An Easter Letter to Lily: Why did Jesus have to die?"

(This is my Easter eve and day Sermon at St. Peter's, Lewes. It is a Letter to Lily.)

Easter Eve, 2012.
Early Good Friday morning (714 AM) I got a text message from my son.  He wrote: “Last Supper tract from Jesus Christ Superstar with coffee… Priceless. “You are far too keen on where and how, but not so much on why”  All with Wagner motif of passion and denial. Wow.  LILY wants  you to tell her the story about Jesus. She is confused why he has to die.”
I am glad that Matthew still loves rock opera and even more delighted that Lily is asking questions.  As an Easter meditation, here is my reply to her question:

Dear Lily Anne:
I am writing to you using your full adult name because at almost seven you have asked a very adult question.  You dad wrote that you are confused about why Jesus had to die.  “Why did Jesus have to die? “ A great question!  
A great question is like a flower in spring just opening up, the more we look at it the more there is to see. I hope you will ask questions all your life.

Why did Jesus have to die? 

You asked that on Good Friday, when we are all thinking about Jesus and his death, but the answer has to do also with Easter, which we celebrate tonight and tomorrow. Well, here some of my thoughts about that question.   But they are just thoughts – you will have to keep asking and thinking about Jesus yourself.

Everybody knows that Jesus went about doing good and telling the truth about life.  One of the people who wrote about him said, “Because of his powerful deeds and words, he was recognized by God and all the people as a prophet.” What a prophet does is tell the truth to powerful people and they sometimes don’t like that. It makes them angry, or mad, or frightened. 

So some say Jesus made powerful people angry and they killed him to quiet him.  Well, that’s a good answer about Jesus as a truth teller, but you know, Jesus was more than that. He told the truth, but more, he loved people, ordinary people like you and me (although you aren’t so ordinary!)

We say, “Jesus loves us.”  And we say it because from the beginning one of the things people noticed about Jesus was that he loved people, some who seem pretty un-lovely.  The writers of the Gospels, the books that remember the important things that God did in Jesus, all noted that Jesus had a particular kind of love for people: he had compassion. 

Now compassion means a kind of love for people in their times of difficulty, where you share their pain and sorrow.  Jesus also enjoyed sharing their joys and delights too. But its easy to be with people when they are happy. What people remembered was that Jesus was with them and loved them when things were hard or difficult, and that he went through those times with them. 

Sometimes his compassion led to action. People remembered that Jesus cured and helped people.  Many believe that Jesus had the power from God to make people well. Sometimes that took surprising form – he cured their illnesses. But most of the time Jesus made people well because his love for them made them realize that they were not alone in their suffering and that our suffering could be lifted, or overcome, or at least borne, if we had a love that made us feel close and safe and cared for.

It seems that there are all sorts of religious and political people out there who want us to believe that THEY alone can make our lives better, make us well and save us, so we better have them as our leaders and do as they say. That is where they get their power, by convincing us that that is true that they alone can save us.   

But Jesus taught that WE ourselves have a way to make our lives better and whole, if we DO as he did.  It was for us to do, not others; it is a power we are given by God.  So Jesus gave us a new rule, a new task, He said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you.” All of a sudden Jesus takes away all the power of the leaders who would rescue us, and replaces it with the power of compassionate love. And this power belongs to all of us who love as he loved us.

Perhaps Jesus was killed because he showed that all the promises of religious and political leaders were less important than the promises we make to one another to BE with one another in pain and sorrow, joy and peace. Jesus gave us a way to BE with one another.  Jesus mostly didn’t tell us what to believe, but what to do. He told us to love one another, and that that was a beginning of a whole new way of being.

Maybe it is important too to remember that Jesus didn’t have to die the way he did. Several times he could have simply left. Jesus was executed, killed, by those in power because he didn’t run away from a difficult truth. The truth is , compassionate love is dangerous. People in power do not like this kind of talk about compassion. Those who love one another and are willing to suffer for one another, might give themselves for one another, in love without fear of death. Death has no control over them. This makes people in power nervous. People in power use the idea of death to frighten us.

