How do you understand the meaning of Jesus’ death?
This is a huge question. There are entire books and classes and a variety of theories on this topic. Over the course of Christian history, the varied ways in which followers of Jesus have understood the meaning of his death has had a profound impact on everything from what we see as the purpose of the church to the purpose of Christian spirituality to even the purpose of our lives. How you and I answer this question, has implications for how we see ourselves and God.
Let’s start here – What were you taught about why Jesus died the way he died? (I see some of us nodding yes. For some of us it was drilled into us.) What do you actually think? May be the same thing; may be different.
So, I’m going to tell you about two traditional views. I suspect many of us were more likely taught the second than the first. The first one underlies the second.
Many of us were taught the traditional view that Jesus’ died for our sins. Sound familiar? Jesus died for our sins. But what does this actually mean? One answer, the theory of Substitutionary Atonement, was put forward by St. Anselm. Clearly influenced by his medieval times, Anselm claimed that God’s honor is offended by our sin. Because that offense cannot go unanswered, God’s honor must be restored. But humans, being so much less than God, can never restore that honor on our own. Theologian Ben Pugh summarizes it this way: “The debt is total, the obligation to pay it, total, the power to pay it, zero.” The answer then is found in the sacrifice of Christ: fully human, he can atone for man, fully God, he can restore God’s honor.
Turning the page, the second theory -is based on this one. An even more grave theory, the Penal Substitutionary Theory, is put forth by Calvin and continues to be embraced by many Christians today. It’s an idea many of us were probably taught. It goes like this: “God, the Father, because of his love for human beings, sent his Son (who offered himself willingly and gladly) to satisfy God’s justice, so that Christ took the place of sinners. The punishment and penalty we deserved was laid on Christ instead of us, so that in the cross both God’s holiness and love are manifested.”
What?? (But this is what many of us were taught.) What kind of God would require this? This God doesn’t sound so loving to me. The role of Jesus is merely to rescue us from bad behavior? Because Jesus Christ has been punished in the place of sinners, we are forgiven? That idea hurts my head and my heart.
Can God’s honor be so easily offended? Are we so powerless? Simply defined by our sin? Doesn’t God know we are fallible humans?
In both of these views, God is violent and vengeful; Christ comes to rescue us; and we are forever powerless, indebted sinners. Is it any wonder that so many people brought up with this understanding of Christ’s death would be afraid of God and less confident about their own ability to do good or ever be good enough? With such a limited and limiting view of the Christian story, is it any wonder that those who recognize that we are more than our sins might not be drawn to this type of Christianity? As Richard Rohr points out, in this view salvation is a one-time transactional affair between Jesus and his Father, instead of an ongoing transformational lesson for us.
These theories have played a large role in how many of us understand the meaning of Jesus’ death.
What if, instead, we were to view Jesus’ death on the cross as Jesus himself seems to view it in the Gospel of John – as the culmination of his life of service? As a way of showing us that there is no event in our lives – even death – that can not be used by God to express grace and show us love? Can we look at this another way?
In Lent and in during Holy Week, for each of us to try to grapple with this question has the potential to be spiritually fruitful. The beauty of being in a church like this is that we don’t all have to come to the same understanding. It’s not like you understand it “this way” or you are out the door. And in some of those theories, if you don’t understand the meaning of Jesus’ death in a particular way you are on the outside looking in. That is now how we do this here. We each get to try and figure this out on our own.
Here are some other ideas:
After the great spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, was hit by a van and nearly died, he had this great awareness and wrote this – “I knew that my dying could be good or bad for others, depending on the choice I made in the face of it…If I could truly say that I was grateful for what I had lived, eager to forgive and be forgiven, full of hope that those who loved me would continue their lives in joy and peace, and confident that Jesus who calls me would guide all who somehow had belonged to my life—if I could do that—I would, in the hour of my death, reveal more true spiritual freedom than I had been able to reveal during all the years of my life. I realized on a very deep level that dying is the most important act of living. (pause) It involves a choice to bind others with guilt or to set them free with gratitude. This choice is a choice between a death that gives life and a death that kills.”
Last week after church some of us watched a modern day crucifixion, the murder of George Floyd. It was one of the most disturbing, upsetting, sad events many of us have ever seen. It left me feeling broken-hearted, sickened, and more committed to doing what I can to right the wrongs of society. Mr. Floyd’s death also invigorated the movement for racial justice. His death, as awful as it was, is bringing new life.
