In the Gospel of John (13:34), Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment. Love one another.” That’s not really a new commandment? You can find that commandment as far back as the book of Leviticus 19:18 which says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That commandment was ancient and very prominent in Judaism. So why would Jesus call this a new commandment? Well what made this commandment new was the next sentence. “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
You have to take notice of the fact that Jesus said that this is a commandment not a suggestion. We are commanded to love one another as He loved us. So I think we need to make absolutely sure that we understand exactly what it means to love one another as He did. And the first thing that becomes obvious, as we look at the life of Jesus, is that the love that Jesus revealed to humanity was a love that is utterly gracious and totally self-giving; self-giving even to the point of sacrifice.
Each and every one of us was born into this world with an innate need to be loved. But each and every one of us will spend our entire lives learning how to love. I spoke once before about the difference between pizza love and real love, so I’m not going to repeat all of that again. But obviously Jesus is referring here to real love. And real love is not innate. It does not come to us automatically simply by our birth. Real love must be learned and it must be practiced before it can be perfected.
Remember, real love is much more than just an emotion or a feeling. Real love is a commitment. It is committing to living your life lovingly for another. But we cannot give what we do not possess. We must first learn to love ourselves; love the uniqueness that is our own; before we can give that love to another. And committing to live for others requires that we love even if we are not loved in return. For the sacrificial love that Jesus lived wasn’t expressed because He was being loved in return. He did not love to be loved.
And as I said, Jesus loved perfectly, even to the point of Sacrifice. Which brings up an obvious question; was it necessary for Jesus to make the ultimate sacrifice? Many years ago I had a young man ask me that very same question. He asked me, “Why did Jesus have to die?” A good question! In fact it was an excellent question. And to be honest with you, I felt stumped at the time, like I had hit one of those mental road blocks. I just looked at him for about 5 seconds while I collected my thoughts and I said, “Our God became man, in the person of Jesus Christ, and took upon Himself the punishments that we deserve for our sins.” Well have you ever said something then immediately afterwards regretted having said it? As soon as those words left my mouth, I wanted to take them back. I just knew, deep in my heart, that my answer was incomplete, if not downright wrong. I realized that I had just answered a question that I did not fully understand myself. I left promising myself that I would find a way to better understand the whole Easter mystery myself. What troubled me about my answer to that young man is that my words painted a terrible picture of who God is. My answer said that our Heavenly Father is an angry, all powerful God who demands that a penalty be paid for the transgressions of mankind. Mankind is apparently incapable of paying this penalty, so God the Father sent his Son to take the punishment that we deserve.
This deeply troubled me because this is not the God that I see in Jesus. Jesus’ life demonstrated the perfection in committed, self giving love. And Jesus said, “If you have seen Me you have seen the Father.” (Jn 14:9) But my answer to that young man described an angry, judgmental God. Not a loving, committed, self giving God. My answer did nothing more than describe the ultimate example of cruelty, the Father demanding that His Son die. I had just given the young man the description of divine child abuse.
So I began my search for the truth. And what I learned in my search is that I wasn’t alone in seeking the truth. The Christian community has been searching for centuries for understanding to the question of “Why did Jesus have to die such a cruel and painful death.”
I learned that there is, in fact, a theological concept called “Substitutionary Atonement.” This theory effectively says that humanity owes God a ransom for the insult of sin. Mankind, however, is unable to pay this debt because humanity lacks the means, since everything on earth belongs to God to begin with. So, in this theory, God recasts Himself in human form, and in the person of Jesus Christ suffers the undeserved agony of the cross, dedicating His suffering to the Father on humanity’s behalf. And to many, this was attractive theology. It effectively said that, “There is a punishing God and you deserve punishment. But I can offer you a way out.” This theory of “Substitutionary Atonement” became quite popular in the 16th century and it was adopted by many as doctrine.
This however, didn’t last long, because in the 18th century another theory surfaced. A theory known as “Exemplary Atonement”! This theory says that the mission and purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry was two-fold. First and foremost, Jesus modeled for humankind the fullness of God’s mercy and forgiveness. A mercy and forgiveness that is freely offered to a sinful humanity! Secondly, Jesus’ life was a model for us of the perfection of the Love that is God.
