The scope of today’s gospel text is so rich with information. It paints a picture for us. And yet the picture is almost sensory overload. What are we meant to learn here? How are we meant to become closer to God – to know God’s presence in our lives and in the world, even as evil and death seem to have the upper hand?
It’s tempting for a preacher to prayerfully announce, “This text speaks for itself”, plant a big Amen on it and sit down to reflect in silence. And, behold, you may yet get that someday!
It’s also tempting – and deliciously justifiable homiletically – to focus on one the many images unique to John’s version of Christ’s passion:
• Woman, behold you son – son behold your mother, or perhaps,
• I’m thirsty, or,
• It is finished, or my favorite,
• Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”
Each of these, and many other such moments, offer an opportunity for deep and very fruitful reflection.
I’ve been reading and praying for some time – for years, really – about the significance of Good Friday – ever since I flubbed my General Ordination Exam essay question that wanted a solid statement on substitutionary atonement theory, a notion I have some difficulty.
It’s become one of those nagging, concepts that tumbles around in my spirit always looking for…what? Something like a comfortable place to land? How crazy is that? Can we ever come to an understanding of the crucifixion that leaves us feeling resolved? Doubtful. Nonetheless, I’m feeling called to share with you some of what is beginning to coalesce inside me regarding what, at this point in my spiritual life, seems one of the most important aspect of Good Friday, and that is this question: “Why does Jesus’ death matter?”
I began my journey down this path with a different question: “Did Jesus have to die?” And I pretty quickly came to a place where I could not limit God in such a way. I believe not only that God might take human form in whatever way God might wish – being born of a virgin not necessarily a requirement. And I can also easily imagine that God can bring about salvation without violence. Why, then, did the crucifixion happen?
Let’s begin by acknowledging that, for any of us who have given thought to the question of Jesus’ death, we have come to this matter, subject to some form of pre-understanding; one of the hazards of centuries of Christian observance of and theological reflection upon the death of Jesus.
Sadly, the most common understanding of Jesus’ death emphasizes its substitutionary sacrificial nature: he died for the sins of the world. In other words, in order for God to forgive sins, a substitute sacrifice must be offered. And because of the enormity of the sinfulness in question – the sins of all humanity – the sacrifice of an ordinary human being would not suffice. An ordinary human would be dying for their own sins. All humans are sinners, so the only acceptable sacrifice for the sins of humanity would have to be perfect, spotless, without blemish.
I’m not so sure.
Fortunately, it’s not the only understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross. In fact, such thinking took more than a thousand years to become dominant. It was first seen in fully developed form in the writings of St. Anselm in 1097. But Anselm imposes his own pre-understanding, basing his substitutionary atonement theory on a legal framework:
• Our sin is an offense against God
• The offense requires punishment
• Jesus is the price
And while Anselm’s thinking is brilliant in its way, the question arises as to whether God can be bound by our legalistic frameworks – a big question! Moreover, how, in light of those frameworks do we experience grace in the death of Jesus. We’ll work our way toward that grace!
The truth is that substitutionary atonement theory goes far beyond what is actually found in the gospels. Yes, sacrificial imagery is used, but the language of sacrifice is only one of several different ways that the authors of the New Testament articulate the meaning of Jesus’ execution. They also see it as:
• The worldly world’s “no” to Jesus – to God
• They also see it as God defeating the powers that rule this world
o Defeating those powers by pointing out their moral bankruptcy, and,
• The New Testament authors also see Christ’s death as revealing the path of transformation
• And, finally,
o It is the most knowable example of the depth of God’s love for us.
Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus even suggest he will act as a substitute for us in the expiation of our sins. The only time he comes even close to such a statement is in Mark’s gospel, where he replies to the disciples who have asked which one might be important enough to sit next to him in his glory. Jesus tells them,
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve – and to give his life a ransom for many.”
The original Greek word for this ransom is lutron, a word used in other ancient writing to indicate “means of liberation” – not as surrogate in some cosmological dance of death.
“…and to give his life as means of liberation for many.”
Did Jesus’ death have to happen? Marcus Borg and John Dominick Crosson, in their book The Last Week, suggest there are two reasons why one might think so. One is divine necessity and the other is human inevitability.
Let’s consider first the question of divine necessity, or, did it have to happen because it was the will of God? Leaving aside the question of how such thinking might limit God – we come quickly to an understanding of divine necessity that has its basis in what Borg and Crosson refer to as “prophesy historicized”. This expression characterizes Christianity’s tendency, beginning with the New Testament authors, to look back at the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and locate references – words and phrases – that generate a detail within the newer narrative, as means of proving something about Jesus. These references have been made into something like predictions, and they include:
• Out of Egypt have I called my son
• My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, and,
• They divide my clothes among themselves and for my clothing they cast lots.
There are many more. And as they seek to connect an older passage with a newer one and thereby lend a kind of credibility, they actually wind up revealing a great deal about the interpretive framework of the author. The gospel authors, then, came to their work with as many pre-understandings as we do, and in ways that seem hopeful of explaining why Jesus’ crucifixion was, somehow, the will of God.
