Holy Week is coming up next week and this Sunday is Palm/Passion Sunday; consequently, I’ve got the atonement running through my head.
The atonement is the theological term for thinking through how Jesus saves us through his suffering and death on the cross. Some may not realize it but the atonement has always been a debated topic in theology. Scripture uses a variety of images and metaphors to explain what Jesus accomplishes on the cross and why, and scripture never singles out any one of those as the normative, authoritative teaching. The creeds as well are silent when it comes to the atonement.
Nonetheless, in many evangelical circles ‘penal substitutionary’ atonement is one of the fundamentals and is requisite for orthodox belief. Lay people may not realize it but substitutionary atonement is a white-hot topic in the evangelical and emergence parts of the Church- it’s the official position, for example, of Christianity Today while Emergence Christians are making intentional strides to rethink the atonement.
Penal Substitution in a Nut Shell: Jesus suffers on the cross God’s wrath towards our sin.
God made Jesus to be Sin.
While I think evangelicals are wrong to privilege this substitutionary atonement over all other understandings of the cross, as an historic, robust part of the Christian tradition does it deserve a hearing?
Here’s an attempt on my part to think constructively on Jesus’ agony in the Garden using the substitutionary perspective.
I spent a year after seminary serving as a chaplain at the UVA Hospital in Charlottesville. On one of my first nights spent there, my pager called me to the room of young girl. She was maybe in the fifth grade. She’d been in a car accident earlier that evening. I don’t remember the girl’s name, and I can only barely recall what she or her family or the doctors and nurses looked like.
What I do remember is the sound. I remember the sound the girl’s mother made when the doctor told her that her little girl would most likely die during the night.
It was a deep wail from somewhere in her gut, a cry that sounded like it cut her throat, followed by desperate pleading: with God, with the doctors, with me.
And almost as much as the sound, what I remember is how uncomfortable she, the mother, made the rest of us feel- how uneasy we felt to be that close to someone so fragile, how embarrassed we were to be confronted by another’s fear and grief and horror, how disarming it felt when there was nothing for any of us to do.
Mark’s Gospel gives us this uncomfortable picture of Jesus:
“Jesus began to be distressed and agitated; telling his disciples ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death.’”
Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the Buddha, after a long life spent contemplating the ubiquity of suffering, died a serene death.
Hinduism, the oldest religion in the world, puts the brakes on Jesus when it comes to Christ’s agony and suffering. Jesus can only be an enlightened teacher, they say, if- before death- he slipped into a peaceful and contemplative state.
According to the Koran, Christ must be something less than who our creeds say he is- true God from true God- because the almighty God would never and could never suffer the indignity of fear and suffering.
To the average Roman of Jesus’ day, Socrates’ death was the ideal. The goal of every person’s life was to live heroically and die serenely. Apathy and detachment towards one’s death were virtues to be honored.
But, Mark’s Gospel tells us something that couldn’t be more jarringly different: “Jesus began to be distressed and agitated; telling his disciples ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death.’”
In the Greek text, Mark puts it even stronger and more embarrassing:
“Jesus began to be horror-stricken and deeply depressed.”
Speaking of this very same passage, the Letter to the Hebrews says:
“Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the One who was able to save him from death…”
Uncomfortable, embarrassing stuff.
All along Jesus has acted as though he’s known all along what was to happen to him. Ever since he was baptized by John and called the disciples and began preaching and healing and offending convention- ever since Jesus has boldly and presciently spoken of himself as a dead man:
- ‘One of you will betray me’ Jesus had told them.
- ‘You all will become deserters’ Jesus had predicted.
- ‘You will deny me three times’ he had warned Peter.
In Caesarea Philippi, just before the Transfiguration, just after Peter had confessed ‘You are the Messiah’’ in Caesarea Philippi Jesus had told them that “the Son of Man would undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes; and be killed.”
And back in chapter ten, after Jesus had blessed the little children, he’d taken the disciples aside and pointed out towards Jerusalem and said: “See, we are going there, and the Son of Man will be handed over…and they will mock him and spit upon him and flog him and kill him.”
In Mark, there’s never been any mystery where this was headed, where Jesus’ path would end.
