Apr2FriGood Friday Sermon 2021 April 2, 2021
I generally liked attending Sunday school as a child.
But there was one Sunday school class that I remember that made me really angry and upset.
It was probably the Sunday before Easter and I was maybe 9 years old,
and we had just finished watching a Film Strip Projector story
about Good Friday.
The teacher asked the class: “So who was responsible for killing Jesus?”
“Who killed Jesus?”
One classmate proposed: “The Disciples”.
No, that was not correct, the teacher clarified.
God!, someone answered . No that was wrong too.
The high priest. Incorrect.
I was sure I knew the right answer and I raised my hand up really high.
“Pilate.” I responded with a grin.
No, that’s wrong, the teacher commented.
“What?” I stammered. I was so sure I knew the answer…
it was Pilate who had the authority to carry out the death penalty.
He gave the command to let Jesus be crucified.
I could not believe my ears.
Another child offered: “We did”.
Yes, the teacher, finally responded.
“We killed Jesus, because of our sins”.
I got angry, I was confused.
How could I have killed Jesus?
I wasn’t around 2000 years ago,
I didn’t want to kill Jesus.
I loved Him.
This made no sense at all.
I still remember that Sunday school class vividly,
because the feeling of anger at the accusation that I had somehow killed Jesus,
or that my actions made God kill Jesus, still runs strong.
We have some children’s books at home,
which deal with behavioural issues like stealing, lying etc.
that we got as a present.
At the end of each booklet there is a prayer the child is supposed to pray which ends… I’m sorry Jesus for doing this.
Thank you for dying for my sins. Amen.”
I cannot pray this prayer, it chokes me up too much with rage.
I guess it’s a bit of a trigger for me, those five simple but cutting words:
“Jesus died for our sins”.
The weight of tradition of how we understand why Jesus had to die
is very heavy,
and becomes almost too much to bear on Good Friday.
Almost all the hymns have in their content something to the effect
that “Jesus had to die because we’re bad people.”
The German Passion chorale “Ah Holy Jesus” states it clearly:
“Who was the guilty? Alas, my treason Jesus, hath undone thee.
I crucified thee.”
Even our Hymn of the Day, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”,
a little more subtly points out:
“mine was the transgression, thine the deadly pain”.
Even the Old Testament reading today, from Isaiah lays the blame at our feet (although that wasn’t the intent of the original author):
“he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities…by his bruises we are healed”.
It’s almost impossible not to come to a Good Friday service
and feel sorry for your imperfections,
and assume that the sermon will have as its title:
“Jesus died for your sins.”
And no doubt there will be a majority of preachers today preaching a sermon on precisely that theme.
Well, I’d like to be a little provocative today, and buck the norm,
and preach a completely opposite theme:
“Jesus didn’t die for your sins”.
That’s a little more interesting, you might say, and perhaps a dash heretical,
but please hear me out as I try to explain exactly what we mean when we say: “Jesus died, or didn’t die for our sins.”
It gets a little complicated.
The way that most Christians (esp. western and evangelical Christians) understand the Atonement, or how the death of Jesus has saving, sacrificial qualities, is as follows:
It is called the substitutionary atonement theory
(or penal substitution theory), and it was first proposed in the 11th century,
by an archbishop named Anselm.
His argument, which is very logical, goes as follows:
And the kicker is this:
“It is not just that Jesus offered his life in atonement for sin, but that God demanded it as a condition for our forgiveness.” (Borg/Crossan: The Last Week)
Now, there are a lot of problems with this theory.
Firstly, it goes far beyond what can be found in the New Testament.
While sacrificial imagery is used by various New Testament writers to describe Jesus’s death, it is only one type of imagery that is used,
and when it is, it never is explicit that Jesus’ is punished by God for our sins, in the way the theory describes.
Second, it is based on an example of a human judge that cannot pardon the offended,
and the common knowledge that certain crimes demand certain punishment.
All this is logical and understandeable.
But is a human judge the best metaphor or image for God?
Is God just a very big and powerful judge?
Or is God more than just a judge?
What if we imagine God as a heavenly parent?
A parent can forgive if a child says sorry, or even if it doesn’t…
a child is just a child, we know the child is learning.
A parent doesn’t need to punish a child or hurt a child if the child misbehaves.
The theory paints a very unflattering portrait of God, that “this God is always seeking compensation, and it takes a sacrificial victim to calm and pacify [such an] ultimately merciless and vengeful God”.
God in this model is not a loving, merciful God.
At the end of the day, we are more indebted to Jesus Christ than God,
and God becomes the enemy, someone we resent, and could never love.”
Some critics have gone even further,
describing the theory as perpetrating a crime against the divinity,
by portraying God as a child abuser.
They point out the insidious problem of portraying redemption through suffering,
And that violence (by a parent to a child) could be a good thing.
They criticize how pain and suffering are glorified and put on a pedestal to be admired (to say nothing of the notion that God the Father is a sadistic judge and henchman.)
So much is lost with this theory of substitutionary atonement.
It is logical, and can be explained easily, and there’s a reason it’s been the dominant theory for the last 1000 years.
But it fails to account for the rest of Jesus’ life.
What about his ministry, teaching, healing, & resurrection?
If we put all the focus on God’s killing and punishing of Christ on the cross, why do we need Easter and the resurrection?
All the rest of Jesus’ life is considered irrelevant.
And that’s a problem.
