I preached this sermon on Sunday at the afternoon jazz worship service at Fourth Presbyterian Church. It weaves together a couple of earlier blog posts and Tony Jones’ new book Did God Kill Jesus? (I’ll have more to say about Tony’s book in an upcoming post.) The scripture reading was Luke 24:36-49.
When I was in high school, my favorite youth group leader was a man named Dave. I don’t recall him being an especially astute biblical scholar or a profound teacher. But he showed up to church every Sunday afternoon to play volleyball with us. His gift of time and attention meant the world to me.
His daughter, Paula, developed an aggressive form of breast cancer. She fought it with determination and made trips to see a specialist in Houston. But it was a battle she would eventually lose. As you can imagine, Dave was devastated. It might have been the first time I ever saw a grown man cry the way he did. Though I was too young to fully understand it myself, I could see in Dave the profound pain and suffering of a parent losing a child.
After Paula’s funeral, I asked our pastor how God could let this happen. Why didn’t God save her? I’ll never forget the pastor looking at me with complete sincerity and saying, “We may not understand it, but it must have been God’s will.”
I didn’t find that to be a very satisfying answer. Twenty years later, after earning advanced degrees in theology and having served as a pastor for fifteen years myself, I still don’t find this to be a satisfying answer.
You see, I just can’t wrap my heart and mind around the notion that God ever wills pain and suffering. I know full well that positive things can and do sometimes come out of adversity, but to make the leap that God causes something bad in order to bring about something good just doesn’t fit with our notion of a loving God, with the biblical proposition that God is love.
Yet in my experience as a pastor, perhaps the most commonly held theological belief is that everything happens for a reason. For most people, this means that God has a plan and that everything somehow fits in it. We long to believe that our lives and human history are not a series of random coincidences. We want to trust that God is in control and that deep within every situation—good or bad—some kind of meaning can be found.
Yet time and again over the course of the last twenty years, I have found it hard to go there myself. I don’t think God wanted Paula to suffer and die, and I certainly don’t think God caused it as part of some divine plan. I don’t think God wanted my uncle and cousin to die prematurely from cancer. I don’t think God caused 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or the earthquakes in Haiti. I don’t think God wants babies to die less than a week after being born. I don’t think God wants parents to kill their own children. I don’t think any of this is part of God’s plan.
But what about Jesus?
He suffered a horrible death on a cross, a death that God could have prevented. Did God cause that to happen? Was it part of God’s plan for his son to suffer and die? Was Jesus born to die?
As they tell the story of Jesus, each of our four gospels indicate that he entered Jerusalem fully expecting to die and be resurrected. Of course, critical Bible scholars will question whether this really goes back to the historical Jesus. These predictions of his death and resurrection could have been added in hindsight by his followers to boost the credibility of their assertion that Jesus didn’t simply die the death of an insurrectionist but that God had vindicated him by raising him from the dead.
Yet even if Jesus didn’t spell things out exactly as reported in the four gospels, there is no way that he didn’t know his life was in danger when he challenged the political and religious leaders of his day. He deliberately provoked those in power and it didn’t require any special insight or imagination to see where this would lead.
Even so, it seems pretty clear that Jesus’ death took his followers by surprise. The folks on the periphery who joined the bandwagon late in the game—those who hoped that this teacher who so boldly rode into Jerusalem in a procession that mocked the Roman governors might actually be the long awaited messiah, coming at last to set them free from their imperial overlords—they probably dismissed him rather quickly when his movement appeared to come to an abrupt end on a Roman cross. After all, messianic pretenders came and went in first century Palestine.
But his closest disciples—the ones who had left everything to follow him for three years—they seemed genuinely perplexed that this man they believed to be God’s chosen and anointed one was so easily humiliated and extinguished, like countless others who dared to challenge the powers that be. How could they be so wrong?
Then came stories of the empty tomb. And then reports that some of them had actually seen Jesus raised from the dead and walking among them. Maybe they weren’t wrong. Maybe God was doing something in their midst more profound than they could have anticipated—certainly more than they could understand.
The story of Jesus appearing to his disciples that we heard this afternoon—the final story told in the Gospel of Luke—speaks to this confusion and uncertainty. “They were terrified and afraid,” we are told. “They thought they were seeing a ghost.”
But Jesus shows them his body and invites them to feel that he is indeed flesh and bone. He shows them his scarred hands and feet. He eats a piece of fish in front of them to make it as clear as possible that he is not an apparition.
But the thing that really strikes me is how he reminds them that he told them beforehand that this would happen. He makes it seem as if this was always part of his plan. Not only that, he uses the Hebrew Bible to show that everything that had happened was foretold by ancient prophets and scribes. Not only was it part of Jesus’ plan, but because it was woven into the fabric of their sacred scriptures, it must have been part of God’s plan too.
From the very beginning of their post-Easter life, Jesus’ followers tried to make sense of what had happened to their friend and leader. They tried to find meaning in his horrific death. And as the years went on the theories became more and more complex and convoluted.
