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Why Did Jesus Die?
(Homily for Easter I, 2011)
by Richard Spear

In his rousing sermon last week, Deacon Kalish stressed the necessity of our understanding that Jesus died but rose again. This historical fact is the logical starting point of the Christian faith, for it is such an oddity: a unique happening that cries out for explanation.

Jesus himself, on more than one occasion had raised someone else from the dead; but his own resurrection after torment and death, and in fulfillment of various prophecies, is unique-a completely different kind of event. Lazarus and the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue presumably resumed their earthly lives and eventually died again. Jesus' resurrection was certainly not a resumption of the life we humans know!

Why did Jesus die? Someone recently suggested to me that Christ died "as he lived, to show us a way out of spiritual catastrophe, both in this world and the next." Of course, this view is not without scriptural support. For example, Jesus told his disciples, "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." [Matt VI:24] This view is consistent with Unitarianism, and I suspect it is likely to be widely accepted in those main-line churches that increasingly down-play various points of Christian doctrine. Yet this vague understanding is neither logically satisfactory--nor satisfying to anyone who cares to think seriously about the question.

Jesus did not die simply as a demonstration of stoical humility or to model some un-specified aspect of spirituality.

In a few minutes we will be offering the truly Christian explanation of Jesus' death when we pray this morning's collect (on p. 170 of the prayer book): "Almighty Father, who has given thine only Son to die for our sins, and rise again for our justification ... "

Whenever we address Our Lord as the "Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world" we are acknowledging the purpose of Christ's death, the essential element of the Christian faith. The familiar words of our prayer of consecration (on page 80 of the prayer book) repeat Jesus' declaration, "for this is my Blood of the New Testament which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins."

The taking away or remission of sins does not, of course, make us incapable of sinning- let alone abolish sin in the world. Christ's sacrifice merely frees us from the natural consequence of our sins so long as we repent them. That freedom from the consequence of sin is what today's collect means when it speaks of "justification."

Sin has tended to be viewed as a miscellaneous collection of human activities specifically forbidden by divine commandment or warned against in Holy Scripture. The focus is usually upon the action itself --rather than on its effect upon the individuals involved or their relationship with God. But it is precisely that impairment of one's relationship with God that makes sin such an issue in Christianity.

Jesus did not die simply because of human actions --regardless of how evil they may be-- but the effect of his sacrifice is to restore our connection to our creator.

Once, when a country preacher declared that "Satan has many inducements to offer the sinner: hell is full of automobiles, beautiful women, fast horses, and champagne!", a drunk in the back row replied, "Then death where is thy sting; 0 grave where is thy victory?"

We laugh at the drunk's inspired misapplication of St. Paul's words, where we might be questioning the preacher's careless confusion of hell itself with the kind of temptations that might take us there. After all, the one absolute fact we know about hell is that it is a state in which the love of God is not present.

As the New Testament tells us repeatedly Christ's sacrifice is at the heart of Christian faith.

"So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that be-
lieve in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." --St. John iii:16

Holy Trinity Church, Waterville ME
Richard Spear

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