March 28, 2021
“Why did the dude have to die?” My colleague at lectionary group shared this question the other day. I should have listened more carefully because I don’t remember if the child who asked it was a relative of his or not, or how he knew the child. But, my friend said that the pastor who received the child’s question wasn’t happy about it and neither were the parents. It seemed irreverent or disrespectful to them. But, my colleague responded, “I actually can’t think of a better question.”
“Why did the dude have to die?” Of course, by “dude,” the child meant Jesus. And, isn’t it a good thing that he asked the question? It means he’s interested; he’s listening; his mind is engaged on what matters most, and if there’s a bit of silliness involved what’s the harm with that?
As we come upon another Palm Sunday and hear again the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem, hailed as “the one who comes in the name of the Lord” while pilgrims lay their cloaks and branches at his feet, we’re also reminded that the reception doesn’t last. He’s seen the end of the crowd’s support. Notice how when he finally arrives he enters the temple, looks around, and simply leaves. It’s so anti-climactic. I’m not sure what Mark wants us to think about this little detail, but it struck me this time around like a bit of foreshadowing. All of this energy and effort just to enter a place that’s closing up for the night with nothing much going on. It’s like the place is dead and Jesus enters it as a sign of what’s to come. Maybe not so much to turn over tables and make a statement as in other gospels, but instead, just to say goodbye.
Regardless, we can’t help but have Palm Sunday without also recognizing that this is the city of Christ’s death, these are his last moments, the forces that end his life will have their horrible say in just a matter of days.
But, why? Why did it have to be this way? The answer we often get is that Jesus died in order to forgive our sins. And then we say, “But, how does that work?” And someone says, “God needed payment for these sins, and knowing that we couldn’t make that payment ourselves, God sent God’s son as the payment.” And then we say, “So, God needs someone to die in order to be forgiving?” And they say, “Yes.” And we say, “But that makes no sense,” and then we’re back to our original question.
In a recent article on this topic, which the theologians call “Substitutionary Atonement,” Martha Tatarnic makes some points that I think are helpful in gaining a bit of understanding about how it all may work. One is that it only starts to make sense if you think of God in terms of Trinity. So, when God sends the son to die it’s not the same as me offering up say, Charley. Instead, Tatarnic writes, “Jesus is not separate from God but part of the life of God. The suffering and death of Jesus are not something that God does to Jesus or even something God allows to happen to Jesus. Jesus’ suffering is God’s suffering. Jesus’ death is God’s death.” What she draws our attention to is the fact that there is a cost to forgiveness. That when you choose to forgive someone you are releasing them from a certain kind of debt. You sacrifice at your own expense the justice that they owe you. Atonement theory along these lines holds high the notion of grace, which I appreciate. That to forgive human sin costs God something, and knowing the cost, God pays it Godself.
In words that struck me as inspired and impassioned Tatarnic continues,
“Jesus died because he angered the powers of his day by refusing to accept that the dignity of any of God’s people could be discarded as simply the cost of doing business. Jesus died to lay bare the injustice of the world, the all too easy sin of assigning sacrifice to the poor so that the rich can flourish.
Jesus died as an act of love for his undeserving, perpetually confused friends. Jesus died for the people he served, because he would not be cowed from pursuing justice for them, even if it enraged the powerful of his day.
Jesus died for the powerful, for those who sold their souls to the idol of power… to be able to surrender their broken lives to God’s love too.
Jesus died… for people he never knew. The onetime activity of God continues to matter, continues to be offered, because of the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ friendship and sacrifice continues to be extended to us.”
In a way, I like these words a lot. I think they capture the heart of Jesus, which is the best way of knowing the heart of God. But, they don’t so much tell us why Jesus died as they do whom he died for. He died for the least of these, the poor and the marginalized. He died for fallible followers, the unknown and the unknowing, friend and enemy, and even the power brokers whose systems perpetuate the brokenness that breaks God’s heart. He died for us all, and I’ll tell you that I feel it every Good Friday in my head, and heart, and the back of my throat: when the song ends, and the candle is extinguished, and the lights go out, and there’s nothing but silence and darkness and death, I’m struck by the sense that this sacrifice, this cost, this ultimate expense was suffered by God for me.
