This morning we continue our sermon series Questions from the Floor. All of our sermons this summer are based on questions that you submitted. Today’s question is "Why did Jesus have to die for our sins? Why didn’t God just love us enough to forgive us without Jesus having to die?"
At the beginning I need to acknowledge my reliance on two sources. The first is a chapter from a book by the late Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., who taught theology at Columbia Seminary in Georgia and whose book Christian Doctrine generations of Presbyterian ministers have used to cram for their theology ordination exam.
The second source is a book by my college classmate Tony Jones, which is entitled Did God Kill Jesus? Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution.
Imagine the Scene.
A young boy goes to a revival meeting. He had grown up in a Christian home and in the church, but he heard something that night he had never heard before.
The preacher held up a dirty glass. “See this glass? That’s you. Filthy, stained with sin, inside and outside.” He picked up a hammer. “This hammer is the righteousness of God. It is the instrument of God’s wrath against sinners. God’s justice can be satisfied only by punishing and destroying people whose lives are filled with vileness and corruption.”
The preacher put the glass on the pulpit and slowly, deliberately drew back the hammer, took deadly aim, and with all his might let the blow fall.
But a miracle happened!
At the last moment he covered the glass with a pan. The hammer struck with a crash that echoed through the hushed church. He held up the untouched glass with one hand and the mangled pan with the other.
Then the preacher said, “Jesus Christ died for your sins. He took the punishment that ought to have fallen on you. He satisfied the righteousness of God so that you might go free if you believe in him.”
When the boy went to bed that night, he could not sleep. Meditating on what he had seen and heard, he decided that he was terribly afraid of God. But could he love such a God? He could love Jesus who had sacrificed himself for him. But how could he love a God who wanted to “get” everyone and was only kept from doing it because Jesus got in the way? The thought crossed the boy’s mind that he could only hate such a hammer-swinging God who had to be bought off at such a terrible price. But he quickly dismissed the thought. That very God might read his mind and punish him. (Illustration from Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994, 250-251).
The question for us this morning is can we think about the atonement in such a way that helps us to love both God and Jesus? Can we think about what happened on Calvary long ago in a way that makes it clear that God is for us and not against us?
Listen again to the two scripture readings that were shared this morning. From Romans 5, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” And from First John 4, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”
It’s about Love. Love Wins. And God is the one who loves us, and God loves us every bit as much as Jesus loves us. Whatever theory best helps you understand the atonement, make sure that it enables you to sense and experience the love of God.
According to Shirley Guthrie there are at least four main perspectives that emerge from the New Testament to interpret the meaning of the death of Jesus.
The first is redemption. This is the financial image. Imagine a slave market. People have lost their freedom and are being sold into slavery. But someone steps forward and pays the ransom, the price for the purchase of all the slaves. The price is high. His life for ours. But Jesus on the cross pays the price of our redemption and sets us free.
The second perspective draws upon the imagery of war. Jesus is the liberator. A terrible cosmic battle is being waged between God and Satan. Satan has stolen humanity from the Kingdom of God and carried it to the kingdom of darkness. At the cross, the devil takes the prisoner, Jesus, captive and wins the battle of death for but a moment. But on Easter morning, Jesus the prisoner becomes Jesus the liberator and wins the final victory delivering humanity from death to life.
The third explanation of the cross has to do with sacrifice. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Humanity stands guilty before God, deserving of punishment. There is no hope except that the sins be assuaged. But a priest comes forward and serves as the mediator between heaven and earth. The priest makes a sacrifice to atone for the people’s sin. Blood is shed. The lamb is slain, reconciling humanity to God.
And the last of the perspectives comes from the language of the courtroom. God is a righteous judge, who sits behind the bench, with humanity standing in the dock as the accused. The facts are placed in evidence. The defendants are found guilty, and all receive the same sentence: death. But a righteous and good person comes forward and offers himself as a substitute for the guilty, taking their punishment to himself even though he has done nothing wrong.
Whichever perspective resonates with us the most, we should make sure that we interpret each of these images in a way that makes it clear that God loves us just as much as Jesus loves us and in a way that makes it clear that God is for us and not against us.
For example, the financial model does not mean that God is bought off by Jesus.
It means that we are purchased for God. God purchases for us the gift of a new life, much like the bishop in Les Miserables gives to Jean Valjean as a gift the very silver that Jean Valjean had tried to steal from the bishop. And the Bishop tells Jean Valjean to use the gift of the silver to make for himself a new life. “I have bought your life for God,” the bishop tells him.
Likewise, with the sacrificial image, we should interpret that image in such a way that God is for us and not against us. In the ancient world, many people believed that when the gods were angry at humanity, the gods had to appeased with sacrifice. But what if it’s not God that needs to be appeased, but it’s humanity that needs to see and understand that violence only begets violence and that violence is never redemptive?
