RCIA Presentations

6. Jesus' Sufferings

'Crucified under Pontius Pilate'

The central place of Jesus' love-giving on the cross in his life and mission invites a reflection on the connection of his dying and our 'salvation'. The following is from my commentary on Paul's Letter to the Galatians 1:4 (see Thye New testament Letters Volume 1: Saint Paul, Chevalier Press 2004). Paul speaks of Jesus ' who gave himself for our sins to set us free'. Paul's letter to the Galatians is very much about freedom, and it is significant that here in the opening address Paul speaks of Jesus self-giving as the way in which God willed to liberate us from the many ways in which we find ourselves being enslaved. Paul is thinking precisely of the way in which the missionaries from Judea are enslaving the Gentile Galatians by insisting that they must change their culture and become Jews if they wish to benefit from God’s offer of salvation. Such an idea is anathema to Paul, for he knows from his own experience that God loves us as we are. Redemption – that is, freedom from slavery – comes when we open our hearts to welcome God’s unconditional love. It does not come about by thinking, in our insecurity, that we have to become someone other than we are and be pressured into conforming to a narrow view of God that is being imposed on us from outside.

When Paul speaks of Jesus’ self-giving, he is thinking, of course, primarily of Jesus’ self-giving on the cross. Since we are here at the heart of Paul’s gospel it is important to reflect on the relationship between the cross and salvation in Paul’s writings. This opening address is a good place to start for Paul’s focus is perfectly clear: we are redeemed by Jesus’ gift of himself; we are redeemed by love.

Let us begin our reflection with words spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus. Referring to his coming crucifixion, Jesus says: ‘the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’(John 3:14-15). That Jesus saw his being ‘lifted up’ on the cross as part of God’s providential design for our salvation is indicated when he says that ‘the Son of Man must be lifted up’. We are reminded of a similar statement recorded by Mark: ‘Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again’(Mark 8:31). In choosing to accept his death, Jesus saw himself as carrying out his Father’s will: 'When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realise that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him'(John 8:28-29).

This text and others like it must be read with care. If Jesus’ death (his being ‘lifted up’) could be described without qualification as God’s will, we would have to say that those who condemned Jesus to death and those who crucified him were carrying out God’s will. This would make what they did an act of obedience, and therefore virtuous. Such a conclusion is obviously false. To imagine that it was God and not sinful human beings who willed the unjust death of Jesus can only lead to a gross misunderstanding of the place of God in Jesus’ life – a misunderstanding that it is hardly short of blasphemy. It was not God who crucified Jesus; it was the Jewish leadership, the fickle crowd, the Roman prefect and the ‘obedient’ soldiers. To see God’s part in Jesus’ death, we will have to contemplate Jesus’ dying more carefully. Before we do that, let us look beyond Jesus’ death to his resurrection. It is clear that here we are watching the action of God. Sinful human beings ‘lifted up’ Jesus on the cross. God ‘lifted up’ Jesus into his eternal embrace in the resurrection.

This was Paul’s message  in the synagogue of Antioch in Galatia: ‘Though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. But God raised him from the dead’(Acts 13:28,30). We find the same message given by Peter: 'This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power'(Acts 2:23-24; see also Acts 3:13-15; 4:10).

Paul has already mentioned  the resurrection in the opening verse in this letter and a proper understanding of his death on the cross cannot be had if we neglect the fidelity of God to Jesus revealed in his taking him from the cross into his eternal embrace. However, it is important not to move too quickly to the resurrection, but to stay contemplating Jesus on the cross. The statement in the above passage from the Acts that Jesus was ‘handed over according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God’, is not to be understood in a temporal sense, for God does not exist in time. Luke is telling us to look beyond sinful human activity to the design of God, for God can use even sin to bring about his will. Our question here is: what is the will of God that is achieved through the crucifixion? What does it mean to say on the one hand that the suffering inflicted upon Jesus was the sinful responsibility of those who refused to obey God’s will, and yet, on the other hand, that it comes within God’s providential design and grace?

Whatever we mean by God’s providential design, it cannot be such as to leave no room for human freedom. We are not automatons; we are not puppets of fate. We experience some freedom, however limited and conditioned. If so much human suffering results from our saying No to God’s loving design, it is also true that much that is good results from our saying Yes. Without freedom there would be no sin. Equally, without freedom there would be no compassion, no generosity, no heroism, no love. Freedom is at the very heart of what it means to be a person. God made us this way, and respects and loves what he has made. God is also constantly inspiring everyone to behave in loving ways. To the extent that we respond to God’s inspiration we behave responsibly and God’s will is done. To the extent that we reject God’s inspiration, we behave irresponsibly and God’s will is not done. Any particular decision we make is likely to be a mixture: we partly respond and partly hold back.

