Why Jesus came (A sermon from Luke’s theology of the Passion of Christ)

Maybe you have heard it said by preachers and other Christians, “Jesus came to die.” That is not true, sisters and brothers. He did not come to die, according to the Gospel of Luke. He did indeed die. He was put to death by the powers that be and the early followers of Jesus did, indeed, find redemptive significance and power in his death. So much so that the saying, “Jesus died on account of our sins” was often cited in early Christian litanies. But that is not why Jesus came. Jesus’ purpose was not to die. His purpose was to live and to call others to live as he lived.

Luke sets forth Jesus’ agenda (his purpose and mission) at the beginning of his story about Jesus. It did not include death. The setting is Jesus’ hometown in Nazareth. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah and then identifies himself as the servant of God sent to fulfill that agenda. Most of you know this well, because I so often reference it. Jesus understood his calling to be one of bringing good news to the poor, setting captives free, giving sight to the blind, liberating the oppressed, and proclaiming God’s gracious welcome to all. According to Luke, this is what Jesus was about. This is why he came.

Now, in fulfilling that mission, Jesus would die. And the way the Gospel writers tell the story, Jesus knew he was going to die. I suspect it didn’t take Jesus very long into his work to figure this out. The story in Luke 4 set in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, ends with the people wanting to throw Jesus off a cliff. Jesus so upset the power systems and so challenged the conventional wisdom of his day that it didn’t long for the powers that be to start plotting how they might get rid of him

When Jesus leads a peace march into Jerusalem, and stages a small protest in the Temple, he seals his fate. As a prelude to his death he makes arrangements to celebrate the Passover with his disciples and share a final meal with them. He says to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat the Passover with you before I suffer.” In Luke’s sequence, he breaks the bread, and in anticipation of his own broken body says, “This is my body, which is given for you.” His body is given for them in the sense that he gave his life in pursuit of making known God’s kingdom of love and righteousness. Then they eat the Passover meal, and “after supper” says Luke, he passes the cup and says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” According to Luke, and the other Gospel writers as well (this is not unique to Luke) Jesus interprets his death as the seal of a new covenant he enters into with his disciples as representatives of the covenant people of God. This new covenant, according to the Gospels, is inaugurated through his life and sealed by his death. In their interpretation of Jesus’ death, Jesus does not die as a sin offering. The Passover lamb was not a sin offering. The Passover commemorated Israel’s covenant relationship with God, and the Passover lamb served as a seal of that covenant. It was about eating lamb, and sharing a table of communion and fellowship. The sacrificial lamb was an offering of thanksgiving. It commemorated liberation from bondage. It was not about atonement from sin.

According to Luke, and the other Gospels, Jesus died a sacrificial death because he lived a sacrificial life. The major point Luke makes in his crucifixion story is that Jesus, who called disciples to a new and better way, was faithful even unto death. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as he does in Mark’s Gospel, which Matthew’s Gospel follows. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says confidently and boldly as he dies, “Into your hands, Father, I commend my spirit.” He dies as a faithful martyr in the service of God. Jesus was called out by God to make known God’s will for the world, and he does that through his work of preaching and teaching the kingdom of God, through his table fellowship with all manner of people, his practice of righteousness or justice, his healing the sick, lifting up the poor, giving sight and insight to the blind, and liberating the oppressed. In the process of doing this good work he upset and shook to the core the powers that be, so they killed him, which is what the powers in control do to those who shake things up.  

The new covenant Jesus makes with his covenant people centers on forgiveness and what James, in his letter, calls the “the law of liberty” – that is the law of love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus interprets his death as the seal of this covenant. There is no sense in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ death where Jesus sees his death as a substitution. He does, however, call his disciples to participation in living out this new covenant, where he puts the emphasis on forgiveness and love of neighbor.

Forgiveness is a theme that Luke highlights in both his Gospel and in the book of Acts. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says from the cross, regarding his tormentors, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Forgiveness is what makes possible new beginnings in relationships that have been torn apart and severed. Forgiveness is what makes a new covenant relationship possible. We see this with Jesus and his disciples. All the disciples flee in fear on the night of his arrest, leaving him to face the suffering and humiliation of a Roman execution alone. But on Easter Sunday when Jesus appears to them, there is no sense of rejection or retribution, just forgiveness and grace. And the charge or commission he gives to his disciples in Luke’s version is: Go tell others about the forgiveness of God and invite them to turn from a life of hate and vengeance to a life of grace and forgiveness. That was the message they were to take to the world. Without forgiveness there is no hope for humanity. Nelson Mandela who I talked about last week understood that as well as anyone.

