Jesus did not die for me
A letter to my congregation
This Good Friday morning we will listen to the story of Jesus' crucifixion. We will bring stones to the foot of the cross. Then we will take down the cross and lay it upon the burial shroud. We will bring the flowers of mourning, and we will leave.
I urge you to give yourselves to this liturgy, for we are all complicit in the death of other human beings. Our globalised society, in which we are among the privileged ones, is based upon and maintained by injustice and violence which kills. We do not like to say this out loud, but to survive in this country we need hearts of stone so that we may walk past the poor, and the sick, and the dying. To get ahead, to even keep our place in the world, we save our money and we buy things for ourselves, instead of giving to those who have less. Our whole economic system is based upon winners and losers. The basis of our society is production and consumption and profit, not compassion and justice for all people. With hearts of stone we assent to the turning away of the refugees to die somewhere else, and re-elect the very politicians who do this.
We did not kill Jesus. We were not in that crowd. But we stand in the crowds of today. His death stands for all the unjust deaths of our world.
But equally important this morning, I ask you to consider what it is that Jesus has done which saves us.
We need to be saved. Despite our high aspirations as human beings, despite the exquisite glories of art, the profundity of human love, and the creative genius of our technology, we are bedevilled by a violence and arbitrary injustice which is the very worst of the animal kingdom. We are the violent species par excellence. Mere animals fight for food and territory; the ability to reproduce, and then mostly leave each other alone. We have taken violence to a most evil art form. We have become barbarians.
To make sure that no food or water supply would reach the city from the outside, Titus completely sealed off Jerusalem from the rest of the world with a wall of earth as high as the stone wall around Jerusalem itself. Anyone not a Roman soldier caught anywhere in this vast dry moat was crucified on the top of the earthen wall in sight of the Jews of the city. It was not uncommon for as many as five hundred people a day to be so executed. The air was redolent with the stench of rotting flesh and rent by the cries and agony of the crucified. But the Jews held out for still another year, the fourth year of the war… (Max Dimont, quoted in Wikipedia)
As Crossan asks, "… five hundred a day —for how many days?" The answer might be 724,000 days, all the days between CE 33 and this year.
Is it possible to see us as a developing species straining towards higher consciousness? Do we need religion?
I think our barbarity suggests we are among the worst of species, the most "animal," because we know what we do, we seem powerless to stop and, indeed, we glorify the violence. We have the power to obliterate ourselves by nuclear war. Our survival to this point, is accidental (See also here). The change of climate we are fuelling may destroy us, and will certainly add many millions to the litany of the unrecited dead. We need to be saved.
The Romans liked to crucify people. It's not surprising that as an irritant to Roman rule, Jesus was crucified. But it's significant that our written accounts, which all date* from after the siege of Jerusalem, emphasise his crucifixion. Crucifixion was the symbol of a world gone wrong, of violence in excess. Crucifixion is the worst side of Empire, which gives the lie to pax romana and all the other claims of beneficent empire.
Jesus' crucifixion was also a challenge that all he had said about the Kingdom of God was wrong. It said that the hope of Isaiah 11 for an earth "full of the knowledge of the Lord" was wrong, and that violence ruled. It said our exclusion from the garden in Eden is permanent. Power and violence own us, said crucifixion.
But John emphasises that this crucifixion was no accident, or failure. Jesus knew what he was about. There was something meant to be about this story. He was one more victim of the violence and evil from which we need to be saved, but not only one more victim.
Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ 5They answered, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus replied, ‘I am he.’ Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. 6When Jesus said to them, ‘I am he’, they stepped back and fell to the ground. 7Again he asked them, ‘For whom are you looking?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ 8Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. … Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’ (18:4-11)
He gave himself. And he was betrayed; literally, given up by his own follower: violence can seduce even those who seek a new way of being. But there is something of God in this process. Not only do those who arrest him fall to the ground, which was an act of worship despite themselves, but
'…he has claimed to be the Son of God.’ 10Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ 11Jesus answered him, 'You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above…'
And what God is about—what God is doing here— is against the way we live; against our empires which are founded in conquest and violence, and which are maintained by violence. John does not deny the claim that Jesus stands against the emperor. The charge is not contested:
‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’
The transcendence of Empire
But God is not about one more empire, not even a greater empire:
‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’
The first transcendence of the way of empire is that God is not doing one more violent act by demanding payment of a life for our sins. The giving of Jesus by himself transcends the common understanding of the crucifixion as payment or transaction. (If payment of God's son were required, it would make God substantially the same as us. God would simply be more powerful than us in his violence. And a hypocrite, for God had forbidden the sacrifice of children, saying such a thing had never crossed his mind. (Jeremiah 32:35)) Indeed, Jesus did not have to die. If the world had listened to the good news of the kingdom of God, his death would not have happened. We did not listen, and until we do listen, violent death will define us.
Alongside the confrontation with empire, is a confrontation with the religious— not that the two are ever separate.
They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover… (18:28) When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. 14Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon… After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ 29A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. 30When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. 31 Since it was the day of Preparation… And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (19:13,14, 28-31, 42)
Jesus, who was handed over by the powers of religion, but who knew what he was doing, and who accomplished it, was crucified on the Day of Preparation for Passover. "In John, Jesus dies about the time when the lambs were slain in preparation for the Passover…" In John, when we first see Jesus, John the Baptist says, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world " He is the Passover Lamb with no broken bone. (John 19:36; Exodus 12:10, 46; Psalm 34:20).
The point is clear. Because of Jesus, the Lamb of God, death passes over us. (Ex 12:13) And yet this passing over is achieved without violence. A second time, the story transcends the way of empire.
10Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. 11Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’
Violence is forbidden. (It took until Constantine made the church a tool of empire, for the church to allow its members to serve in the military.)
But there is more hidden in these two verses. Malchus' name means: King. And he is the slave of the High Priest; the king serves the sacred. So the violence attempted by Peter is symbolic of violence against the king; this violence is forbidden, whether it be seemingly justifiable violence against empire and injustice, or resistance against religion gone wrong. Violence is forbidden by Jesus. It would prevent what Jesus does for us from happening, and so would compromise our own discipleship of Jesus. There is something explicitly Christian about Love Makes A Way sitting in the office of a politician, compared to the recent overturning of Cory Bernadi's office. Violence is always a failure of Christian faith.
A kingdom "not of this world" does not withdraw from the political— "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above"— it transcends all our notions of how power works, and of how we are to be human.
How does he save us?
So in all this, how will death pass over us? How does he save us?
What we will see here will depend on what we look for. If we look merely for our own survival and our own safety, we will always be tempted not to care that God deliberately kills his own son; not that God did this, but it is implied in a thousand sermons.
If we look merely for our own survival and our own safety, we will look only for some simple transaction to save us. When the villain in the movies says, "Do this, or I will kill you," and the person does as they are told, that is a transaction, a payment. When Jesus dies instead of me, I make his death a transaction, a payment.
But in saving myself like this— as if I could, I will risk losing my humanity: "those who want to save their life will lose it." I risk my humanity because the one who fears death is a slave and subjects themselves— and anyone else— to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] the one who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of violence. (This saying is adapted from John Chrysostom) If our life is about saving ourselves, we will hang others upon the walls of empire, and a critical reading of our daily western comforts would suggest that this is exactly what we do. People die for the provision of my iPhone.
We need to look beyond Good Friday— one death— and beyond our one death, to the death of the many, and ask, "What would overcome that?" Hear what I mean: Caiaphas said, "You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed…" (John 11:50, 18:14) In this statement, Jesus is the scapegoat for the nation. If we would follow his way, says Caiaphas, the whole nation will be destroyed! But the nation Caiaphas speaks of is the nation of the Jewish elite. It is the nation which has joined the empire. It is not the kingdom of God.
And if we look at Jesus and say he dies for us, then we keep him as a scapegoat. If we let him be some kind of divine transaction for our lives, the scapegoat is all we will see. We will be unchanged. The violence will continue, the "same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year." (Hebrews 10)
We need to look beyond his cross and see it in the light of the countless thousands of other crosses. If we let him be the scapegoat, he will simply be hung upon the enslaving and encircling walls of empire around our lives, the cycle of violence will go on, and no one will be saved.
Beyond the transaction
When we see all the other crosses, the actual crosses and all the other violent deaths, we look beyond one day, and a transaction. We look beyond the scapegoat. We see that the scapegoat is just more of the myth of redemptive violence.
We see we need a transcending re-reading of the gospel, and of life, and of culture. It will cost us dearly. It will be a complete revision of everything we know, and demand a rebuilding of our lives and the way, and the reasons, for which we exist. Everywhere we will find ourselves complicit in violence and injustice— I have a mobile phone, I am writing to you on one of my computers, I have two pushbikes— how many billycans is too many?
Even beginning this process is a beginning to die. It is a repentance which begins to end the life we lead. Will we follow him, and die to who we are, in faith that there will be a resurrection to something else, to a new way of living? If we do, it will lead to the death of whole nation! It will destroy the way we are a country. Not by the violent conquest of empire, but by its transcendence, by the utter transformation of the nation. Which will not be welcome news to the elites, or to those who have hitched their own personal fortunes to theirs. The death of our whole way of being, our whole selves, may be matched with the death of our body.
Jesus works no magic. He calls us to a new way of being. He invites us to the saving and being saved life which he has shown us.
The cross of Rome is the symbol of the founding violence of human culture. It seeks to solve violence with more violence.
The cross of Jesus transcends violence. He will not violently oppose it, but nor will he flee from it. To take this way seems to take us to pointless death. We will simply lose our life. But the wider gospel beyond Good Friday says, "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
Beyond Good Friday, resurrection is the symbol of the transformation of life. It is the same transcendence of life as "the kingdom not of this world." It is the insight-hope-trust that commitment to our highest aspirations as human beings for a community which has transcended violence can be overcome simply by refusing the way of violence. This is what Jesus has shown us and done for us.
In John, when Jesus is encountered again after his death, his first words to the disciples are "Peace be with you." (John 20:19, 26) The innocent one who, above all, might justifiably extract revenge, demands none, but brings peace.
I can't tell you how this works. Faith in Jesus is just that: faith— trust in something we do not yet fully see. His death is not a tidy transaction. It is a call to trust him and follow. I am working out my own salvation with fear and trembling, to us Paul's words in Philippians 2. What I am discovering is that I am loved, I have always been loved, and always will be: this is what he has done for me. Every time I go back to an imagining that God did something to Jesus for me, my world collapses into incoherence, violence, and depression. When I own that the problem is the violence I do to others, the burden of that is matched by the love I discover, and by the call for me to love more. The writer of Hebrews said that if sacrifice actually worked, then "the worshippers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin…" I find it curious that as I have taken responsibility for my own sin, and abandoned the theology that has Jesus "pay for it," I am also free of it. Guilty indeed, but not crippled. Free, instead, to live and to change, and to be changed.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
*Some scholars conclude that Mark is written during the siege, or just before.