(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
The Meaning of Christ’s Death
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
In Jesus’ day, people hated the cross as a symbol of Roman cruelty, coercion and death. Scholar Craig Evans wrote, “In that time there was no sentimentality attached to Jesus’ death, and certainly not to the cross, a horrifying symbol in Roman antiquity.” Yet Jesus saw a cross ahead for himself, a prospect Peter found appalling. Jesus himself seems to have used the cross as a positive (though hugely challenging) symbol of the cost of following him.
Mark, followed by Matthew (cf. Matthew 27:46) said Jesus rather stunningly quoted the desolate opening verse of Psalm 22:1 on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you left me?” Crucifixion was physically painful, yet Jesus’ deeper anguish on the cross was spiritual. Mark summed up his gospel, “the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son” (Mark 1:1) with a Roman centurion declaring, “This man was certainly God’s Son.”
The gospel of John sought to cast light on the inner implications of Jesus’ life and teachings. John wrote that Jesus said no one took his life from him; he chose to give it (John 10:17-18). So verse 17’s words that Jesus was “carrying his cross by himself” weren’t denying the story of Simon of Cyrene, but stressing that Jesus bore the spiritual burden alone. John wanted us to clearly see Jesus as victor, not victim, on the cross, so he wrote that “he gave up his life.”
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Paul declared a message he himself acknowledged was “foolish” to some and “scandal” to others. He preached Christ crucified as a life-changing physical and spiritual fact, though he knew no PR person or mythmaker would try to impress Greeks, Romans or Hebrews with a crucified savior. He relied on God’s power to change people’s lives and thinking. He trusted that God’s wisdom and strength were greater than this world’s—and they were!
1 Peter 2:21-25
1 Peter showed some of the key ideas the early Christians used to express the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. (Again, these are first century documents, not creeds negotiated centuries later.) Peter said Jesus was our example in endurance and trust in God when suffering comes. But he also alluded to Isaiah 53:5 as he declared that Jesus “carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed”—that he in some vital sense bore our guilt.
The Roman writer Cicero wrote, “The idea of the cross should never come near the bodies of Roman citizens; it should never pass through their thoughts, eyes or ears.” In the Roman world, no one “boasted” about anything having to do with a cross. But Paul (a Roman citizen—cf. Acts 22:25-27) wrote, amazingly, “God forbid that I should boast about anything except for the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jesus’ cross (and his resurrection—hence Paul’s reference to “new creation”) had changed his life.
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Lord God, you took a brutal instrument of cruelty and death, and from it you brought forgiveness and a new creation. Thank you for giving us the privilege of being a part of that creation. Fill our hearts with your healing, peace and freedom from guilt. Energize us for living by helping us follow Christ’s example. Grant us strength and wisdom to trust and depend upon you in everything. Amen.
CONNECT (5-10 minute discussion, at most)
Some people grumble about the ever-changing weather in our community. Do you grumble, or do you welcome even the more unpleasant changes as breaks from the seeming monotony of winter?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
Read Mark 8:31-37. What did Jesus mean when he said, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me”? Did his words apply only to his disciples, or do they apply to us as well? How can we say “no” to ourselves? How do we take up our cross? What kind of Messiah were the Jews of that time expecting? Why did Jesus tell his disciples about his impending death? How would you have reacted if you had been one of his disciples and only knew what they knew?
Read Mark 15:20-39. What meaning do you see in verse 38, which reads, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom”? What did the centurion see or sense that caused him to say, “Surely this man was the Son of God”? When Jesus claimed his kingship, how did the Jews interpret this? How did the Romans interpret it? What has proved to be more enduring: Rome’s belief that it takes unyielding violence to change the world for the better, or Christ’s message that self-sacrificing love and forgiveness is more powerful than violence?
Read John 19:16-30. The Common English Version translates verse 30 by saying that Jesus “gave up his life.” Why didn’t John simply say that Jesus died? Do you see Jesus as the king you need to serve? What might prevent us from seeing him in this way and from serving him? What did Jesus mean when, as he died he said, “It is completed”—what was completed? Has Jesus in any way(s) “completed” you?
Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. Doesn’t the statement that Jesus is the world’s Lord and Savior seem foolish, given the fact that the Romans crucified him? Does the statement make any sense at all? The apostle Paul said in verses 18 and 19, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’” Do you find this Pauline statement to be true, at least for many people? In what unexpected, unimaginable ways has God worked in your life? In what part(s) of your life today do you need to trust that God’s strength and wisdom is greater than yours?
Read 1 Peter 2:21-25. In interpreting verse 21, is Peter calling us to suffer just as Christ suffered, or saying that Christ wants us to spread his gospel and share his “good news” of salvation? Can any of us ever suffer as Christ did? How can we follow the example of Christ in the way we live our lives? Are there aspects of Jesus’ example that feel beyond your reach? Have you learned to tap into Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit to give you power to live differently? What guilt, wounds and hurts haunt you and continue to disrupt your peace? In what ways have you found the healing Jesus offers?
Read Galatians 6:12-16. What do you think is the central message of these verses? How might it apply to all of us today? The cross was a horror in the Roman world and yet Paul, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, boasted in the cross. Why—what had the cross meant to him? Has the power of the cross made any difference in your life? Do you know people who you wish understood and accepted the power of the cross? How might their lives be better? What can you do on their behalf?
From last week: Did you prayerfully consider how you can help to overcome prejudice and honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Did you do at least one thing to honor his memory by injecting peace and mutual respect into your week and into the week of others? Please share with the group any interesting or unexpected experiences you had.
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon, January 26, 2014:
I came to understand three insights several years ago that helped me in making sense of the death of Christ. The first I’ve already mentioned: there is not one theory of the atonement, but multiple ways of understanding the meaning of Christ death. The second, I think, is hugely important: Jesus’ death was a dramatic act that is more like poetry than like economic or judicial theory. Poetry or art is not a logical argument, but something that stirs your soul and speaks to your heart. Finally, Jesus’ death was not about changing God, satisfying God, or placating or appeasing God and God’s justice. It is about changing us. God did not need Jesus death to forgive, nor to show mercy. We needed Jesus death, to understand our need for forgiveness, and the costliness of mercy….
Let’s start with the most common view of the atonement among evangelical Christians today: PENAL SUBSTITUTIONARY ATONEMENT. The idea is that sin requires punishment, that if God is just he cannot leave sin unpunished. God cannot forgive sin without some kind of punishment, but being merciful, he sends Jesus, his Son, to suffer and die as a substitute for humans. The punishment we deserved is placed upon Jesus. By accepting his death, trusting in it, and asking for his mercy, our sins are placed upon him on the cross, and his righteousness is credited to us….In many ways, the picture of God this idea of atonement paints seems inconsistent with the portrait of God Jesus paints in the gospels. Jesus tells parables like the Prodigal Son in which God is merciful despite the stupid sins we commit. He offers forgiveness even before we ask. Jesus eats with sinners and forgives their sins before he ever died for them. His portrait of God is one who seeks to save the lost, who has compassion upon lost sheep. God can forgive whomever God wishes to forgive—it is his divine prerogative.
Yet there are things I value in the penal substitutionary atonement theory, and truths it holds. Jesus clearly understood his death to be about forgiveness. Seen as a metaphor or divine message, not as a judicial theory, this view of atonement is critical for us at times. I regularly speak with people whose sins have landed them in situations where they are overwhelmed with shame and guilt, where they’ve made such a mess of things there seems no way out. In those moments we may feel the wrath of God—the displeasure of God and the weight of the horrible thing we’ve done. Often I’ve brought people into the sanctuary to look at the cross, to kneel before it, or to wrap your arms around it, and to recognize that Christ bore your sins on the cross. This is part of the message of the cross—forgiveness, redemption, healing, a new beginning. Listen to Paul’s words: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” We sin, we fall short of God’s glory, and in this dramatic act, Christ offers himself for our atonement and redemption. We have forgiveness and a new beginning through him….
Another approach we might call the COVENANTAL THEORY OF ATONEMENT. At the Last Supper Jesus offers a different picture of his death. He takes bread and wine, part of the Jewish Passover Seder meal, and he says, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20) Jesus transforms the Passover Seder meal from the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, an event that was accompanied by the sacrifice of lambs, to a meal to remember his own death….
