I used this story during the bishop-finalist walk-about, but I think it deserves retelling. Driving to Good Friday service at the age of eight in Springfield, Massachusetts, I asked my mother the following: ‘I know about Jesus dying, but what has that got to do with me?’ My long-suffering mother replied ‘that is a big thought and you have a little brain- some day your brain will get bigger and that thought will fit.’ Even as adults we find the idea hard - why does Jesus’ death work out salvation? (My assumption here is that his dying is more than an illustration or example of love, for in this case Jesus the illustrator is not essential, the point of the story is, and likewise nothing decisive happened. Both are less than what we believe).
So why does Jesus’ death accomplish this? That is the first great question behind Holy Week. Let us make clear one more assumption - Good Friday is not just a detour on the way to Easter. The Gospel is not simply about being given the eternal life Jesus receives. No, the heart of the matter is that the crucified Jesus is raised; that is what makes all the difference. But how is it that someone’s death could cause ultimate benefit to another?
Let’s start with the shock, what the New Testament calls the ‘stumbling block.’ A little background from the time of Jesus helps here. In the pagan Greek and Roman world, there were inspiring stories about heroes like Achilles or Hercules dying gloriously to help another, though the death per se doesn’t help them. They also had customs of taking a ne’er-do-well, a pauper, and killing him at a festival; this scapegoat was supposed to have the guilt of all places symbolically on his head. But imagine how shocked and surprised the Roman would have been to hear that the Son of God becomes the lowest and most shameful in order to die for others?
I once heard a joke about the Trappists. They don’t speak so they assign jokes numbers and tell them by holding the numbers up at dinner. One day brother Joe held up number six, and his neighbor said, ‘Joe doesn’t know how to tell that one…’ Reading the New Testament is like this (only without the humor). An image or allusion conjures an entire stream of the tradition in the Jewish hearer’s mind.
Why is Jesus’ dying so important, what did it mean for Jesus’ contemporaries, and how could it, then or now, make a lasting difference? The best way to understand how Jesus dying the way he did could help us is to read two passages from the Old Testament. Each would have spoken to a Jewish reader eloquently about the meaning of the death of Jesus. I offer this task to you as a spiritual preparation for the great week ahead of us.
Exodus 24:8- “Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, ‘see the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’
Recall that the central story of Exodus is the God of Israel leading His people out of bondage into freedom, and then creating a new covenant relationship with them at Mt. Sinai. While human beings around the world tend to offer kinds of sacrifice to set right their world, the people of God in the Old Testament make of sacrifice a means of remembering and renewing that covenant. That for example is what lies behind the Passover Seder, which you might have attended with a Jewish friend. Likewise in this passage Moses talks of blood that seals this new covenant binding us to God and making us free.
Now the great new factor in the case of Jesus as a first-century Jew is the expectation that God would come in a final and decisive way, to vanquish sin and win the great victory for his people. You see this particularly in a book like Daniel. If you add all this up, the exodus-tradition together with the hope of final, future victory, we can better understand the Passover meal we call the ‘Last Supper’ just before Jesus’ death. He applies its meaning to Himself. The new blood-covenant we hear of in Exodus 24 is to be found in His own blood, and so the sacrificial idea is already emblazoned in that Upper Room.
Isaiah 53:12, “therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
This passage comes from the exile in Babylon, half-a-millennium before the birth of Jesus. The figure here described, called by scholars the ‘suffering servant,’ is at once an individual and a representative of the people. His pains are described as themselves a sacrifice. The dramatically new aspect of ministry of Jesus, who refers to himself in relation to this passage, is that of a suffering Messiah. As I mentioned earlier in this piece, it was this shocking new idea, that the anointed one of God was identified with human sin and died a shameful death, is picked up by Paul in his account of the gospel.
The themes of sacrifice found in these Old Testament passages are assumed in the story of Jesus. They are not some arbitrary interpretation later, rather they are embedded in the account of Jesus and his self-understanding. But sacrifice is also transformed by Jesus, the Son who undergoes alienation for His Father, the King who is humiliated. He is at once God acting finally for us, and God taking on the human wrong he means right. Sacrifice takes on the unique form of Jesus himself. What we call the ‘atonement’ and ‘the Trinity’ both are implied in the events of which we will all hear anew this coming week.