René Girard studied and taught world religions and ancient myths. He later converted to Christianity largely because of the theology of the cross. My college classmate Tony Jones summarizes Girard’s view in this way: When we look at Jesus hanging on the cross, we are looking in a mirror. God is reflecting back to us the outcome of our systems of rivalry, sacrifice, and violence. Jesus’ death shows conclusively that these systems are bankrupt, that they do not assuage guilt, and that they do not minimize violence. Jesus, as the ultimate innocent victim, is the final sacrifice because he reveals the fiction behind the entire enterprise of sacrifice. (from Tony Jones, Did God Kill Jesus?Looking for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution, New York: HarperOne, 2015. See especially chapter 16.)
Girard draws upon the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Book of Genesis. Joseph’s brothers try to kill him but decide to sell him into slavery instead. Joseph eventually rises from a slave to being second in power only to the Pharaoh. Many years later, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt because there is famine in their land, Joseph does not seek revenge against his brothers. He does toy with them for several chapters, but he doesn’t seek revenge and he doesn’t try to have them killed. Tearfully, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and tells them who he is. And Joseph tells them, what you intended for evil, God intended for good.
Girard’s view of the crucifixion is similar. What humanity intended for evil in killing Jesus, God intended for good. We see an example of this in President Obama’s moving eulogy on Friday for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. In that speech the President reflected on the shooter’s announced motive of hoping to start a race war. The President described that as …
"An act that [the shooter] imagined would incite fear and recrimination; violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation's original sin.
Oh, but God works in mysterious ways. (Applause.) God has different ideas. (Applause.)
He didn't know he was being used by God. (Applause.) Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group -- the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle. The alleged killer could have never anticipated the way the families of the allen would respond when they saw him in court -- in the midst of unspeakable grief, with words of forgiveness. He couldn't imagine that. (Applause.)
The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston, how the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond -- not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life. (Transcript of President Obama’s Eulogy of Rev. Pinckney from Vox.com, retrieved June 27, 2015).
Truly, what the shooter intended for evil, God redirected for good.
Why did Jesus have to die? Why couldn’t God have just forgiven us without Jesus having to die? In the quote that is printed on the cover of your bulletin, Shirley Guthrie responds by saying that God loves us and cares for us too much to dismiss our sin and guilt with a flippant “It doesn’t matter.” God wanted to stand with us in the loneliness and alienation we bring on ourselves when we separate ourselves from God and other people. Because it is just when God comes to our side in our loneliness, alienation, and guilt that they are overcome. (Guthrie, 260).
In his book my college classmate Tony Jones takes this a step further and says that in the cross God identifies with us so completely that when Jesus cries out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” that even God suddenly realizes what it is like to feel abandoned by God. (Jones, chapter 19)
And at the end of the day, contemplating the cross is more of a matter of the heart than of the head. And I’m not talking about the emotional manipulation of a preacher who points the finger and says that because of your sin Jesus died a horrific death. No. Instead, I’m talking about journeying to the cross in our hearts with honesty and authenticity. In the words of the old spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it makes me want to tremble.” A theory of the atonement is not likely to make us tremble. A journey to the cross will.
I’ve had the good fortune to see the traditional site of the crucifixion in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but in truth my real journey to the cross took place in a chapel service at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. It was a year after my father had died of pancreatic cancer. My mother was facing her own significant health issues, and I was an only child in my mid-twenties and feeling lonely and more than a little overwhelmed. In the chapel service we sang
What Wondrous Love is this, o my soul, o my soul,
What wondrous love is this, o my soul
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of Bliss
to bear the heavy cross for my soul.
And I had this sense that all the fear, loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, brokenness, and all the other heavy things were being borne by Jesus on the cross. And the tears started flowing and they wouldn’t stop.
--All of you who grieve.
--All of you who mourn the loss of life or the end of a marriage.
--All of you who mourn the loss of a dream.
--All of you who are living with a terminal illness.
--All of you who deeply regret something that you have done that you wish more than anything that you could undo.
--All of you who worry about an adult child making his or her way in the world.
Jesus on the cross identifies with you in all of your struggles and even knows what it’s like to cry in desperation, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
God experienced humanity fully in the Cross of Christ. And the hope is this:
that just as God experienced humanity fully in dying a real human death--even a brutal human death--so we, too, can experience new life with God in the resurrection.
As I stood there in the chapel service with tears streaming down my face, those around me sang the third stanza, even as my heart was too full to sing myself. Those around me sang
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on
And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be.
And through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
and through eternity, I’ll sing on.