A Compassionate Lord

As I have carried forward the theme of emptiness, I now come to the ultimate place of emptiness. Friday that is somehow called “Good Friday.” What is good about Good Friday?

There are many who continue to answer that Good Friday is good because Jesus died for our sins. They continue with this theme known as “penal substitutionary atonement” that comes to us from 16th century reformers who were taking Anselm’s “satisfaction theory” to another level. Basically, penal substitutionary atonement means that Jesus took on all the sins of the world as a sacrificial lamb, and then his death became the ultimate sacrifice that wipes away our sin. The Greek word for suffering is πάθημα (pathāma), from which we get the words like pathos and pathology. The notion is that Jesus suffered so we don’t have to.

Along with many other pastors and theologians, I am here saying boldly that penal substitutionary atonement is NOT the death of Jesus. When we look at the entirety of the message from the gospels, Jesus never claims to be the one who dies this kind of death. Jesus does forgive sins, but the forgiveness of sins is entirely relational. Jesus comes calling for repentance, which is “turning toward” God. Jesus comes inviting us into banquets and sacred spaces where those on the outside are reminded that they have a place because God has forgiven them. There is nothing any of us have done that can separate us from the great love of God, as Paul describes this in Romans 8.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus is depicted as Emmanuel … God who is with us. And this God who is with us is not one who will finally condemn us. The condemnation and the hell we experience when we are separated from God is the hell from which Jesus comes to save us by reconciling us back to God.

And it this “With-Us God” who is in the person of Jesus who goes to the cross. This is God who is not willing to leave us alone in our suffering; rather, the cross is the place where God suffers with us. The word “compassion” is given to us from the Latin, and the word literally means to “suffer with.”

I learned years ago about sympathetic vibration, which is what happens when you take a stringed instrument and then begin to play a note that matches the pitch to which that string has been stretched. The string itself begins to create sound, not because it was touched, but because it was connected to the originator of the sound with sound waves.

Sympathy is the outer expression of this connection, but it is shallow and does not go deep enough. Compassion is the fullest expression of what it means to connect with one another at the place of our suffering … it is something that is a connection of the soul. This is the gift God gives us. God connects with us in our darkest places and our deepest suffering.

Jesus is the Compassionate Christ

Jesus then comes as God with us … in our living … in our suffering … and in our dying. The message of Good Friday is that we don’t suffer or die alone. God is always with us and finally will not forsake us in our darkest hour … no matter who we are or what we have done.

Along with many others in our church, I am grieving the dying of a strong leader in our church who nears death in his hospice bed. George has been a true friend to me and so many, and the grief in our church is palpable these days. On this Good Friday, my prayer is that he and Barbara … along with his church family … along with the community he loves so much … along with all who suffer and die and grieve … will know that we are finally not alone.

The message of Good Friday and the gift of Christ today is the simple ending to a creed from the United Church of Canada: God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God!

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