I think it’s important for all Christians to know that while the penal punishment theory is the dominant view of the atonement,
it’s not the only one.
Also, unlike other Christian doctrines,
it hasn’t been explicitly set in stone ecumenically.
The theory isn’t even the oldest.
I won’t list all the alternate theories, but maybe a few main ones:
One of the earliest ones from the 2nd century (Irenaeus’ Recapitulation Theory) describes how Christ functions as the second Adam and where Adam disobeys, Christ obeys, where Adam makes the wrong choices, Jesus makes the right choices.
In this way Christ makes good to God and saves humanity.
What I like about this theory,
is that it take into account all of Jesus’ life and ministry.
In the so-called ransom theory (Origen) which emphasizes Christ’s victory and triumph, Jesus was to pay the price of human sin to the devil.
The devil accepted the transaction replacing Christ for humanity,
that is, Jesus was the ransom price for humanity’s bondage to sin.
But once the switch was made, the devil did not reckon with Christ’s divinity and true power.
Christ rose, and cheated the devil out of the ransom.
The devil couldn’t contain and keep Christ, and was left defeated,
with neither humanity or Christ or anything in his power. (This theory is one you may be familiar with from C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)
Another main atonement theory, this time from the 12th century theologian Abelard, paints a much more subjective picture, it’s called the moral influence model.
It goes like this: Christ’s love for us in his death arouses our love.
We look at Christ’s example and see the love of Christ and we then want to change our ways and follow Christ’s lead and seek restoration to God.
An example of this theory is found in the hymn:
“What wondrous love is this” .
Newer, more recent theologians have offered other, better ways of understanding the role of Jesus’ death, and how it removed obstacles to our reconciliation with God, and they remind us that the first 1000 years of Christianity knew nothing of the substitutionary model,
and that the Orthodox Church has never used it.
Through Jesus’s death and resurrection we are freed from all that separates us from each other and God.
We are rescued from the sickness of sin through Christ’s death.
The whole life, death and resurrection of Christ satisfies God,
from Christ’s incarnation (where he gave up his full powers, to empty himself to take on the form of humanity), to his obedient life, healing and helping people, and teaching people about God and God’s ways,
through to the empty tomb.
OK. So much for a brief walk-through of the various theories of atonement,
and what lies behind that simple but tricky phrase:
“Jesus died for my sins”.
You may have wondered why we read from the Gospel of Mark today,
just like last Sunday.
Traditionally, the Passion Narrative on Good Friday is taken from the Gospel of John, but we are in the year of Mark, so I took some creative license, esp. to highlight the tension of my sermon’s argument.
It’s important to remember that for Mark,
the death of Jesus does not have special cosmic significance
and there is barely a whisper of Jesus “dying for our sins”…
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus dies because his radical view of the Kingdom of God came to clash with the political powers of the day.
The whole premise of Mark’s passion narrative is that the chief priest and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.
Their power was threatened by Jesus’ passion, as Borg and Crossan point out.
Jesus was passionate about the Kingdom of God,
the nonviolent justice of God that demands for all a fair share in the world.
Jesus preached against the domination system,
the convergence of political oppression, economic exploitation,
and religious legitimation.
He preached against the religious-political hierarchy of the Jerusalem elite.
Jesus was an anti-imperial liberation prophet.
Or in other words, Jesus was a rebel against the fundamentals of the Jewish-Roman state and was executed as such.
It was just human inevitability that led to his arrest, torture and death.
In an authoritarian state, if you publicly criticize and create opposition to the government, you will get killed.
It just was inevitable.
His death, in sacrificing for a cause,
was similar to thousands of other examples,
like Martin Luther King Junior, Oscar Romero, Gandhi, Bonhoeffer,
maybe even George Floyd.
Freedom fighters, whether violent or non-violent get assassinated.
That’s power and politics.
Even a divine martyr can get caught up in it.
So what does this all mean for us today,
these various theories about the point of Jesus’ death?
I think that realizing the penal substitution model is not the only way of understanding Jesus’ death,
It frees us from guilt, or at least from overbearing guilt.
Imagine the guilt we put on children telling them:
your stealing a cookie killed Jesus?
Or the guilt the church puts on LGBT+ teens telling them they’ll go to hell, and that God killed Jesus because they’re attracted to someone of the same gender?
As Church, we’ve too long been held captive by the thick fog of fear,
and the pall of fire and brimstone preaching haunts us
(though this penal substituion model) esp. on this Good Friday.
We need to break the link between punishment and Godly satisfaction in our minds as Christians;
this has become a cancer in our Christian lives that needs to be removed.
While the cross must hold central place in our lives,
there are far more productive and better ways to interpret it for us..
“Jesus didn’t die for your sins,
or get killed by God instead of God killing you”
What does this mean?
God truly is love,
God is on our side, not an evil punisher,
And God knows what suffering is like!
Whether you believe that Jesus died for our sins, or Jesus didn’t die for our sins, or some other atonement theory,
realize that it’s OK to disagree on this.
The death of Jesus is a momentous chapter in Christian faith and life,
and something that has been debated for millennia.
We likely won’t end up with a Christianity-wide consensus any time soon, so perhaps, when all is said and done, we end up with Praise,
as our Sending Hymn will end our service today,
(which is the last Hymn of Bach’s St. John Passion).
Lord, thee I love with all my heart.
And in praise to God we can affirm:
Christ died. God loves us. So we can love God and all creation in return. Amen.