4/3/2015 sermon “Why did Jesus die?”

Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: John 18:1-19:42
Good Friday 2015

“Why did Jesus die?”

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There’s been a conversation in theological circles this week about why Christ had to die. A popular view, apparently, is that Christ died as an example of a supreme act of love. This theory is that, by loving us all to the end, Jesus’s extreme love shows us the way of salvation. This theory plays down the notion that Jesus’ death somehow atoned for our sins.

I’ve been paying close attention to this conversation because I have been reflecting this Lent on why Jesus died. There are two aspects to this question. The first is why we killed Jesus. The second is what God was up through Jesus’ death.

As to the first, we heard tonight from John’s perspective why we killed Jesus. John names two motives: political expediency and jealousy. He says that Caiaphas, the High Priest, wanted to save many Jewish lives by offering up one scapegoat. Pilate was afraid of a public riot. The temple elders judged Jesus a blasphemer, but down deep they were jealous of Jesus.

I think that, on some level, the people who participated in Jesus’ execution all knew that he WAS the Son of God. Maybe a part of the human condition is anger at God that WE have to suffer and die. So a part of our human disease is that we want God to suffer just like we suffer, and to face die just like us. Jesus told a parable about this, about those who worked in the vineyard killing the owner’s son.

This is like the Tower of Babel, but in reverse. There, the impulse for us to become God caused us to try to lift ourselves to God’s level. Here the impulse for us to become God caused us to try to bring God down to our level.

Isn’t this what our culture does? Pretends that God is insignificant or non-existent so that the focus can be on us? Isn’t this what we, in our worst moments, have always done to God? Made him just like us, made God in our own image?

So that was what people were up to by killing Jesus. What was God up to?

The big picture of John’s gospel is that Jesus was the Passover lamb, slaughtered for our sins. You may have noticed that John moved the date of Jesus’ crucifixion ahead one day. The other gospels say that Jesus died on Passover. John says the crucifixion was a day sooner, on the day of preparation for Passover, when Jesus the Lamb of God was slain to atone for our sins. So the atonement theory—this theory about what God was up to when he allowed Jesus’ death—is John’s.

Our human brains cannot fully understand what God was up to—let’s call that The Plan —because The Plan is irrational, beyond human experience or logic. The Plan was for God to become fully human, while remaining fully divine; to become fully flesh while remaining fully Spirit. And while in the flesh of this life, The Plan was for God to be killed AND WHILE HE WAS DEAD accomplish the work he came here to do, to provide for our salvation.

This wasn’t God-the-Father sending God-the-Son to his death; this was God-the-Son willingly coming in the flesh to do the work here that needed to be done. This was, indeed, a supreme act of love. But what was The Plan?

The work that Christ Jesus accomplished through his death is the other part of the question about why Jesus had to die. And, from my perspective, this is the irrational part of The Plan: You and I do not rationally expect that someone who is dead can accomplish anything. Dead is dead. But apparently while Jesus was dead is when he did his best work. A 20th-century Swiss theologian named Hans Urs von Balthasar explained what Jesus’s death accomplished in a way that gives a bit of a glimmer about what God was up to by Jesus’ death:

Christ actually died, he said, just like we die. When he died he became the dead life, the powerless Lord. And, as our Apostles Creed says, he descended to the dead. This was why Christ Jesus died. Because, as the Eternal Word of God, Christ entered into this dead state in his own unique reality as Savior of the Cosmos. So when he entered into the Pit of death, Christ saw sin in the whole and he became sin. He saw sin abstracted in this way, because this is the very point of his death, of going to the cross, was to separate sin from sinners: to take away our sin. The way that you take something away is that you abstract it, pull it away from where it is, collect it from all of its sources, so that sin simply becomes sin itself. This is what Christ became when he entered into death. He took on this abstracted sin, the real sin. Therefore he was in the grave as the one who bore the suffering of sin. This is why he cried the beginning of Psalm 22 from the cross: he became the abandoned one that sin must undergo to be rejected by God. Christ entered into sin and took sin as his own. And when he rose again he left that rejected sin in the grave.

That’s von Balthasar’s theory of why Christ Jesus died: to provide a way to separate us from our sin. I would love to hear what you think about von Balthasar’s theory, and your own about what God was up to by Jesus’ death.

As for today, Good Friday, I hope that you, too, are meditating on Jesus’ death, on the meaning of Jesus’ death. I want to suggest that in your meditation you consider the idea that you and sin are not one. The extreme love of Christ Jesus AND his work while he was dead has provided a way for us to be separated from sin.

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