Texts: John 18-19;
WHY DOES JESUS’ DEATH MATTER?
As I shared in my newsletter column this month, there was recently an excellent article in The Christian Century. The author, Mark Heim, raises a question that is an important question for today, Good Friday. He simply asks, “Why does Jesus’ death matter?” But then his comment might surprise us: “Some of the church is sure it knows the answer,” he says, “while much of the rest of the church is deeply uncomfortable with the question.”
I hope I’m not going too far out on a limb to assume that, for most of us here in church on Good Friday, it’s the second half of that comment that surprises us. We are probably among those who are pretty sure we know the answer to why Jesus’ death matters. What’s surprising to us, then, is that many others in the church might be uncomfortable with the question. “Of course Jesus’ death matters,” we say, “How could any Christian question that?”
I think we need to take a close look at this question today, as we reflect on Jesus’ death. We might end up being surprised for a different reason. We might end up being surprised to find that there really is a legitimate concern for understanding Jesus’ death. There are, in fact, many across the church — and many, many more outside the church whom we want to reach with the Gospel — who ask this question for serious reasons that might not be clear to us. We might find that their need to seriously ask this question is a good reason for us to make sure we are clear about our answer.
So let’s give it try. Let’s try out our answer. Someone comes up to and asks you, “Why does Jesus’ death matter? Why the cross?” And how do you answer them? I suspect that our answer would begin with love, something like: “Because Jesus dying on the cross as God’s Son shows us how very much God loves us.” I heard a sermon on this recently, in fact. The preacher went into graphic detail about the horrific suffering that Jesus went through, and then the bottom line of his message was that Jesus did this all out of love for you and me. In fact, the preacher said, if Jesus only had to go through it for just one of us, out of his infinite love for each of us he would have done it.
Well, this is true, of course. God through Jesus Christ does love each of us this much, to have suffered and died in the way that he did on the cross. But someone outside of our faith might still ask, “But how does this save the whole world, as you Christians claim? Is it just love that saves the world? And, if so, then why did it take Jesus dying on the cross to bring about that saving love? Couldn’t God have shown us the divine love just as dramatically in some way other than dying? And even if it took dying for us, then why the cross? Why an execution?”
We might answer, “That’s the mystery of God’s ways. We can’t know that. We can only have faith.” The problem with this answer, though, is that it begs the question for the person who does not yet have faith but is honestly searching for it. Isn’t there anything we can say that doesn’t already assume their faith? We need to remember that Christianity isn’t the only game in town anymore. Buddhists have a way to salvation. So do Hindus, and Muslims, and Jews, and New Agers. And the answers for salvation of these other faiths don’t have anything to do with something quite so gross and violent as the cross. Do you see the issue here? How can we answer folks in this context of so many religions which offer so many different answers to the question of salvation? Can we articulate the Christian answer of the cross in a way that makes sense? That begins to address their concerns?
I believe that we can, and it begins, I think, with that concern that many people have for today’s world. We look around us, and we are frightened by so much violence. The last century was the bloodiest in human history. And at the center of that bloodshed was the unbelievable tragedy of the Holocaust against the Jews. And, when we consider the fact that so many of the people who carried out that horror called themselves Christians, then we can understand more clearly a modern concern for the story of our Lord’s Passion. If we read it from John’s Gospel, for example, we hear a constant refrain of “the Jews” did this and “the Jews” did that. And we need to be honest about the historical facts that countless Christians through the ages have used such a thing as a justification for killing Jews. In general, our track record is not good on that score. Christians have killed millions in the name of Christ through the ages. Is the discomfort of many with the cross beginning to make a bit more sense now?
And our concern over violence has grown since then, hasn’t it? Thankfully, it’s been a number of years now since we’ve experienced war on a global scale, but that in no way means violence has gone away. We are still well aware of many smaller but yet very significant slaughters going on in various corners of the world. Closer to home, we are aware of growing random violence that has even moved into the schools of our children. Yes, we have grown very sensitive to the issue of violence in our world. Many modern people, then, look at the cross and are put off by its violence. If God is associated with such violence as the cross, then how is it that we can ever be saved from the violence which plagues us?
