John 12:20-33 (5th Sunday of Lent, year b)
Why did Jesus need to die on the Cross? I know… Jesus had to do it to save us from our sins. But, couldn't God have done this in some other way? Could God not just offer us His grace and forgiveness in some other, less brutal fashion, and we could just accept it and be saved? The Gospel today is taken from a turning point in the Gospel of John. Jesus has finished His preaching and working of miracles and is about to enter into His Passion. In the Gospel Jesus Himself states that it is necessary for the Son of God to suffer and die in order to give us new life: “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Could there not have been some of other way? Why did God need to send His Son to die a terrible death on the Cross in order to save us from our sins?
The answer: it’s a mystery. Years ago when I was a student, nothing would get me more frustrated than when I would ask a question about our faith and the response I would get was “it’s a mystery”. I always saw this as shorthand for “I don’t know”. At times I am convinced it was. Now I see the concept of mystery somewhat differently. Some questions, like how to get from A to B, are problems. There is a definitive answer. Other questions, any which involve God, are mysteries. Mysteries are like spirals of infinite depth. We can go deeper and deeper in trying to answer the question and yet we can never answer if fully. We can, however, say much that is true about the topic under investigation. We just cannot fully or definitively answer the question.
The question “why did Jesus die on the Cross?” is a mystery. There are many angles from which we can approach this question. I would like to answer this problem by approaching it through the perspective of communication.
When we communicate with someone, we want to do two things: 1) transmit a message and 2) have the person we are communicating with act in response to the message. The degree to which we are successful in attaining these ends depends in large part on how we communicate the message. For example, if we want to warn someone who is about to walk into oncoming traffic, we shout “stop” loudly and forcefully in the hope that they will freeze in their tracks. Saying “stop” in a mellow, sing-song voice would probably not produce the desired effect. If, on the other hand, you wanted to tell your significant other how much they mean to you with the hope of eliciting the same feeling in them, you might say “I love you” in a kind voice, while gazing into their eyes and perhaps even handing them a gift. Shouting “I love you” at the person while throwing a glass of cold water in their face would be a less effective means of communication in this circumstance.
Throughout history, God the Father has been seeking to communicate to humanity. He wants to both tell us a message and have us act in response to the message. The message God wants to communicate is simple. He is an infinitely loving and merciful Father. He desires to be in relationship with us now and for eternity. Sin is a terrible, destructive thing. It hurts us and damages our relationship with God. In His great love and mercy, He has forgiven our sins, repaired the damage it has done and prepared a path for us back to Him. In response to this message, God desires that we all take one action: turn from sin and return to Him. This is what God has been trying to communicate all throughout human history.
Because of sin, we are have a predisposition not to listen to what God is saying and resist taking action in response to His message. Sin has given us a misguided understanding of God. We can think God is a vindictive tyrant or, on the other extreme, a permissive, non-demanding deity. We can fool ourselves into thinking that there is no such thing as sin, thinking “I’m okay - you’re okay”, to borrow a phrase from a famous self-help book. Sin makes us mistrustful, suspicious and even aggressive towards God. Even if we hear something of His message, our will is frozen and enslaved by sin. We avoid doing what we know is right.
In communicating His message, mere words are not enough to break through our sin-induced deafness. It takes more than a moral exhortation and Divine offer of grace to convert us. We saw this in history. God sent prophets to teach the people that He is a loving Father and to call them away from sin and back to Himself. All the prophets were rejected, their message largely ignored. Even the preaching and miracles worked by Jesus were not enough. All it served to do was unmask and provoke evil. Words were not a sufficient medium for God to communicate His message to us.
In order for us to truly hear God’s message and to respond to it, we needed tangible and convincing evidence to prove His message: the Cross. The Passion and death of Jesus is the only successful form of communication. It alone breaks through our deafness so we can hear clearly God’s message. On the Cross, God proves the infinite depths of His love and mercy. God became a man and took upon Himself and suffered all the effects of our sinfulness: hatred, violence, and ultimately death. He proved Himself beyond doubt to be a compassionate God. Every drop of blood shed by Jesus on the Cross screams to us how much He loves us. The Cross also tells us the severity of sin. Our sins did this to Him. Not only does the Cross allow us to appreciate God’s message, it alone is forceful enough to shake us loose from our fiercely defended idols and dislodge our chained will from slavery. When we look at the Cross it compels us to turn from sin and return back to our loving Father.
Why did Jesus have to die on the Cross in order to save us? Because it was the only way we would finally hear the message of how loving and merciful our Heavenly Father is and choose to leave sin behind and enter into a relationship with Him. The Cross is the ultimate means of Divine Communication. Each year during Lent we are given the opportunity to make sure we have heard the message and respond more fully to it.