But, I’ll also say that none of this tells us why it had to be this way. We know who he died for, but why did he have to die?
My best answer to that question is this: Jesus died because he was born. And, I don’t mean that in a flippant way at all. I mean that he had to die because death is a part of being human; death is a part of living. Once it became God’s agenda to become incarnate among us, once God decided to take on flesh and dwell among us as one of us, death became a necessary part of the equation. In that sense, death wasn’t Christ’s greatest sacrifice; birth was. That an infinite, eternal, and endlessly satisfied God would pour God’s very self out into not just created life but human life is a gift of unimaginable grace. God says, “I am God and you are not, but I created you so that I might give myself to you, so that you might share in my life too.”
That Christ died the way he died isn’t particularly redemptive as I see it. It’s really more descriptive. It says that this is what human power structures do when confronted with a God of grace. It’s what bad religion does when a God whose boundary-less love challenges our limitations. It’s what our egos do when a God of resurrection says, “Come, and die to self.” We have our ways of killing God off because in truth we often prefer our own ways.
And, knowing this – knowing us as God does – God continues to be born among us. God continues to give Godself to us. God continues to sacrifice.
The Christ hymn in Philippians offers good scriptural support for my case. Listen to it again. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” God gives Godself in the giving of Christ, but then the hymn continues and we see that the pouring out of Christ shows God’s command even over death. It shows the victory of God’s love over all that would get in the way so that in the end every knee would bow and every tongue would confess. The emphasis is on “every.” It’s the expansive reach of God’s grace for all, mercy for all, love for all that ultimately brings all to God in what looks like worship.
And, that’s the thought that’s resonating with me today. When Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” I’ve always heard it as a call to self-emptying. But, here and now I’m hearing it more as a call to worship. The “obedience” that Jesus offered was a life lived in love for his God and it was the only life he could imagine worth living. And so we’re told: have the same mind! Live a life of worship now because that is where all our lives are ultimately headed. Live a life of worship now because nothing can stop this God from giving Godself to you – not even death.
Kirsten Nestro passed along a title to me. It’s called, “A Rhythm of Prayer” and I’ve been making my way through it for my daily devotions. I thought this one by Rev. Mihee Kim-Kort was really insightful. She begins with the confession that given the pandemic and the events of our time – all of its violence and vitriol – (and how appropriate given the mass murders we’ve learned about in recent days) it’s been hard to keep faith. But, at the end she concludes, “So, I keep going. I roll out of bed and land on my knees. Push myself up. Keep putting one foot in front of the other and do the sanctified work that is breathing. And I keep looking. Keep seeing. Keep feeling. Keep trying to love like there’s no tomorrow. Love hard; love recklessly. Hug a little longer. Play those irrational and illogical games with the twins. Read that board book with Ozzie for the 917th time. Try to answer Andy’s questions about the schedule for the fifteenth time without exasperation. Let bath time be like a baptism each night, and let the sweat that rolls off my face after a long run be an anointing. Laugh, cook, drink, clean, make a huge mess, sit and stare out the window. Let all of it means something – gratitude, earnestness, hope; let it mean that life is abundant. And tell the children stories about this abundant life – how it’s meant to be shared, how it’s meant to be experienced by every single human being – even if it means we might have to tell the stories that are sad and hard. Because those are the ones that will shape their empathy and compassion. All of it. All of it is necessary for life right now. All this work is worship, and it’s how we’ll make it.”
So, it seems that having the same mind that was in Christ – living a life of worship – is in part a matter of choice. It’s a matter of kneeling, and looking, and seeing, and feeling. It’s a matter of turning bath time into baptism and accepting sweat as God’s anointing. It’s a matter of loving hard and recklessly because that’s how we’ve been loved. It’s a matter of sacramentalizing the small things so we see them rightly as holy. My friends, this isn’t just what we’re invited to do; it’s how we’ll make it.
 “When Love Looks Like Sacrifice,” The Christian Century, March 24, 2021, page 27.
 Page 27.
 A Rhythm of Prayer, pages 37-38.