C. What do I think is important about the death of Jesus?
Last Wednesday, in our regular parish Bible study, we read the ninth chapter of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was cup-bearer to the king of Persia, Artaxerxes I, during the 5th century BCE. The king allowed Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem, serve as governor, and rebuild the wall of the city. After the work was done, Nehemiah assembled the people who had returned from exile. They stood in sackcloth and ashes, and made a renewal of their covenant with God. But before they made the covenant, Ezra the priest recites the history of their relationship with God. He says:
7 Thou art the LORD, the God who didst choose Abram and bring him forth out of Ur of the Chaldeans and give him the name Abraham; 8 and thou didst find his heart faithful before thee, and didst make with him the covenant to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite; and thou hast fulfilled thy promise, for thou art righteous. 9 “And thou didst see the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and hear their cry at the Red Sea, etc. Nehemiah 9:7-9, RSV
This type of narrative-in-worship is a distinctive feature of Hebrew/Jewish writing, and it is an essential part of their collective identity. The people remember who they are – finding their identity – by recounting their history as the people of God. He is their God, who has been faithful, always providing for them, even when they were unfaithful.
We can see the same type of “holy remembering” much earlier in the Book of Deuteronomy:
“5 “And you shall make response before the LORD your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. 7 Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; 8 and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; 9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 26:5-9, RSV.
There are other examples, but let me simply say that narrative (and communal identity) are essential for understanding the Bible and the story of the people of Israel.
When we come to the New Testament we are reading a continuation of the same story of God and his people. By this time the Romans have occupied Israel, and a tremendous longing has built up in the hearts of the descendants of Abraham. They yearn for a savior who would restore them to their previous status as a free and sovereign nation (either in this world or in an Age-To-Come). Many people flocked to Jesus believing him to be the long-awaited messiah. When the Roman authorities crucified Jesus, it brought great shame and disappointment to his disciples.
Later, Jesus appears to the disciples and they believe he has risen from the dead. This account of the resurrection of Jesus becomes the main focus of the writers of the New Testament. After the disciples experienced the presence of the Risen Lord Jesus, their lives were radically changed. Jesus had come to them and forgiven them (remember, they had abandoned him when he was arrested) and then he “breathed on them” – giving them the Holy Spirit. Some seven weeks later the gathered disciples have another powerful experience of the gifts of the Spirit, which emboldens them to share the witness of the new life they have received in knowing the Crucified One.
The encounter with the Risen Lord, then and now, does not primarily turn people into individuals who have good ethics (though this does happen). Rather, it builds up the Church, as a community of faith, through the life-giving power of the Spirit. From the beginning Christians did not have “ethics,” as commonly understood. Christian faith is not mainly a philosophy of life carried out by autonomous individuals. Rather, being a Christian is itself an ethic, or a way of life, carried out within a community of faith.
St. Paul, whose writings actually predate the Gospels, himself had personal relationships with the closest disciples of Jesus. It is Paul who supplies the corrective to Schweitzer’s analysis, in his “doctrines of the church and of the mission of the church to the world.” (Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics, p. ix, 1998)
Dr. Schweitzer thought that the early Christian sect was a separatist group that just happened to have developed a universal moral code while they waited for the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. To me this doesn’t make sense. If this were the whole story wouldn’t the teachings, practices, and worship of the group only apply to the insiders? In fact, Paul says in Romans 10:11-15 that the Gospel is available to everybody, not just to the “in” group.
It is Paul’s teaching about the Spirit carrying on the work of Christ through the Church that makes sense (to me) out of the worship practices, the mission, and especially the new life that comes in Baptism and Christian fellowship – and makes sense (to me) out of the death of Jesus.
In the 11th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth we can listen in on the “identity narrative” of the early Church being passed down from the first disciples. First, Paul offers a rebuke to the Corinthians for how they are presently celebrating the Lord’s Supper. And then, starting at the 23rd verse, he reminds them that he has passed on a (holy remembering) tradition to them that he has received from Jesus (through the apostles):
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”” 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, RSV.
There is a very lengthy eucharistic prayer (“D”) in the Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal Church, 1979), which was adapted from the ancient Liturgy of Saint Basil. Versions of this prayer are used in the Greek and Slavic Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and the United Methodist Church, and others. It is the eucharistic prayer that is authorized by more churches in the world than any other type. Unfortunately, because of its length it is not used often in many churches. It is certainly very comprehensive, and (to me) quite beautiful. And I think this prayer is a fitting description of the new life we receive in Jesus Christ, and in his life, death and resurrection.
Here is the portion of the prayer that serves as the introduction to St. Paul’s institution narrative (quoted above) of the Lord’s Supper:
Father, you loved the world so much that in the fullness of time you sent your only Son to be our Savior. Incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, he lived as one of us, yet without sin. To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners, freedom; to the sorrowful, joy. To fulfill your purpose he gave himself up to death; and, rising from the grave, destroyed death, and made the whole creation new.
And, that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.
Then, after the text from 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, the prayer continues with the following declaration of praise and blessing:
Father, we now celebrate this memorial of our redemption. Recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to your right hand, awaiting his coming in glory; and offering to you, from the gifts you have given us, this bread and this cup, we praise you and we bless you. (BCP, 374)
In summary, the significance of Jesus’ death is how his own experience of immense suffering (by evil intent), and utter abandonment (by his friends and by God), was transformed by the power and grace of God. All the disciples of Jesus (including those now living) work and pray together in the Church asking, in his name, that the Holy Spirit will transform their lives and give them the same new life that Jesus’ first disciples received.