Why did Jesus die?
There are two ways to approach this question. One approach is to be reductionistic about it – to say that Jesus died because for one particular reason or purpose, and none other. A better approach is to acknowledge that Jesus’ death can have multiple, rich, nuanced meanings – to always be on a quest that seeks to explore the depths of the mystery of the cross.
I’m convinced that there is a sense in which we can say that Jesus died for our sins – as a substitute for us. This way of thinking about his death is sometimes called a theory of atonement.[*] It is one way of looking at the cross – a perspective that is steeped in tradition within the Church. However, it is not the only way of looking at it.
During this week, I have tried to demonstrate that Jesus also died – that, really, he offered up his life – for reasons that are, frankly, political. He believed in the kingdom of God, and he was wiling to speak up for it and face the consequences of so doing. He was not afraid to step into the realm of the political, even if it meant his life.
In an age when Christians are on a very dangerous and very serious power-trip, engulfed in the so-called “culture wars,” and eager to defend our borders from terrorists and immigrants, this is a very difficult thing to hear. The implications that come from surrendering, rather than seizing power, from confronting the oppressor and taking up the cause of the oppressed, make us squirm. We are afraid that serious self-examination may put is in the place of the temple authorities of Jesus’ day, rather than the place of Jesus’ disciples.
But today, on Good Friday, as you contemplate the depth of the meaning of the cross in your own way and within your own faith community, I invite you to consider not only the atoning implications of Jesus’ death, but also its social and political ramifications. How does Jesus’ death at the hands of the unjust and unmerciful impact what happens in your own living rooms, board rooms, and courtrooms?
We do not merely accept Christ’s death as a gift – we are invited to participate in it, walking and talking as he walked and talked:
If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
[*] If you’re interested in a closer look at the doctrine of atonement, a very good, accessible discussion can be found in this article on Christianity Today.