So far, we have looked at the first two parts of the kerygma — that is, the basic proclamation of the Gospel message. We have seen the goodness of creation and the horrific news that explains why everything is so messed up. We stressed that without this second part, or what we might call the “bad news,” the Gospel is just news. The Gospel, however, is not just news; it is extraordinary news! It’s extraordinary news because of the third part of the kerygma: God’s response to sin in the person of Jesus — or what I shorten to simply to the word “rescued.”
The basic message of the Gospel
Perhaps we could reduce the Gospel to something as simple as this: You matter! You matter more than you could ever possibly imagine. The one who made the universe that is 46 billion light years across thinks you are worth fighting for. The one who hung the stars in the sky thinks you are worth dying for. And he has fought for you and died (and risen) for you because you could never have gotten free on your own. The Gospel is extraordinary news because God has come to his people and set them free — free from the power of Death, free from the dominion of Sin and free from Satan’s grip. And God has done this in a most remarkable fashion.
Let’s pause here and remember that the intent of hearing this proclamation and praying with it is to be overwhelmed by God’s love, mercy and power and to respond by entrusting ourselves to Jesus in faith. Or, we could turn that around and say the intent of sharing this message with family, friends, co-workers and anyone we meet — unleashing the Gospel — is to overwhelm them with the good news that they matter.
Hunted or hunter?
This theme of God’s rescue of the creature he made in his own image and likeness and destined to share in his own divine nature can be approached from many angles. One way is to ask a question: Is Jesus in his passion and death the hunted or the hunter? Is he the victim or the aggressor?
This would seem to be a silly question. After all, we’re looking at a man arrested, chained, scourged, crowned with thorns and then nailed to a cross. Obviously, he’s the hunted and the victim! But is he really? Jesus is … God. He is the second person of the Trinity made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. How in the world is it possible to nail God to a cross? Where would someone buy such a nail? There is only one way for God to get on a cross: He has to want to be there. But why would he want to be there? In trying to answer this question, it’s worth saying that there have been three basic ways of understanding the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus down through the ages.
Three Ways of Approaching the Passion
The first way of approaching Jesus’ passion is to see it as a revelation of God’s love. Every baseball game on TV used to have a guy sitting behind home plate with a sign that simply said “John 3:16.” That famous verse tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” Jesus later tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). Blessed be God that this is true, and many people are moved deeply when they hear it.
A second way of approaching Jesus’ passion is to see that Jesus on the cross is making atonement for our sins. One thinks here of Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:21). Peter also uses this theme when he writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pt 2:24). This is likewise true, although many of us can have a harder time approaching this understanding of the passion. We can easily think, wrongly, that we’re not that bad — Jesus didn’t really need to go through all that for me.
These first two approaches are the ones I think we most often hear. I know they’re the ones I’ve most often heard and most often preached, too. But there is a third way of understanding Jesus’ passion, and it is used over and over again in the writings of the early Church fathers. This way sees Jesus’ passion as his going to battle for us against those powers from which we cannot escape on our own: Sin, Death, Satan and Hell. In other words, God’s response to sin is not simply to forgive, although he does forgive; it is to free us from the tyrant.
Jesus’ words in the Gospels can help explain this third approach. After having driven out a demon from a man, Jesus is accused by some of the religious leaders of driving out demons by power of the prince of demons. In response, and as a way of explaining what he has come to do, Jesus tells this parable: “When a strong man fully armed guards his palace, his possessions are safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away the armor on which he relied and distributes the spoils” (Lk 11:21-22). In Matthew’s account of this parable, Jesus says, “How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and steal his property, unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house” (12:29). Who is the strong man? The devil. What is his house? This world. What are his goods? Us, the human race, which has unwittingly sold itself into slavery to him by our rebellion at the beginning. Who, then, is the one stronger than he who binds him so the goods can go free? Jesus.
This message is especially important for us to ponder. Jesus is not simply kind, or gentle, or merciful, or patient, or generous. He is all of these, to be sure, and so much more. But Jesus is utterly and absolutely unconquerable. He has no rival. And out of his inestimable love for us, he has come in disguise as a man so as to engage the enemy in a battle so we can go free and become all God has intended us to be from the beginning.
Early Church figures such as Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa, to name a few, all use this imagery in describing Jesus’ passion. But one in particular drives this home most powerfully: Melito of Sardis. In an Easter vigil homily given in the early 2nd century, Melito preached these words: “Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one … This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end — an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father.”
Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, describes the result of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus in a most powerful passage. He writes that God disarmed “the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by it” (2:15). These principalities and powers are Sin, Death and Hell. God made sport of them and then finally triumphed over them in Jesus. That word, triumph, was a technical word in Paul’s day. A triumph was a mega parade in an empire filled with parades. There were very precise conditions under which they could be held, and they were meant to show the power of the emperor and the defeat of the enemy, whoever that was at the time. It would be common that a triumph would be a massive celebration, often after a decisive battle against an opponent. The emperor would ride through Rome in his chariot, dressed a particular way, with a long train of the spoils of war behind him. And sometimes, at the very end of that train would be the enemy general, chained, naked and caged as if to say to the people of Rome, “This is the one who used to threaten and tyrannize us. He will do that no more!” This, Paul is telling us, is what Jesus has done to our enemy.
What, then, is the reasonable response to someone who saves you from Death? What is the reasonable response to someone who saves you from Hell? What is the reasonable response to someone who has bound the strong man so you can go free? Isn’t it reasonable to trust him? Isn’t it reasonable to surrender to him? And isn’t it reasonable to tell others?