Texts: John 18-19;
‘JESUS DIED FOR MY SINS’
“Jesus died for my sins.” For many people this sums up the Christian Good News. But what does it mean exactly? It’s such a familiar, well-loved phrase. But I’d like to suggest tonight that it can also be a dangerous phrase. In recent years, many Christians are having trouble with that basic message. When we understand this phrase as Jesus taking God’s punishment for our sins, they ask, “Can ‘Jesus died for my sins’ mean something else? Something else where God doesn’t kill God’s own Son?” Perhaps you’ve even had this conversation with a friend who’s left the church, citing this understanding of the cross as one of the reasons.
This evening is the ideal time to ponder this statement of our faith and suggest the proper way to understand it. We walk a razor’s edge. Or perhaps we could compare it to walking the top of a prison wall: fall one way and you are imprisoned once again; fall the other way and you are free. I’d like to suggest that how we understand “Jesus died for my sins” is like that: fall one way in interpreting it and we are back in sin’s clutches; fall the other way and we are on the way to freedom.
We first ask simply, “Which sins? Which sins did Jesus die for?” The obvious and true answer is, “All of them.” But in saying “all of them” we need to distinguish two basic categories of sin: those sins we are easily aware of, and those sins we are barely aware of, sins which often times remain hidden to us. It is these latter sins which provide the key to a liberating understanding of, “Jesus died for my sins.”
Here’s what I mean. A big part of coming to church for us is bringing the burden of the sins we are well aware of, and to hear a message of gracious forgiveness that unburdens us from those sins. We are aware of sins like: the things we say and do that hurt our family and friends. We are aware of failures to live up to our promises to others. There are also sins like the small untruths told throughout the week; little dishonesties. Perhaps we drink too much, or squander our money too easily on things we don’t really need. Maybe you’ve come to church living in a place of shame because of an addiction to drugs or alcohol or sex. Occasionally, it may even be something bigger — like fully breaking one of the commandments, such as committing adultery or stealing — for which you lose a job or a marriage or both. These are the kinds of sins we normally bring to church to unburden through the gracious message of forgiveness. “Jesus died for my sins. I’m forgiven.”
But let’s switch gears now for the second category of sins: those we’re often not aware of. And here’s the odd thing: this second category usually comes about on the back of the first category. They usually involve and are tied to our awareness of the kind of sins we just talked about. Think about the recent history in the church, for example, with alcoholics and divorced people. Alcoholics were so shunned and hurt in their traditional churches that they needed to form their own untraditional church of sorts, a community of healing — I’m talking about Alcoholics Anonymous, of course. And in the sixties and seventies, as divorce rates began to increase, divorced people were among the first wave of folks to leave the packed churches of the fifties. They were shamed and judged, and in some cases bluntly told they weren’t welcome. They were considered unrepentant sinners.
We can look back on that era in the church today and see that it was wrong. It was sinful to judge fellow sinners like that and effectively drive them out of the church. But that’s in retrospect. When it was happening, we didn’t think it wrong or sinful. We saw it as the right thing to do. And that, my friends, is the shape of the second category of sins: those we aren’t aware of as sin, but in fact come about precisely because we think we are right. We are sure we’re standing up for something right in such a way that leads to persecuting, harming, and expelling others. It’s a sin that’s big with us religious folks because we think we’re doing God’s will, standing up against sin and evil. We see expelling sinful people as the right way to keep peace and order.
Think of St. Paul for a moment. It’s no accident that he became the first great proclaimer of the cross of Jesus, because he came to see how the cross revealed this sin of persecution to which he had been blind. When Paul, then called Saul, had his great conversion experience — when he was knocked off his horse by a bright light and literally blinded for a few days — what did Jesus say to him? “Saul, Saul, why are you such a sinner”? Did Jesus begin listing his many sins? No, Jesus named the one sin that Saul himself could not see: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
In fact, part of the problem was that Paul didn’t have many, if any, of the sins we usually point to. In Philippians 3, he declares himself blameless. Paul brags about what a good, upright person he had been. According to the sins we are normally made aware of by the law, he was virtually sinless. But he used that righteousness against others. He persecuted others for their sins and participated in a violent campaign against the new followers of Jesus the Messiah. And here’s the shocker we still have trouble hearing: Paul came to see that law and religion are captive to this sin of persecution. Our experience of law and religion leads us to think we are on God’s side when we do violence to try to stop the sin and evil we see in the world. We think we are keeping the peace. But Paul makes the shocking claim that in Jesus the Messiah we are not being called to start a new religion. Rather, we are being called in faith to get to know the power of a gracious, loving God who can help us win out over our sin without doing violence.
“Jesus died for our sins.” Which ones? All of them. But we are now in a better position to see one particular category of sin most clearly. For it is the sin on display in the cross itself. It is the sin of persecuting others, supposedly in God’s name. Those who shouted “Crucify him!” and put Jesus on the cross were convinced they were doing the right thing. They were convinced they were expelling evil from their midst.
So consider now that way of interpreting the cross many of us have been taught. What do we make of “Jesus died for my sins” as being about Jesus taking God’s punishment for our sin? Isn’t that falling right back into that sin of persecution Jesus came to free us from on the cross? I think it is. We are seeing God as just like us, responding to sin with violence and harm. We see God as dishing out punishment — ultimately, capital punishment — just like us. No more of this! says Jesus. Yes, Jesus died for our sins, but in the sense of taking our punishment, not God’s. He literally took our sin of persecution upon himself, let his blood be spilled, so that we might learn the way of love and forgiveness to find freedom from our sins. It’s vital to see this! It’s crucial to have the cross unveil our violence as ours, never as God’s.
“Jesus dies for our sins.” Yes. But if we see it as taking God’s punishment for our sins, we remain trapped in our sin of persecution, of scapegoating, of oppressing others. If, on the other hand, we see Jesus as dying to expose — and forgive! — our sin of thinking we can punish others in God’s name, then we begin to walk the path of finding freedom from our sins.
Jesus died for our sins. We sometimes call this a sacrifice. But this, too, can be a razor’s edge. Because what we’ve talked about tonight — the logic of persecution, of punishment, the logic of expelling someone to keep the peace for the rest of the group — that logic was what the Bible names as sacrifice. Jesus came to help us learn that God wants compassion and justice, not that old logic of sacrifice. He came on the cross to make himself a sacrifice to us, not to God, in order to save us from it. He offers us instead of sacrifice, the sacraments — the promise of forgiveness and grace and new life in God’s kingdom of love.
He comes to us again tonight to help us see where that old sacrifice of logic still remains embedded in our ways of keeping the peace. It still resides, for example, in our criminal justice system when we are too much about punishment and not enough about restoring lives. It is the ugly monster behind racism. And it shouldn’t surprise us when those two — criminal justice and racism — continue to work together to divide us. (1) So Jesus comes once again tonight to say — as he did to his disciples, when they pulled swords on the night of his arrest — “No more of this. Remember me. I come to save you from sacrifice and give you forgiveness and life.” (2) And tomorrow night, Sunday morning, our somberness turns to joy and we accept his invitation to replace sacrifice with sacrament. We come to his table of celebration. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, April 3, 2015
1. In 2015 we were gearing up at the time of this sermon to study the monumental work on this subject: Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
2. This is meant to echo words from our closing hymn that evening, “No More of This” — a hymn written by Mark Heim, author of the quintessential Girardian book on the cross: Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.