Passion Sunday: Why did Jesus “Have” to Die?

This morning mirrors the over-whelming emotional & liturgical roller-coaster awaiting us, which cannot be fully embraced or experienced in one worship service.

This morning we experience the best of humanity, processing in worship with palm branches remembering the triumphant shouts of joy welcoming our Messiah-King into the holy city of Jerusalem. Yet, we also experience the worst of humanity bearing witness to that same Messiah-King crucified and placed within a tomb.

These ‘high’ Sundays in the liturgical/church year often bear witness to those seeking answers to the difficult questions of faith. The Gospel of Mark is the earliest written account, and therefore the least ’embellished’ or, perhaps,  self-interpreted. The Mark account does not offer intellectual answers to the challenging questions of atonement and/or salvation through the passion, crucifixion, and death of Jesus the Christ. The Mark account does not offer a theological response to the two thousand year old question, “why did Jesus the Christ have to die”. The Mark account, however, does offer us a drama to ponder, beginning with the highest of highs
and quickly plunging to the lowest, darkest pits.

Lance Pape, Professor of Homiletics (fancy word for Preaching), offers that Mark’s
narrative, similar to the questions of faith, the person of Jesus Christ, the
Triune God, and humanity are not “simple”, but quite puzzling and

I appreciate that Professor Pape (in his commentary) did not ignore the human agency and activity
within Mark’s narrativue. In fact, Pape addressed three (of several) reasons
that Jesus the Christ suffered the passion, crucifixion, and death in Mark’s dramatic

First Reason: Jesus’ Friends Failed Him (Miserably).

Christ was betrayed by Judas, a friend among his innermost circle. Our gospel opened
this morning reminding us that Judas betrayed Christ, at least in part, to the
actions of an un-named woman. Judas argued that the ‘wasted’ perfume should
have been sold for a significant amount of money and given to those in need.
Jesus, however, understands that the woman was anointing and preparing him,
before his death, for his burial.

After the Last Supper, Jesus and the remaining disciples go to Gethsemane, where
Jesus prays as the disciples are to stand guard. Although the disciples’ wills
were strong, their flesh was weak and they repeatedly fell asleep on the job
(quite literally). When Jesus is arrested, the disciples fled; in fact, Mark
includes the details of one fleeing naked, not for comic relief, but to
indicate how exposed and vulnerable the disciples must have felt.

Christ was forsaken, as he foretold. The disciples, especially Peter, proclaimed that

nothing (including death) would persuade them to turn their back on Jesus.
Peter, however, did indeed deny Christ three times before the morning (the
second cocking of the crow).

Second Reason: The Plotting & Scheming of Political and Spiritual Leaders.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus is engaged in the ever-intensifying conflict with the
religious authorities, which reaches its dramatic climax in this text.

Jesus’ unconventional message and ‘way of being’ earned him these mighty opponents.
These religious leaders were able, in the dark of the night and supported by
Judas, to arrest Jesus and have an impromptu trial in the High Priest’s
courtyard (and no notice to the ‘congregation’). who influence the people that
joyfully shouted ‘Hosanna in the Highest’ to now shout ‘Crucify Him’.

Then Pilate, according to Mark’s account, is more concerned with the Pax Romana
(Peace of Rome) than justice and the innocence of Jesus.

Third Reason: Jesus had a Self-Giving Love that He Emptied Out for All People unto the Point of

Perhaps, this is the most challenging and significant ‘reason’ that Jesus “had to
die upon the cross.”We, Christians, tend to teach that God (the Father) sacrificed His Son (Jesus the

Christ) upon the cross. This unfortunate notion has and continues to support
injustice, oppression, and violence in the name of “Holy Suffering”.
We must reclaim and proclaim that:

  1. God slipped into our human
    skin as a man named Jesus.
  2. God allowed himself (as
    Christ) to be crucified by human hands.

In the Mark account, Jesus prays to God (the Father) asking that, if permitted,
the passion, crucifixion, and death not occur. However, Jesus also prayed that

if not permitted, he (Jesus) would willingly embrace the shame, the pain, and
the death of a common criminal upon the cross to ensure the gospel (good news)
of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love.

This prayer, or conversation, between the Father and the Son, paints a picture of
the self-giving love of Jesus (as God Incarnate) and the mysterious will of God
(the Father).

As appreciative as I am of Professor Pape’s ponderings, I do not find myself satisfied in regards to
“why did Jesus have to die”. Martin Marty, a Lutheran historian and
ethics expert, responses to this question in his book “Lutheran Questions,
Lutheran Answers”. Here is an excerpt from his answer:

“It is not easy and perhaps not really possible to explain with complete
satisfaction why the story had to go that way. In children’s sermons we find
little ones responding to Jesus but certainly not catching on to his
“making satisfaction” for their sins, though aware of sins they may
be. The story appears against the background of the Old Testament, where a
scapegoat took part. Or another where Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a
tree, which Christians see as prefiguring Jesus on the cross. Anselm was not
totally off the point: humans did and do owe a great debt to God that they
cannot satisfy, and Jesus came to make the change.

Jesus had to die, finally, because death for another is the final and utter guarantee
of the integrity of a person and an act. “No one has greater love than
this”, Jesus says, than “to lay down one’s life for one’s
friends” (John 15: 13). His need to die was to show that there are no
limits to his love, that with us and our need in mind he could stand among the
evil ones who thought they were getting a victory. In Lutheran thought these
evils “ones” are sin, death, and the devil. His death, however,
tricks them and takes away their victory and bragging rights. This is so
because God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead. In the whole
biblical plot and in the mood of this question and answer, “God raised
Jesus because God had to.” (p. 55)

I understand that our first instinct is to respond not to ponder. However, we should sit with and
ponder such mysteries of faith this Holy Week, while we recall the joyful entry
into Jerusalem to the arrest, trial, passion, crucifixion, and death of Christ;
not as a simple story of faith, not as a church doctrine to analysis and
confess, but as a drama filled with complexity. This demands that we, perhaps,
admit that we do not have (intellectually) satisfying answers. But, perhaps is
time to offer the complexity of our faith and invite others to share in the
questioning, pondering, and in general the journeying of faith. Amen.

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