But take the passage from John’s Gospel (13:31-35) and read it in light of John 3:16-17. In the first passage, Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” But in the latter, he says, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him may not die but may have eternal life. God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
Both passages are familiar! But when you read them in light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, you come to understand that the starting point in understanding the Easter mystery isn’t God’s anger. It’s God’s love. The God revealed to us in the life of Jesus was a God of love. Jesus did suffer greatly at the hands of an abusive authority and at the hands of an abusive culture. But Jesus did not endure that pain as a substitute for what God is demanding of us. Our God became one of us so we could come to know who our God really is. So we could come to know Him as one who identifies with us, who goes with us, who suffers with us, and who loves us to the point of providing us with an example of how to live our lives.
We get our strength for living from the life of Jesus, His mission, His teachings and His parables. We get our hope for what comes next from the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. To ask which is more important, Jesus’ life or His death is like asking which wing on an airplane is more important. You need them both to fly.
In trying to comprehend the reasoning behind Christ’s suffering, it helps to understand that we live in a world filled with problems, pain and suffering. And Jesus introduced us to a God who is not immune to our plight, for He has experienced the worst that this world can offer.
The Little White Book published by the Diocese of Saginaw contains some excellent words of wisdom. The book asks the question, “Why did Jesus have to die such an awful death? Couldn’t He have just had a heart attack and died?” The book goes on to say, “It’s not that Jesus had to die the way He did – as though God said, “You have to go and die a horrible death to pay me back for the horrible sins committed against Me.” Rather, Jesus had to live the way He did. To live that way in this imperfect world means you will get hurt sometimes, and sometimes get hurt bad. In the end, that is what happened to Jesus. But it was His way of life, not the sufferings in themselves that was most important. He showed us a way of life, a way to live, and He took on whatever suffering came along.”
In the end, we find that when we attempt to reason out an answer to the question of why Jesus died, we discover that our search will ultimately require our own personal response. Anyone who reasons out his or her own faith will walk that journey of discovery. And in taking that journey, I offer you some points to consider.
First of all, if you’re stuck on the idea of atonement, remember that Jesus did nothing on His own. He spent hours in prayer with His Father. And Jesus did not have to die as He did. He chose to. We hear His words of explanation at every Eucharist. “My blood will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.” Jesus chose to endure the worst that the world could offer, to show us that, by the love and power of God, we have forgiveness in the name of Jesus, and even death itself is overcome.
Secondly, if you’re stuck with an image of God as being angry and judgmental, waiting to condemn all who stumble and fall, remember Jesus said that He came for the exact opposite reason. He said, “I came that you might have life; and have it more abundantly.” Jesus came to show us God’s love and the length to which God will go to save us. Jesus introduced us to a God who is good and loving and merciful.
Thirdly, Jesus is not asking us to simply acknowledge the reality of His life, death and resurrection. He is asking us to accept the way of life that He offers and be changed by it.
And lastly remember that our God took on the form of humanity so that no one can say that Jesus doesn’t understand. After all, he was conceived and carried in the womb so He understands the human condition. He was born in a barn so He knows what it feels like to be poor. He fled to Egypt so He understands culture shock and He understands what it’s like to live as a refugee. He lived in Nazareth so He experienced the ghettos. He was not accepted my many so He knows what rejection is like. He hung nailed to a cross unable to move, so He knows what it feels like to be in agony, and to feel trapped and helpless.
Jesus freely chose to experience all those things so that we could feel safe in sharing our experiences with Him. We can trust Him because He’s been there. He understands, and He cares.
Jesus commands that we do more than just “talk the talk.” We have to walk the path of love, service and self sacrifice, for only then will we truly experience the abundant life that He offers us.
REVEREND MR. DONALD COX is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Detroit. On June 9, 1979, Deacon Don was ordained to the diaconate by His Eminence John Cardinal Dearden, an important American Father of the Second Vatican Council. He is currently assigned to St. Cornelius parish in Dryden, Michigan. Married and the father of three children and grandfather to four children, Deacon Don was born and raised in Detroit, and educated at St. Brigid Elementary School, Mackenzie High School, and Lawrence Technological University. His theological training was taken at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary.