FIRST READING Acts 3.12–19
Peter addressed the people, ‘You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.’
SECOND READING 1 John 3.1–7
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
While the eleven and their companions were talking about what they had heard, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence. Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’
WHY DID JESUS DIE?
- Our readings today are all about people trying to making sense of what has just happened – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – and its significance for their lives – the lives of the very first disciples who met Jesus, the lives of the Christian communities founded by those disciples and our lives 21 centuries later
- Our Acts 3 reading starts just after the healing of the paralysed man – the one who goes walking and leaping and praising God. Peter is explaining the link between the power behind the healing and the power that saw Jesus submit to death and be resurrected.
- In 1 John 3 – the writer is addressing some new and dodgy teaching about Christ’s life and death to instruct the early Christian churches about the way they should live their lives as individuals and community
- And in Luke 24 where the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples – Jesus again places his life, death and resurrection in the very broad context of salvation history
This making sense of things is part of we are – we need to understand and to process. It’s what happens when individuals or communities go through something striking or difficult – needing to explore the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ and it’s how history and story are formed. What does this event, this happening mean for our country? How will this change the life of our world, our nation, our community? And we do it as individuals – so what does this mean for me? How do I process what is happening to me? This giving meaning is vital for us – it enables us to learn, to build a framework for our lives and often to move on after something challenging. They say it isn’t what happens to you that affects you but how you process that happening.
Historically it has been the role of the preacher to do this making sense for congregations, to explain the ‘why’ – to give the answers, the framework, the bigger picture.
And to some extent I think that’s still an aspect of the responsibility of church leaders – to enable people to think about the why, to make sense of the text and its relationship to our world, community and individual lives. But it’s very much an enabling. I think at St Peter’s we do not readily accept others’ explanations and teachings if we cannot ground them in our own understanding and reality – it’s the good side of ‘having our own facebook login’ as Terry described last week in his sermon. We need to ‘own’ our faith – and our doubts. We aren’t good at rattling off ‘given’ meanings – we wrestle and explore and think through constantly. We learn through conversation, sharing, examining together. But we need each other in this process – to enter into the ‘meeting’ not ‘meetings’ that Terry was also referring to – helping each other to learn and grow.
So what I hope to do this morning is to offer some outline answers to a very huge question that is at the heart of our readings this morning in the hope that we can wrestle with and make some more sense of our own beliefs and understanding in conversation or reflection, in our meeting together.
That question is ‘why did Jesus die?’ and it’s an enormous question that goes to the heart of our faith. It’s just been Easter and the last time I was leading – Palm Sunday – we were starting the journey towards Calvary together and we touched on some of the things I want to talk about more this morning.
Why did Jesus die? To frame some of the many answers to this question I want to use 3 key phrases from our texts this morning. I am sure they will have leapt out at you too.
- The first comes from our Acts reading – ‘you have killed the author of life’. What a phenomenal statement – you have killed the author of life’. It puts the death of Jesus in a cosmic framework – this is an act of mind blowing significance that takes us back to Genesis 1 and the marvel of the creation story. It’s a phrase that should cause us to wonder and to acknowledge that we are at the edge of a mystery and need to approach our question this morning with an enormous sense of awe, humility and recognition that whatever our human reasoning we rely on God’s granting of insight and wisdom to begin to grasp something of the meaning of Jesus’ death.
It also makes me reflect, as we have had a period of focus on the environment, that Jesus’ death does not just mean something for humanity, crucially important though that is, but symbolises and perhaps embodies the decay and destruction of our earth. We have killed and are killing the Life of our planet. When God ‘authored’ life humanity was the last in line and everything created on the previous 5 days was good and sacred. Does Jesus, in his death, in some way not absorb and transform the human pattern of death but also that of our planet? There are certainly echoes of this in other parts of the scriptures where there is mention of creation groaning for release, of God’s restoration involving a new heaven and new earth.
Yet Peter – and Jesus at many points in the gospels and later Paul in his writings – does draw us back to understanding Calvary in the context of human salvation history. Jesus is the Messiah, the suffering servant, the one who willingly takes on himself the burden and the cost of our redemption. ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures’. Tied up in this phrase are the layers of theology that are at the heart of many Christians’ deepest beliefs – that Jesus, on the cross, took on himself the punishment that should have been ours, that his death frees us once and for all from the weight of our wrongdoing, that our relationship with God is restored. Peter is clear that while the people of his time clamoured for and carried out Jesus’ crucifixion they themselves acted in ignorance – ignorant of the deeper story in which they were only actors. This death was pre-ordained as an act of love, of sacrifice, of redemption.
So why did Jesus die? To save us from our sins is one short answer below which there are many levels of meaning to explore individually and together.
