Jean-Louis Chavel stood like a stranger in front of the 230 year old house. He had been born there; as a child he played games of hide-and-seek in the bushes; as a boy he had carried the melancholy and the sweetness of first love up and down the shaded drive. It have been all his. Now, he was a stranger.
Chavel, a Frenchman, was, like his father and his grandfather before him, a lawyer. He was a wealthy man. But, the Germans had imprisoned him along with the mayor of Paris and others. One day the German officer said that some Germans had been murdered the evening before and three of their lot must die. He did not care who it was.
They folded thirty pieces of paper, an old letter that belonged to one of the prisoners, and drew lots out of a shoe. Chavel drew the third unlucky piece of paper. He threw it on the ground and cried, “I never consented to the draw, you can’t make me die for the rest of you.” He said “I will give 100,000 francs to anyone who will take this!” The others looked on him in shocked pity. Someone said why don’t you give up everything. So he replied, “everything, money, land, everything.”
Janvier, a poor man took up his offer. Chavel said, “You’ll take my place?”
“I’ll take your place.”
So they drew up papers and transferred all of Chavel’s wealth to a poor man and Janvier left it all in a will to his family. The next day, the poor, now rich Janvier died for the rich now poor Chavel. And Chavel lived the rest of his life with his shame (Graham Greene, The Tenth Man).
It must be a severe curse to live while others die. But it must be the severest of all to know that you were alive because someone else died for you. Chavel, changed his name, grew a beard and hid in life’s shadows so that others might not know, might not remember how he survived.
Substitutionary Atonement is one of those theological phrases that cases people to fall into a deep, deep sleep. We can hardly get the word out of our mouths without yawning. But, it is, in reality, an exciting word. It simply means this, Jesus died in our place. But, there is a world of difference between the death of Janvier on behalf of Chavel and the death of Jesus on behalf of us. Chavel was a coward and he used his wealth to escape his fate, but only for a time. Death comes to us all.
Scripture tells us that God’s salvation is a free gift of grace through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ. In fact, it says that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Sin is so destructive and our situation is so helpless that we have nothing to offer to anyone to be our substitute. What could we offer for a worthless soul? Nothing! Yet, Jesus died for us. He became our substitute.
Jesus had a hard time convincing the disciples that he came to bring salvation into the world. The Apostle John records seven times where Jesus said I am: I am the Bread of Life; I am the Light of the World; I am the Door; I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Resurrection and the Life; I am the Way and The Truth, and The Life; I am the Vine. All symbols and all which they did not understand. Jesus even said John 12:32 “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” How could they have missed that message?
Three times just before Passover, Jesus told the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to die and that He would rise again on the third day. They still did not understand. The reason is that we humans don’t have a big enough imagination to fathom the notion that the same God who judges us and calls us sinners would also become flesh and die for us. Who could imagine God coming among us in our condition? We live in a world where the power of law can barely keep us in the bounds of civilized behavior. Murder runs in the streets, sickness runs in our bodies and darkness runs in our souls. Why would God care to come among us? That is the mystery of Grace. God has loved us with such an incredible love that it is beyond us. Otherwise why is it that some will sit in church for the length of their lives and never give place their trust in Him? If you have wisdom you will gladly give yourself to Him.
On this evening of Passover, a time commemorating Israel’s liberation from Egypt, Jesus presented us a living parable so that we may never forget what He has done. Knowing the suffering that was before Him, He said “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” He looked forward to these last few moments with his disciples. Jesus knew that they did not yet understand but he also knew that one day they would. The Holy Spirit would open their eyes and they would be able to look back with clarity at what he had done. For, if they did not understand, his work would have been wasted. Jesus wanted them and us to not only understand, but to also to remember and to tell others about what he has done.
Jesus took one of the cups of Passover and a piece of the bread and created a new ritual. Like the one before it, it was designed to make us remember as if we were there. He handed them a piece of bread and said that this is my body which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me. Then He picked up the cup and said, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My Blood. Do you see the theme here, My body given for you, my blood which is poured out for you? He was our substitute! He took our place. He who is God and cannot tolerate sin, became sin and paid the penalty that was due to us. He took our place.
For nearly 2,000 years, believers have joyfully raised the cup and taken the bread in honor of our Lord. We remember what he as done. We act out the drama of Jesus’ great Sacrifice. Paul said that we bear witness to his great act of love 1 Corinthians 11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.
So, every time we sit in church and go to through the ancient ritual of the Lord’s Supper, we should be filled with excitement as we remember together that Jesus became our substitute. As we approach Easter, the thoughts should be even more vivid. Though we were not there, we remember. We remember that one dark day with a crowd of jeering unbelievers, Jesus was hung on a cross. His blood was spilled, his side was pierced. He was humiliated and he died so that he might pay the penalty for our sins. He did not scream I never agreed to die for you. He never tried to bargain his way out of it. He gave up everything. He said, I will take your place. He was our substitute. He died for us.