Sermon on Monday of Holy Week 2016
Sermon at Lancaster Priory
The Revd Dr Liz Horwell
For nearly two thousand years people have been arguing over why exactly Jesus died. The disciples at the time could make no sense of it: their Messiah was to be triumphant, blessed by God; but being nailed to a tree to die marked one as cursed by God. Their Messiah was meant to lead them to freedom against their Roman oppressors. He wasn’t meant to be demeaned, tormented, flogged, stripped and crucified.
From their perspective Jesus could have done something about it all. He could have fought back: he certainly had enough followers, judging by the crowds who greeted him as he rode into Jerusalem at the beginning of the last week of his life. Yet from the moment he was arrested, Jesus became passive; barely uttering half a dozen sentences in response to his tormentors. Why?
The gospels themselves give us little indication of why Jesus had to die. Neither does the Acts of the Apostles. Only when Paul becomes a Christian and starts writing to different Christian communities do we find the earliest attempts at explanation. And over the centuries theologians, priests, academics, Christians everywhere, have tried somehow to get behind the written word of Paul’s letters to work out how God’s purpose was in all this?
One popular theory is it was pre-ordained: that long before Jesus was born God had determined that he would die on the cross. This theory argues that God was so angry with humankind for all our sins that he needed someone to somehow pay for those sins. So Jesus gave his life to appease God’s anger and reconcile humankind with God.
For these people it’s as if the whole of Jesus’ life except the cross is irrelevant: his sole purpose in coming to earth was to die for us. I disagree. I suspect that if we knew nothing of Jesus’ life, we probably wouldn’t even know that he died on the cross: plenty of others had also been crucified after all. It was the way he lived his life and, of course, his resurrection that made his death so significant.
So I do believe Jesus came with a purpose (as described in our reading from Isaiah this evening (42; 1-9)but that purpose had to do the way he lived his whole life, not just his final moments. At every point in his life Jesus had to make decisions and actually he made choices which (I will argue later) put him on a collision course with forces that were less than good in our world; so that one factor in what was happening was that he was fighting, on our behalf, something of a cosmic battle between good & evil; between unconditional love and self-serving.
But today I want to take us back to that first question and ask again “Why did Jesus have to die?” As a parish priest people came to me all the time and asked questions such as “Why did God do this to me? What did I do to deserve that? Why did my ‘sibling, partner, baby have to die? And it’s as if they believe that God controls everything, decides everything. And sometimes people offer somewhat trite responses which suggest that they collude in this belief. What does ‘God has a time for everything’ actually mean for instance?
“Why did Jesus have to die?” is the same kind of question. And all such questions beg the further question as to whether our time on earth is set by God before we’re born or whether we have freedom to make choices that can change how our lives pan out?
John Barton, in his amazing book, “Love Unknown” says that one of the great truths about human life is that it is unpredictable: both joys and sorrows can come unexpectedly. There’s a riddle that goes something like: “How you do you make God laugh?” and the answer: “Show him your plans”. Sometimes we foolishly think we’re in control of our plans but we’re not. But not because God pre-plans everything for us: far from it: simply that in our lives lots of things are just not in our control: things other people do, things that are just happenchance. And even things that we do ourselves (good or poor choices that we make) can set other things in motion that change what we have planned and give life an unexpected twist. But they’re not all pre-planned by God.
So if human life is unpredictable; and Jesus comes to us fully human, then he must have come choosing to live within the same unpredictability as the rest of us; and his life, death and resurrection are no more pre-ordained than anything that happens to any of us.
Yes, Jesus made decisions in his earthly ministry that made it more likely that he was going to provoke envy and hatred amongst the religious authorities. Indeed you can see at times he almost goaded people into a negative response. John’s gospel is littered with arguments between Jesus and the religious leaders. And some people responded to his ministry by believing that he was the Messiah whilst others were contemptuous and sought ways to have him killed.
But what Jesus seems to be aiming at is to stir them out of their complacency and smugness, to make them rethink what God’s desired ways of living really are. As humans we somehow manage to be so good at following the rules and completely missing the underlying principles. We act as if the way we’ve always done things is automatically right, and change is bad! So Jesus did provoke them to try and make them think about whether there were better ways to do things but there was no great pre-plan which determined how they would respond or what the outcome would be. However when Jesus challenged the religious authorities he threatened their own fragile control over the people and he awoke in them the jealously, envy and hatred that made them want to bring him down.
Barton says “God did not need Jesus to die, he did not want Jesus to die, did not demand that Jesus die. But, in Jesus, God demonstrates that he is prepared to share in the human condition and so He has to live with situations where the outcome is uncertain”. And that’s what Jesus did. He had a vision of what he wanted to achieve: which was to help people see better ways of living with each other. What he couldn’t do was to dictate how people would respond. For that he simply had to wait and see.