We are in “Holy Week” for Christians and the focus of Good Friday is on the death of Jesus. Special services will be held. There will be talk and singing about how he “died for me.”
The narratives from the Gospels of what is called the “passion and death” of Jesus are being read in churches around the world. These narratives offer much detail and description to what is one of the few things we know about Jesus from secular sources—that he was crucified for insurrection by the Roman Governor of Palestine.
In contrast to our tradition-induced inoculation against the horror of the event, the early Christians could not bring themselves to depict it. From the very beginning of Christianity there is art with a distinctively Christian message. Even in the first century there are gravestones where there are pictures of the Church depicted as the saving ark of Noah and the Holy Spirit as a descending dove. There are pictures of early Christians praying with uplifted hands. In the catacombs where early Christian martyrs were laid, there are pictures of Christ as the Unconquered Sun, the Good Shepherd, the Last Supper, and even scenes of the Madonna and the Child. But nowhere is there a crucifixion scene.
The central fact of Jesus' life, his grisly suffering and death, traumatized early Christians. Even though it was the central reality with which they had to contend, they could not look at it directly. For the first three hundred years after Jesus the cross and crucifixion was all too familiar to Christians. Not only Jesus, but untold numbers of Christians, endured this ultimate form of Roman humiliation, punishment the Romans reserved exclusively for those judged guilty of insurrection against the state. These Christians understood something of the significance of the words “He died for us” that we have lost. Not until the fifth century, one hundred years after crucifixion was outlawed as a form of execution, do we find the crucifixion of Jesus depicted in art, the earliest probably being that carved in wood as one of several scenes in Jesus' life in a side door of the basilica of Santa Sabina, a Roman church on Aventine Hill.
Of course, there were those in the decades after the crucifixion of Jesus who hadn’t been present who, when they contemplated the horror of Jesus' suffering, concluded that Jesus was not really human and so didn't really suffer. I feel confident that none of those who had actually been there would have harbored such illusions.
Even then those early Christians tried to comprehend the meaning of the suffering, as have Christians down through the centuries. Some said Jesus' suffering and death was the result of a deal God made with the devil -- the death of God's beloved son in exchange for forgiving the sins of human kind. Others said that Jesus' suffering and death was the requirement of a God of justice in order to be able to forgive our sins. For me, those images are of a God that I don't know. They depict the image of a God who requires some kind of blood sacrifice, a practice that the Hebrew prophets had rejected long before Jesus' time. They depict an image of God that Jesus did not know, a God that Jesus called "Abba," a familiar term for "Father" that in our time might be more accurately translated "Daddy."
In order for me to understand the meaning of the expression "he died for," I cannot look at Jesus as a pawn in some kind of cosmic chess game played by God so to be able to forgive our sin. Jesus' terrible suffering and death have meaning for me in the choices that Jesus himself willingly made. That may be because I have always been more interested in history than in systematic theology, or it may be why I've been more interested in history.
Why did Jesus die? If we read the Gospels carefully, I believe they tell us. I think Jesus died for three historically verifiable reasons.
First, he was a threat to the Romans because of his identification with the people they were oppressing. We make a mistake if we assume that Jesus was crucified for religious, not political reasons. The punishment for religious violations was stoning. Jesus was not stoned. The cross was a mode of punishment reserved for crimes of rebellion against the Roman state. The accusations against Jesus that led to his death as reported in the Gospel of Luke are clear: "We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king." (Luke 23:2)
Second, while Jesus was crucified by the Roman government for sedition, he was also crucified because he was a threat to some religious leaders, some self-appointed "gate-keepers" of God's grace. Jesus opposed the interpretation of the Law that had become a way to divide people into clean and unclean, godly and ungodly, righteous and sinners. Jesus was a threat to those religious leaders because of his identification with the people their interpretation of the Law had made "sinners," thus outside the pale of God's grace.
Third, Jesus was also a threat because he refused to believe that God's love and mercy were limited to only one nation or people, even Jesus’ own "chosen" people. He was killed because of his belief that God's love and mercy were for Jews and Gentiles alike. That's why he died and what he died about. Sometimes we make too complex what should be simple and obvious.
We’ve also made Jesus’ death too cultic, complex, and un-related to the reasons why he actually died. Those of us who believe that Jesus faithfully represented the God we worship need to acknowledge that those things that resulted in his death are things this God cares about.
First, God cares about oppressed people—in ancient times of Egypt under the Pharaohs, in Palestine in the time of Jesus, in today’s Palestine or anywhere else in the world including the United States of America. If Jesus gave his life standing for oppressed people, doesn’t it stand to reason that is where we are also called to stand?
Second, God cares about people made outsiders by the religious establishment, of whatever race, creed or time. Has the church of which I am a part made any more outsiders than we have by our Disciplinary pronouncements on homosexuality? If Jesus gave his life standing for such people, doesn’t it stand to reason that is where we are called to stand?
Third, God cares about all people, not just “chosen” people" and self-proclaimed “Christians,” but all people. God cares for people of all faiths and those of no religious faith equally. Because that is where Jesus stood and because that is what he died about, doesn’t it stand to reason that is where we are called to stand?
Is it too simple and obvious to say that this is what Jesus’ death means for us here and now?
Good Friday is a day not for a morbid focus on the death of Jesus, but on introspection and self-examination. The focus of the old spiritual is not on “when they crucified my Lord,” but on “Were you there?” And where are you now? Our answer to the question may well be with the writer of the lyrics, “Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” Long time student of the death of Jesus, Raymond Brown, often remarked,
“If Jesus were to return to earth, the first thing we would do is crucify him again.”
 Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus. (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 1999), p. 285.