Nadia Bolz-Weber is an author, ordained minister and public theologian. She served as the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Denver. She is also a three-time New York Times bestselling author. Here’s her theological take on Easter week (which will no doubt invite further reflection on atonement doctrines and theories).
I’d like to quickly make a case that we have experienced way too much death and grief and loss to skip holy week.
Palm Sunday used to just be Palm Sunday but in a lot of churches it’s become Palm/Passion Sunday because people were going from the triumphant “Hosanna” of Palm Sunday to the glorious “He is Risen” of Easter Sunday without ever going through the horrifying “Crucify him!” of Good Friday.
And hey, I understand the impulse. Who doesn’t want to go from glory to glory and just skip the messy middle…..like how Jesus ate his last meal with the people he loved most, all of whom (perhaps like me) would betray abandon or deny him, that these friends (perhaps like me) couldn’t even stay awake while he prayed in the garden, that the crowd (perhaps like me) would strike and taunt him for not living up to their expectations, that the people would (perhaps like me) shout crucify him! And twist him a crown of thorns, the fact that Jesus got himself killed in a totally preventable way never once showing enough self-respect to fight back or get himself off that cross…well maybe he had it coming – which is why the passersby would (perhaps like me) shout “for God’s sake, save yourself”. Why? Because we would save ourselves.
That’s the problem with the cross – it feels either senseless or condemning and sometimes both.
I know for myself that at the fundamentalist church I was raised in I was taught that the cross was about the fact that, because I was bad God had to send his son…(and God only had one!)… to suffer and die a horrible death because – well, someone had to pay for the fact that I’m bad. And therefore, being a Christian meant feeling bad enough about all of this that you would then try much, much harder to be good.
I’m not sure which is worse about what I was taught: the fact that we had somehow made God out to be a divine child abuser or that we had made God out to be an angry loan shark demanding his pound of flesh.
Either way, I don’t think that’s really who God really is. But I do think that whole mess is what we get when we think the cross is about us and not about God.
No wonder people want to go from glory to glory and skip the cross.
Because when we think the cross is about us, the only view we can have of God is of God standing in heaven with folded arms looking down at the cross judging us but punishing Jesus.
But the thing is, God isn’t standing above the cross. God is hanging from the cross.
Maybe the problem starts when we think we can know who God is by just looking at who we are and then projecting that up really big. We’re vengeful so God must be vengeful. We are power-hungry so God must be power hungry. We want to smite our enemies so God must want to smite our enemies. That’s why it’s hard to imagine that God would willingly choose to be poured out for us on the cross because, well, we’d never do a thing like that.
Yet in the end, it’s like that quote from Einstein “the same thinking that created a problem cannot solve the problem.” We cannot be saved by a God who is just a bigger, bad-er version of the worst parts of us or a bigger better version of the best parts of us.
But we can see who God actually (is), when we see how God chose to reveal God’s self in a humble cradle and on a human cross.
Because on the cross we don’t see a legal transaction where Jesus pays our debt. We see God. The Word made flesh hangs from the cross as though God is saying, ‘I would rather die than be in your sin accounting business anymore’.
From his rough hewn throne of a cross Christ the King looks at the world and no one escapes his judgment…those who betray him, those who execute him, those who love him, and those who ignore him. He judges us all. From the cross the pronouncement is made and the judgment is final and that judgement is….forgiveness. Forgive them Father for they know not what they are doing is an eternally valid statement. From his cross Christ loves the betrayer, the violent, the God killer in all of us and despite our protests he will not even lift a finger to condemn those who put him up there. Because it is finally only a God unlike us- a God who enters our human existence and suffers our insults with only love and forgiveness who can save us from ourselves.
And, I would contend that through the cross we know that God isn’t standing smugly at a distance but that God’s abundant grace is hiding in, with, and under all the brokenness in the world around us.
God is present with us in all of it.
And while the suffering and death of Jesus Christ on the cross is not about you. It is certainly FOR you.
In fact, God is so for you that there is no place God will not go to be with you. Nothing separates you from the love of God in Jesus….not insults, not betrayal, not suffering, and as we will see at Easter – not even death itself.
So don’t go from glory to glory and skip the cross, because it is there that you will find a self-emptying God who pursues you and saves you with relentless, terrifying love and who ultimately will enter the grave and the very stench of death in order to say even here, even here I will not be without you.
Hosanna in the highest indeed. Whatever it ends up looking like, have a blessed Holy Week. We need it this year. Amen.
(originally posted on Nadia’s website The Corners on 28th March 2021, and slightly adapted for this post)
Nadia’s reflection is a catalyst to consider what we SING during Easter week, and the implicit/explicit atonement understandings in our songs and hymns. One song popular in many churches, In Christ Alone, has caused a lot of controversy. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has dropped it from the hymnal because the song’s authors refused to change a phrase about the wrath of God. The original lyrics say that “on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song wanted to substitute the words, “the love of God was magnified.” The song’s authors objected. So the committee voted to drop the song. Ian Paul writes: ‘The real danger in talking of Jesus satisfying God’s wrath is that we separate the actions of the Trinity in the cross. It appears to portray loving Jesus saving us from an angry God who metes out his punishment upon the innocent. Instead, we should see in the open arms of Jesus a welcome by a loving Father, who no longer counts our sin against us – it is from our sin and its consequences that Jesus saves us, rather than from a hateful God’. (Read the article here).
Holy Week beckons us into thoughtful, prayerful reflection.