Why was Jesus crucified?

A sermon preached as part of a series looking at different hymns. This sermon is in response to Charles Wesley’s great hymn And can it be? (see video clip below to hear it sung). The Bible reading was Romans 5:1-11.

“Why was Jesus crucified?” is not the sort of question I would normally address in a sermon. The answers to this question provided by a most theologians get very complicated and very abstract and esoteric very quickly (if you don’t beleive me look up the Wikipedia article on The Atonement in Christianity). I much prefer more concrete theology – ideas that relate more to the way we live our lives in the world today.

There is, however, a particular reason for reflecting on this particular question within our congregation now. At Easter we are hosting an event call Risen! We’ll be inviting children from many of our local schools into our church to tell them the story of the crucifixion and resurrection. Imagine a child coming home to a parent and saying, “Mummy, mummy, what happened to Jesus was horrible wasn’t it? Why was he crucified?”

How do we prepare parents to answer that question? How do we answer it ourselves? Let’s just pause for a minute. Think about how you would answer that question to a 10 year old child born in the twenty-first century. “Daddy, daddy, why was Jesus crucified?”

I’d guess if we wrote those answers down secretly and then compared them that we’d get a wide range of responses. Those different answers would reflect the different ways that each of us think about God and Jesus. Some of us will feel very strongly that there is one correct answer and that the all Christians should share this. It wouldn’t surprise me if several of you felt there was only one correct answer but had different opinions about what that answer was! Some of us might feel less certain about our answers. Some of us might feel uncertain to the extent that we are unable to give a simple answer.

Some of us will have based our answers on particular Bible passages. Perhaps the passage like that we heard from Romans which suggests that Christ had to die to save sinful men and women from God’s anger. One of the hot topics in contemporary academic theology , however,  is whether the Bible presents a single consistent view of why Jesus had to die, or whether the different early Christians who wrote different chapters in the New Testament had a number of different views.  (To learn more try Googling  “Atonement in John” or “Atonement in Luke”. If you do though be aware that much of the content is a backlash from commentators who oppose the original ideas and thus that the material is rather one-sided – you’ll have to dig a bit deeper to get a more balanced argument).

Luke for example, writing in either his Gospel or the Acts of the Apostles, says virtualy nothing that links Jesus death to our sinful nature. Jesus was crucified because he offended the Jewish and Roman authorities. The central message of Luke’s gospel, epitomised in the story of the Prodigal Son, is not that we are saved from the anger of a wrathful God, but that we are forgiven by a loving Father. There is also considerable debate about the purpose of Jesus’ death as related in John’s gospel and letters. Many extremely authoritative scholars suggest that John saw Jesus’ death as a revelation of God’s love rather than as a specific response to our sinfulness.

So we need to be very careful about stating that the Bible provides us with a single explanation for why Jesus was crucified. It doesn’t, it provides us with a number of different explanations. Some of these link Jesus’ crucifixion to our redemption, and others don’t.

Explanations of why Jesus was crucified have changed within the church over time and these views have reflected the changing context in which Christians were living. In the very early days, when Christianity was still heavily influenced by Judaism, Jesus’ death came to be viewed in terms of an animal sacrifice. This is reflected in some of Paul’s letters and gives rise to the image of Christ as the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world. Slightly later Christians tended to see Jesus’ death primarily as an example of how we should live. This was at a time when the Church was very heavily persecuted and many Christians were being martyred. Jesus’ death became seen as something that Christians were called to share in, often literally.  (It’s interesting that neither the Apostles’ nor the Nicene creed make any reference to why Christ died. This suggests either that the issue was not seen as particularly important at the time or that the people writing the creed could not agree amongst themselves.)

Perhaps the most well known change in emphasis in our understanding of why Jesus was crucified came at the time of the Reformation. The significance of Jesus’ death was one of the major differences between the reformers and the Catholic church. By this time the established church (which we now know as the Catholic Church) was corrupt and raising money by selling the forgiveness of sins. The reformers’ response was to emphasise a view that the price of our sins had already been paid by Jesus’ death on the cross. It follows from this that  this is not an something that is under the control of contemporary church authorities.

So where is this getting us? We’ve found that the Bible presents us with a number of different ways of understanding the significance of Jesus’ death and that, over time Christians, have chosen to pick and choose between these depending on the time, place and context in which they have been living. The viewpoint that we have inherited from the Reformation is probably that most prevalent in Methodism today, but I’m personally not convinced that it is any more Biblical or fundamental than any of the others.

I find the variety of explanations useful. I respond extremely positively to some of the images – I’m particularly drawn to Luke’s ideas that our sins our forgiven by a loving father. I respond quite negatively to others – I am really put off by images of Jesus death as the sacrifice of the lamb of God. (I find the notion of being washed in the blood of the lamb particularly repellant). But that is just me, other people have come from different life experiences and find different images helpful.

If we drop our need to impose the particular explanation that appeals to us on other people and see these as a range of reasonable alternatives, then we open up the Gospel to be understood in different ways by different people. We can liken this to the day of Pentecost when Peter preached to people in one language and was understood by people speaking a range of different languages. The gospel message was for all, not just for those who spoke a particular language.  Similarly, Jesus died, most of us believe, for all people, not just those who think like us.

Behind everything I’ve said so far is the question, “Does it matter?”

The important thing is not whether or how we can explain our redemption but that we have experienced it. The central truth of our redemption is that we are liberated from the imperfection of our previous lives (call it sinfulness if it helps) to dedicate ourselves to living a God-filled life in the future. However much we have failed in the past we are offered a new opportunity in the future and no-one can take that away from us.

