Years ago, my family and I visited another congregation in town where a friend of mine served. Unfortunately, my friend was away on summer vacation so I missed him, but we stayed to worship anyway. The intern preached. The intern did a fine job of leading worship. Everything seemed pretty Lutheran, very familiar.
But when he started to preach, his voice changed dramatically as he channeled the quintessential TV evangelist. He spoke about Jah-eeee-sus who died on the cah-ross! He talked about our odd behavior to wear the cah-ross as jah-ewoohlry. And then he told the story of a conversation he initiated with a Target employee asking why she wore a necklace that was a symbol for someone’s execution. He wondered aloud with us why she was taken aback at his question.
I don’t remember the point of his sermon. I do remember my husband Tom glaring at me to make sure I stayed put in the pew. He didn’t want me to lead our family of six out of the sanctuary mid-sermon. He also didn’t want me to get up and ask the preacher to leave.
The cross is central to our Christian faith. It’s a symbol with meaning that’s lost on many. It’s a symbol of a story that can’t be captured in a single phrase or theory.
It is how Jesus died. It is the method by which he was killed. It’s ugly. Tragic. Painful. We don’t gloss over this part of the story. It’s the part of Jesus’ story we confess that reveals the power of vulnerability: where God shows up, setting aside divine power, taking on flesh and blood, because of God’s great love for the world.
The story moves from the tragedy at a cross to the miracle of an empty tomb. And Jesus’ resurrection births a new reality — which, in the words of Bishop Desmund Tutu, establishes that “goodness is stronger than evil; Love is stronger than hate; Light is stronger than darkness; Life is stronger than death”. This is the reality established in Christ. It is our hope — not just as a future possibility but also as a present reality. We lean into this promise when our hearts break, when tragedy strikes, and when fear, worry and anxiety take root in our lives.
Today we’re starting a new sermon series called, “Is there more to life than this?” and for the next several weeks we’ll wrestle with questions that are often at the heart of the Christian faith. The questions come from Nicki Gumble, founder of the Alpha series we introduced last fall. About 180 people participated. We’re offering it again this fall. We hope you’ll consider being part of it — whether or not you’re a member, whether or not you’ve participated before.
We received lots of positive feedback from those who participated last year. Deane Roe recalled to me in an email how much he enjoyed the content and discussion, and in particular, how it prompted him to re-think his existing thoughts on faith. He learned new perspectives he had not previously considered. Having participated he felt more grounded in his beliefs and recommends the program without reservation. Anna Davis and her family enjoyed the experience, too. They found the conversations around the variety of faith questions to be very engaging; kids had fun, food was yummy, and the whole family wants to participate again.
The questions Alpha addresses are big. The one we’re exploring today is no exception: Why did Jesus die? It’s an important question to ask but not for the sake of finding the right answer. That kind of approach plays into a dominant misconception about Christianity — that we turn to scripture to find answers to our questions. This limits God’s story. Answer books leave little space for debate and wonder and mystery. Thinking you have an answer to a particular faith question doesn’t encourage conversations with someone who thinks differently than you. It ends them.
The Jewish practice of Midrash, on the other hand, turns to scripture to start a conversation. We have much to learn from the people who’ve had scripture the longest. They believe questions of faith should be debated and that the conversation that follows is what’s helpful for discovering what’s important about faith, community, and your own self. Midrash explores connections between current realities and the unchanging biblical text. It’s a practice that doesn’t avoid the tough stuff of faith but encourages you to engage with the unfolding story of God and God’s people.
“Why did Jesus die?” It’s a big question. It’s worth conversation. And theologians have argued about it for years. There is —
- The ransom theory (the early church fathers)
- The satisfaction theory (Anselm)
- The penal substitution theory (Luther)
- The moral example (Abelard)
- The Christus Victor (Aulen)
Way too complex to address in this space at this time. All of them, theories that try to answer the question: “Why did Jesus die?” But scripture doesn’t provide a quick-fix answer. Instead, scripture invites us into God’s story, to wonder and wrestle about what happened at the cross, and, in the wrestling, be blessed with a glimpse of the depth of God’s love.
