But seriously. Why does Jesus dies on the cross? Why are we told he needed to die? How does his death save us from sin and death and evil? How does the central tenant of Christian salvation actually work?
[This post was originally posted on April 22, 2018, but then was accidentally deleted, so I have had to cobble it back together as best I could. Most of the text is the same but I have not recreated the 20+ links for citations. My apologies.]
4th Sunday of Easter, Year B
Shepherd and Sinners
In today’s gospel we hear about the Good shepherd
4th Sunday = “Shepherd Sunday” every year
Each year we get different parts of John 10, about shepherd and sheep.
This year’s is the only one that actually talks about the “the Good Shepherd” itself.
He lays down his life for the sheep.
They are his own sheep.
He’s not a hireling; he doesn’t work for pay.
He has skin in the game then.
He actually cares for them.
He has love and courage and responsibility.
He explains more: “the Father loves me because I’m willing to lay down life”.
The Father loves his courage and sacrifice .
I want to revisit a point from a previous homily.
I do this a lot. I don’t know if you notice.
It might be insanity: to think anyone is paying enough attention to connect my thoughts.
But if educational psychology is right that we have to hear something 7 times to stick, I kind of think you have to.
1st Sunday of Lent: I preached on “Repent of Your Agenda”
The 3 main factions in Judea had their own agendas: Compromise with the Romans, Kill the Romans, Escape the world entirely.
Each with their own agendas. own kingdom dreams. Jesus says: repent of them all and try it my way.
We can almost unintentionally separate Jesus proclaiming these things in the first three quarters of the gospels from what he did, and what he underwent, when he was arrested, beaten, humiliated, tortured, and killed.
Almost all Christians have this tendency to separate his public teaching from his passion and death.
We think: “Oh they just hate Jesus and so they are going to kill him.”
Or: Jesus has to die on a cross...and that will magically save us, but unconnected to anything else.
But no. Jesus is living out everything he has been telling people for the last three years.
The way of life he preached in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parables, he is going now to live out.
If you seize him in the night, he won’t resist.
When the guards punch him he turns the other cheek.
He willing walks the first and the second mile to Calvary when they command him.
He lets them strip him of the cloak and tunic.
He forgives his enemies and prays for those who persecute him.
He will drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism that he asked James and John if they could endure.
He becomes like the mother hen, gathering her chicks under her wings to shield them from the barnyard fire.
Jesus does not separate his passion, death, and resurrection from his proclamation of the gospel and the kingdom—he sees it as living out what he’s been trying to convince them to do all along.
At least some people had that resonate with them the first time I preached it.
3-4 people said something to me afterward to the effect of never having thought about that idea before.
Good; I’m glad something stuck.
We do tend to separate the first 3/4 of the gospels from his passion—or lines we see directly connected to his passion, like today’s quote, “I lay down my life for my sheep” or Mark’s “I come to give my life as a random for many.”
We put the parables and sayings and Sermon on the Mount over here.
And in another universe altogether: Jesus died; he laid down his life.
This twist I presented on the story might have a second benefit besides holding the two parts of the gospel narratives together.
It may help us think more accurately about why Jesus died. And how Jesus’ death saves us.
Preface this: This is a pretty tricky topic. I will probably not get everything right. People have debated over this for centuries. But I think we have to try to look at it more deeply.
Why did Jesus die?
2 kinds of answers:
First meaning: How did an innocent man get condemned and killed?
So, external causes: Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans.
Second meaning: How does this accomplish God’s plan and/or help humanity?
We all reply since first-grade: “To save us from our sins!”
Ok, but why does his dying do that for us? Or how does his dying effect this?
We certainly believe it does...
Paul to Corinthians: “the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures”
In the Creed: “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
he suffered death and was buried,
and rose again on the third day”
Definitely died for sins. And for our sake. And was innocent.
His death definitely reconciles us. His shed blood saves sinners.
But how? How did this help?
You can ask this question and even very good Christians can be stumped.
CCC 599-609: Ten short paragraphs. A beautiful collection of scripture verses about the love of God, but doesn’t actually try to answer why or how it saves, just that Jesus’ death saves.
This question sometimes generates more questions than answers the more we look into it
Many of us, knowingly or not, have a framework in our heads that goes something like: There is a lot of sin in the world. Somebody has to pay for all this. Somebody even has to die for this out of justice to the Father. Jesus is innocent, he’ll step in and die so we can go free.
Pretty common, and some bits of that might be authentically Catholic and biblical, but on the whole, it has problems.
So let’s at least see what we can eliminate:
First, the Father does not murder the son to placate his wrath at sinners.
Yes, God is a just God, and we actually should want him to hate injustice and sin, but he is not a bloodthirsty tyrant who just demands somebody (anybody!) needs to pay for this.
There is a concept called penal substitution. Penal meaning a penalty, and then you substitute who has to pay it.
There is a version of which of penal substitution that may work, but this version here isn’t it.
Also, he’s not a stupid God, where as long as somebody is offered to appease his wrath he won’t care about who was actually guilty or innocent. That’s not just.
It’s actually more like a pagan god, where somebody has to be sacrificed to appease the deity. I was going to be this guy, but if someone else jumps in the way, fine. It’s all the same; you can go home free now.
That sounds like pagan myths. Not much like Judaism or Christianity.
Second, Jesus was not a suicide case.
Doesn’t kill himself.
Not even trying to get himself killed.
He has a vocation and a commitment to tell the truth no matter what, about the Father, about himself, about the kingdom, about how to act.
And yes that is likely that will bring him into conflict with others, but that’s not suicide.
He is a witness in the face of danger, the true meaning of “martyr” (witness).
Image not of suicide, but of a grenade rolling toward us and Jesus jumps on it and we are spared.
This theory is getting warmer. It’s kind of like the killing is not per se required, but still cosmic good comes of it because it happened.
But even if the jumping-on-a-grenade image is more acceptable, still: How does it help? Why does this work, exactly?
One idea, put forth over the last 500 years, is that of “double imputation”.
You might think of it as a “double transfer”.
Jesus transfers, or imputes, his innocence on to us and in exchange our guilt is imputed to him.
He then dies as if he were guilty and we walk free as if we were good.
This suffers the same problem as above—of God having to be actually factually wrong about who is guilty and who is innocent.
There also is no place in the New Testament where it says this happened or could happen—that we could trade moral statuses.
It is a pretty clean swap, but hard to imagine the mechanism to effect this.
One idea that is sometimes suggested to help with the imputation idea is that it imitates the animal sacrifices of the OT.
But, normally, sins are not put on the animal. If they were, the animal would be unfit to offer. You give your best to God, not cruddy sinful rejects.
Only one time are they “put” sins on an animal, and that is on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when they put the sins of the people on the goat.
But it is not then sacrificed—he’s completely unfit for sacrifice. It is chased out of the camp into the wilderness.
Even the “sin offerings” of the OT aren’t for willful sins.
They are for things done unknowingly or accidentally.
“From hidden faults preserve me” —Psalm 19
If a sin was done knowingly and willingly, there was no acquitting it; there is no sacrifice for it; it was to be punished.
I have perhaps painted you quite a quandary. Maybe you are frustrated by what this does to some existing images in your mind. I apologize.
If those ideas all leave something to be desired, maybe the answer lies in today’s gospel: the story of Shepherd and his love for his sheep
Interesting, even the “divine wrath” theories will still largely say God is love and that this is all out of a great love for us.
Jesus does it out of love; Father sent him out of love. It’s all a plan of love—even though there is this whole murderous wrath thing going on…
But with the shepherd image we get an unmixed image of love, not a tyrant demanding punishment.
One who out of love and courage is willing to risk his life, even lay down his life.
Think about it this way:
Think of love as the opposite of injustice.
The world is full of injustice and hatred; Jesus comes to be love.
Think of light as the opposite of evil.
The world is full of darkness and evil; Jesus comes to be the light.
Israel was called to be love and light in the world.
This had been their calling since Abraham. But it was not happening.
In fact, they had been adding to the evil and injustice, the sin and idolatry and darkness.
God needs someone who can live out the covenant vocation of being an image-bearing steward as Adam was supposed to have been, and of light and love as Abraham’s children were to do.
