Why did Jesus die?
I was baptized Catholic and then went through a few stages of Protestantism as my mom sought a different expression of her faith. If memory serves me correctly, she had become alienated from the Catholic focus on original sin and persistent guilt. The idea of “if you don’t follow these rules then you will go to hell” was no longer something to settle for. Catholic guilt was the real deal in my family. When my family was going through some rough times the way God looked was alienating.
When my mom married my step-father we joined him in the Presbyterian Church (USA). As she puts it, that church was the first time she heard the Gospel preached and she met God there. It was a powerful experience for her and she has remained Presbyterian ever since. I was just in junior high school so at church, I pretty much just fell asleep.
In between naps, it was there that I hooked into evangelical Protestantism. I found an identity there. Evangelicalism eventually fit. It was my first real faith journey and it lasted from the end of junior high school through seminary. I was a Calvinist, evangelical through my middle year at seminary. However, the fit was never as comfortable as I thought it needed to be in order to fit a solid evangelical mold. I felt out-of-place and as I got more honest about my faith, the friction intensified. So what changed?
Doctrinally, the change came down to one idea: I could no longer accept the notion that God needed to satisfy His own law and its consequences by killing off His Son. The idea that Jesus died to fulfill a legal contract God made with a humanity that didn’t keep up its end of the bargain seemed absurd. It was as if the presence of Jesus himself was relegated to a background status because none of that in itself was meaningful in closing the deal on sin.
God the judge. God the gangster. God made an offer that we couldn’t refuse. Since we refused it we deserved death.
Since we could not possibly satisfy a king and judge like God, God had to suck it up and do it for us. It is as if God was shackled to His own Law. Love is in the service of justice and Jesus serves justice on the cross. Jesus came to die. My exposure to the church Fathers beginning with St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation turned my understanding of God upside down.
In Orthodoxy Jesus didn’t come here to save us from God’s wrath, He came in order to heal what was broken. The most broken aspect of human life is death itself. That’s the Gospel I heard in the narratives. This was the same God who raised Lazarus, who welcomed prostitutes and tax collectors, gave sight to the blind, and told a man to pick up his mat and walk.
God is a God who heals wounds in spite of the fact that we cut ourselves open every day.
God healed death by dying and rising from death. He did this not to satisfy an immutable Law, but because the very nature of God is Love. God’s salvation is not a legal contract, it is a radical healing of the very structure of nature for it to be what it was always intended to be: undivided from God Himself. As the Paschal Troparion is sung:
Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs
Love, Life, Grace. That’s a God for whom I am will to work. That is a God for whom amending my life to get closer is completely worth the effort.
This is something of a preview to what I will be speaking about at the 2014 Wild Goose Festival. Hope to see you there!