It is Good Friday. In just a short period of time, I will participate in a Service of Darkness. We will hear again and try to imagine the wrenching story of the crucifixion. Before the end of our gathering, the Christ candle will be extinguished. Darkness. There will be no boot-legging of our hopes into day after tomorrow. Just darkness. And despair. Hopefully our imagination will allow us to center into that awful moment on a horrific day called “Good” long, long ago.
Before the evening is over I will ask the question, “Why did Jesus die? “ It is a question that I have asked much more in recent years. Others seem to be doing the same. Most of us have been convinced we know the answer, so why waste good time asking about something that has been established with such certainty. HE DIED TO SAVE US FROM OUR SINS.
I can no longer say that. I can’t accept that the sole purpose of Jesus’ life was that he die. And he didn’t just die for us as though it was all a part of a grand scheme. He was murdered. Slaughtered. Executed. Let us take from this moment not what was done for us but what was done to him.
Perhaps we have done our study and made a connection to the cultural and religious systems of Jesus’ day. In ancient Judaism, the sacrificial system was in place and without question. For the sins of all the people, a lamb without blemish was slain, blood was spilled, and a sacrifice was made on the altar within the Holy of Holies. Then hands were laid on a goat, a “scapegoat” if you please, transferring the sins of the people onto the animal which was then sent into the wilderness….bearing the sins away.
With a bit of creative spin, the apostle Paul (with help from some others) substituted Jesus and his death for both that lamb without blemish and a scapegoat. A sacrifice was made for our sins and by his death, our sins are carried away. And it had to be that way….that kind of price had to be paid for wrong-doing. Sin was so alienating and God was so offended that nothing else would suffice.
One really big problem (along with several others): we know nothing about nor do we live under a sacrificial system today. If animals of any kind were sacrificed, we would move to head it off legally. And human sacrifice? That is the stuff of barbarism. (Really….what does that say about the character of God that the only way God can be appeased for human sin is through the slaughter of God’s son).
Jesus died because the story of humankind has as one of its tracks that we humans have a hard time with a pure love that comes to us regardless and not only to us but to everyone else. There’s the rub. Love us, but not them. Treat us special, but not them. Allow us the power, but not them. It is the scarlet thread that runs through our empire building, our wars, our greed, our petty jealousies and envies, our need to be in charge and to always be right. If you don’t see that, then imagine standing outside the Pentagon with a sign proclaiming “Blessed are the peacemakers and Love our Enemies.” Go to Wall Street and proclaim that “a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of things possessed.” Encourage someone to sell what they have, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus. Find a way to be last or least and to live as a servant. At first you will only be considered unstable. But press the point and you will be arrested, or hurt, or worse. You get my drift. The world turns viciously on that kind of thinking and action. It will even kill if threatened too much.
And that’s what happened long ago on a Good Friday.
It just seems to me that Jesus knew all that; he knew what he was getting into. But the shape of his obedience was that this is what God is like. Even when we react in all those ways, God still loves us. And God will not give up on us. Even if it means that God’s son dies.
John Dominic Crossan has been of help here. He says the Q Gospel (the lost writings from which Matthew and Luke pulled some of their material) flows with the idea not of sacrifice, but Jesus as the WISDOM of God. This is the way God desires for humankind. This way reflects God’s character. And this wisdom can be persecuted. It can be killed. But it cannot be destroyed. It comes back. Crossan says, “(This) theology would be: the world’s powers killed Jesus, but he has returned to God, and he is with us despite his death, as God’s wisdom.”
For me, the sacrificial metaphor no longer works. I’m not sure I can worship a God who stands behind the idea that God must allow the only begotten son to be killed off before I can be won over.