Saturday, April 6, 2013

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: The Role of the Cross in the Atonement

Today was the last lesson of the month, so it was the last lesson about the Atonement. Before summarizing the lesson, I just want to say how wonderful it has been to have five straight lessons through which we could dig deeply into the concept of the Atonement. It's been the best church calling experience of my life.

Today we focused on the role of the cross in the Atonement.

I started by listing a few key moments or periods in Jesus' life in the process of atonement: 1) Pre-mortal volunteering to fill the central role; 2) Birth; 3) Personal Life; 4) Mortal Ministry; 5) Garden of Gethsemane; 6) Golgotha; 7) Post-mortal ministry. I mentioned explicitly that we have not talked much this month about Gethsemane and told them that I made that decision entirely because we focus so much on it in every other setting at church that I wanted to focus this month on the elements of the Atonement that we tend to address rarely - or even ignore. Thus, a lesson about divine accountability, one about Jesus' mortal life and ministry and the one today about the cross.

I asked them to estimate, as a percentage, how often we talk about Gethsemane compared to Golgotha (the garden compared to the cross). The consensus was over 90% Garden and under 10% Cross - and perhaps 99%-1% when all is said and done. I told them I think I know why we focus so much on the garden (since so many other denominations focus almost exclusively on the cross), but I told them I think that is a shame - that we miss SO much of the overall message when we ignore Golgotha.

As an example, I asked if it's OK to wear a cross - and why we generally don't do that. I got the standard answers - and one I'd never heard and actually like. (That garments include the symbolism of our worship, so we don't need outwardly visible symbols like a necklace with a cross.) I talked about how symbols can be misused and corrupted if we can't worship or pray without them, but I told the students clearly that I have no problem with using a cross as a symbol of faith in Christ and would support my daughters fully if they chose, for example, to wear a necklace with a cross.

We opened the Topical Guide to "Cross", and each student read a verse in that section - and we discussed each verse as we read it. We talked about why Paul described the "glory" of the cross, why the cross was "foolishness" to unbelievers, what it means to "take up your cross and follow me", etc. We talked about exactly what happened with the cross, particularly the fact that Jesus literally had to carry his cross as part of his suffering - and that it was too much for him in his weakened state - that someone else had to "take up" Jesus' cross and walk with him.

I emphasized that the Garden of Gethsemane is where we teach that Jesus suffered for our sins but that our sins and iniquities are only two of the dozen or so things our scriptures list for which he suffered. He experienced everything else throughout his life and on the cross - including the final, most powerful suffering he endured.

We read in Luke where an angel strengthened him in Gethsemane and where the man strengthened him on the road to Golgotha by sharing the load of the cross. We read his final statements recorded in the Gospels:

"My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

"It is finished. Into thy hands I commend my spirit."

I pointed out that the cross was the first time in our record where Jesus was "forsaken" - the only time he was abandoned and left completely on his own. None of the students has ever felt totally alone and forsaken, and they all agreed that they couldn't imagine how that would feel. I pointed out that Jesus wasn't just killed; he was tortured to death in a particularly cruel, sadistic way. I reiterated that he might not have felt every single pain know to mankind, but I'm sure he got sick throughout his life - and broke bones (or, as a carpenter's son, smashed fingers) - and lost loved ones - etc. - but it was at Golgotha that he experienced non-sin suffering, to the deepest degree, and atoned for so many of the non-spiritual suffering we experience. I told them that we talk about overcoming physical and spiritual death, but we focus so much on Jesus overcoming sin (spiritual suffering and death) that we often devalue Jesus overcoming transgression (including all of our physical, mental, emotional, social, etc. suffering and death).

We read Matthew 5:48, substituting "complete, whole, fully developed" for "perfect" and I pointed out that it was only at the end, on the cross, when Jesus could say, "It is finished" - to say, in essence, "I now am perfect." 

I ended with a plea that they not fall into the trap of disparaging the cross in any way and that, as they continue in the LDS Church, that they find ways to help others understand and value the cross properly.


David Y. said...

Thanks for this.

Patty said...

I think that without a differing focus and the viewpoints of other denominations we can easily end up looking at things in a very narrow, limiting way. I'm thankful when I hear someone else's thoughts on gospel subjects because it has often made me think more deeply about how I initially thought of that particular point.
I think you've done this with the lesson on the cross. :)
I'm always somewhat sad that we don't have a symbol for the resurrected Christ- something that we can wear to show that we believe in Jesus, bu that focuses on Him as our risen Lord and not just on His death. I like the thought that was shared about our garments being an unseen symbol too.