraveling of the mystery of our great salvation must begin in the Garden. What happened to us there? What were the results, the consequences, of our first parents’ sin? This question divides Christendom east and west, Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox. We just don’t agree – again because each of us has grasped a different part of the theological Elephant. Issues of free will, human nature and depravity, and inherited guilt separate us. But there is at least one point of overlap in all our theologies, one consequence of the fall on which we all agree: death.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen 2:16-17, NIV).
And later, after man’s sin,
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen 3:17-19, NIV).
G. K. Chesterton once said that original sin is the only really provable Christian doctrine. The proof is simple: everyone dies. On this all Christians agree. Sin entered the world, and with sin came death. Since that day we have all been subject to death’s tyranny. It’s dominion is felt in every aspect of human existence and is exercised largely through the fear that death inspires. We fear that our lives will end all too soon and so we struggle to squeeze every pleasure out of every moment; we use everything and everyone as tools to satisfy our desperate longings – sex, money, and power are the drugs we think will numb our fear. They may do so temporarily, but, as with any drug, we become acclimated to them and need ever increasing doses. When the billionaire Donald Trump was asked how much money was enough he replied, “A little more.” That is fear of death.
Because of death we fear the meaninglessness of life. As he lay dying the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe moaned repeatedly, “Let me not seem to have lived in vain. Let me not seem to have lived in vain.” That haunting refrain is familiar and sings to us in the depths of the night when we awaken alone in the dark to the sound of our hearts pounding. If the good and the bad, the rich and the poor, the wise and the foolish, the righteous and the evil all die alike, then there is no meaning to life beyond what we assign it. So we seek meaning in career or family or even in sacrificial service, but all to no avail. We demand that others fill our lives with meaning and we place burdens on our relationships that they were never intended to bear. And when that fails as it certainly will, the fear comes calling. Fear of death lies at the root of much – some would argue all – of our sin. So, humanity is caught in a vicious cycle: sin introduced death, death causes fear, and fear tempts us to sin. Where death and fear abound, there our ancient foe, the devil, reigns, just as he did that moment in the Garden when the fruit was eaten and the curse pronounced.
But into the midst of the sin and death and fear comes Jesus Christ, God’s only son, our Lord. Into the heart of the human condition comes one conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. Why? To defeat our ancient foe, to destroy death, to free all whose lives were in bondage to sin.
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father.
Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death (Heb 2:10-11a, 14-15, NRSV).
How did his death do all this: defeat Satan and set us free from death and the fear of death? I don’t know, but the imagery in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus is among the most moving possible explanations I have ever heard.
It is Friday and Jesus hangs on the cross dead. Satan and Hell gloat over their victory.
Behold Satan the prince and chief of death said unto Hell: Make thyself ready to receive Jesus who boasteth himself that he is the Son of God, whereas he is a man that feareth death, and sayeth: My soul is sorrowful even unto death. And he hath been much mine enemy, doing me great hurt, and many that I had made blind, lame, dumb, leprous, and possessed he hath healed with a word: and some whom I have brought unto thee dead, them hath he taken away from thee.
Hell answered and said unto Satan the prince: Who is he that is so mighty, if he be a man that feareth death? for all the mighty ones of the earth are held in subjection by my power, even they whom thou hast brought me subdued by thy power. If, then, thou art mighty, what manner of man is this Jesus who, though he fear death, resisteth thy power? If he be so mighty in his manhood, verily I say unto thee he is almighty in his god-head, and no man can withstand his power. And when he saith that he feareth death, he would ensnare thee, and woe shall be unto thee for everlasting ages.
And as Satan the prince, and Hell, spoke this together, suddenly there came a voice as of thunder and a spiritual cry: Remove, O princes, your gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of glory shall come in.
Then did the King of glory in his majesty trample upon death, and laid hold on Satan the prince and delivered him unto the power of Hell, and drew Adam to him unto his own brightness.
And the Lord stretching forth his hand, said: Come unto me, all ye my saints which bear mine image and my likeness. Ye that by the tree and the devil and death were condemned, behold now the devil and death condemned by the tree. And forthwith all the saints were gathered in one under the hand of the Lord. And the Lord holding the right hand of Adam, said unto him: Peace be unto thee with all thy children that are my righteous ones.
And the Lord stretched forth his hand and made the sign of the cross over Adam and over all his saints, and he took the right hand of Adam and went up out of hell, and all the saints followed him.
How did Jesus defeat sin and death and deliver us from the fear of death? He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. He joined his divine nature to our human nature in his incarnation. He accepted human suffering, he submitted to human death, he descended to the depths of hell in his humanity, so that in his divinity he might trample the bars of hell and release forever those bound by the fear of death. He entered into death and made a way through, out the other side. And he brought redeemed humanity with him. And one day he will lead us through death and out the other side.
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of death is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:54-57, NRSV).
How then dare we live as ones afraid of death? It has no power. It holds no terror. We are free now to take up the cross of Christ and follow him– free to enter into the suffering of the world – knowing the cross to be a symbol not of defeat but of victory, knowing the way of the cross to be not only the way into death but the way through it and out the other side.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. Thanks be to God!
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