This is the week when we come face to face with the dark details of crucifixion. I have to admit how incredibly uncomfortable I am with this story. I think most people are, if we stop long enough to think about it. It’s incredibly violent. Senseless. Painful. We are confronted not just with what happened, though that’s painful enough, but why it happened.
Why did Christ die on the cross?
Those who grew up in the church were often given very simple answers to this “To save us from our sins.” or “To set us free” or “To pay our debts” or “To bring new life.” On the one hand, these answers are simple enough, and an accurate summary of our Christian faith. On the other hand, these answers are completely unsatisfactory. How does the violent death of our savior save us? How?
The work of Christ on the cross is called the atonement in Christian Theology. There are many different theories about what the atonement is and what it means. Certain scripture verses go better with certain theories and no one theory on its own seems to explain the atonement in a full and a complete way. Theories include the Christus Victor theory, where Christ defeats the powers of evil and death, the Satisfaction theory, where Christ’s crucifixion is a substitution for human sin, and the Moral Influence theory where Christ’s crucifixion brings positive change to humanity. Though it’s interesting to study atonement theory, my own personal view is that work of Christ on the cross is a what? It’s a mystery. One of the deepest mysteries of our faith, in fact.
As Christians we sense deep within us that the death of Christ on the cross means something deeply profound, but when we peel back the layers, we find it’s difficult to explain. Like a masterful work of art, the atonement means something different every time we look at it again. It looks different in different types of light, and it takes on different meaning as the years go by.
I came across this story from the book In the Grip of Grace by Bryan Chapell. He writes
“On August 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines flight 225 crashed just after taking off from the Detroit airport, killing 155 people. One survived: a four-year-old from Tempe, Arizona, named Cecelia.
News accounts say when rescuers found Cecelia they did not believe she had been on the plane. Investigators first assumed Cecelia had been a passenger in one of the cars on the highway onto which the airliner crashed. But when the passenger register for the flight was checked, there was Cecelia’s name.
Cecelia survived because, even as the plane was falling, Cecelia’s mother, Paula Chican, unbuckled her own seat belt, got down on her knees in front of her daughter, wrapped her arms and body around Cecelia, and then would not let her go.
Nothing could separate that child from her parent’s love—neither tragedy nor disaster, neither the fall nor the flames that followed, neither height nor depth, neither life nor death.
Such is the love of our Savior for us. He left heaven, lowered himself to us, and covered us with the sacrifice of his own body to save us.”
I researched that story a little further this week and read this from a news article in the Baltimore Sun from 1993:
“Using the primitive material of her own body, she in effect strapped herself as a living, human safety device over the 35-pound, four-foot form of her child. And it worked. In one of those successes that make human action and chance look divine, the child survived — with a broken leg and collarbone and burns over 30 percent of her body, breathing through a respirator in the hospital — but breathing.”
I learned in another ABC news article from 2013 that Cecelia survived to adulthood, raised by her aunt and uncle, and that her story was featured in a documentary called Sole Survivor about those who were the only survivor of a plane crash. Fascinating.
This story about Cecelia and her mother Paula who saved her with her child with her own body is, like the story of Jesus on the cross, a story with multiple meanings. It’s a tragedy.
It’s a story about love.
It’s a story about sacrifice
It’s a story about death.
It’s a story about life.
What does it mean?
Rather than trying to distill that question down to a manageable one sentence theology of the atonement, may we train ourselves to say “It means so many things.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of us all, Amen.
The Sermon Remix is a series on this blog where I take a portion of my Sunday sermon and add in relevant links for further investigation and study.