Aha! But now I think we are closer to the kind of answer that might be pointed directly at those modern concerns about violence. The answer I’ve been working with in recent years, connected with a Gospel anthropology, a Gospel understanding of who we are as human beings, is that it precisely took the violence of the cross in order for God to first show us the depth of the problem we humans have with violence; then, secondly, it took the cross to show us God’s forgiveness for our horrific problems with violence, precisely the kind of violence that killed his Son on the cross; and, thirdly — God wasn’t through yet because — it took the resurrection to offer us a new way to live without the violence. So, if the modern person is concerned about the violence all around us, then the cross is the right answer for us precisely because it faces that problem so squarely. The cross had to be about violence to show us our role in it. And it does so in the only way that God could do it without becoming violent right along with us. That way, the way of the cross — contrary to our way of trying to combat violence with more violence — was for God to save us from our own violence by submitting to it in Jesus Christ. God lets the Son die on the cross to our violence, and then raises him up so that we might finally see that there’s another way. God is a God of life, so much so that not even Jesus’ death on the cross could thwart such a power of life. Why does Jesus’ death matter? Not only to show us God’s love, but also to show us God’s unstoppable power of life. God’s love is so powerful that God can let the Son die to our violence and still begin to turn it all around with the divine power of life.
But there’s still something that’s almost impossible for us to see here — after all, like we said, Christians don’t have a good track record when it comes to killing in the name of the cross. There’s obviously still something we’re not quite seeing. What we need to understand more clearly is the anthropology — in other words, not what the cross shows us about God, that God is love, but what the cross shows us about us. The thing we are so resistant to seeing is precisely what the cross is — not just violence, but an act of righteous violence. Those who killed Jesus saw it as an act of justice, following their law. God wanted them to kill blasphemers, or so they thought.
We need to be absolutely clear about the difference of what I will call righteous violence. I said a moment ago that our solution to violence is to bring another counter-violence against it. But we always see that counter-violence of ours as righteous. As such we don’t really see it as violence, at least not in the same way as the violence we are trying to stop. The other person’s violence we can see as violence alright. But when we use violence to stop them, it’s not the same, is it? It’s a righteous violence. When Christians through the ages, for example, have killed Jews, they justified themselves by pointing to the violence that the Jews did against Jesus. But they did not see what they were doing in killing the Jews as violence; they saw it as purging the evil, or some such thing. They failed to see the Passion for what it is: Jesus, who himself was a Jew, was willing to let himself be killed by his own people so that they might see our human problem with righteous violence.
The point of the cross is for all of us to finally see it revealing the problem we have with righteous violence. A poignant example for our time might be the cycle of violence that began with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. It is clear to us that David Koresh falsely believed in righteous violence, the use of violence as commanded by God. He used all kinds of scripture passages to justify his violence, and we believe that he was wrong to do so. But, now, can we see our government’s use of violence as some sort of correct use of righteous violence? Timothy McVeigh couldn’t, and so he deeply believed himself to be righteous in carrying out his act of violence in Oklahoma City. And we can ask ourselves today: when we take Timothy McVeigh’s life next month, we will be righteous in doing so?
It is this sin of righteous violence that I believe God is desperate for us to see, and we refuse to see it. We Christians have gotten good at copping to a whole variety of sins. There’s the juicy sins like sexual immorality or drunkenness or adultery. There’s the more subtle sins like pride and shame. But the sin we still haven’t seen is the sin that the cross specifically is — namely, an act of righteous violence!
In Jesus Christ, God is trying to show us the only way to peace. Violence will never end as long as we think that our righteous violence is the only way to stop it. So, in Jesus Christ, God submits to our supposedly righteous violence in order to show us another definition of righteousness, one that is completely without violence. It is a righteousness that comes through the faith of Jesus when he went to the cross, trusting in a God of life, trusting in a God who would raise him on the third day in order that we might begin to live with that same faith in a God of life.
Do you begin to see how we might have something very important to offer to our neighbors who are concerned for the violence in this world? Yes, the cross is violence. But we must see how it is decidedly our violence, our righteous violence. It is never God’s violence, in any way. Rather, the cross is our violence meeting God’s unconditional love, and forgiveness, and power of life. So the cross and its violence is precisely the answer we desperately need in order to finally give up all our failed attempts at peace through superior firepower. The cross is the answer we need to finally live with God’s power of love and life, the answer we need to finally let God lead our feet into the way of peace. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus & Zion Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 13, 2001