Luke 22: 39-46
In recent decades there has been a great deal of theological reflection, even arguments about Jesus’ death. Why did it happen? Who or what needed it? We know the religious language that says, Jesus died for our sins, but what does that really mean? The Church has never offered a definitive answer to that question, and though throughout the ages, it has pondered multiple theories of the atonement, no one understanding or interpretation has ever been declared the official one. But in the western church with Rome as its capital the satisfaction theory became (for both Catholics and Protestants) the dominant one, which says that because human sin is so serious an affront to the majesty and justice of God, the whole human race deserves the punishment of eternal death, and satisfaction can only be made to God by the perfect human sacrifice. And so Jesus became the sacrificial lamb, the pure offering to God.
But what kind of God would need or demand the suffering and blood of an innocent human being to satisfy a notion of besmirched justice? Is it really God who requires the death, or is it human beings? Who cried out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Certainly not God, but human beings, who have a long history of hating the good and embracing evil. In the cross of Jesus, we see the revelation of human nature, saying NO to the love and mercy of God. Now thankfully and mercifully this not the whole story of our human nature, which is made in the image and likeness of God, but we do see in our own individual stories as well as in the stories of others how it is that human nature is often divided against itself and how the larger society participates in that division, sometimes making it worse, at other times working to heal what is broken and divided.
Some decades ago, when I was working as a hospital chaplain, I had this patient, Linda, a drug addict, who had five children, all born addicted, yet given up to the state, because there was no way she could care for them. And here she was pregnant again, neurologically impaired and bodily damaged from years of abuse. The doctors gave her but a few months to live. She was a month away from delivery, and obstetrics wanted to take the baby, because they did not think the baby could continue to survive in utero. Now Linda was a lot of things, but stupid was not one of them. She knew she would not survive any kind of surgery, and so she said, NO. One of the doctors was so angry he told he had to restrain himself from slapping her to the floor. I knew the feeling. I would not even take an aspirin when I was pregnant, and here this woman did not care what it was she put into her body.
It was Maundy Thursday, 1990, and I walked into Linda’s room with no expectations at all. I was not about to try to convince her of anything. I knew that was futile, and quite frankly it was simply my job to be present to her in all her agony and pain. So, when I pulled up a chair beside her bed, she suddenly looked up at me and asked, “Do you believe that part about the angel?” What part do you mean? I asked.
You know, she continued, when Jesus was in the Garden, facing death, wanting to throw that cup away, and it says that an angel gave him strength. Here, she said, handing me the bible, read it to me. And so I read, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will, but yours be done. Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” Linda suddenly interrupted, “That part about the angel isn’t in Mark or Matthew. I read them both, looking for the angel, but it wasn’t there. Why?”
I looked at Linda and did not know what to say. After all, I knew from seminary study that the line about the angel was a later addition in Luke, because in the earlier Lucan manuscripts, the angel is not there. And Linda was right; there was no mention of angels in Mark or Matthew’s account of Jesus in Gethsemane. But Linda was not interested in biblical criticism, and so I just looked at her and said, “I don’t know.”
But do you believe that part about the angel giving him strength? There was such a look of desperation on your face and the sound of desperation in her voice, and I, who court knowledge and rationality and harbor my own deep doubts about angels, simply looked at her and said, “Yes, I do believe.” I believe it too, she said. And then she closed her eyes and never said another word to me.
Later that afternoon Linda gave her consent to a surgery from which she would never awake. She died peacefully a few hours after her healthy, non-addicted baby girl was delivered, her doctor told me, with tears running down his cheeks in spite of his wanting to slap her a few days before. Her peaceful death was probably the most peace she ever had in her life, he said to me, and now let us both hope she has God’s peace, a peace the world could not give her and she could not give herself. After a moment of silence, he looked at me and said, “I hate it when a patient gets to me this way.” And then he walked away.
The gospel is a kind of lens, and when we put it on and look at life through that lens, we can see life more deeply, more truthfully and more compassionately than before. Jesus’ struggle in the Garden and his death on a cross are unique historical events with deep theological meaning, but the human themes of struggle and sacrifice are replayed again and again in human life, which is why the story still has so much power for us. God did not need or demand the death of Jesus, but we demand it and we need it, because in our blindness and stubbornness, we fail to see what is before our eyes: the love and mercy of God, which shows up especially in places we least expect to see it---in a Garden called Gethsemane, in a cross on Golgotha and in a hospital room in Stony Brook, New York.
Even after all these decades I still remember Linda, and so does God.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!