You see, if everything happens for a reason, then the suffering and death of Jesus must have been God’s will. More than a tragic act of violence perpetrated by an imperial power, Jesus’ death must mean something in the grand scheme of things. God must have caused Jesus to endure horrific pain and a humiliating death in order to bring about something good. Or, at the very least, God must have let it happen. Because it was part of the plan. According to this way of thinking, everything happens for a reason.
But I think back to Dave and Paula and I wonder if everything really happens for a reason. I wonder if a loving God causes such pain and suffering. I wonder if a divine father could actually choose to inflict that kind of punishing death upon a child.
Like the proverbial chicken and egg, I’m not sure which comes first: the belief that everything happens for a reason or the belief that Jesus’ death has theological significance. But what we think about one clearly influences what we think about the other. For me, my persistent questions about whether or not God causes suffering raises critical questions about the meaning of Jesus’ death—namely, is there meaning in Jesus’ death?
For the past several years, I’ve tended to think about this question in the following way. There is actually a simple and straightforward reason for Jesus’ death: he was executed because his vision of God’s kingdom threatened the political and religious powers of his day. Yet his followers have consistently looked for a theological reason behind his death because they believe everything happens for a reason.
But what if God doesn’t actually work in the world that way? Living as we do in a post-Holocaust world of weapons of mass destruction, ruthless terror, preventable suffering, and incurable illness, perhaps we have good reason to rethink how God works in human history. Perhaps we don’t need a theological explanation for Jesus’ death. Perhaps to suggest anything more than the simple and straightforward explanation is to overlay the crucifixion—a fact of history—with unnecessary theological speculation.
To read the story of God and humanity in the whole Bible, the incarnation of God in Jesus was one of several ways that God entered human history to save God’s people from their self-destructive ways and to lead them into God’s kingdom. The archetypal story of the Bible is beautifully simple: bad things happen and God picks up the pieces, moving the arc of history forward toward ultimate goodness. This is the story of the exodus from Egyptian captivity. This is the story of Babylonian exile and redemption. And this is the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The crucifixion was a tragedy caused by the worst evil of humanity. In his death Jesus joins countless others who suffer and die at the hands of other people. But this is not the end of the story. Along with the exodus from Egypt and the return from Babylonian exile, the resurrection of Jesus gives us hope that nothing—no tragedy, no mistake, no sin, no evil—nothing is beyond the redemptive power of God’s love.
At the same time, I can’t just ignore the fact that our earliest Christian writings do in fact find meaning in Jesus’ death. The Apostle Paul was convinced that Jesus’ death—more so than anything else, including his life and perhaps even his resurrection—was the most important thing. For Paul, the entirety of Christian faith rests on how we understand Jesus’ death as the key to salvation.
My friend Tony Jones, a theologian and progressive church leader, has recently published a book with the provocative title Did God Kill Jesus? This book is encouraging me to keep Paul’s emphasis on the cross in tension with my liberal tendency to focus more on the resurrection. Coming at the crucifixion from a slightly different direction than I have led us this afternoon, Tony is essentially asking the same question: was Jesus’ death part of God’s big plan?
Grounded in Paul’s insistence on the centrality of the cross and the orthodox Christian belief that Jesus is part of the Trinitarian God, Tony takes on the most popular understanding of the crucifixion, known as penal substitution—or as he calls is, the payment model. I’m sure you’ve heard of this. The idea is that humanity’s sin was so great that there needed to be a perfectly sinless sacrifice made in order to appease the righteous wrath of God. Jesus is that sacrifice, and because of his death God extends God’s love to us. Tony does a great job of showing that this theory simply can’t be reconciled with the idea—drawn from both scripture and our experience—that God loves us, that God is love.
Spoiler alert: Tony doesn’t believe that God killed Jesus. Rather, he suggests that because Jesus is God, in the crucifixion God experiences human suffering in a new way. God shifts from sympathizing with us to empathizing with us. God becomes one with humanity. This changes God and it changes God’s relationship with us. It demonstrates in the most radical way possible that God is with us—even in the midst of suffering and death—and that we are never alone. “The good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection,” Tony says, “is that in Jesus of Nazareth, God entered fully and completely into solidarity with us so that we can find solidarity with God in the Risen Christ.”
Was Jesus born to die? Yes, Jesus was born die because we are all born to die. And through Jesus we know in the most profound way imaginable that God is here with us, even in the midst of suffering and death. And because Jesus lives, we know that death is not the end of the story.
I don’t believe that God caused Paula to suffer and die. I don’t believe that God caused my uncle and cousin to die. I don’t beliee God caused 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or the earthquakes in Haiti. I don’t believe God causes babies to die less than a week after being born. I don’t think God causes parents to kill their own children.
But I do believe that God is present in the midst of all of that. I believe that God is present everywhere and in everyone. I believe that God is love. And I believe that our hope in the resurrection of Christ changes us and is changing the world.