Romans 3:19-21, 6:1-11
Why: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?
Presbyterian pastor and professor of theology Cynthia Rigby wrote that she started asking the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?” when she was just a child. She writes, “The idea that the Son had to die so the Father would be able to forgive us has never made much sense to me. If God loves us no matter what, why can’t God just go ahead and forgive us?
“I remember asking this question even as a child, pointing out to my parents that they seemed to forgive my brother and me for things all the time, and rarely felt the need to punish [us]. If they did give us some kind of penalty, it was not because they needed it in order to be able to forgive us. It was so we would learn, better, how properly to behave. So why couldn’t God just forgive [us], if my parents could? How could Jesus’ dying really help anything, anyway? And how could something as terrible as the cross be something God wanted or needed?
“My mom and dad and Sunday school teachers in our little Presbyterian church … tried very hard to answer my questions. But the answers they delivered were spoken so concisely, and with so much certainty, I figured you had to be a grown-up to understand. “Jesus died to pay the penalty for your sins,” they told me. And so I tried to imagine what I — a really well-behaved, zealously Christian 8-year-old — could possibly have done so wrong that it necessitated the God who created the universe come down here and die. “A price had to be paid,” another grown-up explained — we sinned, and the penalty for sin is death. So God gave his only Son to die in our place. Jesus died for us because he loves us.” Is there any truth to these statements said to us over and over again?” Rigby wonders.
Rigby’s question is ours for the day: Why did Jesus have to die? If God loves us so much, did God really need for Jesus to die in order to be able to love and forgive us? Does God require punishment? How can we find meaning in Jesus’ crucifixion and death? What exactly is accomplished in the act of Jesus dying? Like Rigby, most of us who have been part of the Christian tradition for any length of time have been taught that “Jesus died for our sins.” What do we mean when we say that?
These are questions about atonement. Last week our fancy church word was theodicy, and today it is atonement. Atonement, though, is probably already a familiar concept to you. When we do something wrong, when we hurt someone else, we might say that we need to atone for our wrongdoing. We need to do something to make amends, to repair the damage to our relationship. The act of bringing a broken relationship back to rights is atonement. We expect criminals to atone for their crimes – sometimes through a prison sentence, or through community service, or through paying fines. We might have expectations about atonement in our relationships. If someone hurts you, how do you expect them to make it up to you? An apology? Flowers? Perhaps children get grounded, or have to do some extra chores. All of these actions of rebuilding brokenness are ways that we seek to atone for our wrongs.
In matters of faith, then, atonement is about how we restore our broken relationship with God when we have done wrong, when we’ve sinned. We read a lot about the practices of atonement in the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament of the Bible. When someone sinned, against God or others, the law outlined what a person must do to atone for their sin. Atoning actions might include confessing, making restitution or repayment, receiving a legal punishment, or making a sacrifice, usually an animal sacrifice that would be offered as a gift to God. That last part seems pretty strange to us, but it was a tangible way people could demonstrate their desire to heal their relationship with God, offering some of the best of what they had to God. The most sacred day in Judaism remains Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a day when the whole people gathers to repent and set right their relationship with God.
In Christianity, theologies of atonement work to explain how it is that Jesus reconciles us to God. Last week I mentioned that there are many different theodicies, theories about God and suffering. So too there are many understandings of atonement, many ways people think about how we humans, caught up in sin, can be permanently reconciled with God. The view that Cynthia Rigby says she learned as a child is called “penal substitution,” the idea that Jesus gets punished on our behalf, for our sins. Another view is called the “ransom view,” where death must be satisfied with some life given, and Christ exchanges his life for ours. A view called “moral influence” teaches that Jesus’ death was meant to bring about true moral change in humanity that would reconcile us to God. The “Christus Victor” view of atonement teaches that Christ’s death and resurrection defeats the power of death, and death’s dominion over humanity. You don’t need to learn all these views, and I don’t mean to overwhelm you with them. But I do want to give you a sense, an understanding that within Christian tradition, while there is a great deal of agreement that in Jesus, we are reconciled with God, there are many understandings of how exactly that works. That’s ok with me, because I think anything as meaningful as what brings us into right relationship with God is something worth mulling over and searching and studying, and thinking about deeply.
Of course, we have our own sources to check out when it comes to atonement: we look to the scriptures for understanding. We’ve talked before about a concept related to atonement: justification. As you can tell, it’s related to the word justice, and we’ve talked about how justice is God’s vision of right relationships: our right relationship with God, and our right relationships with one another. Justification, then, is the process of our getting into right relationship with God. In our Wesleyan tradition, we talk about justifying grace. Grace is God’s gift of unconditional love, freely offered to us, and we believe that it is only by relying on the gift of God’s grace that we are justified with God. In other words, it is because of God’s work that we can get into right relationship with God, not because of our work. Our work is to accept God’s gift of grace and let it transform us.
