Jesus Christ Superstar portrays the raw emotion, intimacy, and action that characterized that first Holy Week. A few days ago, we marked Palm Sunday, when we remember Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In the rock opera, the crowds sing, “Hosanna, hey, sanna, sanna, sanna, ho!”, treating Jesus as a celebrity—“Hey JC, JC, won’t you smile at me?”
But by the end of the song, the tone turns: “Hey JC, JC, won’t you die for me?” And we are reminded, as Mark Ralls told us here at Centenary this past Sunday, that Jesus’ triumphant entry was really a funeral procession. From Palm Sunday on, Jesus is moving toward the cross.
This week, many Christian communities are holding special services to remember that journey to Calvary. The most common of those services are Maundy Thursday, when we recall Jesus’ last supper and betrayal, and Good Friday, when we mark his crucifixion.
But some traditions don’t have this practice, and even when those services are offered, many will not attend. If they make it to Palm Sunday at all, they will skip straight from the triumphant entry to the resurrection, to Easter.
This impulse is understandable. Who wants to spend an entire week brooding on the subject death? We get enough of that on the news, in our own communities and families. We want the God who rises and lives, not the God who suffers and dies.
But when we skip Holy Week, we miss the point. For many, Jesus’ death defines his mission.
But why did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t God have saved us some other way, through something less morbid and messy and…well, human?
In Jesus Christ Superstar, the disciples react with shock and grief when Jesus is arrested and sentenced to death. It doesn’t make sense to them that their friend and teacher should go to the cross. They cry out to Jesus: “I think you’ve made your point now.”
You don’t have to die. We get it. We’ll listen now. This is all getting a bit too real. The disciples go on: “I think you’ve made your point now. You’ve even gone a bit too far to get your message home.”
When Jesus goes to the cross, Jesus goes too far. Did he really have to die?
Let’s take a step back. The question of why Jesus had to die really has two different questions in it, as James Howell (yes, he’s a relation) pointed out in his book Exploring Christianity. One question is what we have been asking: “Why did Jesus die?” The other is this: “Why did they kill him?”
We’ll take up the second question first. “Why did they kill him?”
The answer lies at the end and the beginning of Holy Week. Jesus was put to death by crucifixion. This was a punishment reserved for crimes against the state. Jesus was executed as a political offender.
What had Jesus done that would make him a threat to Rome? Well, everything Jesus did and said undermined the status quo. He associated with the wrong kinds of people and challenged authority both subtly and blatantly throughout his ministry.
But the tipping point, perhaps, came at the beginning of Holy Week. Jesus rides into Jerusalem as a king and receives a royal welcome from the people. And in the gospel of Matthew, the first thing he does after that is to go to the temple and turn over the tables.
Jesus directly confronts the fact that the state has co-opted what should have been a sacred space. The people selling goods in the temple weren’t holding a church fundraiser; they were conducting the business of the republic. It was like the New York Stock Exchange in a house of worship. Jesus disrupted this corrupt system, and Rome would not have it.
But Jesus offended the religious establishment, too; remember, the crime the officials tried to pin on him was blasphemy—claiming that he was God. The irony in this is that Jesus was God. But all that accusation amounted to was a sad collusion between a corrupt temple and the political power of Rome.
They killed Jesus because he stood for the truth of God in the face of a religious and political institution that had succumbed to greed and corruption.
So that answers the more historical, political question. But what about our first question? “Why did Jesus die?”
In some Christian theology, there is the idea that the sin of humanity is a wrong for which God is owed a debt. However, no person could repay that debt, so Jesus dies as a substitute for us, as a payment for our debt. In this understanding, Jesus has to die so that our sins could be forgiven.
But that account is so transactional and cold. It makes God no better than the moneychangers in the temple. It does not align with the image of a God of love and grace that we see throughout Scripture. It is not consistent with who we know God to be.
The theology of the cross that I find most convincing is this: it is not that Jesus had to die, but that going to the cross was consistent with who God is. It reveals to us God’s nature.
Philippians 2:7 says that Christ “emptied himself.” The word in Greek for this self-emptying is kenosis. In submitting to suffering and death, Jesus demonstrates kenotic love for humanity.
In Jesus, God has been emptying himself for our sakes all along. From being born as a vulnerable child to giving of himself in fellowship with the least of these to offering up his own body as he was handed over to be crucified, Jesus reveals to us a God who is love, who is constantly showering that love on all of us through self-emptying.
We Christians worship a God who died, not simply for our sins but because that is who God is.
A friend and colleague recently pointed out something curious in Mark’s telling of the death of Jesus. At the moment of his death, the centurion, a Roman soldier with no context for understanding the identity of a Jewish Messiah, exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
The disciples, who had followed Jesus for three years and heard his teaching and seen his works, did not fully understand who he was. But this centurion grasped the truth simply by seeing Jesus die.
In Jesus, God becomes human, and God doesn’t just meet us halfway. God goes all the way and then some, all the way to the cross, into the grave, and back out again.
The message hits home: this is a God whose nature it is to go too far for us. May we journey through this Holy Week knowing that there is nowhere we can go, even to the grave, where God will not come after us. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell