Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

by | Mar 17, 2019

Then the Lord said to Abram, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
Genesis 15:6

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem…”                                                        
Luke 13:31-35

Good morning. For those I have not yet greeted personally, my name is Mariann Budde and it my privilege to serve as bishop of this diocese. Among the great joys of my work is to walk alongside your gifted clergy, Andrew and Amanda, and your lay leaders, and to see the growth and excitement of ministry here at Grace. I have been looking forward to this day for sometime. Should you be a guest at Grace this morning, in the name of Christ and all in the congregation, I welcome you.

Let me begin with a question that perhaps you have asked when considering Jesus’ life. I wonder when Jesus knew. When did he know that it wasn’t going to be enough to heal people, cast away their demons, and teach them in parables? When did he realize that he needed to become a parable, a living expression of something much bigger than what his human life could hold? When did he know that he had to die?

In Scripture, there are many answers to that question, all ambiguous, as I’m sure Jesus would have wanted. From the sources that describe Jesus as more divine than human, he always knew it was his destiny to die. From those who describe him as more human, he never knows for sure, and he resists until the end. Remember how he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” But even in his full humanity, the likelihood of death was always before him. As we just heard him say, “I must be on my way, for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” If he had to die, it would not be as a victim, but as a prophet, a parable, a manifestation of God’s redemption.

When did he know? When do any of us know? My stepmother died last week, a woman of grace and courage. About two months ago, she knew that it was her time to die. She was quite clear: no more medical procedures, no more hospitals. I was struck by how brave she was, and truly, she died as she had lived, in quiet dignity.  

When do you know that it’s time for you, perhaps not to die, but to be on your way, to be about something important? When have you known that what you were up against was more than you could possibly overcome or avoid? How do you know when it’s time to cross over from one way of being who you are to some other way? And what do you when you know that the transformation required is going to be anything but easy?

Jesus had suspicions that he would die young. He tried to warn his disciples and prepare them for what was coming, but they never wanted to listen. It reminds me of what happens in a family when one person has something to say that others aren’t ready to hear. When it finally happened as Jesus said it would, the disciples were stunned, unprepared, and ashamed, because deep down they had known all along, yet they refused to acknowledge what they knew, thus leaving Jesus to carry his burden alone.

In family systems theory there is an assumption that when one person in a family or community knows something, particularly when what is known is painful or frightening or bound to cause a disruption in the family or community’s equilibrium, the moment he or she knows it, everyone else in the family knows it, too, on some level beyond words. When one member of the family is facing serious illness or death, for example, or is preparing to leave, or has done something wrong, or is changing in some profound way, the entire family knows. That’s why speaking truth is so important, and keeping secrets so destructive. Keeping the knowledge everyone knows secret simply means that it goes into the realm of the unconscious, beyond reach, leaving everyone alone with the unacknowledged truth. Sometimes we don’t want to know what is known and thus we choose to forget. We choose not to know. But the energy required to forget what we know is costly, both to the psyche and to the fabric of relationships. A great deal is lost when we choose not to know. I think that’s why Jesus talked about his death long before it was obvious. He knew it was better to speak the truth, even when it could not yet be fully heard.

Related to the question of when did he know he had to die is the even more perplexing question, why? Why did he have to die? Quite apart from the obvious political answer, that he died because he was a nuisance to Roman authorities and a threat to religious leadership, there is the more haunting religious answer. He died, his followers at last concluded and three centuries later wrote down in creeds of faith, for us. He died for us and for our salvation.

Many of us struggle with what these words mean even as we recite them in worship. Clearly they mean different things to different people. I daresay the concept of Jesus dying for us, and in particular, dying for our sins, is one of the greatest attractions of Christianity for some, and the biggest stumbling block for others.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me that they don’t believe in God, and when I ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe, they describe one who demands the sacrifice of his blameless son to atone for the sins of the world. “Who would want to believe in such a God,” they ask, and they’re right. The view of why Jesus had to die, which is known in theological circles as “penal substitution,”—Jesus’ innocent death as a substitution for the punishment we all deserve—is justifiably offensive, no matter how sympathetic we might be to those who originally conceived it.

We could spend an entire year’s worth of sermons exploring the many ways Christians understand and interpret the meaning of the cross. No matter how we talk about it, though, the cross, and the reality of sacrifice, will remain central. If you’re going to be a Christian, there’s no getting around the cross. A theologian by the name of Peter Schmiechen has written a book with no less than ten distinct views of what Christians call “atonement theory.” In it, he argues, “If one cannot find a way to confess the saving power of the cross, then Jesus becomes irrelevant and the church has no good news.” [Schmiechen, Peter, Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 1] I believe that we are right to question one extreme view of Christ’s sacrifice that is all too easily distorted in ways that defy logic and contradict fundamental truths the Church proclaims about God’s nature and love. But that doesn’t mean that his death wasn’t about sacrifice, and even sacrifice for us.

