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Dec12FriHow our sixth doctrine shows us who God is. December 12, 2014 by Major Ray Harris
It was, for many Canadians, the defining moment of the 2010 Winter Games. Joannie Rochette had prepared hard for the women's figure skating event. Two days before the short program, her mother died quite unexpectedly. Canadians would have understood had Rochette decided to pull out of the Olympics, but she didn't. She honoured her mother by competing. And when she finished the long program, Canada wept with her and applauded her courage as she was awarded the bronze medal. This is what best defines the Olympic Games.
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There are moments that define an individual, even a nation. For the Christian faith, there is a moment that defines God: when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified near a city's garbage dump. It's a moment so profound that no one word or image has been able to exhaust its meaning. The Salvation Army's sixth doctrine gives us guidance: We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ has by his suffering and death made an atonement for the whole world so that whosoever will may be saved. This conviction matters!
The New Testament is clear on one thing: Jesus died. Differences emerge, however, when its writers attempt to express the meaning of his death. They say his death was a ransom for many, a victory, an exodus, the Good Shepherd laying down his life for the sheep, a wound that heals, redemption, and more. All of these attempts to understand the significance of Jesus' death can be viewed through the First Epistle of John: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10 NRSV). Atonement … for the whole world.
When trying to understand the atoning death of Jesus, it's important to remember God's triune nature. The tendency to imagine the Father turning away from the Son in the darkness of this moment fails to recognize that all persons of the Trinity act together. The Apostle Paul argues: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19 NRSV). In other words, Father, Son and Holy Spirit act in concert in this moment. The biblical story comes to a climax on the hill of Calvary. The defining moment of God's character is found in the cross.
It was from his Nazi prison cell that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “The Bible directs us to God's powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.” Bonhoeffer understood the courage involved in choosing to enter suffering. Just prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, he was in the United States, fulfilling a teaching responsibility in the safety of America. But he understood the dangers facing Germany, and chose to return home in order to engage its suffering and be a pastor to his people. This decision eventually cost him his life.
The Apostle Paul draws out the implications of the cross: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1 NRSV). General John Gowans spoke of The Salvation Army's mission “to serve suffering humanity.” This Army has engaged the sufferings of our times: Harry Williams did pioneering work with lepers in India, while Charles Pean and other Salvationists lived with convicts on France's Devil's Island. More recently, Salvationists responded to the rail disaster at Lac-Mégantic, Que., stepped into the suffering of the Ebola crisis in Liberia and responded to the suffering following typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November 2013. Suffering continues to call for our response. How will we enter the suffering of parents when they watch their children caught in the grasp of gangs? What will it mean for us to enter the suffering of young Salvationists who recognize their sexual orientation to be different from those around them? Suffering has many faces. But the defining moment of God's character shapes The Salvation Army's character. Atoning sacrifice … for the whole world.
Major Ray Harris is a retired Salvation Army officer. He lives in Winnipeg where he braces for another season of arctic vortex.
Convictions Matter, Major Ray Harris' new book, is available at store.salvationarmy.ca, 416-422-6100, firstname.lastname@example.org. For the e-book, visit amazon.ca.