theology

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.

Amen

 

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.

 

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Science and religion

As part of the Seasons of the Soul series it has been suggested that I talk about transitions in some sense this morning, but I’m also conscious that today is Bible Sunday, that Halloween is coming and that 31st October is the 500th Anniversary of Luther making public his 95 theses and thus starting the Protestant reformation. I’ll be making reference to all of these in what I say this morning but whether I address any of them appropriately will be up to you to decide.

As part of the Seasons of the Soul material we’ve been asked to reflect on transitions in our own faith lives. I’ve certainly been on a journey with God but it has generally been a process of gradual transition rather than any “blinding light” revelation. Perhaps the most fundamental transitions were early in my life. I was born into a church family with a father who was a local preacher and a mother who was Sunday school superintendent. In my early teens, however, I decided to stop going to church. There was probably an element of revolt against parental authority in this and it can’t have helped that I was one of very few boys of my age at the local church. At least equally important, however,   a growing awareness of a disconnect between what I was being taught in science lessons at school and what I was being taught at church and in Sunday school.

I didn’t go into a church after that for the best part of a decade. I completed a degree in physics and theoretical physics, then a PhD and embarked on a career of scientific practice and research ending up as a university professor. I am, to my very deepest roots, a scientist.

In my early twenties I felt something, something I would now describe as God, calling me back to the church. An important part of that transition was learning how to become a Christian and a scientist at the same time. It’s been a slow progress to feel truly comfortable being both. Sometimes I’ve been helped by the Christians I’ve encountered on my journey and sometimes, to be quite honest, I’ve found other Christians a particular hindrance. Eventually though I’m happy with the position I’ve arrived at and thought it might be worth sharing in case it is helpful to others.

The best way I can think of doing this is in the form of a mini lecture and I hope you’ll indulge me in this for a few minutes. (You can view this in the video below)

When presented like this the idea seems so obvious so why haven’t we started to think about things in this way a lot earlier. One answer of course is that many theologians have, but I think a large factor preventing others doing the same is that it requires theologians to have a better understanding of science than most do at present. In Britain at least we have a model of education that assumes  that you specialise in either the sciences or humanities from quite an early age and those who go on to study theology tend, as a consequence, to have a poor understanding of science.

I think another issue is that the amazing success of science can feel like a threat. It can feel as if religion will be overwhelmed by science. To face this we need confidence that science and religion address different questions. There are questions which in the modern world science answers much more convincingly than religion but the are other questions which science can give no insight into whatsoever.

Crib Goch ridge

This is a picture of Snowdon and the Crib Goch ridge. Science can tell us of how the mountains were created by geological processes and weathering over an unimaginably long period of time, but it cannot tell us that the result is beautiful, because science has no concept of beauty.

Syrian child

Science can tell us how this child in a Syrian hospital is suffering from malnutrition because he is not receiving the appropriate nutrients, but it cannot tell us how that child’s life is valued by his parents, because science has no concept of value.

Windgather

This is a picture of my daughter and her friend at Windgather Rocks. Science can tell us that those variations in the colour of the sky arise because dust particles in the atmosphere scatter the sun’s light differentially depending on its wave length, but it can tell us nothing of the joy that is causing those two girls to leap into the air and celebrate, because science had no concept of joy.

Science and religion tell us very different things, and those of us who are religious need the confidence to assert that what relation tells us is far more important.

The final issue with this way of looking at theology is that, at times, it appears that science and scripture disagree. Given that it is Bible Sunday it is probably appropriate that we finish by looking at this in a little more detail. I think the key to this is to realise that the Scripture and Science have different objectives. The aim of science is to give an objective explanation of how the world is, something we might call literal scientific truth. Scripture on the other hand was written, primarily, to embody a vision of God, something we might call religious truth. If we approach the Bible looking for literal scientific truth then we are going to come away disappointed because even though it was inspired by God it was written by people in a pre-scientific age. On the other hand if we approach the Bible looking for religious truth then we are going to come away empowered by the writings of the most inspired religious geniuses that have ever lived.

Let’s illustrate this by the story I told you earlier, the story of creation. Scientists tall us that the universe was created about 14 billion years ago in unbelievably short event which we now call the Big Bang. The sun was created about 4.5 billion years ago when a great gas cloud condensed and earth was created a little later as a byproduct of this progress. Scientists are a little less sure about how the moon came into being but the most likely explanation is that it was produced when an object the size of Mars collided with earth. None of this maps on to what we read in Genesis but we shouldn’t expect it to. Genesis was not written by people who had any knowledge of astrophysics, it was written by people who wanted to express the significance of creation.

If we want to find out what that significance was we have to read the Bible in  a different way and seek out the religious truth that is embedded within the story. To do this we look at the text and find that one short phrase is repeated seven times, “and God saw that it was good”. The religious truth embedded in Genesis is not that the universe was created in six days but that the universe is Good. Science has no perspective on the universe as good, bad or indifferent. Only religion can tell us that the universe is good. If we free ourselves from the expectation that the Bible must be literally and scientifically true then we are liberated to appreciate the religious purpose for which it was written. Not only that but we reach a conclusion that almost all humans on this planet can agree with instead of setting ourselves up for losing another battle with science.

There is a tendency to think that if we admit that the Bible is not literally and scientifically true that it is diminished in some way, that it is less than true. My favourite theologian, Marcus Borg, states this differently. He sees the writings of scripture as “more than true“. The significance of the religious claims in the Bible is far more important than the question of whether the stories are literally and scientifically true or not and it is only if we can free ourselves to concentrate on this that we will be able to appreciate what those claims are.

So over the next weeks and months, when you pick up your Bibles and come across those passages where what is written seems to contradict a scientific understanding of how the world is, pause for a moment and seek out the religious inspiration of the original author. Don’t worry about what is less than true, focus on what is more than true. Problems in Biblical interpretation will dissolve in front of your eyes which will be opened to a new and fresh understanding of our faith which speaks powerfully to the modern world out of the experience of the ancient world. That understanding is based on justice, mercy, faith, hope and love, five concepts which science can tell us absolutely nothing about, but which are infinitely more important to us as humans than any of the 2.5 million scientific papers published each year.