The crucifixion of Jesus would have to be defined as an unjust act. God does not will that innocent people be sentenced unjustly to death. Paul includes the murder of Jesus with the persecuting of the Christians as acts that ‘displease God’(1Thessalonians 2:14-15). The Sanhedrin and Pilate condemned Jesus to death precisely because they refused to listen to God; they refused to face the truth. Their action was sinful, and so, by definition, contrary to God’s will. Jesus himself says as much: ‘You kill me because there is no place in you for my word’(John 8:37). Stephen links the crucifying of Jesus with the persecution that was inflicted on the prophets. In behaving in this way, they were precisely ‘opposing the Holy Spirit’(Acts 7:51). This point was made by Jesus himself: 'You are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors … Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!'(Matthew 23:31-32,37; compare Acts 7:52).

God’s attitude to sending his Son is expressed beautifully by Jesus himself in a parable which directly refers to his passion. It is about a man who planted a vineyard and kept hoping to enjoy its fruits. Everyone he sent to deal with the tenants was murdered or badly treated: 'He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard'(Mark 12:6-8).

God sent his Son to ‘give his life’, in the sense of making every moment a love-offering of himself to others. Jesus gave himself to the leper and to the paralysed man; he gave himself to the sinners, the prostitutes and the outsiders; he gave himself to carrying out the mission of love given him by the Father. This self-giving brought him up against the resistance of those who refused to listen. When, sinfully and resisting the Holy Spirit, they determined to effect their evil purpose, what was he to do? His mission looked like a failure. The religious authorities were not listening. There was division even among his chosen disciples, who did not appear to be strong enough to carry on without him. Death must have seemed to Jesus to make no sense. He needed more time to do what he knew his Father wanted him to do. There had to be another way.

Yet, as sometimes happens, the sinful decisions of other people left Jesus no room to manoeuvre. Heroically, he determined to continue carrying out his Father’s will. He determined to continue giving his life. He determined to continue preaching the good news of God’s saving love, knowing that the religious authorities did not want the truth to be spoken. He determined to remain prayerful, forgiving and patient, and to continue taking the side of the poor who were crying to God for help. On the night before he died he shared with his disciples what his approaching death meant to him: he made his death, as he had made everything else, an offering of love. When it is said that his death redeemed us, we mean, rather, that it was the way he died (Mark 15:39). His death was brought about by others. The way he died, however, was determined by Jesus himself, and his manner of dying — in prayer, and faith and love and forgiveness and compassion — gave the final demonstration of the extent of his love (John 15:13).

It was this love-giving, this self-giving, this life-giving that God willed. Thanks to Jesus’ fidelity to his Father’s will, not even the injustice and disobedience of those who crucified Jesus could thwart God’s eternal design. What we see when we contemplate Jesus’ self-giving on Calvary is the power of God. It is important that we distinguish between power and control.

The good news is precisely that real power, the power of God, is not a matter of control. It is a matter of love.  Were it a matter of control, we would not be ‘set free’. What we would claim as religious obedience would be a servile submission to a controlling God, not a free, creative response in love to love. We would bury the wonderful gift of freedom, lest we offend. We would spend our life being careful, failing to live lest we make mistakes. We would be victims of superstition, caught up in trying to control God, to manipulate God into being on our side. We would conform, as the Gentile Christians of Galatia are being tempted to conform, to whatever religious system offered security (in their case, the Jewish system).

If, on the other hand, when we contemplate Jesus on the cross, we come to see that the power of God is not in the sphere of control but of love; if we see that God respects human freedom even when it behaves as atrociously as people behaved in crucifying Jesus; if we see that Jesus’ faith in God was not destroyed by the pain, degradation and humiliation of the cross, we might dare to be free. Recognising God as love, we might allow God’s graceful Spirit to  create in us, as God did in Jesus, someone who dares all for love. Later in this letter Paul will say: ‘For freedom Christ has made us free!’(Galatians 5:1).

If we believe the gospel proclaimed by Paul, we will not fear God. Rather we will fear our own capacity to fail in love. We will dare the journey of freedom, knowing that we are constantly graced by love. We will not avoid life and its risks for fear of God’s punishment. Rather, we will take seriously the gift of freedom given to us by God. Knowing our capacity to abuse freedom, we will humbly cry out to God in our need and in our poverty, knowing that God will grace us with his Spirit. Purified by love and sensitive to the presence and action of God’s loving Spirit in our lives, we will dare to express love in the kind of creative self-giving that we see in Jesus on the cross.

