I don’t believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins.
I believe that Jesus Christ died because he bucked the power structure of the Roman Empire. I believe he was executed by the state for questioning the power of the political and religious elites and leading other people to question that power. I believe he was killed because he offered a compelling alternative story — that love is greater than our illusions of power and prestige.
There are two really important lessons in the Jesus narrative about love — the importance of loving others radically and the importance of being open to receive radical love. (And by radical here, I mean a love that is not bound by fear.)
I think these two lessons are critical to those working for personal transformation and social justice. The story of Jesus calls us to love others fully, without worrying about the consequences. It also calls us to receive love. Both of these things are necessary.
The crucifixion of Jesus is often read as though he sacrificed himself for us out of love for us. If we believe this, the lesson is that we must sacrifice our lives and becomes martyrs to whatever movement we believe in or person that we love — that we can let them treat us abusively or that we must give and give until there is nothing left. This is what is presented as the road to salvation.
I think this is a lie.
Jesus loved radically. He healed a man on the Sabbath, even though he was putting himself at risk. He put himself at risk by turning the tables in the temple because the money changers were taking advantage of the poor. He ate with the wrong people, even when it made those around him uncomfortable.
He took risks to show love. Love was his first priority. These stories tell me that he loved fearlessly. And I think because he was doing things out of love, that love empowered him, gave him courage to continue and inspired those around him.
I’ve been thinking lately that if safety is our first priority, we are both unable to fully love and we are blocking the transformative movement of love in our lives.
I’m not saying that we should ignore danger or not try to keep people safe from violence. I’m not saying we need to sacrifice our lives to become holy martyrs. I’m just saying that love should be our first priority.
I’m watching this right now in the United States around issues of immigration and the refugee crisis. It seems that we are so concerned with safety we are willing to let refugees — people, children — die so that we don’t have to risk our vaunted safety. (Even though there is much evidence that terrorists in the US are more likely to be home grown and that there have been virtually no incidents of terrorism from immigrants admitted after September 11).
But here’s the thing: what made the United States a vital powerhouse of innovation and productivity, was that it welcomed immigrants.
I’m also seeing this in the #blacklivesmatter movement, which started as a love letter from a black woman to black people. This idea that Black Lives Matter is a radical love that has inspired people to stand against systemic oppression. (If you’re saying: but all lives matter is more loving, I’d say: sure, if all lives really did matter. The truth is, in our country, black lives have been treated as disposable since the beginning of our history. And if I say your life matters, I’m not saying that mine doesn’t.)
Taking the risk to love others is what gives us energy to work for justice in the world. It strengthens the power of moral imagination.
Jesus didn’t die because of any of the risks he took in loving others. He died because his actions created a movement that threatened the power of the empire.
One thing that I think gets missed in these narratives is Jesus’ ability to also receive radical love.
The Anointing in Bethany, which is reported in all four gospels, tells the story of a woman who anoints Jesus’ body with expensive ointment. Jesus’ disciples are appalled at the waste — Judas especially thinks the ointment should have been sold for money for the poor.
But Jesus says: “By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, where this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Matt 26:12).
The placement of this story is important because it comes after a section where the chief priests and elders are conspiring to kill him, but they can’t do it in the open because the crowds around Jesus would riot. But it seems that it is this story that inspires Judas to deliver Jesus to the state to be killed.
Jesus’ acceptance of the woman’s radical love was so threatening it caused his disciple to betray him.
What can we learn from this about love?
First — receptivity gets a bad rap in our culture. You have to make yourself vulnerable to receive love. Somehow receiving it is seen as being less strong in our culture than giving love.
Second — seeing others accept and receive love can feel like the most threatening thing in the world if you’re closed off to it. Those who struggle to express their own vulnerability often try to kill it in others.
But for love to move in the world, we must receive it as well as give it.
Jesus says here that the woman has prepared him for burial — I take this to mean that receiving her love has given him the courage to continue to love in a way that he knows will ultimately bring his physical death.
If love is the energy that sustains us in our work for justice in the world, it has to be able to move through us; I don’t think we can keep giving if we don’t also make room to receive and let others receive.
How this plays out usually comes in the form of us competing to be more busy or more giving than the next person. It feels like some weird competition of self sacrifice or martyrdom. I think it is like the dark side of charity — when people give to feel better about themselves or to relieve some guilt instead of actually loving the person on the receiving end of their charity.
The story of the incarnation of Jesus is the story of a God who is so in love with her creation that she wants to be in relationship with it. Jesus is supposed to be the love of God incarnated in human form.
So here on Good Friday, when I remember the crucifixion and murder of Jesus, I’m left with this: Jesus died because humanity struggles to give and receive, to be vulnerable to a radical love that calls us to risk ourselves in our loving and in our being loved.
*Join ItW’s Easter: Rebirth, Renewal and New Things spiritual challenge on Facebook. Each day, try a new thing and post about it . Could be a new book or new meal, could be a new career or new relationship. Even could be trying to believe something new about yourself.
*Featured painting is by artist Doug Blanchard