The Necessity of the Cross

I’ve given this sermon a bit of a provocative title: “The Necessity of the Cross.” As I said provocative.  I know many Christians, especially the kind of Christians that end up in Episcopal churches, struggle with the crucifixion. How can we call this “Good” Friday? How do we approach the cross? Even our liturgy has backed off a bit in recent years. For a long time, Good Friday was a three hour service, with sermons on Christ’s last seven words. Our current Prayer Book simplified matters. As I prepared this sermon, as I meditated on the cross this Lent, I decided to revive the older tradition at least in part. I won’t keep you here for three hours. Tonight I want to offer a series of interconnected meditations on words. Not the seven last words of Jesus, but three words that try to make meaning  of The Crucifixion: Substitution, Liberation, and Forgiveness.


On Sunday, as we were preparing to read the Passion Gospel, a member of this congregation asked a question that I have heard, and asked myself many times: “Was it necessary for Jesus to be crucified?” For about the last 200 years preachers proposed an answer to this question by emphasizing an almost judicial vision of our standing before God. They preached a particular interpretation of substitution, and it took hold in many imaginations. Today we question that view. Are we “sinners in the hands of an angry God?” Does Jesus take the abuse required by a “just” God? Is that how Jesus stood in our place? If God necessitated that sort of substitution, many Christians today want nothing to do with that God.

In her recent work The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ the Episcopal priest and scholar Fleming Rutledge argues that the abusive theological equation around substitution which developed over the last 200 or so years creates a problematic separation in God. If God’s action in the crucifixion is in punishing Jesus, then the first and second persons of the Trinity are separated. This problem is intuited in the question I began with: “Was it necessary for Jesus to be crucified?” In other words, did God, “the Father,” do this to “the Son?” Ruttledge argues the theology doesn’t pan out.

Still, simply because we disagree with how substitution has been twisted in recent interpretations does not necessitate giving up the motif altogether. For two millennia souls have responded to the Good news that Christ died in our place. How can we distance ourselves from bad theology and still understand substitution?

The immensely popular series of books and movies: “The Hunger Games” begins when a young girl is chosen by lot to fight other children to the death for the entertainment of the powerful in society. When the little girl is chosen, her older sister volunteers to take her place. You can feel the power of substitution in the fictional interchange. In the Bible, all the more. Christ taking our place has been powerful medicine for souls for centuries. But in order for substitution to work, we cannot confuse the actors. God’s place is not wrathful in the sky, requiring blood. God is OUR substitute. In Jesus the fullness of God stood in our place, and suffered at the hands of powerful human beings.

Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian of the 20th century masterfully re-cast the idea of substitution in this work Church Dogmatics. He talks of the Crucifixion as “the Judge judged in our place.” God paid, in the words we’ll hear sung on Easter, “the debt of Adam’s sin.” Sin is not about human beings being “dirty or bad.” Rather the “fall from grace” came when we tried to take on the role of the Judge. We left behind the garden of perfection for the mystery of reason, freedom morality and choice. But choices have consequences. Judgement has consequences.

In the passion stories, Jesus is judged time and again by powerful human figures representing Rome and Israel. Jews and Gentiles judge the Christ. In a 1st century framework these two poles stand in for all the nations, all of humanity. The story of the Passion is this: humanity presumed to judge God, and we got it so very wrong. Into this mess, God entered. God’s action is not in pursuing punishment for humans, but taking on humanity’s verdict.

History has shown that the stakes are high. For centuries Christians blamed “the Jews” for the crucifixion of Jesus. Antisemitism is a part of our legacy as a Christian movement. Some churches today will edit John’s Gospel for their reading of the Passion. John often uses these words “the Jews,” and in this passage, it is particularly painful. John’s “the Jews” call for the crucifixion of Jesus. Some pastors will edit the Gospel and say “the religious authorities.” I have left the words because I believe we have to own our history if we are going to avoid repeating that history.

Instead we are asked to participate in the reading of the Passion. “Crucify Him!” These are hard words. This is the deep end. We want someone to stand in as our substitute on those words. We don’t want to say them. So for centuries Christians participated in an unChristian hatred of Jesus’ own people. But we can’t shift the blame if we are to know the truth. The fullness of God came to dwell with humanity. God came to us, and our society was so disfigured that we crucified God. We participate in the broken system. Unless we own our place in the mess, we cannot apprehend God’s work as substitute on the cross.

Christ stood in as our substitute and broke the chains. The invitation is to continue the substitution. When we, standing as judges, would condemn one another, when we would condemn ourselves, God stands in our place and offers mercy. When we would deepen division, God offers reconciliation. When we would hand down punishment, God steps in and substitutes love. God’s work of substitution makes the cross of shame the tree of life.


