March 24, 2024. Sermon Title: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

First Mennonite Church

March 24, 2024

Why Did Jesus Have to Die

Text: 1Corintians 11:23-25

If baptism is the clearest allusion to Jesus’ resurrection and our own to walk in the newness of life, the Lord’s Supper is of his death. The elements of the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine, are undeniable symbols representing Jesus’ humanity offered as a sacrifice to God and the representation of human sustenance. Paul reminded the Corinthians, of the origin and purpose of eating the sacred meal. Thus Paul writes: For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Therefore, being that the Lord’s Supper is intrinsically related to Jesus’ sacrificial death, we Christians are left with two unavoidable questions: “Why was Jesus killed?” and “Why did Jesus have to die?” Although the questions are related, the answers, however, are quite different. If we ask the first, we find that the Gospels can be quite clear and helpful in answering it.

From his birth, Herod considered Jesus a threat, so Herod tried to kill the baby. At age twelve, when Jesus stayed behind in the temple without his parents’ knowledge, the scribes were puzzled at his knowledge and wisdom. And from the moment Jesus started his public ministry, watchful eyes were following him. Religious leaders wanted to test and trap him. By the end of a little more than three years of public ministry, a whole list of false complaints and accusations had been formulated against Jesus.   The Jewish leadership denounced Jesus before Pilate as one engaged in “subverting our nation, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying of himself that he is the Christ. . . . He stirs up the people throughout Judea by his teaching . . .” (Luke 23:1-5). This language, together with the parallel allegation that Jesus is a deceiver (Matt 27:63), brands Jesus as a false prophet who turns God’s people away from the ways of the Lord (Deut 13). Although these allegations are purely religious in nature, the question still remains unanswered: Why did the Roman governor order Jesus to be crucified?

As I said last Sunday, nobody hated more the Passover Festival than the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The Passover Feast commemorated Israel’s liberation from Egypt. Every year, Pontius Pilate worried that a revolt would happen as had in the past under zealots trying to get rid of foreign rule. During the Passover Festival, Jews from all over, not only from Judea, but from throughout the diaspora would come in to Jerusalem. Also, as we saw last Sunday, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem with the crowds acclaiming him as King only raised Pilate’s suspicion about Jesus and his true intentions. In Matthew 21, the first question Pilate asks Jesus is, “Are you the King of the Jews?” That question reveals the main concern Pilate had. But again, some of Jesus’ actions more than others, even when done with redemptive purposes were interpreted as signs of resistance. For instance, the cleaning of the temple that followed Jesus’ triumphal entry.

In John’s Gospel, the resurrection of Lazarus became the turning point for the religious leaders to plan Jesus’ death. The Pharisees and the chief priest came together fearful that if they allowed Jesus to continue doing what he was doing, all the people would follow him and the Romans would come a take over the nation and destroy the temple. At this height, all of Jesus’ actions were being interpreted as seditious. Thus, after Jesus was arrested, they took him to Pilate because he alone had the power to take care of anyone suspected of sedition. The cross was the Roman tool to take care of anyone who would attempt to resist Caesar Augustus and his representatives.

But there is also another reason why Jesus was killed. Remember Judas. He was one of Jesus’ close circle of friends. Judas betrayed his Lord and sold him. Therefore, even from among Jesus’ close companions, there was one who for some reason collaborated with Jesus’ opponents.

But why would Pilate, the Roman governor, sentence Jesus to be crucified? The most certain fact we have about Jesus as a historical person is that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Even though Jesus had no intentions of being an earthly king, some people thought that that was what he wanted to be. The title on the cross says it all: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (27:37). As such, his crucifixion was a political act carried out by the Roman government. If Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews (which Pilate concluded he did not,), what then was treasonous about Jesus, meriting death? For one, the Roman governor would not tolerate anyone to challenge his authority. Secondly, Pilate would give in to the desires of his subjects at the expense of his own conscience to secure for himself approval from them.  And that is what he did. He authorized Jesus to be crucified, even when he was convinced Jesus was an innocent man.

The other question Easter forces us to ask ourselves is: “Why did Jesus have to die?” Any simple and quick answer would devalue the mystery of God’s giving of his Son. But basic to it is the idea that God sent his Son into this world to reveal what God himself is like. That is why we call Jesus, God in the flesh—God Incarnate. Jesus came to reveal to us the God of love and grace, reaching out to reconcile the world to himself. He is a God who seeks to have fellowship with us. Therefore, He sent His Son into the world, first of all, to live, teach, preach, and gather a community to himself. God sent his Son to live among us and also to give his life for us. Jesus took upon himself the sentence and punishment due to us for our sinfulness. This may sound cruel, but it is the way that God has worked. And we say, God has worked because that is how far God’s love for humanity would go.

Every time we celebrate Communion, we are confronted by these two questions. And as the Gospels tell us, Jesus’ death, although he told his disciples after his resurrection, was the fulfillment of what the prophets had said, it is not as if Jesus was only following the Divine script. Jesus had agency—that is, he chose to live the way he did. He acted the way he did knowing the opposition and the risks there were for his actions. In the same way, those who put Jesus to death were not simply assisting Jesus to fulfill his messianic destiny but were acting according to their selfish interests.

Jesus died on the cross because in his pursuit to restore his people to God, he undermined the authority and traditions of those in charge of matters of religion, the Scribes, the Pharisees, and the chief priests. His table manners of sharing food with sinners and tax collectors ran afoul of the rules of the religious authorities. In fulfillment of his mission to re-value human life, he healed people even on the Sabbath day, which was disapproved by the guardians of the Sabbath. In his zeal to recover the holy space reserved for the nations to meet with God, he cleaned the temple. But his acts were considered attacks against the status quo.

Jesus lived his life showing us the heart of God for the lost world and died remaining true to that mission. Thus, when Jesus commanded his disciples to break bread in his name he was commissioning them to follow in his footsteps. The words “Do This in Remembrance of Me” Jesus commanded his disciples, which are inscribed on this table, are not just words to adorn church furniture, but the Lord’s command to live lives in the service of others as he did, dying on the cross for us. 

Today, as we participate in the Lord’s Supper, let us remember Jesus not simply as a great teacher or as the glorious Lord of Easter. He is also the crucified Christ, who gave his life for humanity. And as we break bread today, let us recommit ourselves to take up the cross and follow him. As we participate in Communion, let us tell each other that we are willing to serve Christ, his people, and the world in his name. Christ has made us free from our selfish nature and free from the consequences of sin. The wine reminds us of the cleansing power of God’s forgiveness of which we are also partakers. Please participate in the Lord’s Supper. Amen!

Pastor Romero