The apostle Paul writes a lot about justification in his letter to the Romans. In today’s texts, Paul starts by talking about “the law,” and when he’s talking about the law he means the Law of Moses, the laws of Judaism that held together the people of faith and shaped their way of life and being in the world. In much of his writing, Paul argues not to belittle the law, so important to Jewish identity, but to show instead how in Jesus, Jew and Gentile (that is, non-Jewish people) Jew and Gentile alike find freedom in Christ and no longer have to be perfect upholders of the law in order to have a relationship with God. People understood that adherence to the law was what justified them, set them right with God, but Paul argues that because of Jesus, now we are set right not through adherence to the law, a task at which we’re likely to fail miserably, but instead justified through Jesus’ sacrificial gift of life to us, once and for all. Paul says that “for all who believe” in Jesus, we can be justified, reconciled to God, Jews, Gentiles, everybody. After all, Paul says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” so we all, likewise, have equal access – and need of – restoring our relationship with God. Paul writes, “[we] are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”
Paul concludes that since we all sin and fall short of God’s glory, and since we all are brought into right relationship with God not by our own deeds, but by the redeeming action of Jesus, the gift of grace, then none of us can boast. None of us has the right to say that we are “better,” showing off with how good we are at following the laws of God. That doesn’t mean we ignore God’s law! But it is God’s grace through the gift of Jesus, not our ability to be more perfect than our neighbors, that sets us right with God. God’s actions, not ours.
In our second reading from Romans, Paul confirms that Jesus’s death not just about God demanding punishment. Rather, in fact, Jesus’ death is a necessity of new life. You can’t have new life without experiencing death. And we are invited, called, to join in the death of Jesus so that we can also join in the resurrected lives Jesus promises. Paul doesn’t mean that we all literally must experience a death like Jesus’, although Paul and many other early Christians were certainly willing to and did put their lives on the line because of their faith. Rather, Paul says, we put to death “our old self.” We put to death our enslavement to sin. And when our old self dies, our new life in Christ beings. In his death and resurrection, Jesus demonstrates that death has no power over him – it is God who has power over death. Likewise, Paul says, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Emphasis mine.) Paul wraps up, “So, you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Reflecting on Paul’s words, I don’t believe that Jesus had to die if what we mean by that is that Jesus had to die to satisfy an angry God who must have punishment to be satisfied. So what do we mean? Why did Jesus die on the cross? First, I think it is important to remind ourselves that Jesus chooses. There is no action that Jesus takes in his life and in his dying that he’s forced into, even as he wishes, prays, longs for a different path. Just as God doesn’t take our free will from us, neither did God take away Jesus’ human ability on earth to walk away. Jesus reminds us more than once in the gospels that he has the power and ability to call on God if needed. Jesus chooses his death, in as much as anyone chooses to face the consequences of a corrupt and unjust system of oppression. Jesus died because he chose his path. He believed it to be the path that would demonstrate everything he had been telling the disciples and crowds about God and our life with God. He believed that his death and resurrection would be the fulfillment of the good news he’d been teaching and preaching for years. And so Jesus followed the path he meant to follow, choosing to be faithful to his purpose, knowing what he would endure.
But the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion doesn’t come from thinking that his suffering was unique or the worst suffering ever endured, or the most violent death. Unfortunately, humans have shown an incredible capacity for cruelty over the millennia. Jesus’ crucifixion was a government-sponsored execution, and it was the same style of execution that many suffered. It isn’t the uniqueness of Jesus’ death that is important. In fact it is that Jesus suffers with us, like us, by our side, facing the same things others face that is so powerful. In his suffering and death, Jesus puts himself on the side of all who suffer, all who have been at the mercy of powerful systems of oppression. In his death, in God acting through Jesus’ death, we see that real power does not come through violence or force or domination. Might does not equal right, no matter how many times people or leaders or governments try to prove otherwise. True strength, true power is demonstrated in being vulnerable, in giving sacrificially, in placing others before self, giving away everything, even life, to be faithful to the message of God. Jesus repeats these words again and again in his ministry: “If you want to save your life, you have to lose it.” It’s what Paul means when he says that if we want to live with Christ, we have to die to self first.
God comes to the world in Jesus. Jesus is born, lives, dies, and is resurrected. And from one end to the other, from his coming into the world, through his death, to the wonder of resurrection, we see in all of it that God longs not to punish us, but to be reconciled with us. Everything about Jesus is a testament to God’s desire to draw us closer to God. Jesus’ death means many things: It means we’re called to be very careful about how obsessed we get with accumulating power, because power over others is not God’s way. It means we are called to give and live sacrificially, like Jesus, giving ourselves for others. It means we are called to speak the truth and hold on to and speak up for what is right no matter the cost. It means that we can stop working to earn God’s favor. We have God’s favor. God loves us already, immeasurably. Instead, we can focus on putting to death with Jesus our old selves, everything that keeps us from drawing closer to God. We must die with Christ to live with Christ, if we don’t want death to have a hold on us anymore. Let us choose the path of Jesus, so “we too might walk in newness of life.” Amen.