As a point of clarification, Borg and Crosson offer a moment in Genesis where Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. After many trials, Joseph rises to a position of authority and when, as a result of famine, his brothers come seeking aid, Joseph quells their fears of his retribution when, looking back over his own history, he finds divine purpose. “It was not you who sent me here”, he tells his brothers, “but God!” Does this mean it was God’s will that his brothers should sell Joseph into slavery? I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s never the will of God to sell your brother into slavery. Could it have happened differently? Yes. But what has really happened is that God is able to use, for divine purpose, even the evil deed of selling a brother into slavery.
How might this example influence our thinking about Good Friday? Was the death of Jesus the will of God? No – it’s never the will of God to execute, in the most heinous way imaginable, the most genuinely righteous person the world has ever known. Did it have to happen? Well…it might have happened differently. Judas might not have betrayed Jesus. The temple authorities and Pilate might have decided on a punishment other than death. But it did happen this way. And like the storyteller of Genesis, early Christian storytellers, looking back on what did happen, assign preordained meaning.
Yet, none of what we find in the gospels indicates that the crucifixion of Jesus had to happen because it was God’s will. And so we consider whether it had to happen because human inevitability – which is quite another kettle of fish!
We’ve considered another concept used by Borg and Crosson in “The Last Week”, and that is an expression that characterizes how societies are set up. The authors refer to the set up as “domination systems”, which is shorthand for the most common form of social system, not only in scripture but throughout history. It’s a system of organizing society by three major features:
• Political oppression – the many are ruled by the few
• Economic exploitation – the majority of society’s wealth being controlled by a small minority, and
• Religious legitimation – wherein a system justifies itself with religious language
The execution of Jesus was the norm in the domination system of first century Palestine. It happened often in the ancient world – to countless people throughout history. And in Jesus’ time it happened to John the Baptist – arrested and executed by Herod Antipas. And it would soon happen to Paul, Peter and James. We are right to wonder what it is about Jesus and his movement that so disturbed the authorities at the top of the domination system of his time.
Jesus was not just a sad victim of a worldly system’s brutality. He was also a protagonist filled with passion. His passion was not only his torture and death. He was passionate about the reign of God. He spoke of peace and justice – of mercy. And he attracted followers and took them to Jerusalem during the highest festival. And then he challenged the authorities with public acts and debates. All of this was out of his passion for God’s purpose and action – God’s justice and mercy borne of non-violence resistance to Roman oppression. An oppressive system that tried to squash what Jesus was passionate about. Now it begins to seem that Jesus died not for the sins of the world, but because of them. That’s what the created world had become.
Jesus may not have had to die in the way he did. But our original question remains. Why does his death matter?
For some insights we turn to James Alison, theologian and author of Raising Abel, who offers an interesting perspective; he links Jesus’ death with creation, and bases much of his position on John’s gospel.
Alison begins by noting two instances in John’s gospel where Jesus heals someone and refers to the healing as his Father’s work. Regarding the paralytic in chapter five he says, “My Father is still working, and I also am working. And in chapter nine “Neither this man nor his parents sinned – he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” Jesus’ healings were revealing God’s continuing power of creation. This comes to a climax in the cross with the healing of our deepest sin, that is, our human identity as founded in scapegoating mechanisms. (Think of the creation story and the “he made me do it” that represents original sin – that symbolic moment, at the very start, defines something about our human nature and free will.) Creation cannot begin again until we are founded in something else: God’s forgiveness. So the cross fulfills creation in a profound way.
We have seen in the fourth gospel that Jesus knew from the beginning what he was doing – that he was passionate – completely possessed – by what Alison calls “his quickened imagination of the ever-living God”. It was this which enabled him to stage a solemn demonstration in the midst of a death-based culture. As physical beings, we are grounded in the knowledge of our own death. Jesus’ crucifixion – the killing in such a memorable way – functions as a way of leading us out of a culture that is based on death, and allows us to be what God always wanted us to be – that is, utterly and absolutely alive with God. What Jesus’ entirely living imagination means, then, is that he was bringing to existence what God had always wanted, but which had become trapped in the violent and fatal distortion which we have seen throughout history and which we tend to live out. So what Jesus was bringing into being through his death was the fulfillment of creation – and this he knew very well even as he was doing it.
Jesus’ death matters because the understanding of God as creator changes from someone who once did something, to someone who is doing something through Jesus – who was in on what God was doing through him from the beginning. Creation is not finished until Jesus dies, thus opening the whole of creation, which consequently begins fully, in a completely new way, in the garden on the first day of the week.
This means – and here is the central point – we understand creation starting from and through Jesus. God’s grace, which brings what is not, into existence from nothing, is exactly the same thing as Jesus’ deathless self-giving out of love which enables him to break the human culture of death. Jesus’ death is a self-giving which is entirely fixed on bringing into being a radiantly living and exuberant culture.
And it’s not as though creation were something which happened alongside the salvation worked by Jesus, but rather, the salvation which Jesus was working was, at the same time, the fulfillment of creation. This was the power and authority in Jesus’ works, words and signs and wonders. Through him, creation was brought to completion – the act of creation was revealed for what it really is: the bringing into existence and the making possible a human living together which does not know death. And Jesus was in on this from the beginning.
Such is our world. And so it seems that, for the present, the answer to our question about why Jesus’ death matters might be something like this: His death was a terrible occurrence wrought by human systems and not God. But it is something which God has used for divine purpose in order to reveal that God can only be fully perceived as creator by means of overcoming death.
This sermon was delivered by The Rev. Edwin Chinery on Good Friday, March 25, 2016.