But to our embarrassment, Mark tells us that “Jesus was shaking with horror and depressed.”
That night, Passover Night, after the sacred meal Jesus and his disciples had left the upper room and walked down the western hill of Jerusalem. On the way, they walked past the place of King David’s tomb- the place where Yahweh’s promises lay buried and dormant. They walked past the Temple- the place of God’s presence.
The city that night was filled with people, perhaps as many as 2 million, but the streets were empty. Everyone was inside celebrating the feast. The city was quiet for the first time that week. No more was anyone shouting ‘Hosanna.’ The 200,000 Passover lambs that had been bleating all week were silent now.
Jesus led them through the city to a plot of land, Gethsemane, and to a garden there. To pray. He left the nine near the garden entrance and, as he’d done before, took Peter and James and John further in with him. But even those three, Jesus left back a bit, behind him; as if where he was going they could not follow.
Earlier that afternoon, Peter had promised Jesus that he would follow him anywhere, no matter what. But in the garden that night, those promises seem far off as Peter can’t even stay awake. While the disciples sleep, Judas steals away.
Just a week ago, Jesus had dared James and John to drink from the cup that Christ would be made to drink from. And just that night, Jesus had blessed a cup and said that the wine in it was blood from his broken body poured out for the world.
But now, in the garden, if any of the disciples were still awake, they would have heard something deeply embarrassing: Jesus crying and quivering with horror and pleading:
“Father, take this cup away from me.”
One of only two times Mark records Jesus speaking in his own language, Aramaic. The other time being from the cross: ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
And Peter and James and John- those who’d been on the mountaintop when Jesus was transfigured and God had shouted from the sky ‘This is my Beloved Son’– if any of those three were still awake in the garden they would have noticed something else about Jesus’ pleading.
This time, God doesn’t answer back.
This picture of Christ, shuddering with grief and fear, makes uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do with it. Has Jesus lost his nerve?
Mark’s Jesus embarrasses the other evangelists too.
- Matthew softens the language so that Jesus is just “sorrowful.”
- Luke removes the language all together.
- And John cuts out the whole scene from his Gospel.
One of the reasons I believe the Bible to be true is passages like this one. Tonight’s passage is hardly the creation of religious wishful thinking. This moment in the garden flatters no one.
“Jesus began to be horror-stricken and desperately depressed.” Mark tells us. And the question Mark raises is as obvious as it is troubling: Why?
In the second century, a famous pagan named Celcus wrote a diatribe against Christianity, one of his chief points of attack being: ‘How could someone claimed to be the divine Son of God mourn and lament and pray to escape the fear of death?’
The question need not be so pointed. As one of you emailed me this week about this passage: ‘Why did Christ become agitated and ask that the cup be removed from him? If he knew what would come, why ask?’
So, what’s going on tonight? In the garden?
St. Paul says that “For our sake God made Jesus to be Sin who knew no Sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
If sin is separation from God, then I believe what Jesus experiences here in the garden- in his horror and agony and abandonment- is sin.
Not his own, but the burden of ours. The deafening silence from God that meets his pleading prayer is the echo of our own unrighteousness.
His agony is the separation we put between ourselves and God.
It’s not simply the dread of death that Jesus experiences this night; it’s the dread of our self-imposed Godforsakeness.
Up until then, Jesus has lived our life. He’s celebrated and laughed. He’s scolded and condemned. He’s hungered and feasted with friends. He’s wept and lamented.
He’s experienced our life, but he’s never experienced Sin.
He’s judged Sin. He’s preached against it. He’s bemoaned it and forgiven it. But he’s never experienced it. Felt its weight and pain. Not until now.
Tonight, in the garden, Jesus is submitting himself to total abandonment.
As embarrassed and uncomfortable as it might make us feel to be up so close to someone so fragile, in those moments in the garden Christ experiences what we experience our whole lives when we try to live without Him.
When Jesus gets up from his knees, he’s committed to giving up everything that is his and shouldering everything that is ours.
When his prayer is finished, Jesus stands and wakes up the sleeping “twelve.” Mark doesn’t call them disciples again until after Easter.
Maybe it’s because where Jesus goes next, we can’t follow.
There’s nothing for us to do.
He alone can make things right.