“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:3-5)
A Kenyan lawyer named Dola Indidis has taken on a death penalty case. He believes the accused was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted, and wants the verdict and sentence overturned.
Indidis has gone to great lengths to have the case heard. He took it to the Kenyan High Court in 2007. They refused even to hear it, citing lack of jurisdiction. His plan now is to appeal to the International Court of Justice at the Hague, but his odds aren’t good, legally: the ICJ only hears cases brought by one state against another. But Indidis is adamant that someone needs to re-try this case: according to him, “[the accused’s] selective and malicious prosecution violated his human rights through judicial misconduct, abuse of office, bias, and prejudice.”
You’d think it would be a no-brainer, but seeing as how the government that brought the case against the accused, and carried out the death sentence, is no longer around, it’s understandable that Indidis is having a tough time finding a court that will claim jurisdiction.
The Roman Empire hasn’t existed for over 1500 years. And it’s been just under 2000 since Jesus was crucified.
Indidis may have a difficult time overturning Jesus’ death sentence, but you understand the impulse to try, don’t you? It was unjust and unfair. It was blatantly polticized. It was made possible by corruption at the highest levels of government, and rammed through the machinery of justice by coached witnesses and the liberal application of silver. If there was ever a death sentence that cried out to be overturned, it’s his.
And yet believers recognize that Jesus’ death, brutal and unjust as it was, was somehow necessary. Jesus death was “for all”. It was “a ransom for many.” It was part of God’s plan that he would be sacrificed, a plan that came from God’s love for the world. Jesus knew that his time to die was coming, he embraced it as the cup he had to drink, and knew that somehow through his death God would bring about the advent of his kingdom.
Paul and the other New Testament writers spent more time reflecting on the significance of Jesus’ death than Jesus himself did. Paul can say that Jesus redeemed us from the curse of death “by becoming a curse for us”, but can also use Old Testament language in calling Jesus a “sacrifice of atonement.” In Hebrews, Jesus is a high priest offering a sacrifice for us, but he is also the sacrifice. The writers of the New Testament reflect deeply and thoughtfully on the meaning of Jesus’ death, and much of the time the best they can do is compare it to theological categories they were already aware of. They knew that Jesus’ death was important, that it had consequences for and brought blessings to those who put their faith in him and identifed with him. They didn’t know with certainty about the mechanism by which our sins are forgiven and our death overcome by his death and resurrection, but they knew that it was true. And so, guided by the Holy Spirit, they talked about his death in terms of atonement, sacrifice, substitution, and ransom. They connected Old Testament prophecy about a righteous sufferer whose pain would atone for the sins of the nation to Jesus. They talked about Jesus’ death, in short, with vocabulary they learned from God’s history of dealing with his people.
But maybe none of the New Testament reflections on Jesus’ death is more succinct or compelling as this one: “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
That statement reminds us of something we might tend to forget in the theological depths of reflection about the meaning of Jesus’ death: his crucifixion and resurrection are not simply academic subjects to be investigated, or religious dogma to believe. In a sense, how it happened doesn’t really matter. Understand it as atonement, or as substitution, or as a ransom. Subscribe to any number of theories. All those theories and explanations were ever intended to do is to open up the layers of meaning in our central belief as Christians.
In the end, we are invited not just to believe in his death and resurrection, but to participate in it.
We’re not to watch from the sidelines while he gives himself for us. We’re not to analyze what he did from the safety of laboratories, behind goggles and hazmat suits, insulated from its fallout. We are called to share in his death, to be crucified with him. We’re called to know him thoroughly, even to the point of dying with him, so that we can enjoy the resurrection with him. Jesus himself said that his followers should carry their crosses and be with him where he is.
Where in the world did we get the idea that faith in Jesus is a spectator sport? Why did we ever imagine that we could follow Jesus without losing our lives, just like he lost his?
And why would we ever doubt that he would be sure to share his resurrection with us?
So, while I appreciate Dola Indidis’ intentions, I think he’d be better served to lose himself in other cases in which the innocent were convicted, the guilty set free, other cases in which “human rights [were violated] through judicial misconduct, abuse of office, bias, and prejudice.”
To believe that Jesus died for all, to be baptized into him, is to share in his death as we look forward to sharing in his resurrection. And we share in his death as we live as he did: putting our own tendencies toward sin and selfishness to death, a little at a time, as we serve those around us in love and in the name of Jesus. Who died for us.