Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 5th Sunday in Lent: John 12:20-33
One of our RAIHN guests last week was someone who liked to ask questions. She had a lot of them. “Who is Jesus for you?” she asked. To be perfectly honest at the time I only wanted to go to bed. I didn’t answer her very well. It was a serious question that deserved a serious answer. She got a few mutterings was all, something about which I am a little ashamed.
The next morning she caught me again in the kitchen just as the water was boiling for my first cup of coffee. “Do you believe Jesus died for our sins?” I asked myself, should I give her the short answer or the long answer? I chose the short one. “Yes,” I said. She seemed satisfied by that and we went about our business.
But that question nagged me all week long, not helped by the fact that I had to talk about salvation to the Lent class on Thursday. Do I believe Jesus died for our sins? Yes, of course. But there is a long answer that gets at questions like “why?” and “how?” that are very important. The death and resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of our faith, so we better be able to talk about it. What does it mean?
There is an answer to the question that most everybody knows. It goes something like this:
God created the world and all was well. The first human beings lived in paradise until the day they broke the one commandment God had given them. That disobedience changed everything. We call it “the Fall.” God was very angry and threw them out of paradise. Their descendents kept on being disobedient and God kept on being angry.
God was in a quandary. Part of him wanted to be merciful, but he could not deny that he was also just, and the continued sin was an affront to his very honor. And the problem was that human beings could never make up for what they had done. They just didn’t have it in them. And yet they had to do something.
So God decided to send his Son into the world as a human being. As a human being he could pay the price of sin, but since he was also God, that payment would be eternal. It would be enough to appease God’s anger. So Jesus died for our sins, took upon himself the price that we couldn’t pay and God wiped the slate clean. Now if any human being agrees to have their sins covered by the blood of Jesus, they are saved.
That way of telling the story has dominated in the church for almost 1,000 years. It is so dominate that most Christians cannot imagine there is any other way of telling the story. And yet, for the first 1,000 years of the church’s life there was a different way of telling the story, and even in the Bible itself there are different ways of telling the story.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, for instance, Jesus talks about his death, what it means for him. He uses a kind of parable:
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
For those first thousand years of the church’s life, Jesus’ death and resurrection were primarily about death, not about sin. Jesus died and then rose victorious from the grave. He beat death. And since death was beaten, sin was beaten too, but it was his victory over death that was of primary significance.
That means the main story line is not “Jesus died for our sins,” but “Jesus died to destroy the power of death.” After Jesus’ death and resurrection, humankind could live as if death were not. They needn’t be afraid of death any longer.
It is the fear of death that is at the heart of sin. So, one of the fruits given birth by Jesus’ death is indeed forgiveness. If we needn’t be afraid of death, then we can experience ourselves as forgiven. And we can be empowered to live a life without sin.
We continue to be afraid and so we also continue to sin. But we do see Jesus and we are drawn to him as he said we would be. And as we are drawn we are slowly transformed into his likeness, the likeness of one who lived as if he wasn’t afraid of death, and so lived without sin. That is what we are becoming.
That’s a very long answer to the question, “Do you believe Jesus died for our sins?” How could I have answered that and been true to what I actually believe about the death and resurrection of Jesus? Maybe two (albeit compound) sentences.
I believe that Jesus freely gave himself up to death and destroyed it once and for all. That means you and I don’t have to be afraid of death and part of that not-being-afraid is knowing ourselves to be forgiven.
I hope you can see what a different way of telling the story that is from the crucifixion as satisfying the vengeance of an angry God. Now I will concede the point that you can find pieces of Scripture that seem to support that way of telling the story, but it cannot be denied that the alternative way I just told it also has its support in Scripture as well as the thinking of the early church.
We’ve just got to decide which lens to use to read the story. I chose to use the “victory over death” lens rather than the “satisfying the vengeance of God” lens.
The good news in the “victory over death” way of telling the story is that I do not need to be afraid of death and the more unafraid I am the less I need to abuse others (i.e., sin) and the more I can lead a life of forgiveness.
Let us allow ourselves to be drawn into the arms of Jesus who offers us a life without fear, a life forgiven.
 Thanks to James Alison, On Being Liked (Crossroad, 2003), pp. 18-19.