To Restore All People to Unity with God and Each Other Through Christ

In my last post I asked the question, “How does  Jesus’ death on the cross reconcile us to God?” and closed with this proposition…

There is another way of understanding what happens on the cross.  God did not demand Jesus’ death.  We did.  God came into the world and shared God’s dream for all of creation with us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  We responded to that dream, to God’s love by pushing God away.  Unwilling to see ourselves through God’s eyes, unwilling to cede the fantasy that we are at the center of all things, we nailed God to a tree.  In giving God’s self into our hands God loved us enough to give up control of the outcome, loving us before we could love in return, loving us when we didn’t love in return, and refusing to abandon us even when we betrayed him to an awful, violent, and bloody death.

In enduring the cross God has experienced the very worst that lies within us.  There is no depravity hidden from the God who wants only to love us and who has died at our hands.

And yet, knowing who we are, knowing what we are capable of, knowing what we have done, God has not abandoned us!  God loves us still!

Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong is quoted in Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity as saying something very similar:

“People betrayed him and he responded by loving them.  People denied him and he responded by loving them.  People forsook him and he responded by loving them.  People killed him and he responded by loving them.  How else could he communicate to people like you and me that there is nothing we can ever do, there is nothing we can ever be that will place us outside the boundaries of the love of God” (pp. 114-115).

As we begin to examine and unpack this proposition it will be helpful to reach back into our sacred story, into the narrative that gives shape to who we are and what we know about ourselves and what we believe about God:

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.  They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:4-8).

How long have we been sewing fig leaves and hiding behind the trees of the garden, ashamed of our “nakedness,” afraid to be seen as we truly are?   How long have we been alienated from God by our own reluctance to be seen by and to see ourselves through God’s eyes?  Standing at the foot of the cross there is no way that we can go on believing that our elaborately constructed fig leaves are somehow hiding our “nakedness” from God.  God has seen us with all of our scars and warts revealed.

But how does all of this reconcile us to God?  Jesus dying on the cross at our hands would actually seem to deepen our alienation from God compelling us to design even more elaborate and intricate garments of fig leaves so that we might better hide our nakedness.

On the cross Jesus endures the very worst that we are capable of, knows us at our very worst…  and in the resurrection God puts an end to our fear of abandonment, that little voice that hides in the back of our consciousness and says, “You say you love me but if you really knew me, knew what I was capable of…  If you knew what happens in the dark parts of me that are so scary I hide them even from myself you wouldn’t love me anymore.  You would surely turn your back and walk away.  You would abandon me, in disgust.”

The key phrase here is “and in the resurrection.”  The cross, standing alone on a hill outside the gates of Jerusalem doesn’t bring us out of the shadows of the garden, doesn’t give us the courage to toss aside our fig leaves and stand naked in the sight of God.  It is in the resurrection, God’s perseverance, God’s refusal to abandon us, even after the cross, when our sense of justice would call for a severing of the relationship, that our reconciliation with God is accomplished.  It is the cross and the resurrection that allow us to step into the light.

While this “atonement theory,” or understanding of the cross and resurrection, needs some more explication and we will get to that in subsequent posts, this is probably a good moment to acknowledge some concerns.

Principle among the objections that might be raised to this model are concerns about its failure to deal with “original sin,” with “God’s justice,” and “God’s wrath.”  If those words or concepts are familiar to you it is probably because the most common taught atonement theory in western Christianity is the “Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement”.  This theory finds its chief architect in Anselm and builds on Augustine’s theory of “Original Sin.”

In the doctrine of Original Sin Augustine of Hippo (354-430) says that Adam and Eve committed the original sin by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that in that act they forfeited their immortality, and that their nature was so distorted by this act that they lost the ability to choose and do what is right in the sight of God.  This is the story of the “fall.”  Adam’s and Eve’s sin is passed along through the male semen in sexual intercourse so that we are all inheritors of Adam’s guilt and distorted nature, unable to choose what is right in God’s sight.

Anselm, writing in 1098, a time when the west was beginning to recognize the authority of law over the authority of an inherited monarchy, developed the first substitutionary theory of atonement emphasizing “God’s justice.”  Anselm said that,

“…among God’s eternal characteristics is justice.  By this reasoning, God cannot possibly forgive human sin without some recompense, for to do so would undermine the eternal laws of justice.  And since every human being is sinful, there’s not one human being who can make this payment.  Only a perfect, sinless God-man can pay that price.  Anything less would be unjust”  (Tony Jones , A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin, only available as an e-book, page number not available).

Original Sin and the Penal Substitutionary Theory of Atonement would say that our reconciliation with God can only be effected by a change in God’s stance towards us, that God’s righteous anger or wrath needs to be appeased so that God can allow us back into the relationship to which God calls us.  Another way of looking at this would be to say that God is prevented by God’s own justice from being in relationship with us until a penalty has been assessed, a price paid, recompense made.  Anselm wrote that God paid that price on our behalf by sending his only Son to die on the cross on our behalf.