When we focus on Jesus’ relationship to us, another consideration emerges. What Jesus did stands as an example for us. He shows us how to listen to God no matter how terrible our circumstances may be. His resurrection holds out hope for us that God will vindicate us just as he vindicated his Son. Jesus shows us that when people behave badly towards us we do not have to respond in the same way. ‘Love one another’, he said, ‘just as I have loved you’(John 15:12). However, his example would have had little power to persuade us had he not suffered. Suffering is part of the human condition, and Jesus’ example is all the more powerful in that we see him loving even when everything was against him: 'In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him'(Hebrews 5:7-9).

Jesus demonstrated his faith in God’s love even when nothing supported such faith. He also showed us how to respond in love even in the worst situations. It is this which makes his message so convincing. It is this which draws us to follow him.

When Jesus says that he ‘must be lifted up’, he is saying that we needed something as shocking as a crucifixion to shake us out of our lethargy and to save us from the futility of being caught up in a meaningless way of life by reacting to sin with more sin, till we lost all hope of finding our way to the fullness of life and love for which we all yearn. We needed to see Jesus loving on the cross, not because God demanded a crucifixion, but because nothing less could convince us that in our suffering we, like Jesus, are surrounded by the unconditional and persistent love of God. Suffering, even when unjustly inflicted, does not prevent God loving us and does not have to stop our loving.

We needed to see Jesus believing and forgiving, despite being faced with ultimate rejection and the apparent meaninglessness of doing so. For now, no matter what happens to us, we are able to ‘look on the one whom we have pierced’(John 19:37), and learn from him the secret of a love that alone can free us from becoming lost in a maze of sin. His example and the Spirit of love that he gives us from the cross make it possible for us to give meaning to our sufferings by making an act of faith in God, and allowing the Spirit of his love to transform our cross into a resurrection like his. If, in our human way, we are to imagine God responding to the crucifixion, we should imagine God weeping, as Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). God is almighty power – the ‘might’, however, is the might of love. When Jesus wept over the city, we see God’s reaction to all the terrible injustices that we humans inflict on each other by our sinful rejection of his loving inspiration. God is all-powerful, all-powerful love, and from the broken heart of God enough love pours out over this world to transform it into a paradise, if only we would receive it.

In making us free, God takes our freedom seriously, permitting our decision to say No to love, and so permitting the consequences of such a decision. But God does not stand by as a passive observer of our folly. God is actively inspiring everyone to bring love to flower where it is absent. If we follow the example of those who crucified Jesus and refuse to listen, we must not blame God for the effects of this refusal. Through Jesus it is revealed to all who are willing to look and listen that God is love. Some rejected this love. Like the people in the desert who struck at the rock (symbol of God), so those who murdered Jesus struck at his heart with a lance. Just as Moses saw water flowing from the rock to slake the thirst even of those who were rejecting God (Numbers 20:11), so the Beloved Disciple saw blood and water flowing from the heart of Jesus on the cross (John 19:34) for the healing even of those who were crucifying him.

There in that darkest place, in that most meaningless event, in that symbol of humanity’s rejection of God, love shines forth. God did not will the unjust murder, but he did will the love-response; for it is God’s love that is revealed in the heart of Jesus. It is in this sense that one can say that the death of Jesus came within God’s providential plan, so that ‘by the grace of God, Jesus might taste death for everyone’(Hebrews 2:9). 'When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realise that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him'(John 8:28-29).

When Jesus said in his agony ‘Not my will but yours be done’(Mark 14:36), he was expressing his determination to continue, in the face of death, to carry out the mission of love given him by the Father, whatever the cost. He trusted that, in spite of the apparently meaningless death and the apparent failure it represented, his Father would see that the cause entrusted to him would succeed.

When Jesus’ early disciples searched the Old Testament, the ancient testament of Israel, in an effort to make some divine sense out of the crucifixion, they discovered there a constant pattern of God’s love persisting through rejection. In this sense, Jesus’ dying fulfilled the Scriptures, bringing to a stunning climax the revelation of divine love in the history of God’s people. Jesus’ way of dying, and God’s taking him into his embrace in the resurrection, are at the centre of the Christian faith, revealing as they do God’s love-response to human disobedience. Our disobedience matters. It matters that we sin, and that our sin has such terrible effects on ourselves and on other people. God cannot pretend that things are other than as they really are. Sin, however, cannot change the truth that God is love. This love, demonstrated in the way Jesus died, is the source of all our hope. If we believe it, we may dare the journey out of sin. If enough people believe it, there is still hope (a hope we renew each time we pray the ‘Our Father’) of realising Jesus’ dream of God’s will being done on earth as in heaven.