But it had gotten worse not better over the centuries.
St. Paul in Romans 7 makes a rather striking claim that the Old Covenant, the Torah, the Law, not only did not take away sin, but that it’s job was to “show up” the sin of the human race and of Israel, to make out plain to the eye, to make sin “exceedingly sinful” (the Greek is literally “hyperbolically sinful”), to heap it all up.
So, see what we have:
Sin is growing, gathering, being shown up for what it is, being heaped up 🔼
Meanwhile, Israel’s vocation is narrowing:
Can Israel do it? No. 🔽
Can just Judah? No.
Can a remnant? Can a very small remnant?
Can a remnant of One?
Jesus comes as One who actually lives light and love.
He lived sinless, in the midst of a sinful generation.
He challenges the rest to do this too:
To turn the other cheek.
To love their enemies and pray those who persecute them.
To forgive 7x 70 times.
But that attracts hate and evil.
He was determined to live it to the full.
But that will lead him to a very dangerous place.
And likely lead them to to try to kill him.
Think of sin then—not as the object on the balance which we are trying to hand off from sinners to Jesus—but think of sin and evil as the occasion of Jesus’ suffering, the pressure chamber, the fiery crucible. The baptism into which he must be dunked, the cup of wrath he must drink.
See this mounting sin then as the occasion where his love will be tested against the world’s injustice and hate.
In that crucible, he loves...and loves to the very end; giving his all to the very last drop.
He continues to live the pathway that he taught for three years and which I quoted at the start of this homily, even as sin and injustice are blasting him—an innocent man— all the harder, culminating in “Father, forgive them, they know not what the do.”
So let’s pause here and we see:
Jesus living the love of God to the full.
He is surrounded though by not just injustice done to him personally, but Paul says that somehow Sin (capital S sin, in the singular) is being brought to a head.
It is still a little unclear how that would be “saving us from sin” though.
And so we must look to Isaiah 53, our Good Friday reading.
A chapter that actually talks about how “we had all gone astray like sheep”.
And literally the only chapter out of a thousand in the OT to specifically talk about sufferings for the sins of another.
The Servant of YHWH will be “scourged for our sins, crushed for our trespasses.”
What it doesn’t say is that we trade states of righteousness.
But it does say: “through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
and their guilt he shall bear.
because he surrendered himself to death
and was counted among the wicked;
he shall take away the sins of many,
and win pardon for their offenses.”
It does tell us that if someone does the right, and is punished for the sin of the guilty then it “takes away sins”.
Do you remember specifically what Jesus was charged with?—of which he was completely innocent?
Rebellion. Plotting against Caesar and throwing off the Romans.
Which is hugely ironic because many of those who handed him over were guilty of exactly that plan, and of which Jesus had counseled them not to engage in:
“If only you knew what made for peace”
“Not one stone shall sit upon another that is not torn down”
He, as the green wood, is punished. While they, the dry wood ready to go up in flames in rebellion, are spared by shifting the blame onto him.
(There, by the way, is your proper penal substitution.)
Sin is heaped up. It is exceeding sinful. 🔼
He—as one exceedingly innocent—is condemned, punished, and dies for the very sin they had been plotting and preparing. 🔽
And, to follow Isaiah 53, evil and injustice then do their worst against him.
They even kill him.
But in this they exhaust themselves.
Sin and Satan, as it were, dance on his grave even as they ride his broken body down to their own defeat.
Paul in Romans 8 says that the sin that was gathered up in chapter 7 is now “condemned in the flesh” of the Messiah.
Easter then is not just an extra little thing to help with advertising that Jesus has credibility.
When the Father raises the Son, when he vindicates the Messiah and overturns the unjust death sentence put upon him, he rightly condemns the evil (as he should, for this is proper place to speak of divine wrath against sin) but he has declared “innocent and just” the one who lived justice and love.
And in conclusion then, now those who would repent and be brought into the Messiah’s family, those who would believe and be baptized, can live his justice—not merely as a status—but now they can live and imitate what Jesus had been telling them to do, and which he actually did upon the cross...being the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep.