October 1: Why Did Jesus Die and What Does It Mean For Me?

Why did Jesus Die and What Does It Mean For Me?

October 1, 2023       Philippians 2: 1-11 (The Inclusive Bible)

          Two questions to ponder today are: Why did Jesus die and what does Jesus’ death mean for me?

          At the end of this message, I’m going to summarize how I’d answer those questions. Then I’ll ask if you have any answers to those two questions. Why did Jesus die and what does Jesus’ death mean for me?

During this series, I’ve been using an analogy to talk about our spiritual journey. It involves three stages and the use of boxes.

The first stage is Construction. It’s one of simplicity and order. It’s a time to stack up the boxes.

The second stage is Deconstruction. It involves words that start with “D”. Doubt, dissent, disorder, disorientation, disarray and darkness. It means knocking down our carefully constructed boxes. The question we’re pondering during this series is this:

After doubt and deconstruction, should you return to your original construction or should you move on to some new construction? In other words, do you go back to the way you were originally taught or believed, or do you move on to a new way of looking at it.

I’m suggesting the latter. The third stage is Reconstruction. The boxes come back together, but they are constructed differently than what you started. In other words, you come to believe something else, something that better fits who you are and how you view the world.

Last week, we shared about how our image of God has shifted many times during our lives. We’ve constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed the way we view God on our spiritual journey.

Today, let’s follow that same process as we ponder the death of Jesus on the cross.

          We’ll start with Construction.

I was fifteen years old when I first looked at the cross. I had an experience with God at the time. Afterwards, I started listening to some fundamentalist radio preachers. This is what they taught me:

They said that I was a sinner and that I’d been a sinner since I was born. They said that being a sinner meant I had to be punished with a life in hell for eternity. I deserved hell because of my sin.

But there was an escape route. They said that Jesus came and died on a cross to take the punishment for my sin on himself. Jesus’s death was a substitute. God punishes his son Jesus instead of punishing me. Jesus’s blood is a sacrifice made to pay the price for my sin. These preachers said to take this Jesus escape route I simply needed to say that I believed Jesus died for me.

I believed all this so passionately as a young person. I believed I was a terrible sinner who deserved to be sent to a life of eternal torment in hell.

I believed what they said about Jesus being the escape route out of hell to heaven. I believed that Jesus suffered and died on the cross as a substitute for my punishment. So I said the magic words, “I believe Jesus died for me.”

All of this was so real to me at the time. I sensed God absolving me, releasing me, freeing me from my sins because of what I said and what Jesus did. I remember lying on the bed in my bedroom at night, crying. I was crying because I felt this release from the burden of my sin. I cried and thanked God for Jesus, my substitute.

That was the stage of Construction for me.

Over the fifty years since then, I’ve been pondering the deconstruction of this understanding of Jesus’ death and what it means for me.

First, I’ve deconstructed and rejected the idea that I’ve been a terrible sinner since birth. What a guilt trip! I know that I fall short of God’s perfect intention for my life, but I no longer believe that I’ve been a terrible sinner from the moment I was born.

Second, I’ve deconstructed and rejected the idea of the eternal torment of hell after we die as God’s punishment for every sinner. I actually no longer believe in a hell after we die. I no longer believe that a loving God would send anyone there, even if there was such a place after we die. I do believe that some find a hell on earth in many corners of our world because of the sin of some people.  

Third, I’ve deconstructed and rejected the idea that God would even consider heaping punishment and pain and a cruel death on anyone, least of all on someone as important to God as Jesus, God’s child. It just sounds like terrible child abuse to me. I don’t believe in such an angry, wrathful God.

Fourth, I’ve deconstructed and rejected the idea that Jesus’ death only impacts my life if I say the words, “I believe Jesus died for me.” I’ve come to understand that it’s more important what I do about my faith than simply what I say or believe. Faith without works is dead.

 For many people, deconstructing and rejecting this substitutionary view of Jesus’ death involves leaving Christianity and the church. But for me and many others, reconstruction is possible on the other side of this deconstruction.

I no longer believe the tenets of this substitutionary understanding of Jesus’ death, but I have come to find new meanings in Jesus’ death.

I was 34 and God was saying to me, “Michael, look again. Look again to the cross and the crucified God.”

I was at my best friend Allan’s cottage in Wisconsin. He’s the one I took canoe trips with, but who is now deceased. He let me spend a few days of respite alone at his cottage. 

It was one of the lowest points of my life. I had been serving as an associate pastor at a large suburban church on the outskirts of South Bend, Indiana. My senior pastor and I were not seeing eye to eye. I was working hard to resolve the situation. But on the Monday night before Thanksgiving, I got a call from my District Superintendent.

 My District Superintendent said, “Mike, I’m placing on you on an extended vacation from your church effective immediately. You will continue to get paid until we find you another appointment at another church. But you must clear out everything from your office tonight. In addition, you and your family must not have any contact with anyone from that church.”

I was devastated. I was cut off from all the people I’d come to love and work with in that church. I had no idea what the future held. A couple weeks later, I went to Allan’s cottage for some respite in the midst of my life’s storm. I remember making a fire one night in his fireplace. I sat by that fire and just cried.

God pointed me to the cross and the crucified God bringing me encouragement in the midst of my suffering. On the cross, I saw someone else who was all alone. On the cross, Jesus was alone, separated from all those he loved, even his own Parent in heaven.

I heard Jesus scream from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

I knew then that my crucified God knew what suffering was all about. He was with me in the midst of what I was dealing with. I looked to that cross and I cried. I was not alone.

Ten years later, I’m forty-four. God was once again saying to me, “Michael, look again. Look again to the cross and the crucified God.”

Our country had been attacked. Terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers on 9-ll killing thousands of people. We realized once again the evil powers at loose in our world.

Evil is no longer just theoretical. Evil is no longer just historical. Evil is no longer just over there.

All of a sudden it seems no one is safe. We’re all potentially in the bullseye of a terrorist. I’m not safe. How do I respond to the evil in our world?

What do I preach in times like these?

God points me to the cross and the crucified God bringing salvation over evil powers through suffering love. I look to that cross and I see victory. Instead of feeling discouraged or afraid, I’m able to have hope and trust.

In the cross, the powers of evil in this world are defeated. I don’t have to promote resignation to evil or the killing of the evil enemy. God says, “Michael, look again to the cross. See how I dealt with evil once and for all through the cross. See how I continue to respond to the evil in the world: through the power of suffering love. Preach the cross.”

A few years after that, I was 47 years old, the middle of my career. I once again heard God saying to me, “Michael, look again. Look again to the cross and the crucified God.”

I was on a search to discover God’s dream for the next chapter of my life. I was trying to figure out what God desired for me to do and be. What was God’s will for my life?

I took a class at the Dominican Center in Grand Rapids. We studied many of the saints of God. One saint that stood out for me was St. Francis of Assisi.

I was drawn into Francis’ story. He grew up in relative affluence, the son of a businessman. At the age of 24, he was dealing with some depression and failure. After a hot day of traveling, Francis wandered into the cool refuge of a run-down church in the country. Over the abandoned altar, a crucifix had somehow survived. On it the eyes of the crucified Christ gazed down.

In the stillness of that small church, Francis felt that the image of Christ was speaking to him. It said, “Francis, don’t you see that my house is being destroyed. Go and rebuild it for me.”

At first, he thought the crucified God was calling him to physically rebuild this run-down church. So, he got to work in doing that. But the next year while traveling to Rome, he came upon a colony of lepers. For the first time in his life, he was drawn to get closer to them. He approached them, knelt down and gave what he could – an embrace and a few comforting words.

This experience led Francis to devote the rest of his life to live with the poor and to help the poor. He realized that to minister to the needy was to minister to the lonely, naked, and dying Christ. This was how he could rebuild the church.

I heard this story. And I too felt drawn to help the poor. God was saying to me, “Michael, look again. Look at the cross. Look at the sacrificial, servant lifestyle of the crucified God.”

It led me to leave my comfortable church in Pentwater, Michigan and go to southeastern Kentucky. There I served a small mission church among the poor of Appalachia for five years.

Let’s return to those two questions again: Why did Jesus die?

I believe Jesus died because of the sins of the unjust, oppressive, insecure and violent people and systems that were present in Jesus’ day. Jesus died because of his radical love that disturbed those in power. It’s what often happens if we love too much.

The second question is this: What does Jesus’ death mean for me?

I like what Paul had to say in his letter to the Philippians.

‘Your attitude must the same as that of Jesus Christ: Christ, though in the image of God, didn’t deem equality with God something to be clung to – but instead became completely empty and took on the image of oppressed humankind: born into the human condition, found in the likeness of a human being. Jesus was thus humbled – obediently accepting death, even death on a cross.”

We are invited to follow Jesus’ example of sacrificial, self-emptying, compassion and service. It is the best example of God’s love we can emulate. Jesus’ death is not a “Get out of hell free card”. Jesus’ death gives us the example and power to live in loving sacrifice and compassion for all humanity and all creation.

What do you think?

Why did Jesus die?

What does Jesus’ death mean for you?

Invite you to reflect on Jesus and Jesus’ death later in the service as share in holy communion.

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