A More Important Question

reaching out (CC image courtesy of paloetic on flickr)

Dear Working Preacher,

We are close, now, to the end. For the last five weeks we have traced Jesus steps toward the cross and this Sunday we reach the sobering and even brutal conclusion to Luke’s account of our Lord’s Passion.  And I have to admit that each year as we again approach this point, the climax and conclusion of Jesus’ earthly life, I feel welling up inside of me one simple, pathetic cry: Why?

Perhaps you recognize this question; it is the distraught cry we utter when we are confused by our circumstances, outraged by a sense of injustice, or simpy feel utterly out of control: “Why did the cancer came back?” “Why was I chosen to be “downsized?”  “Why is my child struggling so?” “Why do I feel so alone?”

Why? It’s the question that helps us articulate our deep desire to find meaning in meaningless events, to understand – and thereby not feel quite so overwhelmed by – events beyond our control. And it is just this question that haunts me each year at just this time. Why must Jesus die like this? Why must it end this way? Why the mockery and abuse, why the nails and cross, why, in the end, such an agonizing and shameful death? Why?

Faithful Christians throughout the Church’s long history have struggled to address just this question, and their various answers have been described as “theories of atonement.” Emphasizing one part of the Biblical witness or another, these theories attempt to address the “why” question by describing Christ’s death as a substitution for our own, or of Christ satisfying God’s requirement for holiness, or of Christ paying the penalty for sin, or of the example Christ’s death sets for us, or even of the victory Christ wins over death and the devil. And yet while each of these theories highlights some aspect of the truth of our Lord’s death, none of them ultimately satisfies. Our questions persist.

We may take, I imagine, some small comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our confusion, that we are not the only ones who question. Throughout all the Gospel accounts, Jesus regularly predicts his passion, and just as regularly his disciples do not understand him, or misinterpret him, or, finally, reject his predictions as simply too awful to believe. And so when the unimaginable, though not entirely unexpected, happens, and Jesus is handed over, judged, and crucified, the disciples, also, are left reeling, also left asking, “Why?”

And perhaps this confusion isn’t really the disciples’ fault in the end or, truth be told, ours. For while Jesus may have predicted his passion, he never went into great detail to explain its meaning; he never, that is, got around to explaining why.

And yet … and yet, Jesus does address another, and I think perhaps more important, question. For, as Jesus says to his disciples at the very outset of Luke’s description of the passion, “when the hour came,” he took his place at table with his disciples to share one last meal with them. And at that meal he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given … for you.”

Did you hear that? Those last two words? “For you.” For those disciples, including, as the Evangelist records, Judas who betrays him, Peter who denies him, and the rest who desert him. And if for these, then also for us! And knowing this, I believe, makes all the difference.

So while Jesus doesn’t answer the question “why?” he does answer – and answer definitively – the deeper question of “for whom?” That is, though Jesus may not explain the full meaning of his death, he leaves no doubt as to its significance for you and for me, as above and beyond all our confusion and questions, we hear in these two words the shocking, unimaginable, and utterly unexpected promise that everything Christ suffers – all the humiliation and shame, all the defeat and agony – he suffers for us, that we might have life and light and hope in his name!

And this we know because Luke makes it abundantly, even painfully clear that Jesus gives himself over to death willingly. As Luke writes near the end of the Passion account, “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last.”

Do you see what I mean? Jesus’ life is not ripped away as in some horrible accident, nor is it torn from him as in some senseless tragedy. Rather, he commends his Spirit to the Father, giving his life of his own accord. As the resurrected Christ will say when he meets two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” And then he will open the Scriptures that their hearts may burn with the knowledge that Jesus gave himself, fully and freely, for us and for all the world, because that is why he came: to declare the Lord’s favor to all.

The hard part of this Passion Sunday and story is that we may never be able to answer that persistent and perplexing question of why. But we can answer another, perhaps more important question, “for whom.” Why more important? Because if pressed, I must say that I also cannot explain “why” my parents care so much for me, why my wife loves me, or why my friends put up with me. And yet I do know that their care, love, and forbearance is “for me,” and knowing this makes all the difference.

So also with the mystery of Christ’s passion and death. For though we can surely never fully comprehend the “why” of God’s unfathomable commitment to us, when we see the form of Christ on the cross we can never doubt God’s profound love for us. And knowing this makes all the difference!

That’s why Luke tells this difficult story, Working Preacher, and it’s why we preach it. For in Jesus we have God’s tangible and tenacious promise to be always and forever for us! And I am so grateful for your faithful preaching of this promise. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,