Sermon: “The Big Why?”

Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
April 18, 2014: Good Friday

Matthew 27:1-56

On Good Friday we remember the death of Jesus on the cross two thousand plus years ago. And we try to make sense of it all. Maybe you grew up being taught that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins, told it was our sinfulness that put him there, and he paid the price for us. Or perhaps you were taught that he substituted himself and took the punishment that is rightfully ours.

I love the way Roberta Bondi remembers her confusion over these explanations. A New York girl, she spent her childhood summers in rural Kentucky with her grandparents and attended the little Pond Fork Baptist Church with them. She remembers Brother Smith’s sermons, when in a loud voice he’d call them all sinners, and tell them they’d better be afraid of the judgment that was to come. Then his voice would soften, and he’d remind them that despite their sinfulness, God loves them, and sent his Son to die for them. But inevitably, he’d raise his voice again to conclude his remarks with “Only believe, only believe God loves you, or he’ll send you to hell forever!” [i]

Brother Smith was trying his best to explain that God’s justice and God’s love were conflicted over the sinfulness of humankind, a sinfulness so great that there was no way the flawed creation could make up for it all. God couldn’t just forgive and forget, but God could also not destroy all that had been so lovingly created. Jesus then was the answer to the problem – because he was human he could suffer and die; because he was God he could do it sufficiently, perfectly.

And this is the understanding most of us have grown up with, and which is reflected in most of our hymns and in our liturgy.   Jesus put himself in our place, substituted himself for us, or he became a ransom, a payment for our enormous debt. We will never know the answer to why Jesus died on the cross. But How we see Jesus’ death shapes how we understand life and death. And these traditional theories of substitution and ransom, at their worst, have often left people feeling shamed, hopeless, sinful, unlovable, and lacking any goodness.

I wonder, and perhaps you do too, what about those people in the world who are more sinned against than sinning? What does Jesus’ death mean for a victim of genocide in the Sudan or terrorist attacks around the world? What does it mean for the battered spouse escaped to a safe house, the divorced woman trying to support her children on a grocery clerk’s salary, the young person whose teeth are black because he can’t afford to go to a dentist; the person with the “wrong” skin color who can’t get a mortgage; the immigrant day laborer without papers who can therefore be treated like slave labor by his employer; the elderly person who has to choose between buying food or medication, the mentally ill person who lives on the streets and sleeps under bridges?

Given these realities, some would conclude we don’t need a theory of atonement at all. As one person has written, “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff.” [ii]

Tonight I would like to suggest a different understanding; it is nothing new; you have heard me speak of it before, but it is so compelling to me that I have to share it again on this special evening.   At its core it goes back to my concern about our preoccupation with ourselves – it’s all about me! But what if Jesus’ death isn’t all about us? What if it is all about God? Isn’t God the prime mover? Is the death of Jesus a reaction to our behavior or an expression of God’s eternal love of all creation? Is Jesus death just a mopping up exercise, a putting things back in order after humanity’s big failure by an angry God who needs God’s honor satisfied?  That sounds like a God made in our own image, turning to, and even sanctifying, violence as a redemptive tool. Or is Jesus’ death the revelation of a fundamental truth about the essence of God’s nature. Is Jesus just a son sent to solve a problem – a means to an end, a useful, transactional tool – or is he meant to be a revelation of the heart of God?[iii]

If the latter is the case, then it follows that Jesus came, not to change God’s mind about us, but to change our mind about God. To show us and teach us how God really is – to show us that God identifies with our suffering, and comes to suffer with us; not passively tolerating our suffering, or ignoring it, or observing it, or demanding it as payment, but sharing it, and transforming it.

Roberta Bondi, in reflecting on the death of Jesus, imagines him harking back to Isaiah, saying “A bruised reed, I will not break you; a smoldering wick, I will never quench you,” and then going on to say “[I cast my lot with you] even so far as to die a death the world finds shameful. . . This is what I, Jesus, as a human being in the image of God, and as God’s own self, choose with great joy.”[iv]

So we ask again tonight, why the cross? Why did Jesus have to die? If it’s all about God, then the answer is to expose the sins of the world, but not by substituting himself for us, or by being the ransom for us, but by showing what the real sin of the world is – ignorant violence, killing in the name of purity, power held by force and coercion, and self-righteousness that cannot tolerate any challenge – and then by not returning those curses with more curses, but instead offering a blessing.

It has been said that when we look at the cross we are privileged to see as much of God as we ever hope to see. This cross is not simply the truth about the human condition; it is the truth about God . . . [and] about what is up to in the world, a dramatic unveiling of who God really is, down deep.”[v] Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Roberta Bondi, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life, 1995, 24.

[ii]Margo Houts, “Saving the Atonement: Feminist Concerns and the Pastoral Talk,” Circuit Rider, September/October 2004, 13

[iii] Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, 2008, 195-200.

[iv] Bondi, 144.

[v] Will Willimon, Thank God It’s Friday, 2006, 89.