Why did Jesus have to die?
Sermon by the Rev. Lisa Smith Fry
A lit candle after the power goes out looks very bright in the dark. But a candle lit in a bright room, even though it may look lovely, is not as meaningful or easily seen. Sometimes we need the darkness to see the light more clearly.
It is Good Friday, the day of darkness, when through the inky blackness, the light becomes more visible than ever.
The disciples had just seen their leader arrested, beaten, and killed. They were in hiding. Everything they had done and believed in had been stripped from them. Jesus was crucified. They must have been thinking-“Why? Why did Jesus die? What was the purpose of his death? Did he HAVE to die?”
This is a question that has been asked throughout the ages: Why did Jesus have to die?
For the first several hundred years the church told the story of Good Friday through the understanding of Jesus’ death as Ransom.
When Eve and Adam ate the forbidden fruit and were cast out of the garden, humanity became ruled by Satan, and he held us hostage for generations. Eventually, God struck a deal with Satan, giving his own Son over in our stead. God’s forces triumphed over the forces of Evil. God ransomed his son to Satan.
Later Christians and theologians took exception to this narrative, because it gave too much power to Satan. Did an omnipotent God really need to strike a bargain to defeat Satan? If God has always been Omnipotent, why the battle? We didn’t sin against Satan, we sinned against God—so wasn’t God the one who was owed, they asked, not Satan?
So for the next several hundred years the people found understanding about the crucifixion a different way. Instead of Satan being owed something—God was owed something.
Substitutionary Atonement means that we had sinned, and the penance was death. Jesus became our substitute. In ancient times, a community’s sin was metaphorically placed on a goat, and then the goat was slaughtered by the town. This sacrifice to an angry God became known as Scapegoating. So because of Substitutionary Atonement, Jesus became sin, and our sins were put upon him. Jesus was the scapegoat—or the lamb that was sacrificed for our sin to appease an angry God.
But even this understanding became troublesome as Christians learned, through the Spirit of God, that this all loving God Jesus talked about required a sacrificial victim to appease him. Hadn’t Isaiah prophesied:
“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings ….cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
It became harder and harder to reconcile this God who required a sacrificial victim with the loving God Jesus talked about; the God who forgives our sins over and over, who welcomes us back when we stray, and who loves us without reserve.
So inspiration was offered once more: Jesus came to make us one with God (at-one-ment). Jesus showed us what to do, and demonstrated the way that he called us to live: through obedience to God and the loving ways of the Kingdom—and we were to follow him— even if that meant death.
The first Christians were called the “Followers of the Way”, they reasoned, which seemed to indicate that the ways of Jesus were the most important thing.
The Spirit has led us to many understandings about what happened on Good Friday and why.
But no one except God can know exactly why Jesus had to die. We just know that this man, Jesus, this God in human form, said it was important, his death.
Jesus came to show us how to be a community, to join together as one human family that loves and serves God.
Jesus died to show us that God is willing to do anything to break the bonds which separate us from Him.
Or, as Richard Rohr says, “Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God.”
I keep being drawn back to the image of a single candle in a dark room.
I realize I don’t need to know what makes candlelight burn, or why. When I am in a dark place, I just need to be able to see it.
And this will give us enough light to go forward. On this Good Friday, let Jesus be your candle in the dark, shining without a flicker. Amen.