Let me start again, from a different angle. I once attended a conference with a group of spiritual leaders brought together by Trinity Institute of New York City. One of the other participants was a monk who served as a spiritual director and retreat leader of groups throughout the country. [Sadly, I have forgotten his name. He was a brother and priest of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, a monastic order of the Episcopal Church based in Cambridge, Ma. I attended this conference in 2001 and my notes do not include his name.] He was about as spiritual-looking as a person could be, complete with black cassock and a large Celtic cross that he wore every day of our conference. Yet he had an utterly unpretentious air about him. He was always the first in line for food; quick with a joke to tell over dinner (some not fit for repeating in a sermon), and the only one of the group who excused himself to watch television in the evening.

One morning he spoke to us about a pivotal experience in his life and faith. He was one of those young men destined for priesthood from an early age, he said, a real goody two shoes. He became a good monk and a good priest, highly sought after for his insights and dedication, a rising star in the religious world. Yet there was another side of his life, hidden from view, one of chaos, depression and alcohol. It didn’t catch up with him until he was in his forties. In truth, it never really caught up with him, in that he could have kept going for years. His shadow self was not overtly destructive to others and he was able to keep it at bay. And despite his inner deception, he was very good at helping other people. But the duplicity exhausted him, and one day he decided to stop hiding.

It was the scariest thing he had ever done, he said, to be completely honest for the first time in his life. That’s when he learned something about God he had never known before. “I realized,” he told us, “that God was there for me, too; that grace was for me, too. I had always assumed that grace was for everyone but me. I never knew that God cared so much for me; that no matter how well I served others in God’s name, God was not willing to allow me to suffer in silence and shame.

“Do you know that for yourself?” he asked us. “Do you know that God is there for you, too, inviting you to face the very things you would rather hide behind your good works and attractive appearance?” Let me ask you that same question, friends of Grace: “Do you know that God is here for you?”

He told us about how his view of God and Jesus had changed as a result of this experience. “My original understanding of the Biblical story,” he said, “went something like this: We were created by God to tend the garden and to keep God company. But we made a terrible mistake, doing the one thing God told us not to do, and God became angry. So we had to leave the garden, and life became very hard. God tried to tell us how to live, but we wouldn’t listen. God sent people to show us the way, but we wouldn’t accept them. Finally, because God was righteous and required justice, and yet realizing how hopeless we were, God sent a perfect One to die on our behalf, a pure sacrifice, to make things right.”

“This was my primary story of faith,” he said, “and I daresay for many others of my generation. It’s what we tried to accept or eventually rejected because it made no sense. One problem with this story is that that we are completely passive in it. There’s nothing for us to do after accepting what God has done. It doesn’t teach us how to live, or explain why we’re even worth redeeming in the first place.”

“But there is another story of faith, from the exact same Bible, which has become my story now. It begins in a different place and goes something like this: God created the world and it was good. God created us and we were good. We were created to keep God company, to share in the work of creation with God, and to be a blessing to all the world. But things often go wrong and get in the way of our blessedness. We make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones; the world is a harsh place; and those we depend upon can let us down. Evil runs rampant sometimes. But even in our imperfection, God calls us by name, again and again, to remind us of our blessing and our work.

“Sometimes God will take us out of our places of comfort, just as he did with Abraham, and lead us to a new place, for a new purpose. We are hardly perfect as instruments of God’s design, but God remains steadfast. The entire biblical story is, from beginning to end, one of God’s steadfast love. Jesus is the culmination of God’s love story, the ultimate expression of what it means to be fully alive and reconciled to God. His death is a symbol of the lengths God will go to set us free and make us whole.

“And the reason why God does all these things for us? Because we are God’s beloved and God’s partners in redeeming the world. It is astonishing to realize how much God needs us to do our part, large or small, in the work of reconciliation, healing, truth-telling and peace-making. So it matters that we are as self aware, honest, and healthy as we can be. God needs us for great and important work.”

Do we believe this, that God loves us and needs us to be as healthy and fully alive as we can be? Friends of Grace Church: “Do you believe that God needs you to be strong and whole for the great work you have been given to do?” May I be so bold as to invite you to dare to believe what we say about God’s love is true, and true for you?

If so, then you and I need to be on our way to our Jerusalem, the place God is calling us. We have a crossing over to accomplish, and a truth to acknowledge. Perhaps we have a relationship to reconcile, a secret to disclose, a new possibility to consider. We all have work to do. Jesus makes it quite clear that there is pain involved in this process, as there is with any birth and transformation. But he goes with us, showing us the breadth of God’s love and lengths that God is willing to go for our sake. His life and death is a parable of how redemption works—that out of pain there is joy; out of fear arises courage; and out of death, we emerge with a transformed life.

May I pray with you? Gracious God, I thank you for each person here, and for the countless ways you are at work within and among us all. Thank you for your love. I ask that you please guide us in the path of love and life transformation, that we may know ourselves as your beloved and as ones called to share your love. Be especially close, Lord, in those times when we must face the hardest truths. Teach us to lean on you and your grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.