The Cross and the Spirit of Compassion

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Gospel for Good Friday

John 18:1 – 19:42

This reflection was shared at the Good Friday Meditation service at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley CA on April 3, 2015. 

“I came into the world,” Jesus said, “to testify to the truth.” And Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” For centuries, Christians have attempted to answer this question, specifically, “What is the truth to which Jesus came into this world to testify? What is the truth that Jesus sought to reveal in his life and teachings and especially, in his death on the cross?” In theological terms, attempts to explain the truth and meaning of the cross are called “theories of atonement.”

Today, the most popular theory of atonement in Western Christianity is one articulated by Anselm, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury way back in the eleventh century. According to Anselm, Christ came to reveal the truth that we have all offended God’s honor because of our sin and, since God is a just God, someone must be punished for this offense. So in order to appease God’s anger and need for punishment, he sent his beloved Son Jesus Christ to bear the brunt of his wrath so that we can enjoy his forgiveness. Anselm’s theory of atonement has become the dominant understanding of the cross among evangelicals, who often insist that believing this particular theory is absolutely necessary for salvation. Although there are many problems with this theory, the main one is that it makes God the Father into a cruel and bloodthirsty judge and turns the Father and Son relationship of the Trinity into one of sado-masochism, in which the sadistic and abusive Father brutally punishes his masochistic Son for something that is not even his fault. Fortunately, John’s Gospel offers a very different understanding of the cross…

After witnessing blood and water flow out of Jesus’s pierced side, the narrator of the Gospel first wants to make sure the reader knows that this really happened. He says, “He who saw this has testified so that you may also believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.” This is obviously very important for the author, who then interprets the meaning of Jesus’s pierced side in light of the Hebrew Scriptures, quoting a part of Zechariah 12:10 “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.” The first century readers of this Gospel would have known the rest of this verse, which reads, “And I will pour out a spirit of compassion so that when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”

Right before Jesus is pierced in the side, the text says that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. The Greek, however, can also be translated as, “He bowed his head and gave up the spirit.” By referencing Zechariah in this context, the author of John suggests that Jesus is pouring out the spirit of compassion promised in Zechariah while he is dying on the cross so that those who look on him will have compassion on this innocent victim of religious and political violence. However, this holy spirit of compassion does not stop there. The spirit arouses sympathy not only for Christ but for all victims of society and oppression today, in whom Christ continues to suffer. The spirit stirs up compassion within us for all those who are hurting and suffering, for those who are being slowly crucified by a system that keeps them malnourished, abused, terrorized and forgotten.

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus dies on the cross to reveal that God is not a violent and bloodthirsty deity. Jesus dies so that we can see God among the victims of our world and to begin to see the ways in which we ourselves (and the system in which we live) are the violent and bloodthirsty deity. In other words, “We have met the violent, bloodthirsty god and he is us.”

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This is the truth for which Jesus was born, for which he came into this world to testify: that God is not a God of violence and wrath but a God of compassion. And the cross of Christ is God’s invitation for us to have compassion, to “be compassionate as our heavenly Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36). The cross of Christ is an invitation to wonder in what ways are we ourselves supporting or benefiting from religious and political violence, an invitation to ask, “Whom are the people in our lives that we falsely accuse, blame and mistreat? Whom are the people in our lives that we cruelly dismiss and reject? On whom is God calling us to have compassion today?”

During the time of Anselm, another theologian named Peter Abelard understood this truth of the cross. He saw the cross as a call to compassion and an invitation to see Christ among all those who are suffering. Peter Abelard wrote the hymn we just sang (“Alone thou goest forth, O Lord”), in which he prays in the last verse, “Tu tibi compati sic fac nos, Domine” which has been translated as “Give us compassion for thee, Lord.”[1] This is the prayer that the truth of the cross invokes in us. Give us compassion for thee, Lord, so that we may learn to have compassion on one another, so that we may recognize and repent of the ways in which we continue to cry out “Crucify him!” Give us compassion for thee, Lord, so that we may have compassion on ourselves because sometimes we are our own worst enemies and our own worst victims. Give us compassion for thee, Lord, because it is your holy spirit of compassion that will sustain us as it sustained Christ, even through death, and it is your holy spirit of compassion that eventually leads us to life beyond the grave.

[1] Francis Bland Tucker (1895 – 1984)

Alone thou goest forth, O Lord,
in sacrifice to die;
is this thy sorrow naught to us
who pass unheeding by?

Our sins, not thine, thou bearest, Lord;
make us thy sorrow feel,
till through our pity and our shame
love answers love’s appeal.

This is earth’s darkest hour,
but thou dost light and life restore;
then let all praise be given thee
who livest evermore!

Give us compassion for thee, Lord,
that, as we share this hour,
thy cross may bring us to thy joy
and resurrection power.

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