Scripture: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Scripture: John 12:23-33
Scripture: John 19:17-30
On Wednesday at Soup & Sermon, Pastor Paul Kelley challenged us to embody the love that comes from a spiritual maturity. We’re going to need that maturity if we’re to get through the darkness of the next couple days of trauma, death, isolation, and darkness.
These holy days of our Christian Calendar–like Good Friday–are intended to be days of embodiment. Days when we place ourselves into the story and imagine. And finding ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ disicples on this particular Friday, I imagine we’d realize there is an inevitability to where we stand today. To where his disciples stand. To where Jesus hangs. And to where Jesus will soon be laid. Put yourself there:
Welp……Today is the day (we might think). We had a good run. No one can say we didn’t try to share the good news of God’s redemptive love. But today is when it all caught up with us. There are social dimensions of following Jesus that proved unpopular. There are political realities that our faith stood in contradiction to. And Jesus……well, you know Jesus never made things easy for himself.
Today is a kind of day of reckoning–when the fruit of all that was sown just piles up against us. So they arrested Jesus. He was run through a judicial system one cannot call “just.” He was tortured, humiliated, and ultimate crucified.
That is what we remember today.
So how on earth can anyone call this day “good”? What is so good about Good Friday?
It was most decidedly NOT good from the perspective of the disciples. And many non-english cultures don’t use this terminology at all. In German (for example) the day is called Karfreitag, or “Sorrowful Friday.” That seems to hit the nail more on the head.
All language changes and evolves with use, of course. And long, long ago, “good” was a word that meant something akin to what “holy” means today. So when our english-language ancestors started calling this day “Good Friday,” they really meant “Holy Friday”–because it was a holy day (holiday). Get it?
But I do believe that all these years later, we can call it good anyway because we know the rest of the story. Through the seemingly-miraculous powers of hindsight, we know what God is doing. We know that the cross is a kind of giant X-marks-the-spot that indicates when and where everything changed.
That’s why the cross is so foundational to our life and worship. We take communion (as we did earlier) as in remembrance of the cross–the shed blood and broken body of our Savior. As a baptist, I baptize people by immersion–reenacting Jesus’ death on the cross, burial, and resurrection. We sing “The Old Rugged Cross” and “There is Power in the Blood” and “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light, and the burdens of my heart rolled away…It was there by faith I received my sight and now I am happy all the day!”
Without a doubt, the cross is at the center of our very identity as Christians–as followers of Jesus.
Need to Die?
Which is why it may surprise you this morning that my theme today–my sermon title–is “Does your Jesus need to die?”
Does your Jesus……need……to die?
Now, let’s get all that “right answer” BS out of the way.
Of course Jesus needed to die because of sin and brokenness,
and the need for reconciliation,
and the impermanence of the effectiveness of the Old Testament sacrificial system,
and the love and mercy of God,
and all those complicated arguments that get used to describe the mechanisms of salvation–as though any of us could fully comprehend what has been done for us here.
We good now?
If we move all that out of the way–if we are forced to be more honest with ourselves and with God than we have ever been before–I suspect we might be surprised with what is left.
Sure, we might hear ourselves say. Jesus needs to die. But……
Jesus didn’t really need to die for us, does he? I mean: we’re making our way; we’re not that desperate. We’re here! We’re the choir, so to speak–you know, the one that get’s preached to because we are always there, but we’re not the one’s the message is really for.
Jesus died for them, right?–for the ones the sermons are for. Jesus did have to die for murderers and thieves and adulterers, for drug-abusers and wife-beaters, for the Hitlers and the package-bombers of the world. But……
But that’s not us. We’re better than that. We’ve been pulling ourselves up by our spiritual boot-straps for ages now, and look how much better we are. Look what we’ve overcome. Look what we’ve built. Look what we’ve accomplished. Look how hard we’ve forced the square peg of God’s Kingdom into the round hole of our American political system.
Don’t you think we’re doing just fine without the blood of Jesus congealing and getting our plans all sticky? Without the cross wedging itself into the machinations of our moral crusading? Don’t we wear the crown of our accomplishments more suitably than the impaling thorns of the crown of Christ? Aren’t we so much more effective carrying the Gospel without nail-pierced hands or damaged feet or the stabbing pain of a wounded soul?
No. It only shows how much we’ve missed the point.
One of the most tragic things I’ve ever witnessed as a pastor was a life-long professed Christian insist–to my face and publicly–that they were not a sinner and that they took offense to my suggestion that any Christian was.
I was shocked, and my head pounded for days with 1John 1:10, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and [God’s] word is not in us” (1John 1:10 NRSV).
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable of two pray-ers and two prayers. It’s a parable that seems to have even more application today than all those years ago.
One is a good, faithful, church-going fellow–you know, the kind you can rely on for things. Maybe a deacon, or a lay-leader, or a Sunday School teacher. The kind of person who shows up at every event, who stays late to help clean up, who steps up to the plate, and who–quite frankly–is the kind of person most pastors wish we had more of.
