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Why Jesus Sacrificed His Life
March 3, 1991


Why did Jesus sacrifice his life? Why did he intentionally go to Jerusalem to die? Why did he not defend his innocence during his trials? The cross on which Jesus died is now a central theme of Christianity. We hang it in the central focus point of our churches, both inside and outside the sanctuary. But, the modern church does not have a clear, satisfactory answer to the question, why did Jesus sacrifice his life?

My text this morning from the lectionary reading is 1 Corinthians 1:23, "We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." Why was, and is yet today, the crucified Christ a stumbling block to Jews? Ask most Jews why they do not accept or recognize Jesus as the Messiah and you will probably get the answer, "Because Messiahs don't die!" What the Jews expected in a Messiah in Jesus' day was victory over the enemy, not death at the hands of the enemy. And, for Jesus intentionally to provoke his crucifixion makes no sense at all to the Jew, to the Gentile of that day, nor to most of the church today. In fact, we might add to the text, "We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, foolishness to Gentiles, and bewilderment to the church."

We believe the cross is important, we believe the crucifixion is central to our faith, but we don't know why. We hang the cross around our necks but we're not sure why. If I went around this room and asked each of you why Jesus sacrificed his life, what would you answer? I imagine most of us would have phrases come to our lips which have been taught to us, but we have not thought much about, or analyzed to ascertain the meaning for today. Some may say, "Christ died for our sins," but what does that mean? Some may say, "Jesus took my place on the cross, sacrificed for my sins," but we don't believe in a God who requires some kind of sacrifice before God can forgive. Some may say, "Jesus atoned for the sins of humankind by dying on the cross," but again, we don't believe in a God who requires and is influenced by a death atonement.

The major reason we have difficulty understanding Jesus' sacrificial death is that the language of sacrifice is no longer intelligible to us. The language, both biblical and historical, is borrowed from contexts no longer familiar to us. In other words, the language used to express the theological meaning of Jesus's death was language that was very familiar to people of the Roman empire, both Jewish and Gentile, but language that does not speak to us today.

For example, both Judaism and the Hellenistic religions of that day practiced temple sacrifice. Priests offered sacrifices, usually meat, to placate the anger of the gods. When there was a five-year drought, they believed they must have done something to deserve the drought, so they sacrificed an offering to placate God so the gods would send rain, and no longer be angry with the citizens. In the Greco-Roman world, there was not much emphasis on ethics. It didn't matter how one behaved; it mattered how the god's sense of hunger or smell was satisfied.

Paul then took this common experience of sacrifice and used it as a way to explain the meaning of the death of Jesus. But, temple sacrifices are not a part of our culture. The language and theology of sacrifice make no sense to us. Sacrificial systems do not correlate at all with our belief in a God of ethics, morality, fair play, and justice. To send someone else to take the punishment for what I have done seems not only ineffective, but wrong. Sacrificing someone else is wrong! If Jesus did not substitute for me on the cross, if Jesus was not sacrificed to placate God's anger, then why did Jesus die? In other words, if we stop using the language of sacrificial systems, then what language shall we use?

Our task, and I am indebted to Dr. Ted Jennings who led the District Clergy retreat two weeks ago, is to rediscover why Jesus sacrificed his life, before we reflect theologically on the cross and select language to describe what Jesus' death means to us today.

Therefore, I return to the original question of this sermon, why did Jesus sacrifice his life? When you separate the event of his death from all the theological reflection, when you separate the event of his death from the sacrificial system and its terminology, when you read, primarily the Gospel of Mark, with this task in mind, you discover a Jesus who deliberately set out to die a martyr's death, believing that his death would ultimately overthrow all empires and institutions that oppose the kingdom of God, and a Jesus who calls his disciples to do the same. "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me."

Why did Jesus sacrifice himself? I'm not exhausting all the meanings of Jesus' death this morning, but I am highlighting one meaning we have often overlooked. Jesus sacrificed his life so that the reign of God, the kingdom of God might overthrow the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious structures that oppressed the poor people, his friends, his "little ones", "the least of these, my brethren," as he called them. And he called his disciples to do the same, to sacrifice their lives. No wonder they didn't understand what he was talking about. Time and again, Jesus predicted his death and resurrection. Mark 9:31, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

It's easy for us to understand why they were afraid to ask. They didn't want to hear the answer. They didn't want to hear that Jesus included them in the dire prediction of his suffering and death. That message was too tough to handle. Remember at the last supper, Jesus shared a cup of wine with his disciples, uniting them in "the blood of the new covenant."

Jesus did not run from his crucifixion, but deliberately provoked his crucifixion. He organized a grand entry, a parade into Jerusalem as if he were a king. He attacked the religious establishment every chance he had. He argued with, and often deliberately made fools of, the Pharisees and Sadducees. He disrupted the money changers in the temple, and blockaded the temple so that no one could bring anything in. Mark 11:16, he "would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple." And, haven't you often wondered why he said nothing at his trial? Jesus refused to defend himself, and went to the cross to die a rebel's death.

Jesus opposed the evil powers of his day, both Jewish and Roman, but not by military force. He refused to become a Zealot, a violent insurrectionist. He believed in fighting with nonviolence. Jesus was never passive. Jesus stood up for those who were being mistreated. Jesus faced the rulers with his own life, believing that a martyr's death would do more to bring down the kingdoms of evil than armies or insurrectionists or terrorists.

Jesus' way is the way of nonviolence. Mahatama Ghandi is a 20th century example who brought down the British Empire rule of India with a campaign of nonviolence, self-denial, fasting, and martyrdom. Thousands demonstrated with Ghandi. I wonder what might have happened if Jesus' disciples had followed him to Pilate. What might have happened if thousands had faced Pilate with Jesus, nonviolently, resolutely willing even to die in order to break the oppressive hand of Rome.

When you look at the cross upon which Jesus sacrificed his life, you discover a Jesus who deliberately set out to die a martyr's death, believing that his death would ultimately overthrow all empires, institutions, structures and system that oppress and victimize people and oppose the kingdom of God. You discover a Jesus who calls his disciples, you and me, to do the same, "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me." "Take up your cross" does not mean take up your burden, or problem, or illness, or handicap. "Take up your cross" means take up the possibility of your crucifixion, the possibility of sacrificing even your life in opposing all that is wrong and evil.

W. C. Fields was once caught reading the Bible. They asked him, "Why are you reading the Bible?" He replied, "I'm looking for loopholes." We would all love to find loopholes; but there aren't any. "We proclaim Christ crucified." We proclaim a Christ who calls, (Mark 8:34) "If you would be my disciple, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me."

© 1991 Douglas I. Norris