This can be truly liberating and life-changing. Many of us are imprisoned by what we have done or what has been done to us in the past. We carry the burdens of our life experience. In a few seconds silence just pause and reflect on what separates you from God. It may be guilt for something you have done or not done in the past. It might be pain from something that someone has done to you in the past. It might be disappointment that something that you hoped passionately for at one time has not coe to fruition. It might be grief for someone or something that used to be important in your life. Whatever it is, the liberating Gospel truth is that that is in the past and that all you need do to find God’s love is to live for him in the future.

All you need to know is that God is holding out his arms to embrace you. It doesn’t matter whether you see those arms as those of a dying saviour nailed to a cross to pay the price of your sins or the arms of a loving father who is willing to forgive them. What is important is that you know that those arms are always open – and that they are waiting for you, whoever you are and whatever you have done.



PS The more attentive will have spotted that, having been asked to preach on this hymn, I made absolutely no reference to it in the sermon! This is because it was the words of the hymn that inspired and are implicit in the whole sermon. Wesley’s hymns are often  prescriptive in their theology but this one isn’t. If you read the words carefully this is a powerful celebration of the redemption that Wesley (and his brother John) had experienced so powerfully without imposing any particular way of understanding it. Indeed the take home message of the second verse is that this is a mystery that is beyond our understanding.



Christ the Redeemer

This sermon was preached on the last Sunday during the Olympic Games, 2016. A picture of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio standing against a bright blue sky was projected onto the screen behind the preacher throughout the sermon. Earlier in the sermon we had listened to the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).


This Sunday feels a little bit different. It’s the last but one Sunday and the church’s year and numbers are down in the middle of the summer holidays. It just feels an opportunity to do something a little bit different. So instead of being led in our thoughts by a passage from scripture I want us to be led by a work of engineering and art.

I think this can be very useful every so often. When most of us, who’ve been in the church for some time, read the Bible we do so with some theological baggage. We have conceptions about what the passage should mean and how we should approach it. When we approach God through a work of art we can be liberated from some of that baggage and maybe think a little more broadly and creatively. Any of you who have been to John’s film based discussions will know that those films provoke very different conversations to those that arise in most Bible study sessions.

So as you’ll have gathered from the time we’ve already shared with the children we are going to reflect on the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio. It was proposed in the early 1920s by a Catholic church that was beginning to feel its influence wane partly as a result of the increasing influence of Protestantism, and partly through a trend to a more secular society. It was also a reaction to the horrors of the previous decade in Europe and a desire to provide a focus for Catholicism within Brazil. After several design changes and a major engineering challenge it was officially opened on 12th October 1931.

Christ the redeemer is about redemption. Having commented earlier on about theological baggage there can be no more baggage laden word in the whole of theology, particularly for Protestants. We are all fallen, needing salvation, we can only receive this through faith in Jesus. If we do we are saved. Different people will have a different view of what it means to be saved but the majority of Christians probably still relate this to a promise of eternal life. Many of us will also claim a strong association between faith in Jesus and coming to church and we thus end up in the rather comfortable position that those of us who have faith and come to church will be saved whereas all those who don’t and stay away won’t.

Except it’s not that comfortable is it? Almost all of us will have close friends and relations who we love but who don’t share our faith in Christ. We may be saved but what will happen to them?

Many of us will have tried to raise our children to know Jesus and have faith in him. Many of us, to put it bluntly, have failed in this (including myself). It is difficult to rejoice in your own salvation and still worry about that of you children.

There is an opposite challenge of course for those of us who come to faith from non-Christian families. They will know the joy of faith in Jesus but will almost certainly have parents or siblings who have no interest in Jesus and his offer of redemption.

All of us here, no matter how sure we may be of our own salvation, will have doubts and concerns about that of people we love. This may be exacerbated if we’ve got specific views about what might happen in any afterlife. In extreme if we believe that those who have been saved will pass to one place and those who have not may pass to another.

I’m just going to pause and let you reflect on the people that you love in your life yet who do not share your faith.

But then look at this statue – Do we see judgement? Do we see a division of the population of the world into those who have been saved and those who have not been saved? I don’t think so. I think we see love and acceptance for all. Those arms don’t offer a different welcome for the saint and the sinner, they offer the same welcome.

I’ve picked the parable for this morning’s reading partly because it is a work of art. It is a story that someone (presumably Jesus) made up. There is absolutely no pretence that it is true in any historical sense. It has been created in the same sense that a statue has been created – it is work of fiction and a work of art. Yet it embodies truth – it speaks to us.

It speaks the same message as the statue. It is a message of unconditional love of the father. In protestant theology we tend to think that the young man is saved because he come home. But he isn’t really – his father loves him, and will continue to love him, whether he comes home or not. If the son had not come home, the father would still be waiting. While the story is traditionally known as the parable of the Prodigal Son it is also known as that of the Loving Father, I know which I prefer.

The father’s love was so deep that every day he went and looked down the road, waiting, with arms outstretched for a son he loved. The son is saved not because of anything that the son has done but because of the father’s love. Those open arms, have been replicated to perfection, in this statue.

So let’s pause again and reflect on all those people who we love yet do not recognise the love of God.

Let’s be guided by the truth embedded in this statue. They are not excluded from God’s love, no-one is excluded from God’s love, they have just failed to recognise it. Those of us who do recognise that love, live in a different way. We live in relationship with God and our lives are blessed by this. We can feel sorrow for our unbelieving family and friends that the do not experience the joy of the relationship with God that we have, but let us not be concerned that anything awful is going to happen to them. It cannot because God loves them every bit as much as he loves us. His arms, like those of this stature, are open to all, and always will be. For this we give thanks – Amen.