In the first meditation on a word related to the cross, I worked to reclaim a traditional motif, substitution. In this second meditation I want to try to do the opposite. Can we reframe a common motif? This Good Friday, rather than talking about the “Salvation” can we speak of “Liberation?”

We’re used to hearing about the “salvation” offered upon the cross. But where “salvation” has a ring of “intangible spiritual benefits,” liberation has a sense of the concrete. “Liberation” as a theological term also has detractors. For some it sounds too political. Does Good Friday have a political resonance?

Ignacio Ellacuría is one of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador. He was executed by secret death squads in a government attempt to silence the church’s work with the poor. Before his death, Ellacuría argued that we cannot see the crucifixion in isolation. Jesus’ suffering is connected to the suffering of humanity. Jesus died a death that was reserved for non-citizens. (A citizen would have been beheaded). Jesus died a death that was a cause for shame in his religion. The twenty-first chapter of Deuteronomy proclaims “cursed is the one who hangs on a tree.” Jesus death was shameful and his death was political.

Ellacuría argued that Jesus’ death is specific. Christ’s passion identified God with the thousands who suffer each and every day in our world. The theologian said that we can properly speak of the “crucified people” who suffer at the hands of human injustice each and every day. If we take the message of the cross seriously, we work for concrete liberation in the here and now, in history. We organize, politically, to make change on behalf of the poor, the hungry, the disenfranchised.

Reframing salvation as liberation works against the trend of individualism that crept into modern theology. We have a tendency to preach the cross as hope for individuals. The cross has been spoken of too simplistically as “my hope for my personal salvation.” Liberation would see the cross as an invitation to turn back as a society. Left to our own devices, we followed a way which leads to suffering and death for so many. On the cross Jesus opens his arms and says, “turn back.” It does not have to be like this. You can feed the hungry. You can clothe the naked. You can visit those in prison. When you do so, you minister unto me.

Liberation also benefits from sense of geography the term invokes. The story of God’s people is a pilgrim story, a story of exodus and exile. God’s people know what it is to live in a strange country. God’s people were cast out of paradise. They labored under Pharoah’s whips. God’s people were forced to wail by the rivers of Babylon. Time and again God liberated the people. Through the eyes of liberation, the cross is the ultimate signpost. Jesus points the way out of this strange country we inhabit. This world of injustice and abuse need not be so. There is a way out. We can be free. The way out is love. The way out is justice. The way out is self-offering, living no longer for ourselves. God’s kingdom can be reached. We can experience liberation.


The third and final word is another different sort of. Forgiveness is a word embraced conceptually by every theological camp. Forgiveness is easy to embrace as a concept, and forgiveness can take a lifetime to learn as a practice. As the folk musician Patty Griffin sings: “It’s hard to give. It’s hard to get. But everybody needs a little forgiveness.”

The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” [A little while later] Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.

Peter knew what he had done. There was no “undo” button. The comedienne Lily Tomlin has said that, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” In order to step into forgiveness, we must face the truth. We must tell our stories, of how we have been hurt, of how we have hurt others. And we must take the next step. We live with the story, and we don’t let the pain we have suffered, or caused, be the end.

Desmond Tutu, in his new work The Book of Forgiving offers this: “The guarantee in life is that we will suffer. What is not guaranteed is how we will respond, whether we will let this suffering embitter or ennoble us.” Forgiveness is a choice, and God’s forgiving choice is the center of Good Friday. God does not seek retribution for the murderers. God does not repay death for death. Resurrection, new life, is the result of God’s choice of forgiveness.

The Crucifixion teaches us that there is nothing and no one beyond redemption, nothing and no one beyond God, nothing and no one beyond forgiveness.

On the cross God took the worst of human stories, betrayal, suffering, denial, death, and wrote good news into human history. We can’t undo the past, but we can build a better future. The rector of my former church, the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon once wrote: “Peter’s tears of sorrow will wonder of wonders, be made a fountain of new life. God will fashion out of this wreckage of denial a new life of grace and power. That is why we dare to call this Friday ‘good.’”


“Was it necessary that Jesus should die on the cross?” I am not sure I will ever answer that question. The cross remains a mystery to the best theologians. We can play the game of “what if?” We can ask, “could it have been different?” We won’t change the history. What is necessary is that Christians face the cross. The crucifixion happened. Still I hope these themes: substitution, liberation, and forgiveness can offer us a glimpse of hope. What should have been our moment of condemnation was seized by God, and made into the very location of our redemption. What should have been the end became the means of grace.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: