Isaiah 53.3 - 12
John 18.28 - John 19.42
In a great many ways we resemble other living things. As we've seen before, we've got an awful lot in common with a banana plant, and that's because all living things on earth are descended from the same single celled organisms that first emerged from primordial chaos billions of years ago. Like other animals, we also feel hunger, thirst, pain and satisfaction, we wake and sleep, we reproduce, we have to breathe to live, and eventually we die.
But we're also unique, at least among life on earth. Unlike most animals, we’re capable of thinking not just about the past and the present but also about the future, and imagining what that might be.
Some animals can do the same thing up to a point. They can think about what might happen next if they do something, or something were to happen, today or tomorrow. But human beings can imagine a whole different way of living in the future. A chimpanzee can only ever imagine living in the jungle, but we can imagine what it might be like to colonise the Moon, or Mars, or get married to Mr or Miss Right. In other words, we have the power to think creatively in a way which sets us apart from all other living things and makes us more like God.
Yet amazing though that is, for believers it’s not the only thing which sets us apart from other apes and intelligent animals, because there are at least four other ingredients to being human which make us not just different from other animals but also like God!
First, believers have said that our mastery of tools and technology makes us like God. Crows and chimpanzees can make simple tools but only we can build an aeroplane. Our creativity - both practically with our hands and, as we've seen, imaginatively with our minds - makes us capable of sharing with God in the work of shaping a better future rather than simply waiting for it to evolve in whatever way Nature dictates.
For believers this is just a logical development of the idea I've already mentioned, that the power and range of our imaginations sets us apart from other animals. But in this case we’re saying that our technical prowess sets us apart by making us co-creators with God. In other words, we become responsible for what the world is like. A chimpanzee can never be responsible for the way things are, but we can and that sets us apart and makes us more like God.
Second, we also share with God the ability to use language. Other animals, such as whales and meerkats, can communicate with one another in quite sophisticated ways. They share feelings of alarm or sadness when danger threatens or a little one dies. But only human beings can articulate their fear, or joy or grief and start to explain what it's like to be afraid or sad. Language enables us to share complex feelings and ideas, and it’s no accident that one of the things which connects us most intimately with God is that he comes to us as The Word. In Jesus he speaks directly to us, and we can speak to him.
The third thing which sets us apart from other animals is the depth of our love. Many animals appear to love their offspring, and some appear to love their mate. Female spiders may sometimes eat their partner, but penguins and swans can pair for life. But what sets us apart from the animals and makes us like God is our capacity to love those we don’t even know, complete strangers who come from different backgrounds and cultures, who speak different languages and have completely different ideas from us. This is the sort of love which God reveals on the Cross. Only, on the Cross Jesus takes this capacity to love to its ultimate expression, by declaring his love for his enemies and those who hate him. We won't catch animals doing this!
The last ingredient which sets us apart from other animals and life forms isn't something which makes us like God; instead it’s something which makes God like us - and that's our capacity for redemptive suffering. Animals suffer, of course, and mother animals often suffer redemptively for their offspring - going to extraordinary lengths to improve their children's life chances. As we’ve said on previous occasions, a pack or family of animals will sometimes go without food themselves or make extra efforts in order to look after a wounded member of their group, and human beings too will suffer redemptively for other members of their clan, or regiment or group of sworn comrades. But Jesus - by loving his enemies and those who hate him - carries redemptive suffering to a new level. If he weren't God, then he would simply be demonstrating how far human beings are capable of going in sharing their love and reaching out to others,because there is nowhere else for love to reach beyond total self-sacrifice.
Of course, we can make other people share with us in our self-sacrifice, as people sometimes do when they involve their friends and family in their suffering and downfall. So occasionally we read about people who - when things are at a low ebb - kill their entire family before committing suicide, or at least bring shame and ruin down on them through their own mistakes or misdeeds. Adolf Hitler took this approach to extremes when he decided to involve the whole German nation in his own fall from power. But these are not examples of redemptive suffering.
Redemptive suffering means suffering yourself in order to make life better for others, and Jesus takes this kind of positive suffering to its ultimate expression by suffering for the sake of those who hate him and who have never known him, as well as for his friends.
Jesus shows us that what makes our capacity for redemptive suffering like God is that God chooses to suffer redemptively for us. Previously, people had taught that suffering is a part of the human condition but not part of what it means to be God. Instead, they believed that suffering was something which sets us apart from God, because God is unchanging and therefore could not be put to suffering.
The Cross challenges that idea by turning it on its heads. God is unchanging because it has always been in his nature to want to suffer for us, to suffer redemptively. By dying on the Cross, his chosen representative Jesus, who is one with him, lays bare this eternal truth. When we suffer we are not being abandoned by a God who has no connection with suffering, instead we are being embraced by a God whose nature it is to share our suffering and bring something positive out of it.