The message here is this: There is nothing in this life or in death, no matter how horrible, that God can’t use. As Jesus understood, as we hear in today’s Gospel, even death can be used for God’s glory.
Whether we are blessed with knowing that our death is on the horizon, like Henri Nouwen, or it comes suddenly, like George Floyd, Jesus shows us that our deaths can be a gift; that, they have the potential to be the occasion for an abundance of grace for others.
Henri Nouwen recognized, “Dying in Christ can be, indeed, my greatest gift to others. In this perspective, life is a long journey of preparation—of preparing oneself to truly die for others. It is a series of little deaths in which we are asked to release many forms of clinging and to move increasingly from needing others to living for them.”
Through his dying and death, Jesus shows us someone who experiences the worst of what the world has to offer – accusation, judgment, blame, scapegoating, and violence – and yet continues to offer himself for the glory of God. There was nothing in his physical experience that could have led him to believe that what he was going to go through was going to be anything less than harrowing. No wonder his soul was troubled. Yet, somehow he was determined that God could use even his death on a cross.
We started with what does Jesus’ death mean. Here, perhaps is the more palpable question: What would it mean for you to think about making your death a gift for others? To approach your death as Jesus did, something to be offered for God’s glory?
In this culture we do our best to not think about death at all, if we can help it. And, often, when we get the news that we or a loved one is going to die, we are, understandably, upset. It is natural that our emotions take over. We may resist the news, fight the news, be angry or sorrowful about the news. No matter what, we feel the news.
The journey from receiving the news about our own or a loved one’s death is an invitation to peace and acceptance. If you think back to your loved ones who knew they were dying that you’ve had the privilege to be with, perhaps over time you observed a shift to greater acceptance: theirs and yours. For some people this shift is easier or more difficult than others. Those who can not find peace, often have a very turbulent road. Those who are able to surrender, to open themselves to the presence of the Spirit, often experience insight, grace, and love that brings meaning and peace to their dying and death, and offers meaning and peace to the grieving. Those who are able to surrender, to accept, to open themselves to the presence of the Spirit, are able, often in the midst, to find God. Their acceptance becomes a gift for others.
As long as we see death as something merely to fight, we may miss out on the ways in which the Spirit is seeding new life. (David will tell you that I go crazy when I read the obituaries – “So and so died after a courageous battle”… as if dying were a failure rather than the inevitable culmination of life. Of course some people die tragically and it is not at the end of a life that we can look back and say “good.” We don’t need to always think of our death as a battle to fight to the end.)
As long as we see death as something merely to fight, we may miss out on the ways in which the Spirit is seeding new life. My own father, who was not a particularly religious or spiritual man, understood that the way he died could be a gift. He made amends at the end of his life with an estranged sister; he graciously and gratefully accepted the help that he was offered; and when he realized that my step-sister needed to return to her home out of state within a matter of days and that my stepmother would not be able to bear his death without her daughter at her side, he died. In fact, his last words were, “Gotta go.”
And my Dad and I grew close in ways that healed what had been a deeply broken relationship. He gave me the gift of his time and attention in a way that I had longed for. That healing made it possible for me to move forward in my life in ways that likely would not have been possible otherwise. It’s no surprise that I met David after my father died. I had a little work to do with my Dad to be ready for a healthy relationship with someone.
Our deaths can seed new life for others – The way that we approach them.
There is yet another level to understanding the meaning of Jesus’ death for our lives. (We have covered a lot of ground – from the more intellectual to the more personal. A lot of different ideas. But, here is another – perhaps the simplest, clearest, and most useful today.)
Father Denis Hanley writes, “Each of us is like a grain of wheat planted by God. And just as a grain of wheat must die so as to produce a harvest,so we too must die to self in order to bear the fruits of love.This dying to self is a gradual process and happens in little ways. Every act of humility involves dying to pride.Every act of courage involves dying to cowardice. Every act of kindness involves dying to cruelty. Every act of love involves dying to selfishness.Thus the false self dies and the true self, made in God’s image, is born and nurtured.”
Even in the face of the greatest brutality, our Lord’s death glorified God. May we intend that our lives and our deaths do the same. May our lives be so rooted in serving God, that when the moment of death comes we can make even this a service, too: our final and greatest gift of love. Amen.