Whatever else we may say about our Christian faith, I think most of us would agree that at the very least, Jesus reveals the nature of God. When we see Jesus, we see and understand what God is like, who God is, and how God feels toward us. That’s what we mean by the fancy term “Incarnation.” God has come in human flesh to reveal the Divine Self. And that specific Incarnation began in Bethlehem. It continued through those silent years during which we know virtually nothing about Jesus. It picked up speed with his baptism by John the Baptizer, his temptations in the wilderness, his preaching the Kingdom of God, his call for disciples to follow him, his teaching to the multitudes, his healing of the sick and wounded in life, and his encounters and confrontations with the powers that be. And that Incarnation culminated in his arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. We cannot understand his death or his resurrection apart from his life.
But what I want to suggest is that the cross we see on Calvary was the historical flesh and blood evidence of the cross which has always been in the heart of God. The reason there has always been a cross in God’s heart is because God is love. What humans did to Jesus on the cross is what humans have been doing to God from the very beginning of humankind. So, what do I mean by that assertion?
The primary characteristic of God according to Jesus is compassion. Compassion is a deep form of love. The background to the Hebrew word for compassion is the “womb” of a mother. Compassion is what a mother feels for her children. When they hurt, she hurts. God has “womb love” for each and every person in the world.
Paul gives a fuller definition of love in I Corinthians 13, his well-known love chapter. Eugene Peterson in The Message offers a wonderful translation of this wonderful exposition of love. As you read these verses, please substitute the word “God” for the word “Love.”
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
Love never ends.
Now, if God is love, and love is as Paul defines it in this chapter, we might want to consider how such an understanding of love applies to God. Is this kind of love easy? Is it costly? Is it vulnerable? Does it take the risk of being misunderstood? Taken for granted? Twisted to fit another’s preferences, prejudices, and advantage? Can this kind of love break your heart? Is this kind of love long-suffering? Can this type of love hurt when it is rejected, betrayed, ignored, presumed upon, laughed at, or abused? And if this kind of love for another is deep, total, and all consuming, could that love feel pain—pain like the cross? Can we crucify God’s love? And if we crucify God’s love, then are we not crucifying God since God is love?
The cross is not something that happened once 2000 years ago. That cross on Calvary was the Incarnation of the cross God has suffered from the very beginning of time. John, the author of Revelation, understood this reality when he wrote that Jesus, the Lamb of God, was “slain from the foundation of the world.” There has always been a cross in the heart of God. At Calvary we were able to physically crucify God’s love by killing Jesus (who was the Incarnation of God’s love in history). But we have been crucifying God from the first days human beings walked on this earth. It’s just with Jesus, we can now see it in all its brutality.
I think the closest we will ever come to understanding God’s love for us is through an analogy. I would suggest that the background to the Hebrew word for compassion profoundly captured the intensity and depth of God’s love. Perhaps God’s love for us is most like the love a mother has for her children. Now, I know there are rotten mothers in the world whose love is a far cry from what we read in I Corinthians 13. But I also know there are wonderful, loving mothers who truly and sacrificially love their children. I had such a mother and I am married to such a mother. Our daughter is also this kind of mother. It is this kind of mother I am writing about. For such a mother, when anyone hurts her children, they hurt her. She would be more than willing to take all the pain and grief upon herself that the world would inflict upon her children. But as those children grow and mature, they become more independent. And in their freedom, they will make some rather foolish if not dangerous and wrong choices. The mother would prefer her children choose differently and more wisely, but she understands that she can’t dictate their lives, not if she truly loves them. (As Paul says in the love chapter, love does not insist on its own way but endures all.) Sometimes all she can do is to be there for them, letting them know she loves them and will be available whenever they come to their senses as she helps them pick up the pieces of their lives and start over. They may break her heart. They may crucify her love so that the pain she bears is far worse than any pain she has ever experienced in life. But will she ever stop loving her children? Will she ever turn her back on them? Will she ever give up on them? Perhaps that is the significance of the Gospel accounts of Mary, the mother of Jesus being at the foot of the cross witnessing and sharing her son’s pain. Can any of us even begin to understand and feel the agony of Mary watching her child die the agonizing death crucifixion brings?