- The second phrase that jumps out from the readings is ‘Peace be with you’ – Jesus words to grieving and anxious disciples, bewildered at the horrific loss of their friend and leader – and there are a set of answers to the question ‘why did Jesus die’ that cluster around the notion of peace. I said back on Palm Sunday that I think Jesus died because of the way he lived – that is in living to values that were in stark contrast with and challenging to the powers that be, a life that was focused on peace and not division, on love and not hate, on hope and not despair.
When I was a child in Northern Ireland – and it’s still the pattern of our creed today – it was as if Jesus life was just a thing to get out of the way so that he could get to Calvary and fulfil our redemption. Indeed our creed jumps from ‘born of Mary to suffered under Pontius Pilot’ in one phrase. In an instant we have glanced over probably the most amazing life that ever was lived and which set a pattern for many lives since. Jesus’ life and death and the refusal to retaliate to injustice and hatred with anything but the conviction of God’s pattern of peace and justice provides a model that many have followed and like Christ, to their cost.
This week saw the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King and celebrated his determination to challenge and change the powers that be through peaceful protest. This peace making Christ was celebrated in declarations by many world leaders this week including this one:
“Though he was taken from this earth unjustly, he left us with his legacy of justice and peace,” “In remembrance of his profound and inspirational virtues, we look to do as Dr King did while this world was privileged enough to still have him.”
I never thought I’d see the day when I was quoting President Trump but it only goes to show you have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.
Our morning worship prayer which asks for ‘the courage to live this day as you would have us live’ recognises that walking the walk is costly but it is rarely at the expense of our physical lives, though some here have fulfilled vocations that have at times put them in places of great risk.
As we were reminded us though on Palm Sunday we need to be in tune with that pattern of commitment to justice and to peace, and live from the kind of unflinching peace that Jesus modelled in order to affect change wherever our lives touch the world today.
But living in and making peace is not just an outward pattern that we celebrate in great lives or find inspiring in people around us – for many the greatest challenge is to truly accept and know the peace that Jesus’ death means for our troubled souls and minds, to forgive ourselves, to accept the pattern of letting go, of living genuinely in the peace of God.
I think some of this is about ‘leaving our burdens at the foot of the cross’ and not worrying about tomorrow in the knowledge that Jesus’ has experienced and walks with us through our most challenging circumstances. That certainly takes deliberate and daily courage.
But it’s also about living in and living out of the peace that comes from knowing who we really are – a journey inwards. We noted that Jesus is resolute about his journey into Jerusalem despite knowing its end. He took each step from an inner conviction, living that moment from the same sense of purpose and of love with which his life ended. But that does not mean it was easy as our gospels record his deep anguish and his plea to his disciples to ‘stay with him’ in the garden. He needed his friends to walk with him and was honest with them about how their failure to do that affected him. You sense that there was no hiding place with Jesus –no easy peace in being with him but something deep and lasting to be experienced if we dare.
- And for me this ties up with the third and final phrase that comes from the 1 John reading this morning – See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God. There is at the heart of Jesus death an act of love that comes from and re-creates relationship. The ‘why did Jesus die’ question, if explored only from the head and not the heart, can be dry and divisive and frankly changes little. The love that God has for humanity is costly, sacrificial, disarmingly honest, never ending and relational. It is personal and it is communal. God invites us into a relationship and urges us to live in relationship to each other – to be the body that we celebrated last week. Whether we do this from an in depth theological understanding of Jesus death or from a simple turning to God to say I want to live as a child of God doesn’t matter. The parable of the Prodigal Son reminds us that God is just longing for us to turn and find the embrace that God offers.
I am sure we all respond to this key question ‘why did Jesus die’ differently and it’s likely that we will give a different answer today to that which we might have given in the past. That’s because the answer to this question is not just intellectual or theological. It’s not an abstract theory on which we might reflect. The answer to the question is a foundation on which we have built our lives, it leads to a spirituality which we practise and to a commitment that is shaped by what we go through. It’s a living reality – we’re on a journey individually and together.
As I finish speaking today some 2 or 300 miles away in Northern Ireland my brother in law is preaching his last sermon as a minister in the Presbyterian church, retiring early (at almost 65!) through ill health. He has lived with MS and before that ME for some 30 years. Summoning the strength to think about and deliver his sermon for the last decade has been his life’s work. For the last few years as MS has attacked his brain he has sat down to deliver his sermon, not being confident that he would be able to read his notes or finish the sentence which he had begun. When he gets home after the service he sleeps for hours and more recently has had health crises on a Sunday and Monday, having given so much from very scant resources.
This is a living image of the love of God and an echo of the death of Jesus to me. A life lived in service and dedication with nothing but the greatest desire for the good of those around him. It is costly, sacrificial, relational. It involves letting go, accepting and the struggle that this involves. It is about being alongside others in their sadness and bewilderment. It is about building peace and justice.
God grant that Jesus’ death might be meaningful and inspirational to us in something of the same way. Amen