“He Cannot Save Himself”

As we turn from that gristly scene, the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ; in which we are made witnesses; in which we will be  horrified to discover ourselves participants by extension, it may well occur to us how the jeers and the taunting of the crowd ironically express the profound truth: “He saved others, He cannot save himself.

It was unintentional. Those who stood there by the crosses mocking and taunting had no intention of speaking the truth. They intended to add, as we would say, insult to injury as if the physical suffering of those three who were dying there weren’t already enough. It was done in the spirit of the kick ‘em when they’re down sort of mentality that sadly dwells within the heart of most human beings. Because it is said that within most of us there is a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from inflicting and witnessing another’s pain. At least that’s what some resources say, such as the Association for Psychological Science have to say.

But ironically, even if they were spoken with malice,  truer words were never spoken. In order to save others, Jesus in fact cannot save himself. Even more astounding, he saves others because he does not save himself.

Most of us prefer to shy away from the language of sacrifice, and most of us recoil at the thought that sacrifice is required to approach God. Most of us would find that the practices of the Old Testament were bloody, disgusting, and revolting. So we ask, “what kind of a God would exact this price out of anyone, let alone His Well-beloved Son?”

Of course, that thinking arises from a very narrow understanding of the Passion of Jesus, known at Penal substitution. Basically the idea is that someone has to be punished for the way things are. Someone has to pay for what we humans have done and continue to do to one another. Therefore, God had to punish someone, and that someone whom he had to punish turned out to be Jesus. And there are many passages in scripture that support this understanding of the passion of Jesus.

While scripture supports the understanding that Jesus is the price-payer, the image of Jesus as redeemer is also to be found in scripture, especially in the Epistle to the Hebrews. There is a difference. From the point of view of the Epistle to the Hebrews, sin, suffering and death all exist in the world, and the role of Jesus is to sanctify the suffering of the world by becoming incarnate, and taking it all upon himself, by experiencing the very things that we experience so that he might redeem—that is to say—make good that which is destructive in human life. The Penal substitution theory of the atonement focuses on how Jesus had to be punished; the teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews focuses on how Jesus chose to endure the cross because of his tender love and compassion for humans and for all creation. Therefore, He is celebrated as the ‘pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” and the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek who chooses to be one with those whom He sanctifies.

As we ponder these words, I am reminded of a song I just recently learned to play. While most associate it with the recording of Doc Watson, it was actually written by Benjamin Beddome in the 1700’s and published in 1818

1 Did Christ o’er sinners weep? And shall our cheeks be dry? Let floods of penitential grief Burst forth from every eye.


Canon Greg+


About canongreg

I have been Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Wellsboro, PA since 1994.
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