Sin, Love and Liberation in the Crucifixion of Jesus

06/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On this day Christians observe the death of Jesus.

His hands and feet are nailed through. As he hangs, his back scrapes on the rough wood. The sun burns; Roman guards taunt him; disciples cower; women and men who love him cry, and God in heaven...waits...silent.

Before any death there is a life - and what a beautiful and bold life his was. We remember Jesus swaddled, lying with Mary and Joseph, we remember him running off at a young age to discuss God in the Temple, wresting with the Devil in the Wilderness, being baptized by John in the River; blessing the poor, loving the outcaste, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, being anointed with oil tenderly applied to his head. We remember hope, joy, freedom, laughter, and parties with water turned into wine. We remember his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the last meal he shared with his friends and his friends' betrayal and denial, his trial, sentence and walk up to Calvary, carrying his own cross of death.

A life lost is always a cause for grief. A lost life of one who was filled to overflowing with God's pure love, acceptance, and compassion is a tragedy. A lost life of the one who brought the world Good News for which he was unjustly murdered by the evil of a sin sick world is a scandal.

Princeton Professor Cornel West recalls standing over his father's corpse trying to make sense of the deep sorrow in his heart. He posits that the first song came from the lips of people standing over a dying body, transforming their wails of agony and moans of grief into shared sounds of loss and heartache, through which a community made meaning.

In order to understand the meaning of the crucified Jesus we must remember what Jesus stood for in life - which was a love of God and neighbors, and a solidarity with all of humanity in proclaiming the kingdom of God. His Gospel was one of liberation and equality realized on earth. This threatened those who profited from the unjust status quo. The reality of the brutal oppression of the Roman Empire, the crushing poverty of the day to day existence, the ecclesiastical corruption and the viciousness of the mob must come to the foreground of our consciousness, rather than featuring dimly as a backdrop, and play the leading role in putting Jesus on the cross. Rather than being sacrificed in a transaction with God for our sins, or paying the penalty for our transgressions, Jesus was killed because of the organized and social sin of the reigning power of the kingdom of evil. Jesus did not bear these sins by imputation, vicariously or by sympathy, but rather Jesus directly experienced these sins as they beat him, whipped him, taunted him, tortured him and put him up upon a cross to die in shame as a criminal.

In order to be redemptive, his death is meant to call people to confront this evil by forging new bonds of love inspired by Jesus' death on the cross to resist oppression that killed him.

In his theology of the social gospel, my great grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch outlines six social sins that combined to crucify Jesus: Religious Bigotry; Graft and Political Power; Corruption of Justice; Mob Spirit; Militarism and Class Contempt. Each one of these social sins led to Jesus' accusation, trial, condemnation and crucifixion. Jesus' crucifixion offers salvation not because the shedding of blood redeemed humanity, but because it pointed out the power and force of sin and evil. It forces us to recognize the suffering of the one who embodied God's love for the world. The first step of salvation is the recognition of sin and the cross is an essential part of that awareness. Insofar as we by our conscious action or passive consent have repeated the sins that killed Jesus we have made our selves guilty of his death. As Rauschenbusch wrote:

The cross puts a question mark along side any easy treatment of sin ... No event in history has received such earnest and constant attention. None has spread so much seriousness, and made men realize the sin of humanity from so many angles. None has so impressed them with their own complicity in it and the solidarity of humanity in sin.

Jesus' death on the cross also reminds us that he was the supreme revelation of love, and by Jesus' life, and his death we understand God's love for us. Love was at the forefront of all of Jesus' teachings. Love of God and love of neighbor were Jesus' final word on how to live a religious life. But he also taught his followers to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. Jesus' death underscored all he had previously said on love by reminding his followers that greater love have no man than he give his life for his friends - but Jesus gave his life for his enemies too, even those of us who continue to sin in complicity with the kingdom of evil.

As Jesus was God incarnate, then Jesus' death on the cross indicates a loving, forgiving and self-sacrificing God who calls us to repentance, discipleship and solidarity with God and with one another. The atonement becomes the foundation upon which we build our lives. Walter wrote:

"Love has been written into the character of God and into the ethical duty of man, not common love, but self-sacrificing love. And it was the death of Christ which furnished the chief guarantee for the love of God and the chief incentive to self sacrificing love in men ... the social gospel is based on a belief that love is the only true working principle of human society. The atonement is the symbol and basis of a new social order."

When I consider how Jesus continues to lead me from my life of sin, living only for myself and in disregard of others, towards a life of radical love of God and Neighbor, I thank God for my savior Jesus, and declare him Lord, and pick up my cross and follow.