In addition, at the Last Supper, Jesus links his impending death to the idea of the New Covenant that Jeremiah the prophet foretells when he writes on behalf of God, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” In the ancient Near East covenants or binding agreements were made with an animal sacrifice, and sometime with each party cutting their hand, grasping one another’s hands and co-mingling their blood. This was a blood promise. At the Last Supper, on the night before he is crucified, Jesus speaks of his impending death as the rite initiating a new binding agreement between God and humanity. So the cross is seen as the sacrifice that initiated a new covenant between God and humanity, one that supersedes the Old Testament covenant, and now, not by obeying the Law of Moses, but by trusting in Christ and living according to the Spirit, we are the children of God.
Another theory of atonement is called the MORAL THEORY OF ATONEMENT. This has various permutations, but the idea is that Christ’s death is about changing our hearts and influencing us by showing us the depth of God’s love and a picture of what we’re meant to be. It is meant to heal us. This ties in with something else Jesus said about his death in John 15:13, also at the Last Supper: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Here Jesus’ death will be an expression of his love for the disciples, and for the world. We see the same meaning of Jesus’ love in Paul when he writes in Romans 5:6-8: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
So the death of Jesus tells me that I am loved. I think of how I have tried to communicate to my children how much I love them by saying, “I love you so much I would die for you.” I feel the same way about my wife. And when someone actually does die for you, how would this affect to you?…
One theory of the atonement said to have been held by many in the early church is the CHRISTUS VICTOR THEORY OF ATONEMENT. This notes that Jesus, in his death and resurrection, triumphed over the forces of evil, sin and death. There are variations on this theory, but I find this one compelling and have often shared it with you: that Jesus’ death on the cross, and his resurrection, reminds us that evil, sin, hate and even death will never have the final word.
Ultimately, no one of these theories is the “right” theory of the atonement. It is not mechanistic, or literalistic, “here’s how the atonement works.” I don’t think the atonement was about changing God’s heart or turning away his wrath, or satisfying his justice. It was about changing us, freeing us, loving us, persuading us, influencing us, leading us, convicting us, and forgiving us.
And that’s why I need it, and I think about it every day. It is the picture I have of God who loves, and gives himself, and offers us forgiveness, and makes a new way of salvation for us, and he himself suffers for our sin, and demonstrates the costliness of grace, and ultimately triumphs over evil and sin and hate, and even death, so that the worst thing is not the last thing.
About the Crucifix and the Empty Cross—
Q. I’m a Protestant Christian and have worn a crucifix for a while now. I just found out that a crucifix (with Jesus on the cross) is normally considered to be Catholic. Protestants just wear empty crosses. Are Protestants so different from Catholics that it would matter whether or not I wear it?
A. I’m also a Protestant Christian and I love the crucifix, too. Seeing Christ on the cross inspires me because I think of God’s sacrificial love. Does it matter that the crucifix is normally considered Catholic? Nope. I think it’s great when Protestants wear a crucifix or Catholics wear an empty cross because both symbolize God’s unfailing love for us. The crucifix is a vivid reminder of the sacrificial love of God, and the empty cross is a reminder that he rose from the dead.
The central idea behind both crosses is the same: Jesus. And that’s what connects Protestants and Catholics. Both groups agree on two essentials: 1) Jesus is the Son of God; 2) he died for our sins and rose from the dead….
Protestants and Catholics both claim that Christ died on the cross for their sins. For both groups of Christians, the crucifix can be a powerful reminder of what Jesus went through in order to bring us back to God.
A United Methodist point of view:
While both United Methodists and Catholics agree that the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ are important, we talk about them in ways that put emphasis in different places. It is like an orchestra that plays the same music, but different parts of the orchestra emphasize different notes in the score. Catholics tend to emphasize the healing, redeeming power of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. Protestants, including United Methodists, tend to emphasize the power of the resurrection as assurance of life beyond the power of death. So Catholics use a depiction of the cross (called a crucifix) with an image of the suffering Jesus upon it to visualize their way of talking about the event. United Methodists, who emphasize the resurrection, use a bare cross to say that Jesus overcame his suffering and death and is risen.
As far as I know, there is nothing to forbid the use of a crucifix in a United Methodist Church. However, it is seldom done. United Methodists tend to display statues of Jesus’ life or an image of the resurrected Lord.
This week prayerfully consider how you can help others receive the peace of Christ’s saving grace. Do something like praying for them, doing a kind deed for them. Be careful not to be intrusive or off-putting. Next week share any experiences you had.