Did God kill Jesus or not?
By Nanette Sawyer
New Testament Reading: Acts 3:12-21
For Sunday, April 22, 2012: Year B—Easter 3
After Jesus had ascended and the Holy Spirit had descended, the disciples went about healing and invoking Jesus’s name. People saw in their actions evidence of a power that awed them.
What Kind of Power?
This week’s pericope begins with Peter questioning the people’s sense of wonder that a man lame from birth has been healed. “Why do you stare at us,” Peter asks, “as though we’ve done anything? This was God’s power. God did it. God healed through the power of faith in the name of Jesus.”
This raises a few questions. What kind of power is this? How does God act in the world? And how can I get this kind of power? Because I have some people that I want to heal—people that I love and who are suffering a lot.
Who is responsible for the suffering of my loved ones? And who is responsible for the death of Jesus? I might not even think to ask this question about Jesus, except that Peter harps about it in this story. He says to the staring, wondering crowd, “you killed the Author of life whom God raised from the dead.”
Sometimes it is hard for me to read the Bible without cringing, and some of my cringing comes from a long history of being clobbered by the Bible. Some preachers hone right in on this accusation and emphasize that “you killed” bit. Being clobbered with the bad news never really ends up bringing good news in my experience.
It’s just guilt, guilt, guilt.
Shame, shame, shame.
But even if a preacher plays this down and lifts up the second half of the sentence—“God raised” the Author of life from the dead—there’s still a question of culpability. After all, if God is the actor here, and if God “fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer,” then isn’t God culpable in Jesus’s death? God foretold and God fulfilled.
If God fulfilled what “must be”, as Jesus explains in today’s gospel reading in Luke, then how are we free? And how can I be guilty of what I have been coerced to do?
I have not found a way to resolve this tension. Maybe we are asking the wrong questions.
Collaboration in What-Is
Maybe what “must be” is not a description of what an omnipotent God wills, but rather a description of what-is. A human life, a life of finite existence, includes suffering and death. And Jesus was human. Fully human, as we have said in some of our ancient creeds. Within that context of what-is, God heals. God redeems. God transforms. God creates new life. And God calls us to do the same.
God healed through the power of faith in the name of Jesus. This does leave open a very significant role for us as participants in all healing. Not just through physical means, like performing surgery or covering our wounds with anti-bacterial creams (which are valid and important), but also through what we believe and the power we invoke through our beliefs and through the things we bring into the present by “naming” them, recalling them, invoking them.
When we speak about, preach about, or even dream about and hope for God’s “universal restoration” that God “announced long ago,” (verse 21), another thing that God foretold, we have to think about how that experience might come about. If God is not coercing us toward that, then perhaps God is enticing us toward it. Perhaps God is collaborating with us, calling us through our longings and our intuitions to co-create a world where there will be universal restoration.
The Hardest Question
Personally? I think that humans killed Jesus and God redeemed him and us. And today’s text supports that. But the hardest question still remains: If God’s will is irresistible, then don’t we have to ask, did God kill Jesus, or not? And if God’s will is resistible, then what kind of power does God have?
Nanette Sawyer is the founding pastor of Grace Commons (formerly known as Wicker Park Grace), an emerging faith community that gathers in an art gallery on the west side of Chicago. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she has blogged at The Christian Century’s lectionary blog, the Emergent Village Blog at Patheos, and at nanettesawyer.com. She has a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and an MDiv from McCormick Theological Studies, where she has also taught as adjunct faculty. She is the author of Hospitality: The Sacred Art.