As Christ-followers Holy Week and Easter Sunday call each of us to draw ever closer to the core of our faith. Meditating on the horror of the crucifixion helps us own up to the deep brokenness of our world, the result of human rebellion against God. We desperately need to be set free from our sin-besotted condition and the shadow of death that attends it.
Pausing in the darkness of the tomb is a preparatory discipline during Holy Week. It predisposes us to receive the announcement of the resurrection like people trapped in a mineshaft when rescuers first cast their bright beams into their entombed surroundings. It’s a common failing of contemporary Christianity to fast-forward past the Cross to the Resurrection.
A close friend and I have commiserated together over recent personal encounters with death. We’ve recognized anew that Death is a power that stalks the cosmos hand in hand with Sin. These evil twins, together with Satan, enslave and destroy all that God has created as good. They are hateful powers from which we would be free. Yet they are stronger than we frail creatures of dust. They imprison us. They crush us.
In this enslaved condition we are caught in a mighty dilemma that drives much of humanity. We pretend to be gods, no beginning and no end, with limitless power. Yet, a few days of the flu quickly disabuses us of our god illusion. When the flu passes we return to our god pretense. That’s just crazy, leading to spiritual insanity. Or, weighed down by our failures, our addictions, the shame and guilt of our sin, we invest in all manner of escape mechanisms. Many of these accelerate our slog towards death.
Ernest Becker, who was no Christ-follower, captured perfectly what living in the shadow of death does to us as human beings who’ve rejected our Creator: Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever… to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one's dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that's something else… Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. (from “Denial of Death”)
As we human beings drift further away from the Living God we are increasingly influenced by the anonymous powers of Death and Sin. The more we dance with them the more we become enslaved by them.
In this vein Fleming Rutledge observes, Sin and Death, as powers, as agents, infect entire structures that then become malign Powers of their own. They operate within their own “hermetically sealed orb” of power. We cannot look for deliverance from another sphere of power altogether. (from “The Crucifixion”)
In other words Sin and Death infect every dimension of our lives, extending to the entire cosmos. We need a Deliverer from outside our closed, fallen system. Only the Father himself, acting through His Incarnate Son, can rescue us. And rescue us He did!
Ironically, the path to deliverance first leads to a place of death, the Cross. At the cross Jesus undoes Death. He embraced the cross and its shame, becoming our substitute on that cruel tree. In His dying death, sin and Satan lost their power against us. Christ put to death Death through His own death at Golgotha. In this way Jesus’ work on the Cross was a form of spiritual jujitsu.
At the Cross we find our Deliverer. This is why we must stay near the Cross. As we journey with Jesus to the Cross and die with Him there we are set free from the hateful powers. For just as we die in Christ we are raised to newness of life in Him through the power of the Resurrection. The two go hand in hand together, dying and being raised to new life. Both result in freedom from the powers that enslave us.
This is what Paul was pointing towards when he wrote:
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:4-8)
Yes let's celebrate the Resurrection this coming Easter Sunday with loud rejoicing. And, in preparation for Sunday let us first journey to the Cross. Let us be silent before the Cross remembering that it was there that Jesus laid down His life for us. Let us embrace Him who died for us there and follow Him anew by taking up our own crosses (oh, how often we set them down again). Then let us be free in Christ from Sin, Death and Satan—the hateful powers— that we might live for Him and with Him forever.
Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain—
Free to all, a healing stream—
Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.
In the cross, in the cross,
Be my glory ever;
Till my raptured soul shall find
Rest beyond the river.
Near the cross, a trembling soul,
Love and Mercy found me;
There the bright and morning star
Sheds its beams around me.
Near the cross! O Lamb of God,
Bring its scenes before me;
Help me walk from day to day,
With its shadows o’er me.
Near the cross I’ll watch and wait
Hoping, trusting ever,
Till I reach the golden strand,
Just beyond the river.
[“Near the Cross” by Fanny Crosby]