In the Gospel reading for today Jesus predicts his death. He says: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." John's Gospel tells us: "He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die."
Of all the things we believe, the crucifixion is one of the most difficult to understand. In classical Christianity we believe Jesus died to save us from our sins. The Bible tells us that through his death, humankind has been raised up and saved from sin. It's something that's said in every church yet it is very puzzling.
We call Jesus's death the atonement. The word means being at one. The two words AT and ONE, come together and change in pronunciation to ATONE. Christians believe that through Jesus's death God becomes at one with humanity.
How can the death of Jesus do this? What are the mechanics of it? In our faith we can't know everything. God is beyond human comprehension so some things will always be a mystery. We can't know exactly how the crucifixion worked to save us.
Medieval Christians had some theories. Many thought the Devil held humanity captive and that the death of Jesus was a ransom to get humanity released. St Anselm dismissed that idea. He said humans had dishonoured their Lord in the Garden of Eden, and that they needed to pay God to make up for it. Anselm said the debt was so great that God had to step in to repay it through Jesus's sacrifice of his own life.
The French theologian Peter Abelard thought that through letting himself be killed, Jesus was showing God's great love for humanity. The death on the cross seems to say, I love you so much I will die for you. Abelard believed Jesus was setting an example for us to follow. In other words, we too should be prepared to sacrifice ourselves for love.
In today's reading Jesus says: "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life." Jesus isn't asking you to hate being alive or to take a lot of pain for no reason. Jesus is talking about fruitful sacrifice, giving things up so that others can live. He says: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it does, it bears much fruit."
We are like grains of wheat. We can stay on the stalk, thinking only about ourselves. Or we can let ourselves fall into the earth, so that new wheat, carrying many more grains, springs up from us.
But don't be frightened. Christianity isn't about ending your life. There have been many Christians who have died so that others can live, but this isn't the only sacrifice you can make. In our daily lives we are called to sacrifice ourselves continuously. Daily sacrifice is part of kindness. To be kind we often have to give something up that we value.
Some of those sacrifices are really small, like missing a favourite television programme because a friend needs to talk. Some are really big, like risking your life to rescue Jews in Nazi Germany.
Christian sacrifice must have a purpose. Jesus's death on the cross was necessary. Without it, there would have been no resurrection and no church.
We should not forget we are not God. If we give and give, without taking care of our own spirit, we will one day find we are empty and can't give anything more. That's why it's important to know our limits. We must regulate ourselves so that we always have something to give.
We also need to think about the attitude in which we give. If we decide to sacrifice simply because we want to see ourselves as good Christians, we will be so focused on ourselves that we won't think carefully about what other people really need. Sacrifice should be thoughtful and those thoughts need to be directed outwards. We must never sacrifice to glorify ourselves, we do it to help others.
Now, before I finish, let's return very briefly to the meaning of the crucifixion. I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share with you because they bring home to me the kindness and gentleness of God.
The early Jewish Christians saw the crucifixion in the terms of two Jewish rituals.
Once a year the Jews had a ceremony in which all the sins of the people were placed on a goat, which was then driven away or killed. They believed that the people were cleansed and that the animal carried the sins away. This was one way of thinking about Jesus. He was the sacrificial scapegoat who took all the sins of the people and carried them away.
At the time of the crucifixion Jesus was in Jerusalem to celebrate the yearly Jewish festival of Passover. At Passover, the Jews killed a lamb. They did this to connect them to the Jews of the Exodus story. In the Exodus story the Jews in Egypt killed a lamb and daubed its blood on their doors so that the angel of death would not kill the firstborn in their houses.
For that night the killing of a lamb was a victory over death for the Jews. Early Jewish Christians saw a similarity between the Passover lamb and Jesus. The death on the cross was Jesus's victory over death for all humankind. That's why we call Jesus the lamb of God.
I'm guessing the early Jewish Christians believed that in the crucifixion Jesus performed the FUNCTION of a scapegoat or Passover lamb. If you believe this, and millions of people do, you believe that Jesus's death actually changed something in the spiritual fabric of Creation. I'm not arguing against this belief but, for me, it has always seemed strange that Christ's death should function in a way that's really hard to understand if you're not Jewish.
I wonder if the crucifixion was not a function, but was instead a COMMUNICATION of divine love, divine forgiveness and victory over death for all who follow God.
What if Jesus performed a living parable through his death and resurrection? What if God acted in a way that would bring the Passover and the scapegoat to mind, so that a profound message could be communicated?
In his spoken parables, Jesus used things from everyday life to tell stories that communicated a deep message. What if God saw that by making comparisons between the crucifixion, the Passover lamb and the scapegoat ritual, the early Christians would be able to receive a message from God that might otherwise be too deep and complex to understand?
If Jesus died in a really painful way so that the language of Jewish religious rituals could be used to communicate a message of love and forgiveness, that speaks very much of his loving, gentle kindness towards us.
Jesus was God. If he'd wanted to, he could have delivered all his teachings in the most sophisticated philosophical language of the day. Instead he focussed on delivering teachings in ways that everyone could understand. In his stories he described everyday situations that everyone knew about. He was a great communicator.
In our lives today, God is with us in ways that we can understand. His relationship with each one of us is completely unique to us as individuals because he uses what we can understand to talk to us. In your daily life, listen out for him. You are unique. God may be talking to you in a way that he talks to no one else.