The cross and the tree of life:
Jesus shared the fate of all who die – which is every living thing – and the price exacted for Jesus’ fidelity to his ministry was excruciating.
The manner of Jesus’ death was not part of an evolutionary process. Rather, it was the result of decisions made by political authorities.
So the cross has political meanings as well as theological meanings. Today, liberation theologians connect his death with all the violent murders unleashed by state power through the ages.
Kenosis: That Jesus suffered an agonizing death on the cross is a fact of history. That it was Emmanuel who suffered and died is a statement of faith, made on the basis of the incarnation.
Here Christians read a new chapter in the Creator-creature relationship, the Word’s immersion in matter, even unto a suffering death.
(The idea of kenosis (self-emptying) is a way to understand the character of God – and God’s unbreakable link to Jesus, even in his miserable death. (Philippians 2)
What is new in view of the cross is divine participation in pain and death from within the world of the flesh. The crucified Christ knows what it means to suffer. That means that God knows what creatures are suffering – and such knowing is part of the Spirit’s indwelling relationship to the world.
Matter and spirit: Greek philosophy maintained a strict separation between the all-holy God and the material world of suffering. In contrast to this, Christian theology forged a deep personal connection between God and suffering – as part of its witness to the abiding, free love poured out in Jesus Christ.
The logic of deep incarnation extends from the cross to all creation. The Giver of Life dwells in the evolving world and acts in, with and under its natural processes, continuously knowing and bearing the costs of new life.
Does this really make any difference? Death goes on as before.
God’s suffering presence: Southgate writes, “I can only suppose that God’s suffering presence is just that, presence, of the most profoundly attentive and loving sort, a solidarity that at some deep level takes away the aloneness of the suffering creature’s experience.” (Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation)
Seemingly absent, the Giver of life is silently present with all creatures in their pain and dying. They remain connected to the living God despite what is happening; in fact, the connection to God is in the depths of what is happening. The indwelling, empowering Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ who companions all creatures, does not abandon them in the moment of trial.
The cross places the compassion of God right at the center of all suffering.
Deep resurrection extends Christ’s relationship to the whole world.
Jesus after the cross: The gospel story does not end at the tomb. The gospel narratives tell about the discovery of the empty tomb, angelic messages, and encounters with the at-first-unrecognized risen Jesus by different disciples in the garden, on the road, in the upper room, on the lake shore, on a hill outside the city. Through these encounters, the disciples’ faith in the God of life took a quantum leap.
Resurrection: What resurrection means in the concrete is not seriously imaginable to us who still live within the time-space grid of our known universe. But the Easter message means that Jesus did not die into nothingness, but into the embracing arms of the ineffable God who gives life. What awaited him was not ultimate annihilation but a homecoming into God’s mystery.
Christ’s destiny is not meant for himself alone; the Alleluias that break out at Easter well up from the realization that his new life is not meant for himself alone, but for the whole human race.
This means that salvation is not the escape of the human spirit from matter, but resurrection of the body, the whole person, dust and breath together.
Deep resurrection: Johnson suggests we employ the idea of ‘deep resurrection’ to extend the risen Christ’s relationship to the whole natural world. Johnson’s reasoning runs like this (Ask the Beasts, p. 209):
Jesus of Nazareth was composed of ‘star stuff’ and ‘earth stuff.’
Jesus’ life formed a genuine part of the historical and biological community of Earth.
Jesus’ body existed in a network of relationships drawing from and extending to the whole physical universe.
Thus Jesus’ resurrection points to the beginning of redemptive glorification – not just for other human beings but for all flesh, all material beings, every creature that passes through death.
Christ is the firstborn of all the dead on Darwin’s tree of life.
Christ is the firstborn
of all the dead on
Darwin’s tree of life.
Now the Earth needs
to hear this good news:
God’s compassionate presence accompanies all suffering and dying creatures.
Affliction, even at its worst, does not have the last word. Biologically speaking,
new life continuously comes
out of death over time.
the cross gives us hope
that God’s presence
in the midst of our pain
bears creation forward
with an unimaginable promise.
(see Ask the Beasts, p. 209)
Johnson then concludes chapter 7 with these words: “This does not solve the problem of suffering in a neat systematic way – but it does make a supreme difference in what might come next.” (p. 210)
Next week: chapter 8, “Bearer of Great Promise”