Why did Jesus have to die? It’s an easy question on the one hand; you can’t have resurrection unless you die. It’s a much more difficult question, though, when you posit, “Did Jesus have to die?” or “Why couldn’t or wouldn’t Jesus call on the legion of angels he commanded?”
From the historical point of view, Jesus died because he threatened the power structures. The religious leaders felt he was a threat to the traditional talmudic heritage. The Jewish political leaders saw him as a threat to their symbiosis with Rome. The Romans wanted to nip any possible revolution in the bud … no self-proclaimed Jewish kings allowed.
From the teachings, though, it appears Jesus wasn’t interested in ruling the Jewish people. He was interested in something much more transcendent — announcing the presence of the kingdom of God here and now. So, why, then, did Jesus have to die? It’s one of the discussion questions in the back pages of “The Story.” And it’s the one question Dwayne asked me as we were discussing this week’s chapter on our Good Friday road trip to western Pennsylvania.
In contemplating this question, I kept returning to Jesus’ response to Pilate’s accusation, “You ARE a king, then!”
You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. John 18:37 [NIV]
Jesus’s mission in life and death is to testify to the Truth which is even larger than himself. For Jesus, this last week is about giving up himself to the Truth which is greater than himself. After the washing of the feet, Jesus clearly states, “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” The Truth, the Word, God, Salvation, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Life … all of this is witnessed … that is, visible, known, experienced, and (at least somewhat) comprehendible … through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this Truth is known in humility, in surrender, in giving up the prideful self and taking on the spirit of Christ.
My favorite scene from the holy week story is Jesus praying in Gethsemane. It didn’t make the cut in this chapter of “The Story,”since this narration was at that point following the Gospel of John. The story of Jesus in the Garden is found in the three synoptic Gospels, and I find it one of the most honest depictions of the humanness of Jesus as he relates to Truth.
[Jesus] said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Mark 14:36 [NRSV]
We see the movement here of Jesus’ reliance on God. From the honest, “C’mon Dad, I know you can make this easier for me.” to the “ok, it’s not about me.” In the Luke account it says that angels surrounded him in his prayer to give him strength, and then, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” Luke 22:44 [NRSV] This is was the beginning of the surrender. It ends with “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46 [NRSV]
I’m reminded of the greatest commandment: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. Loving means, giving up for. If we love God, if we have faith in God, then we give up our own pride, our own need for control, our own wants, our own comfort … for the work of the Kingdom. And when we do, we truly know the Grace, Peace and Love of Christ. And, so, Yes, Jesus had to totally give up his heart, soul, mind, and strength in order to give witness to the Truth and fullness of God’s transforming and creative power.
How do you answer the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
This quote doesn’t come from this chapter, of course, but I think it really comes into its own here. Peter is a character of absolutes, like stone. Early in the chapter, Peter objects to Jesus washing his feet, I suppose horrified by the idea of the master stooping so low. He isn’t just upset. He refuses, saying that Jesus will NEVER wash HIS feet. That is, until Jesus tells Peter that it is required to have a part with him. Then, Peter wants the full body experience! With Peter, it’s all or nothing.
Fast forward a bit, and we hear Jesus telling the disciples that they will all fall away in his time of trial. And, of course, up jump Peter to deny this. Even if it means his death, Peter says, he will never abandon Jesus. Sure and solid as a rock, like always. So Jesus sets the stage for what is to come, saying that Peter will deny him three time before the rooster crows.
I don’t doubt that those words of Jesus were on Peter’s mind when Judas and the temple soldiers came to arrest Jesus. So Peter reacted with quick action, cutting off Mulchus’ ear. Peter was going to prove to Jesus that he was his rock! Unfortunately for Peter, that wasn’t the end.
Finally, we come to the encounter outside the house of the high priest. Peter isn’t threatened with swords. Peter the rock knows how to break swords. He was threatened with words – not his strong suit, to be sure. And so he denies Jesus three times before the rooster crows. And this is the critical point for Peter, the rock. Jesus looks at him. Pierces him with his glance, at the moment of betrayal.
I think that the “traditional” interpretation of this is that Jesus is expressing sorrow at Peter’s betrayal, as well as compassion for him. Certainly Peter felt that sorrow, running off to weep “bitterly.” But I think it goes beyond that.
I think Jesus was preparing Peter for his role as the rock, the foundation, of the church.
Up to this point, Peter had been the rough, hard, shapeless block (or perhaps blockHEAD) of stone. But to be useful, Peter needed to be shaped. He needed to have the excess bits chipped away. The weaknesses and flaws exposed, so that he could bear the weight that was expected of him. Like a stone mason using a hammer and chisel, Jesus’ simple glance had applied just the right pressure at just the right point. Jesus had broken Peter open, leaving him stronger to face the future.
This week we’ll be reading the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. That’s Chapter 26: The Hour of Darkness. For those reading along in your own Bible, the reference is: Mathew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; John 13-14; 16-19. Look for this week’s reflection/s on Monday Morning. In the meantime, make comments or ask questions here. Or on the facebook group page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #apcthestory.