In our earlier reading from Ephesians, we hear the words from a letter to a community of faith living with questions about their faith. A lot of time has passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection. It seems their faith is being tested. They’re waiting for Jesus to return and wondering about God’s plan in the meantime. In these opening verses the author assures the community of believers that God blesses and God loves, and that God’s plan has already been revealed in the life and work of Christ: to reconcile the world to God that all creation be healed and that all the world would know God’s love. This is God’s plan. The letter is written to remind the church of this truth. As God’s church, we need reminding.
This past week I spent time with my three dearest women friends from college. One of them has lived in Baltimore for the past 20 years, so it was little wonder that our conversation, at one point, turned to the president’s recent tweets that were critical of the city and its people. At the center of our conversation were the two letters published by Ecumenical church leaders as a response in defense of the city. We were glad to know the church was speaking up. We were grateful for the courage and leadership in calling all of us to task.
The bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Right Reverend Marianne Edgar Budde, one of the co-authors, noted in an interview that “the separation of church and state was never designed to prevent religious people from being involved in the public square.” The letter’s intent was a call to decency in discourse so that all views might feel respected. The authors hoped to help move Americans to find a middle ground for honest debate about the issues we face together in order to build society that is reflective of the word that God has revealed to us.”
The leaders extended an invitation to the president and others, to visit Baltimore to see what faith groups are doing to help the city’s neighborhoods: “Teaching children to read and study, reclaiming abandoned buildings for housing and other community needs, helping recent immigrants and refugees, feeding, clothing and housing the homeless, planting trees, growing gardens, and cleaning up streets.” This is the hard work of peace Pastor Kris named in her sermon last week. It’s the work God continually calls us to as the Church.
The letter to the Ephesians doesn’t answer the question, why did Jesus die. But when we engage with the sweeping story it describes, we’re reminded that there is no succinct way to sum up what happened at the cross. We are instead assured that God blesses and God loves. God forgives and God redeems. This is what’s revealed in the work and life of Christ. This is God’s vision for the world, a plan we get to be part of every time we choose love, every time we work for justice, peace and healing, every time we speak up on behalf of the forgotten. When we mirror the work of Christ we reflect God’s love for the world.
Rachel Held Evans writes in her book, “Inspired,” that Jesus didn’t just come to die. “Jesus came to live — to teach, to heal, to tell stories, to protest, to turn over tables, to touch people who weren’t supposed to be touched and eat with people who weren’t supposed to be eaten with, to break bread, to pour wine, to wash feet, to face temptation, to tick off the authorities, to fulfill scripture, to forgive, to announce the start of a brand-new kingdom, to show us what that kingdom is like, to show us what God is like, to love his enemies to the point of death and to beat death by rising from the grave. Jesus did not simply die to save us from our sins; Jesus lived to save us from our sins. [We] are not a group of people who believe all the same things; the church is a group of people caught up in the same story, with Jesus at the center.”
When C.S. Lewis wrestled with the question, why did Jesus die, he wrote a children’s book — actually a whole series of books with “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Not something you would expect, not something anyone might expect, but a wonderful way to answer such a big question: not with a theory or statement of fact or a claim to being right but with a story that gives space to mystery, wonder, grace.
May God bless us with the courage to keep wrestling with the hard questions of faith, and in our discerning, may your life and mine reflect the work and life of Christ.
1 – Rachel Held Evans, “Inspired,” pg. 54
2 – https://cathedral.org/have-we-no-decency-a-response-to-president-trump.html; https://marylandepiscopalian.org/2019/07/29/a-letter-to-president-donald-j-trump-from-the-leaders-of-marylands-christian-communities/
4 – Rachel Held Evans, “Inspired,” pg. 245