or I might go with something like this:
Why the Cross?
So why did Jesus have to go through it all? Why did he have to be rejected by the people, condemned by the Jewish and Roman leaders, abused by the soldiers and nailed to the cross to die in agony?
We’re not likely to give an exhaustive answer to that question today. As someone has said, the mystery of the cross is shallow enough for a child to paddle in but deep enough for an elephant to swim in! But down through the centuries, Christian thinkers and teachers have studied the scriptures and given a number of answers to the question, “Why did Jesus die on a cross?” Let’s look briefly at four of them.
Some have said, “He died as a sacrifice for our sins”. In the Old Testament, people who sin against the Lord are instructed to bring an animal and offer it as a sacrifice. So the people would confess their sins over the head of the animal and then it would be slaughtered as a sacrifice for sin. Another time that sacrifice was offered was when covenants were made between God and his people – binding agreements in which God made promises to his people and they responded with pledges of loyalty to God. Jesus used this sacrificial language at the Last Supper when he said that the bread was his body given for us, and the cup was the new covenant sealed by his blood, and we also noticed it today in our first reading from Isaiah which talks about the suffering servant as ‘a lamb being led to the slaughter’ – surely an allusion to sacrifice.
Others have said, “He died as a ransom to set us free”. This is an illustration from the slave market. In the ancient world people could be sold into slavery for all sorts of reasons, the most common one being that they could not pay their debts. But the custom was that a family member could buy them out of slavery by offering a ransom price – this was known as ‘redeeming’ a slave. Jesus uses this sort of language himself, when he says in Mark 10:45 that ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’. In this view, we humans are slaves to evil and sin, but Jesus by his death has paid the price that is necessary to set us free.
A third way of understanding the cross has been that it is a good example for us to follow. In this view, Jesus is the faithful servant of God who does what his Father asks of him, no matter what the cost may be. And when he goes to the cross, he doesn’t retaliate or wipe his enemies out with thunderbolts as we might expect from the strong Son of God; rather, he prays that they may be forgiven. The New Testament writers see this as an example for Christians to follow when they are persecuted for their faith: we must continue faithful to God, and must respond to our enemies with love and not with revenge. Jesus carries a Cross, and call us to carry it as well. "Take up your cross and follow me".
A fourth way of understanding the cross sees Jesus as the substitute, the one who takes the place of sinful humanity and dies the death that we deserve for our sins. Barabbas, the rebel who Pontius Pilate set free on Good Friday instead of Jesus, is an illustration of this. Barabbas had rebelled against the empire, and the punishment for that offence was crucifixion. But Jesus, who was innocent of all such crimes, took his place and died the death that Barabbas deserved, the result being that Barabbas could go free. We also, in this view, have rebelled against God and are deserving of punishment for our sins. But God’s love for us is so great that he came himself in the person of his Son and bore the punishment for our sins, so that we could be forgiven and could be free to enjoy fellowship with God forever.
These four illustrations – the cross as a sacrifice, as a ransom, as an example, and as a substitutionary offering – are all based on the teaching of the scriptures, and they all have light to shed on what Jesus did for us on the Cross.
So what does the Cross tell us?
First, the cross shows us that this is what we are like as human beings – the one who is all love, all truth, all mercy, all goodness, all grace, comes into the world, and we reject him. To quote from John again, ‘And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil’. Am I so in love with the religious systems I’ve based my life on that I can’t hear the voice of God in Jesus questioning those systems, asking what they really have to do with loving God and loving my neighbour? Am I so in love with power that I can’t let it go and live my life on the basis of love instead? Am I so in love with my own moral autonomy that I refuse to turn away from my sins and follow the one who claims to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life? ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord’? It seems so. When I think about the cross, I realise that I have a lot to repent of.
Secondly, the cross challenges us to imitate Jesus. When Jesus first foretold his death, he said to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). The people who first read these words from Mark’s gospel were probably Roman Christians who were being persecuted by the Emperor Nero. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for them to renounce their faith and save their lives, but Mark recorded Jesus’ words as a challenge to them. The cross is the price we pay for faithfulness to God in a world that prefers darkness to light. Our Lord carried it faithfully, and now we are called to follow in his footsteps. For us, that means not being ashamed to be known as his followers. It means not being afraid to live in the way he taught us, even if it isn’t always popular with the people around us.
Finally – the Cross sets us free.
You may have come here feeling guilty – go home knowing you are free.
You may have come here feeling apart from God – go home knowing you are his children.
“I cannot do it for myself”. Like Nicodemus, I realize that all my religious actions are getting me nowhere. I can’t connect with God the way I want to. I can’t get free of my bad habits. I can’t be the parent I want to be, and so on.
Step two comes when I say, “Jesus can do it”. In him and in the gift of his Spirit, all that I need is available to me. Again, in A.A. language we ‘come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity’ - in our case, the power of Jesus and his Spirit.
Step three comes when I say, “I will come to Jesus and ask for it” - like the thief on the Cross, who turned and said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’.
"Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God's grace.
And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need for God's grace."