Benediction Online

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Why did Jesus Die?

If you have been channel surfing on Charter cable recently you may have come across the pilot for a series called “What Happened to God?”. The producer is a student teacher, Evan, who has been here for a couple of Hollister institute talks and has used me as a starting off point for some of his upcoming programs. If the first one, which was on homosexuality, is anything to go by, they are worth watching. He was here this week and during his interview asked “So you don’t think that Jesus died to save you from your sins?” I could only reply “No, I think that’s a very simplistic and not very helpful way to understand Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.”

But here we are on Good Friday faced with the cross and what it means to us. Theologians from St Paul on have written thousands of books trying to understand and explain what the cross is all about and still I don’t think we understand. I don’t know whether Jesus’ death was in some way in God’s plan from the beginning or whether it was a natural outcome of the way he lived, or both. But I think there are some things we can say with relative certainty.

The first of course, is that whatever it was about, Jesus’ crucifixion is a very big deal. In fact I would go so far as to say that his death and resurrection were a cosmic event which in some way changed the very fabric of the universe. That’s symbolized by the temple curtain; the curtain which kept the Holy of Holies separate from the part of the temple where ordinary people could go, that curtain was torn in two from the top to the bottom. This suggests a huge change in the relationship between God and humanity.

The second thing we can be sure about is that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice. Sacrifice was the language of religions from the earliest times and it is not surprising that when God wanted to communicate God’s love to humanity God used the vernacular of sacrifice. The earliest Christian theologians understood Jesus death on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice made to atone for sin.

In the two thousand years since then, sacrifice has come to have a different meaning. If I tell you that I made a sacrifice you do not immediately think that I went to the temple and bought a couple of pigeons, a lamb or a goat and had them slaughtered. You are more likely to think that I did without something I wanted in order to benefit someone or something else.

Jesus’ death was a sacrifice in both these ways, but it is the second definition that makes most immediate sense to us today. Jesus gave up the freedom and power that belongs to God and became fully human. He did that in order to demonstrate in a graphic and unforgettable way, God’s extravagant love for us.

So today, we gather to meditate upon the cross, but not to dwell on it. Unlike Mel Gibson we do not dwell on the nails, the blood and the pain but see through these to the extraordinary love that they communicate. Suffering and pain are an integral part of what it means to be human, but they are not part of what it means to be God. Very few of us choose to suffer but God chose to suffer; God chose to become human and to experience a cruel death, so that we might know the depth of God’s love.
To say that Jesus died for our sins is a limited and I think rather prosaic view of the immensity of God’s gift. As a result of Jesus’ death the curtain was torn in two; it became possible for us to enter the Holy of Holies. Before had we dared we would probably have been struck dead, but Jesus conquered death and so we dare, we dare enter the Holy of Holies, we dare go into God’s presence and we will not be struck dead for our impertinence.

Why was this necessary? Because God did not want us to be automatons – God wanted us to be in conscious relationship with him. Just as a fish doesn’t know it swims in water so Adam and Eve didn’t know they were in relationship with God – they didn’t know the difference until they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And as a result they were separated from God – sin entered the picture, because sin is what separates us from God. From then on it became dangerous for humans to get too close to God. Yahweh only showed Moses his back because he would have died to see his face, and that was Moses! think what would happen if the rest of us came within half a mile of the almighty God.

But in Jesus that problem is resolved, because Jesus died and rose again, thus conquering death and making it possible for us to go blundering into the Holy of Holies and still live, in fact to live at a higher level of vibration than ever before.

But of course I am running ahead of myself in the story.

Today is Good Friday and we are here to remember with awe Jesus’ sacrifice upon the cross. There’s a line in one of our Eucharistic prayers, ‘deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace openly and not for strength’. I would pray that we be delivered from the presumption of meditating upon the cross for solace only and not for strength.

Yes the cross is the symbol of God’s extravagant love for us, but it is not just God’s love for us but for all beings - I guess that’s another problem with ‘Jesus died to save me from my sins’ – it’s all about me. If we think the cross is all about us then in some ways we’re missing the point.

The temple curtain was torn down the middle so that everyone could come to God and as disciples of Jesus it is our task to go out and share that knowledge, that experience. As we contemplate the cross this evening and the incredible love that shines through it, let us ask to be so filled, rooted and grounded in that love that we cannot help but bring others into relationship with God.


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