We are told that Jesus had to die. There are variations upon this statement depending on which theory of the atonement you choose to explain how Jesus’ death forgave everyone who has ever lived for their sins. Jesus chose to die. Jesus came to die. You sins were so great; an innocent person had to die. That person was the son of God. Whatever you call it, it comes back to death. Jesus died. You didn’t. You should have died. Jesus did. He shouldn’t have died (though that was always in the divine plan) because he was an innocent person. Betrayers were all around; Judas, Peter, and you. In the midst of that betrayal, Jesus died and you lived. Not only did you live but you were forgiven. This is what we are told and taught. Do you feel guilty yet? How do you feel about your new found freedom from sin? The freedom came at the expense of an innocent man’s life. An innocent man, whom we are told that prophets 600 years before his birth prophesied about his death, yet somehow up to the moment he was arrested nothing about his death seemed inevitable. Despite this, we are told his death was a foregone conclusion and we bear the responsibility for his blood. We are sinners. His death was the only possible answer for our sin. So we have been taught, so we have been told.
Did Jesus die because he loved us or because he wanted to control our behavior? Did Jesus allow himself to be betrayed to the Roman authorities because he believed his disciples would take his message of the Kingdom of God and loving one’s neighbor beyond the confines of Roman Palestine? Or did he believe that by dying he would create an institution which said, “Unless you believe in Jesus’ death as way to gain the reward of eternal life you will burn in Hell forever”?
Jesus did not die to forgive our sins. Death does not forgive sins. There is no implicit forgiveness in death. Death itself neither redeems nor condemns. The horrendous violence of the cross does not make right the violence of our lives. Killing one thing does not make another thing beautiful. In a strict Trinitarian sense, God is a divine child abuser who allows his son to be executed in such a horrible manner or a deity with such callous indifference we must look away. To follow a Johannine Christology, i.e. to have seen Jesus is to have seen the Father, then we are seeing some bizarre divine suicide-the death of God for the entire world to see. Forgiveness comes from life; life comes from love. The church is in the resurrection business.
We are in the business of loving people back to life. This is what Jesus does for each one of us. Jesus forgives our sins by loving us back to where we are whole people. Whole people don’t come to church seeking salvation for the sake of some eternal reward, the come seeking to serve each other and the Jesus who calls us friends. For me, the moment of redemption comes in John 15:15 on the night he’s arrested, Jesus says to his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.” When Jesus said I was his friend, that’s when it hit me, he loved me and no matter what happened next, I was going to be OK. Jesus did not have to die when he died. He chose to die when he died. He chose to call me his friend. That’s how I know I’m forgiven. I’m his friend.