But as great as a mother’s love is for her children, God’s love for us is infinitely greater. The Bible tells us that even if a mother should forget or forsake her child, God will never forget or forsake us (Isaiah 49:15-16). If God really loves this world and everyone in it with an unconditional and indiscriminate love, and if God is in all things and all things are in God, then God experiences everything everyone in creation experiences (including all parts of creation like the animal world). God feels every tear ever shed, every pain ever suffered, every fear that shocks the system. Right now, God is experiencing the hunger pains of the tens of thousands who are actively dying of hunger. Right now, God feels the fear and hopelessness of children who have been abducted into slavery. Right now, God experiences the trauma of a little girl who once again is subjected to the sexual abuse of a predatory adult. Right now, God feels the guilt and torment of those whose lives are based on greed, violence, and hatred. Right now, God suffers with those who writhe in pain as they endure devastating diseases. With all of these experiences, can you imagine how God’s heart breaks, hurts,and bleeds for a sinful, suffering, and stubborn humanity? As Brian McLaren puts it, “On the cross, could Jesus be really and truly revealing the pain of God—God’s passionate, poignant, agonizing, sad, longing, loving broken-heartedness for a runaway, beloved creation?” Could Jesus on the cross hanging between heaven and earth be revealing/exposing God as weeping, sweating, bleeding, suffering because of our betrayal? In this passion, could God be saying to us through Jesus, “You’re torturing me.” The only price we see paid on the cross is not some ransom to appease an angry God, much less to buy us back from Satan. The only price we see paid on the cross is the price of love—the same price we pay for loving others who betray and deny us or who choose paths which we know will lead to their suffering if not destruction. Only this love on the cross is not just for a few beloved ones. And neither is it the compromised love even the best of us can offer. It is a love that is truly universal, unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving/sacrificial (thus the cost), and everlasting.
But is that love really everlasting? How deep and how far will that love go? The cross shows us it will go even to Jesus’ pierced, tortured body and shed blood as well as his battered, betrayed, and broken spirit. How involved is God in our struggles, suffering, pain, corruption, oppression, and victimization? In Jesus we see God emerging as a passionately involved Advocate—a Cosmic Mother profoundly identified with us and weeping with us in radical empathy and solidarity—a Redeemer sharing our grief and even entering our shame. This God is indeed Emmanuel/God with us even in our suffering and death.
So, how far will that love go? Is it really that deep and everlasting? I want to end with two parables, one from Jesus and one from the 20th Century.
In the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus tells of a shepherd who has one hundred sheep. One of them goes astray. The shepherd then does something shocking. He leaves the other ninety-nine in the wilderness and goes to find the one lost sheep. And how long does he search for the lost sheep? Till dark? Till the end of the next day? For a week? He searches until he finds it. How long will God love us–each of us and all of us? As long as it takes, even if that compassion and faithfulness stretch beyond this time and space into another dimension’ Why? Because God is love.
The second parable is contemporary and comes from Leslie Weatherhead, a famous English theologian and popular preacher. This story will perhaps help us understand why it is so important for God’s love to become flesh and blood for us not just once or twice but again and again and again.
A man who was entirely careless of spiritual things and concerned only for his own enrichment died and went to hell. His business partner went down to see if there was any chance of bringing him back. Although he pleaded for the gates to be opened, the iron bars would not yield. His best friend also went and besought Satan to let him out if only for a short recess. But there was no response. His wife’s minister also went and argued, “He was not all that bad, really. Let him have another chance. Can’t you let him out? Perhaps he has learned his lesson.” Others also went and pleaded with Satan, but to no avail. Finally, his mother came, but she did not seek his release. Quietly and with a strange catch in her voice, she said to Satan, “Let me in.” And immediately the doors swung open. For love goes down even through the gates of hell and there redeems the damned.
You see, God is like a mother. She is not only waiting for us to come home. She is also willing to join us in the very hells we make of our lives and our world. And she will stay with us until we all come home, not because we have been forced or manipulated or tricked or bribed or bought, but because we shall all finally understand with Paul that the greatest of all is love, and by God’s persistent grace, there is a place for each of us around our Mother’s table—both now and forever.
(Jurgen Moltmann is a German theologian who wrote The Crucified God many years ago. This book had a tremendous impact throughout theological circles. One of his later books, The Way of Jesus Christ, incorporates the insights of the earlier book and takes those insights to the next level. This later book had a great impact on my own theology. Some of its contents require a knowledge of the works of other theologians, but much of it is “user friendly.” I have shared it with many laypeople who have understood and appreciated its insights.)