I was walking Charlie the dog, and idly wondering about a common Evangelical saying I’d recently heard again somewhere, which runs: “If I’d been the only sinner in the world, Jesus would still have died for me.“
“Where do they get that?” I wondered. “It’s not in the Bible, and since Jesus died to destroy all the works of the devil, and to inaugurate a whole new creation, focusing his passion entirely on my sin seems more than a little egocentric.” I tried to bring all those aspects together at book length in The Generations of Heaven and Earth, but I concluded that maybe the source of the cliche was these words of St Paul in Galatians:
I have been crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
The whole passage is striking, but the last phrase most of all. Paul’s sense of overwhelming gratitude really excludes the diluted idea that Christ loved, and died for, “the world,” or “mankind,” and that therefore Paul is logically included in that love. No, Christ’s love for him was particular, and preceded, and even motivated, his giving his life for him. Then again, to say that Christ loved him because he believed the Gospel really won’t wash, even if we forget just how particular Paul’s conversion was on the Damascus road – it is the love that leads, the crucifixion that follows from it, and the individual’s faith that comes last of all.
In any case, the personal nature of Jesus’s love for this one individual, prior to his passion, is in accord with the earlier statement that “Christ lives in me.” Christianity is not the adoption of a belief system or an ideology, but the personal indwelling of the Son of God by his Spirit. This, of course, all matches entirely passages like Ephesians 1, where believers are said to have been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. What it doesn’t match is certain versions of Christianity in which the death of Christ is simply, and entirely, the basis of an open take-it-or-leave it offer. Paul insists it is far more personal than that. But how could that work? Are we really to believe the words of the popular worship song that say:
“You took the fall, and thought of me, above all.”
So as Charlie and I walked along the lane I began thinking about how ordinary men become willing to give their lives, usually in war (I’m thinking of Just War here, or at least that which the individual believes to be just).
Some people join up because they perceive that the country they love is at grave risk, if that country has just laws equitably applied, if it publicly promotes the true gospel of Christ, and if its government seeks to improve the lot of its people rather than big corporations and ideologically-driven lobbying groups. That might be a bit like the Britain of my childhood, though certainly not now, probably accounting for the disillusion of many of our veterans of neo-colonial wars.
I think my father’s volunteering in World War Two was of that nature. He was unattached and in his mid-twenties, but was aware how as a working-class kid, for almost the first time in history (illiteracy being just a few generations back in the Irish family), he had been able to get a free grammar school education to university Matriculation level, enabling him to join the civil service. His father, a machine-tool setter, was able to afford a car, and my father had both the wherewithal and the time to play saxophone in a dance band and to have house-ownership as a realistic ambition. His immediate family could testify to the progressive availability to ordinary people of decent housing and food, mains drainage, holidays, running water, gas, electricity and a democratic vote.
To see all that jeopardized by Hitler’s Nazis was sufficient reason not to wait for conscription, albeit in the event, and not by choice, he ended up as an RAF signaller some distance from most of the bombs and bullets. Though it is out of fashion, there is a kind of patriotism that is both noble and true.
We can certainly see the analogy of that motivation in the death of Jesus. The subversion of his good world by Satan, and hence by human sin and death, and the determination that this must not continue, and that his death was the only means to bring on a whole new creation – all this is amply attested in the Scriptures.
But there is another reason that men (historically speaking it is men) will “venture their lives and treasure.” And that is the realisation that it would be unbearable to leave their young wife at the mercy of the SS troopers, or the Jihadists in our time. It would not be worth living to see their young baby son educated into a web of lies, or even to become a slave to such a system. And when individual love is that strong, risking one’s life is the only virtuous path, even when it opens up the likelihood that you will never see your wife or your baby again.
That would appear to be the character of love, individual and fiery, that Paul attributes to Jesus in his love for him. It would, of course, be absurd to believe that Paul considered himself unique in this regard, as if Jesus had loved him in advance only because he would become the apostle to the gentiles. No, Paul clearly implies that this is the kind of love, and the particular saving grace, that Jesus has for all his future disciples:
“I am the good shepherd. I know My sheep and My sheep know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father. And I lay down My life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28)
But how, we ask, does it make any sense to think of the man suffering on the cross holding a mental image of all the millions of believers in him down the millennia? It’s hard to imagine a soldier even holding both the image of his family and love for his nation at the same time. There’s an old traditional song about a sailor in the Royal Navy, called Polly on the Shore, in which the wounded protagonist says,
“And here am I lying bleeding on the deck,
And for her sweet sake I would die.”
If there were an additional line about his pride in completing his duty to the king, you’d know it was a propaganda piece rather than a folk song of the people. But Jesus, of course, was not simply a man on the cross – he was the Incarnate Son of God on the cross, suffering so incongruously for the sake of… well, for each individual encompassed by his eternal and irresistible love, and for the big-picture cosmic goals of saving the world and re-creating the universe. In fact, perhaps it would be true to say that, unlike we who habitually view people either through the lens of individuals, or en masse, but not both, to Jesus the love of the collective is simply the sum of all God’s love for each individual. That is one reason he is God, and we are not.
At that point, Charlie the Labrador and I arrived home. But I thought of the ancient fifth century hymn, the Te Deum Laudamus, familiar to many from the old Book of Common Prayer, which says:
When thou hads’t overcome the sharpness of death,
Thou did’st open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
And that is absolutely true. But what it entails, if we take Paul’s words seriously, is that in his death he did not only open the Kingdom to us, but came and conducted each of us, personally and tenderly, through the gate and into its eternal habitations.