The other person isn’t. Jesus says he’s a tax collector. And the rest of the year, maybe I’d need to interpret that for our modern context. But given it is tax season, maybe you can do enough imagining yourself. He is not a righteous person. He is not a faithful church member. He is not a model citizen. He is not someone you want your kids to grow up to be.
Now I already have to pause: The fact that it is so easy for us to identify with the first man reveals how far we’ve fallen from the Way of Jesus.
The good, righteous church-goer prays a prayer of thanks (to God, he believes) that he isn’t one of those deplorable people who don’t follow the rules. He connects his success in life to the diligent practice of his religious rituals, and suggests (by association) that the failure of others–like that tax collector, for instance!–is because they are not as faithful.
The other man–a self-acknowledged sinner–won’t even assume the proper posture for prayer, and he simply hopes against hope that his confession and plea for mercy is enough for God.
Of course, as Jesus points out, it is more than enough. Not only does Jesus say this tax collector went home justified, but he tells us that the other man–the good, church-going fellow–did not. “Everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled, but the one who humbles them-self will be exalted” (Luke 18:14b ESV+).
Does your Jesus need to die? According to the scriptures, yes, of course. Because we are sinners. And scriptures remind us that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1John 2:2 NRSV).
There’s a great line in Alexandre Dumas’s great novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The characters are discussing vices–you know, those bad things that we do habitually, like eating too many donuts during the church coffee time. Anyway, one of the characters says that not having a vice is the worst vice at all. Not having a vice is the worst vice of all.
There’s something to that. When we think we’ve got it all together, everything about faith falls apart: compassion, generosity, kindness, justice, love–it all just evaporates.
You know what else evaporates? Our need for a Jesus who loves us enough to die for us.
But even more than that, your Jesus does need to die.
I mean: Your conception of Jesus needs to die–that picture in your head that looks more like you than like a radical, prophetic, dark-skinned, first-century Jewish rabbi who also happens to be God incarnate–enfleshed–Immanuel–“God with us.”
Too many of us have gotten comfortable with a pre-packaged, consumer-friendly Jesus that would himself feel good sitting in our pews, singing our songs, listening to our sermons, and attending our business meetings. But in response to all that–and because of all that–the real Jesus dies on the cross.
Back on Ash Wednesday, we read Isaiah 58 together and we remembered that God doesn’t give two biscuits about our religion. God cares about justice. God cares about the eternal and abiding love of God being demonstrated in the lives of those who slip through the cracks of society. If we are not using what we have to lift up those who are vulnerable, then none of it has anything to do with God: the religion we are practicing, the beautiful structures we preserve, the systems and history that we take pride in, the budgets we sweat over, the successes we pat ourselves on the back for–they are all for naught……
Or more accurately, they are all really for ourselves.
A Difficult Jesus
You see, the Jesus of the bible changes people. He’s not user-friendly. He isn’t going to be popular, though he’s got a knack for generating a lot of buzz. When the going gets tough–and it did and it does and it will with Jesus–he’s going to go places his friends don’t want him to go. He’s going to go places his followers don’t want him to go.
Don’t believe me? Look at Jesus’ disciples. Or better, look at the specific disciples we know as the Twelve. Or still better, look to Peter, the disciple on whom the Jesus movement will rest, according to Matthew 16:18.
In that chapter, Peter seems to finally get who Jesus is: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” (Matthew 16:16 ESV). Yet just verses later, Peter tries to save Jesus from himself, rebuking Jesus–Jesus!!–for suggesting he was going to suffer and die in Jerusalem.
And again just last night, as Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, here comes Simon Peter once again, trying to save Jesus from himself–this time by wielding a sword in armed combat against his perceived enemies (a story found in John 18, Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22). Like most of the time when we resort to violence, it is here an innocent who suffers, a servant who has nothing to do with any of the decisions of this night.
The Sword & Love
In truth, I wrestle with this story and with Jesus’ response that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 NRSV).
I wondered for a long time whether this story showed that it was possible to love someone too much. You know what I mean? It kind of looks like Peter loved Jesus so much that he just couldn’t let Jesus give himself up. Like Peter loved Jesus so much that he had to protect Jesus at any cost. And that sounds kind of good, right?
But one day God took me and turned my perspective around. I came to realize that it is easier to love than to be loved. It is easer to forgive than be forgiven. It is easier to give than to receive.
I don’t question Peter’s love for Jesus. But I’ve come to realize that this part of the Gethsemane story is a story about refusing love.
Peter is willing to sacrifice himself in armed rebellion against the overwhelming force of the Roman military. But he won’t allow Jesus to love him enough to die for him. He cannot loosen his grip on his attempts to control his life and his destiny–and yes, to control even who loves him. Peter lashes out in white-knuckled desperation, weapon in hand, in order to keep the love of Jesus in check because he knows something we too often forget. He knows that receiving that kind of love changes us.
It alters us. Fundamentally. As if in our very DNA.
And if we are subjected to that most overwhelming force in existence, then all power, all control, all illusion can only fall away.
……Including that carefully constructed Jesus that lets us piously sit in judgment over the very people Christ died to save.
Does your Jesus need to die?
Mine does. And with God’s help, I will die too.
“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25 NIV).