Sometimes forgiveness is necessary simply to be at peace within oneself and with others. Jean Vanier, the author of “Becoming Human” and founder of the L’Arche’ communities, wrote about being in Rwanda shortly after the horrendous genocide  that occurred there. A young woman came up to him and told him that seventy-five members of her family had been assassinated. I can’t imagine, and don’t even want to imagine what that would be like? I’m not sure I could ever recover from something like that. She said, “I have so much anger and hate within me and I don’t know what to do with it. Everybody is talking about reconciliation, but nobody has asked any forgiveness. I just don’t know what to do with the hate that is within me.” What do you say to a young girl who finds herself all alone because all her family has been killed? She was caught up in a world of great bitterness and depression. Vanier told her that the first step towards forgiveness is saying, ‘no vengeance’? He asked her: “Do you want to kill those who killed members of your family?” She responded: “No, there is too much death.” Vanier said, “Well, that is the first step in the process of forgiveness.” I can’t imagine having to struggle with the demons that young lady had to contend with. But she decided “no vengeance” and she took the first step toward forgiveness and finding peace. She took the first toward a new relationship with others, with God, and with herself.

In Luke, the redemptive significance of Jesus’ death – what Paul calls the power of God unto salvation – is not through any kind of substitution. Jesus is not dying in the place of anyone. It’s through participation in the death of Jesus, it’s through participation in the forgiveness of God and love of God that heals and transforms. Jesus even calls his disciples to participate with him in his death. As they make their way to Jerusalem where Jesus will be killed, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Jesus calls them to participate in his death, by denying their false selves, and by dying daily to self-serving, ego serving attitudes and actions.

Trina Paulus has written a kind of picture book for adults titled: hope for the flowers (a tale partly about life, partly about revolution, and lots of hope for adults and others – including caterpillars who can read). It tells the story of two caterpillars named Stripe and Yellow. In one stage of Stripe’s journey he sees a whole bunch of caterpillars climbing over each other to get to the top of the caterpillar pile. He’s not sure what is at the top, but it must be good, because all the other caterpillars are trying to get to the top of the pile. (Sounds familiar doesn’t it? That’s what the false self, the little self does. It is consumed with getting to the top, whatever that may be. The disciples struggled with this didn’t they? They never could accept what Jesus told them about his suffering and death, for they were too busy aspiring and arguing about who would be the greatest in God’s kingdom. Like so many Christians today they were clueless about the true nature of God’s kingdom.) So Stripe joins all the climbers trying to reach the top. He is determined and persistent. He has to climb on and over other caterpillars to get to the top, but he doesn’t allow himself to think about the plight of the caterpillars he has to knock down and step on to get to the top. (That sounds very familiar today too doesn’t it?) When he reaches the top, he looks around and he sees pillars everywhere. Paulus writes, “Stripe became angry as well as frustrated. “My pillar,” he moaned, “only one of thousands.” “Millions of caterpillars climbing nowhere!” Unfortunately, most of us have to come to that place where we realize that getting to the top gets us nowhere, before we will even consider dying to our false selves.

The caterpillar named Yellow is the first to become a butterfly. She stumbles across a caterpillar one day who is hanging upside down. He tells her that he has to do this to become a butterfly. She asks him, “How does one become a butterfly?” He says, “You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.” (That’s the issue isn’t it? Are we willing to let go of whatever it is that is preventing us from becoming butterflies? It may be our pride, or love of possessions, or prejudice, or anger, or fear, or need to control others. Are we willing to let go of that, whatever one thing or ten things that keep us crawling around as caterpillars?) Yellow says, “You mean die.” The other caterpillar says, “Yes and No. What looks like you will die, but what’s really you will still live. Life is changed, not taken away.” I love that line, “What looks like you will die, but what’s really you will still live.” The “really you” is where the Spirit dwells. The really you is your true self. What you really are, what we really are, is children of God. Once we realize this and trust this, then we want to become who we already are.  

So Jesus tells his disciples that if they are to continue as disciples they must be willing to deny the false self. They must be willing to die to the negative patterns and hurtful attitudes and actions of the little self. Then, he explains with a bit of irony, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” The current humanitarian crisis at our border and our country’s current response to that crisis, our country’s response to the suffering of these who are fleeing murder towns and places that are not safe to live, tells us how much fear and anger and resentment and pride and prejudice and a sense of entitlement pervades our country. Can we lose all of that, can we lose our fear and anger and need to scapegoat people, so that we can experience the compassion and grace and love of Christ, which is “really” life, which is true life indeed? What do we need to lose, what do we need to die to, in order to do God’s will in our lives, and become more compassionate and just like Christ? What do we need to lose in order to experience the forgiveness and compassion of Christ? Am I willing to lose, am I willing to die to my little self, so I can experience the Christ self?  

Our gracious God, as we share together in the partaking of the bread and cup, may we renew our commitment to die daily to anything that would prevent us or hinder us from walking in the way of Jesus, and from expressing in word and deed the compassion and righteousness of Christ. Amen.


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