When Jesus says, no, don’t put your whole trust in these powerful people, but put your trust in compassionate love, the kind of love he had for us, he is bound to get into trouble.

Jesus accepted that his way, the way of love, was a dangerous thing. And if he ran from the danger it would be like saying that he couldn’t or wouldn’t suffer as we do. As one writer said, “Having loved us, he loved us to the end.” They killed him, but they did not kill the his compassion and compassionate love he asked us all to share.

Sometimes people say Jesus died for our sins. That’s one of the many answers to the question, “Why did Jesus have to die.”  But I think there are other pretty good answers.

My answer just now is that I believe Jesus died because he loved us, un-lovely as we find ourselves to be sometimes.  And he asks us to love one another the way he loved us.  And he gave his life so that we would know that God’s compassionate love and its power overcomes the fear of death. We who share that power will stand by one another in good times and bad, and sometimes that will mean laughter and joy, and sometimes sorrow and death, but in the end that compassionate love, which is God’s love for us,  endures.

On Easter we give thanks to God for God’s compassionate love in Jesus, which is greater than all suffering, greater than death itself.

That love endures.

Why did Jesus have to die? So that we might believe that love, and the one who loves, endures.

That love is the beginning of a new story with new questions.

Many of us believe that Jesus was the presence of God as compassionate, sharing our sufferings and joys, and that the love of God, which passes our understanding, fills us with the sense that we are not alone, even now, and that Jesus is present still. 

When we ask who loves us, our friends and family and community answer, “we do”, and back there in the crowd somewhere we also hear Jesus, say, “I do, and I always will,” and when we hear that we know that God, who is love, is near.

Remember, what dies is the body, it is Jesus all compassion who lives.

Remember Jesus’ new rule: Love one another as I have loved you.

More later, but for now, know that on Easter Eve, this is the best your grandfather, who loves you, can do. 



  1. Go Lily. Go Lily's dad. Go Lily's grandpa.

  2. Maybe just let her sing "Ah Holy Jesus" and let its truth convert?

    We of courses had the ultimate stake in seeing Jesus dead, not just 'bad people'. Peter shared Jesus' vision for change, but he was exposed as a fraud. For his own sake. "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son" -- gave him thoroughly, to make a New Creation where death and rebellion had been -- yours and mine and all of creation's.

    Jesus didn't have to die, he chose to bear our death, and the death of all ages, and transform it.


  3. Great try, Grampa, but I think Lily needs to go to JC Superstar with her dad. And, add a few more years to her life. And, fall in love and get her heart broken and then find love again. Until then, maybe you could just keep talking about Jesus to her and her dad and mom can take her to rock operas.

  4. Well, dear friends, there is no winning on this one. I wrote about Jesus as all compassion, hard to take in, but there it is. So, you tell your story to a seven year old. I'll print it as a guest letter (probably).

  5. But surely the most important thing is not to accept the question as posed. Jesus didn't 'have to die.' He chose to die, for us, out of love.

    Wouldn't the truthful thing be to say that the question is, "Why did Jesus choose to die?" Otherwise it sounds like we have a victim of bad people doing bad things (and are we watching them or are we them?)

    I guess I don't understand what is at stake: is it what the NT says is so, or what we might somehow reconstrue by conjuring up an answer to a new question:'Why did Jesus *have* to die'?


  6. If He was human, as well as divine, then, of course, He had to die. Dying's not a huge accomplishment, we're all going to do it. Some are doing it right now, at least two very close to me - scratch that, everyone close to me, including me, is currently dying.

    It's not even that He chose to die - He didn't. He asked the cup be taken from Him, but The Father's will be done. It's what it means for all of us out here, not the books, historical or theological. It means that Death has no reality and no importance beyond simply being a fact.

    The life that preceded and transcended that Death is the only important point. It's laughable how much of Christianity - in which Christ hoped to bring life abundantly - is wrapped up with death, dying, dead. Oh, what's going to happen when I die? Where will I go? Blah, blah, blah.

    You're going to die. That's the fact. Move on and live, not out of fear of death, but because death means nothing.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.