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    Apr 15, 2017

    Why Did Jesus Have To Die?

    Why Did Jesus Have To Die?

    Speaker: Father Will Lowry

    Series: All

    Keywords: good friday

    Like it or not, for better or for worse, we are pretty much on our own this week. That is the cultural difference between Christmas and Holy Week – and certainly today on Good Friday.

    My Good Friday Sermon:

    My homiletics (that’s the fancy word for preaching) professor in Seminary used to say about Good Friday, “Everybody sings ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’. Except the faithful are all singing ‘O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.'"

    Like it or not, for better or for worse, we are pretty much on our own this week. That is the cultural difference between Christmas and Holy Week – and certainly today on Good Friday.

    So why do the faithful – the questioning and the seekers – and for that matter, any of us come to a Good Friday service? It certainly is not because, as the day’s title wrongly suggests, it is a “good” day.

    It’s not because we have great music, there is no Bach or Handel. There’s none of that today. It’s not because we have a joyous celebratory liturgy either, as I said there is nothing about today that suggests it to be a lot of fun. There must be something else? Perhaps a yearning that is clear cut and specific? If you are able to definitively say, please, let’s talk…

    So, why are you here? What are you coming to this service looking for?
    The best answer I have been able to come up with is another question. It was asked of me this week (to be honest, it has been asked of me often). Actually, it’s two questions: Why did Jesus have to die? and, What does this mean for my life?

    Not the easiest of questions. There are times when the role of a priest is to get out of the way and let the text or persons faith speak for themselves. Unfortunately for me, Good Friday (and the occasion of these questions) is not one of those times.

    “So, preacher, why did Jesus have to die?” that was the question asked of me this week. To put it another way, or at least what I heard the person asking, “Help me understand how my emerging theology of God’s love and grace meshes with the sacrificial atonement and bloodiness inescapably lurking behind Good Friday and God’s Holy word and work?” (slight pause) “Is this seriously the best plan God could come up with?” “Or, is this just the Church’s way of explaining what happened with what it hoped for?”

    Now, I realize that I’ve read a lot into this original question, but really, aren’t these the questions we all ask, especially this “Holiest of weeks”.

    Of course, the easy answer to why did Jesus have to die is resurrection – so that he could be raised. But somehow I don’t think I can get off that easy. Oh, and by the way, if it doesn’t end in resurrection does it really matter at all?

    The other obvious answers are salvation and atonement. But what really do those words mean to us? What are we saved from? What reparation was made?

    For the last 1500 years or so we Christians have been following, sometimes blindly, a couple of different theories about Christ’s death and what it means. These theories are tried and true, steeped in the traditions of the Church, the whole Church (that is big C Church not little c church).

    But it’s a funny thing the Church (universal). In all of its doctrines and dogma it has never defined a specific, single way that Christ’s crucifixion, death, and burial works for us. That is, there is no agreed orthodox, ecumenical, standard definition or theory of how THE Atonement works; there are only theories, and three have emerged as the status quo.

    I’m guessing, that at some point you have heard of at least one of these theories if not all of them. Warning . . . a theology lesson is afoot.

    The Christus Victor theory is a type of “ransom” theory whereby humanity has, through sin, become subject to the powers of evil and death. And in Christ, God liberates, or “ransoms”, humanity from these evil powers, sometimes by overwhelming power, but other times through divine deception.

    We say this exact thing in Eucharistic Prayer A, “when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, you, in your mercy, sent Jesus Christ, your only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all.”

    There is also the Substitutionary theory that asserts, that humanity owes God a debt so large that it cannot be paid; therefore, we are sentenced to a punishment so great that it cannot be shouldered. Christ, in His duality of God and humanity, then pays the debt and suffers the punishment on our behalf, thus fulfilling the divine justice needed.

    This theory too is embedded in our Eucharistic prayers when we talk of Christ as a sacrifice for the whole world.

    The last of these mainstream theories is the Exemplarist theory. It professes that humanity is estranged from God in sinful rebellion and that God is perfectly willing to forgive us, but must first win our hearts. So Christ comes as a messenger of God’s forgiving love and as an exemplar of human perfection. But, as we know, Christ is rejected. However, embedded in our foolish rejection we see our sin for what it is and repent, conquered by God’s love for us.

    Of course there are other theories (Penal substitution, Recapitulation, Satisfaction etc.. ), but each follows similarly the ones I’ve outlined to you here.

    Okay, theology lesson over.

    Personally, I don’t tend to lean towards one particular theory or another. Each of these theories has its own merit, and, truth be known, they are so ingrained in us that we cannot talk of Christ without knowledge and some form of belief in at least one of them. I would add that often it is belief in, at least part of, if not belief in multiple parts of any of these theories at the same time.

    So, all of this is great, right? But, once we’ve ‘picked’ our theory what do we do with it?

    Well, before we go there, there is one more theory I’d like to tell you about. It too is rooted in the historic theories of our tradition. It is called the Narrative Christus Victor.

    This theory asserts, like the others, that there is a reason Christ died on the cross. But, unlike many of these theories it rejects the idea that God sanctioned a brutal and violent death for Jesus. It leaves that to humanity.

    This theory, formulated J. Denny Weaver, author and professor emeritus of religion at Bluffton University in Ohio, in his words allows, “anyone uncomfortable with the idea of a God who sanctions violence, a God who sends the Son so that his death can satisfy a divine requirement however understood” it allows them to abandon satisfaction and Anselmian theories of the atonement.

    This view of the atonement is an alternative to satisfaction atonement and proposes an explanation to the question of “how Jesus saves” by taking away the idea that God is violent and murderous.

    Weaver’s coup de grace (coo-day-gras) is a way of understanding Christ’s death by focusing on Jesus’ life as the presence of the reign of God on earth and on the resurrection as God’s saving act, rather than focusing on Jesus’ death as an act of God.

    After all, we know that the entire arc of our biblical story is about our relationship with God – God’s chasing us and reaching out for us, our rejection or misuse of that relationship, and God forgiving us and chasing us again and again, over and over, each time we are given the gift of grace and the relationship is mended. This is the stuff that life is made of.

    What does this have to do with the original question then? Why did Jesus die/ why did he have to die? Really these are the same questions aren’t they? (slight pause)

    Death, any death, often unconsciously brings anxiety about our own deaths, into our feelings, thoughts, and questions. The closer to home a death is, the more concern and anxiety it will generate. By extension, the closer a person feels to Jesus, the more profoundly that person will experience Jesus’ death and want guidance in understanding what his death means for his/her life.

    And here’s the catch…. The word atonement literally means ‘AT ONE MENT’ and so atone means to make ‘at-one’. It means to reconcile, to overcome estrangement or alienation.

    This means that the resurrection of Jesus is an invitation from God to participate in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It means we are to be as one with Christ, which is to be made in union with God.

    So, what is needed is a radically incarnational understanding of the cross, an understanding that relates the cross to the whole of Jesus’ life – from annunciation to crucifixion – and yes resurrection.

    It is only then that we can relate the whole of our own lives to the wholeness and holiness of Jesus’ life – making His death and our own pending deaths about life. We participate in salvation when we accept God’s call to be transformed from creatures who both precipitate and fear death into those who become aligned with the Creator and live incarnationally making the reality God/God’s reality present on this earth.

    So, the “elevator” answer to the question – why did Jesus have to die and what does it mean to me? sounds something like this I guess.

    Well, first, God did not put Jesus to death, humanity did. The violence and suffering that humanity inflicts on each other – was inflicted on God – and in the end it failed.

    Second, God’s power to overcome death is real. So it is up to us to define what that means for our own lives. How do we reconcile – comprehend – a God who loves humanity so deeply that God would create everything humanity needed to sustain life? Then, when humanity tried to destroy all of that and even God himself – God did not react violently but simply forgave and overcame – perhaps to prove God’s unfailing unceasing love for us. What does this mean to you?

    Amen.