Friday, April 24, 2020

Minutes that Matter: Friday in April, 2020

This is the transcript of my fourth talk for RTHK Radio 4 Minutes that Matter on Fridays in April.

Talk Four: The Death of Christ as the Path to Life

St Peter said to those who crucified Jesus: 

‘This man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.’ (Acts 2:23)

The question, ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’ is not as straightforward as asking questions about the death of any other historical figure.  While answering questions about a famous person’s death may be challenging, in principle we know how to go about it.  It may be complicated and there may be different theories as, for example, is the case with the assassination of President Kennedy, nevertheless we know what it is we are dealing with.  Not so with Jesus.

In attempting to answer the question, ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’ we know, firstly, he was crucified because the Jerusalem leaders had decided that they wanted him out of the way. However, as I have suggested in a previous talk here this month, it is not nearly so clear as to why they wanted him out of the way.  We know that to have Jesus crucified they had, for legal reasons, to hand him over to the Romans to those, as St Peter ironically puts it, ‘who were outside the law’, that is, outside the Jewish law.  The irony being that the Romans for their part didn’t want to kill him!

Secondly, however, Jesus himself suggests that behind those who were the historical agents of his death, there were other powers at work.  In the Gospel of John, from the moment Jesus begins his ministry, before he has had a chance to do anything that would lead people to want to kill him, he speaks of the ‘hour’ of his death.  Jesus knows not only where his ministry will lead, but that this is what his ministry is all about.  This is why he has come and this is what he has to face.  His ‘hour’ casts a shadow over his life.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus describes the time of his crucifixion as the hour of the ‘power of darkness’ (Luke 22:53).  It is the Devil who puts it into Judas’ heart to betray Jesus (John 13:2).

There are, then, the New Testament suggests both physical and spiritual forces at work in bringing Jesus to the Cross.  But, thirdly, and this is the staggering explanation of Jesus and the first Christians, the ultimate cause of the crucifixion of Jesus is God himself.  St Peter describes it as being the ‘definite plan and foreknowledge of God’.  God didn’t just see that it would happen, he determined that it should happen.

Jesus tells his disciples that his death will be in fulfilment of the Scriptures and, after his resurrection, he famously says to two disciples on the road to Emmaus: ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory? (Luke 24:26)’.  Jesus’ final prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion is one of submission to God’s plan: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done (Luke 22:42)’.  

The death of Jesus was then no accident of history.  It was not only as a result of human scheming and jealousy, not simply because he was seen as a political threat to those in power, nor even the outcome of dark forces at work in our world.  Above and before all else, the death of Jesus was the plan and will of God. 
In discussing why Jesus was crucified and who was responsible for his death, we have missed someone out.  And that someone is you.  It was God who determined that Jesus should die.  But why would he do that?  Because of you.  And because of me.  St Paul writes: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)’.

Many today revolt against the idea that God was ultimately responsible for the death of Christ.  It has even been labelled ‘cosmic child abuse’.  But the reason we hate the idea so much is that we hate the idea that we need dying for.  We like to think of ourselves as wonderful ‘just as we are’ without needing any outside help.  If that’s how we think, then Christ is not for us.  His death is of no use to us.

But for those of us who know our failure, our weakness, our inadequacy, our sin, the death of Christ is the most important thing that has ever happened.  It tells us that we can be saved and that we need not be lost.  As we look at the One nailed to the Cross, we see not a helpless victim, but One who died for us and who offers us forgiveness and life.  Who says to us quite simply:

‘Follow me.’

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