St. Philip Lutheran Church
14 March 2021 + Lent 4B
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
“Why did Jesus have to die?”
It was my first week as a chaplain intern. With just one year of seminary under my belt, the hospital handed me a badge and a key card and sent me on my way.
Clinical Pastoral Education, they call it. More like, 10 intense, 40-hour weeks to see if you’re still cut out for this pastor thing.
That Friday, only four days in, I was sure that I wasn’t. No sooner did I enter the patient’s room – after clarifying that, despite my clergy collar, I was not a Catholic priest – he pounced with his question: “Why did Jesus have to die?”
“Well, what do you think?” I thought my response was so clever and “pastoral” – when, in all honesty, it was more me stalling for time because I had no idea what to say.
“I’m asking you!” he responded. “You don’t know, do you?” Checkmate.
Why did Jesus have to die? If I couldn’t answer a question that basic, what business did I have being a pastor?
It’s a hard question. Theologians have spilled a lot of ink and poured a great deal of energy into it. And, I have to confess, some of their answers have ranged from confusing at best to harmful at worst.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…” As if to say: Look at what God did for you… God gave up his “one and only” kid because you’re a terrible person! As if God is either a heartless parent or else some kind of bloodthirsty, petty, vengeful deity that demands human sacrifice to make up for our sins. What kind of God is that?
My 93-year-old patient later disclosed to me during our conversation that he had been physically abused by his mother when he was growing up. It’s no wonder an image of God as some kind of “divine child abuser” made him cringe, if not reject the whole idea outright.
Why did Jesus have to die? It’s a question we’re confronted with in a passage that has been translated into more languages than any other verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Too often, I fear we’ve highlighted the wrong thing in this verse – emphasizing the human action of believing over God’s action of loving. And God’s action is too profound to be diminished – a love for the whole world, the whole cosmos, the whole created universe. A love that offers us eternal life and life abundant, right now. A love that doesn’t condemn but saves.
This weekend, we mark the one-year anniversary since COVID-19 shut down our world and upended our lives. One year later, things seem to be looking up, however cautiously. Cases are going down. Vaccines promised for all by May. Loosening restrictions in some places.
It’s tempting to want to rush “normalcy” – to get back to the way things used to be. But what does that “normalcy” actually mean?
“How tempting, how easy it would be to say ‘let’s get back to ‘normal’.’ ‘Normal’ here in Pennsylvania was the ability to be fired from my job or evicted from my housing because of my sexual orientation. It was medical care and civic offices and school districts and yes, churches, visiting inexcusable ignorance or active harm upon LGBTQIA+ people as well as Black and brown and disabled people. It was relentless productivity and chronic exhaustion. Like the slavery in Egypt, it was nothing to go back to just because recent times have been excessively difficult.”
I yearn to be back together to worship with all of you in person. But I have no desire to go back to the kind of “normal” Carla describes.
Is “normalcy” what we are called to strive for? Or are we called to strive for the kingdom of God – a way of life that so embodies Jesus’s ministry that challenged the “normalcy” of his day and that ultimately got him executed on a cross?
For God so loved the world…
The cross confronts the systems of violence and brokenness in our world, and the cross also stands tall as hope in the midst of it all. The cross is paradox in that way. The cross acknowledges our sorrow and hope, judgment and mercy, despair and healing, brokenness and wholeness.
In the cross we see the wideness of God’s rich mercy and the great love with which God loved us. In the cross we behold the God who makes us alive and raises us up.
In the cross we look to the One who is lifted up, who draws all people to himself. In the cross we see the One who came not to condemn but to save the world, to rescue us from the things that are hostile to the kind of abundant life Jesus offers.
Why did Jesus have to die? I wish I had a better answer when I walked into his room six years ago. I wish I had the kind of answer that Debie Thomas offers:
“[Jesus] died because he exposed the ungracious sham at the heart of all human kingdoms, holding up a mirror that shocked his contemporaries… he revealed what our human kingdoms, left to themselves, will always become unless God in God’s mercy delivers us. In the cross, we are forced to see what our refusal to love, our indifference to suffering, our craving for violence, our resistance to change, our hatred of difference, our addiction to judgment, and our fear of the Other must wreak. When the Son of Man is lifted up, we see with chilling and desperate clarity our need for a God who will take our most horrific instruments of death, and transform them, at great cost, for the purposes of resurrection.”
The mystery of the cross – Jesus’s death and resurrection – invites us to imagine a different kind of future, a future that God is calling us into. It’s not a future that looks like the “normalcy” of the past. God doesn’t call us back. God calls us forward.
Why did Jesus have to die? For God so loved the world.
Jesus’s death shows us a love without limits. Jesus’s death shows us the extent to which God was willing to go in order to make that love known to the whole world, the whole cosmos, the whole created universe.
In the mystery of the cross, Jesus shows us that God was willing to risk it all, even death, to bring healing and wholeness to a world that so desperately needs it.
For God so loved.