The theory or model of the atonement, of the cross and the resurrection that I have been proposing sets aside the doctrine of Original Sin and Substitutionary Atonement.  This model describes a God who has never ceased to love us and never will; a creation that is broken not because God has moved away from us but because we have moved away from God;  where God acts to draw us back into relationship by deconstructing the barriers, the fig leaves, that we, in our fear of rejection and abandonment, have created to protect us from God’s loving eye and presence.  In the Cross and the Resurrection God reveals, or reminds us of the true nature of our relationship,

“… that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

This model or theory of the atonement needs some more unpacking.  There are important questions that still need to be answered.  How are we changed by the events of the cross and the resurrection?  Is the creation, the world changed?  Is God or God’s approach to us changed?  Does this model or theory of the atonement deal with the problem of pain, suffering, and evil in the world?  I will be working through some of these questions in subsequent posts.  In closing I would like to offer a quote from the sermon I preached on  Good Friday this year.  I hope that it will give you a sense of where I am going next.

“We have fallen short of God’s vision, God’s dream for creation.  Left to our own devices we have become stuck in a cycle of violence that consumes the lamb, the kid, and the fatling; returning violence for violence, escalating and multiplying the hurt, building pain upon pain.  We have created the world in our own image and our need for power and control has loosed bears who rend and destroy, lions who devour the innocent, and adders who seem to strike without warning or mercy.

God came into this broken world, not to condemn us for our failure to live in God’s light and love; not to demand justice, compensation and ransom; but to lift us out of the darkness by putting an end to our endless cycle of rage, retribution, and violence.  God came into this world to offer us forgiveness, something that would ‘fulfill God’s law and to open for us the way of freedom and peace’ (BCP p. 370).

To fulfill God’s law…  It doesn’t make much sense to us because God’s law and God’s justice don’t look much like ours.  But this is what God’s law, God’s justice looks like…  It looks like Jesus, God on a cross.  God’s law, God’s justice is a love so great, so deep and so wide that it is willing to suffer; to endure hurt, wrong, and betrayal.  God’s law, God’s justice is manifested in a willingness to forgive in the hope that we will choose the way of freedom and peace.  And that transformed by the gift of forgiveness that has been given to us and by the demonstration of the power of love over sin and death we will begin to live out our vocation as the church, “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ’” (BCP p. 855).

Amen.

Some housekeeping

Thanks to The Reverend Doctor Jonathan Grieser of Grace Episcopal Church, Madison Wisconsin for some additional resources:

Christus Victor by Gustav Aulen

A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin by Tony Jones   This book is only available as an “e book” through Amazon but I highly recommend it.

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What Happens on the Cross?

Wading in…

If you are new to this blog site please take a look at the page entitled “The Current Project.”  The material there will help orient you to the conversation and get you on board as a participant in the dialog.

A few house keeping matters before we get started…

I am hoping that this blog site will be an opportunity for conversation.  Please do take the time to reflect and to respond by posting comments.

When you look at a posting on the “Home” page you will see that there are little “dialog bubbles” next to the titles of each post.  If there is a number in that bubble that means that people have posted comments and responses.

You will not see those responses on the home page.  In order to read them you must either click on the title of my original post, which will take you to a new window where you may scroll down through the post to find the comments, or you may click on the bubble, which will take you directly to the comments themselves in a new window.

What Happens on the Cross?

How would you answer this question?  Aside from the basic fact that Jesus dies… what is affected, what transpires, what is changed?

The way that we answer this question is, I think, incredibly important.  I think that the way we perceive the cross makes a huge difference in the way that we understand God and the way that we relate to one another as God’s people, God’s children, God’s beloved.

A couple of months ago we sat in the Parish Hall at Saint Andrew’s wondering how we might best use the time between worship services, what topics we should consider when we gathered for the Sunday Forum.  In that gathering a plea for help seemed to grab everyone’s attention.  “How do I respond to co workers, family, people I associate with, whose faith traditions lead them to respond very differently than I do to the events in the world around me?”

We were having this conversation in the terribly difficult time following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and the emotion and energy that we all felt was a response to public statements by national religious leaders that those horrific murders had happened because God is angry with us as a people, and as a nation.

Of course this kind of statement is nothing new.  We heard the same kind of talk when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans; a sinful and wicked city had been brought low.  We heard it when the terrorist flew airplanes into the World Trade Towers; America was being punished for listening to the voices of pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU and People for the American Way (Living the Questions, p. 106).  We heard it when the tsunami hit South East Asia; God was punishing Muslims for denying Christ.

Does God punish us by sending natural disasters and jihadists among us?  Does God work to get our attention by killing or destroying us?  Does God allow people with guns into our schools because we have “excluded” God from the public schools?

In Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity the authors state,

“The ideas that we hold about the nature of God and the language that we use to describe God play out in small ways – how or even whether we pray, how we think about our purpose in life, how we relate to those who do not share our beliefs.  But they also influence how we see the world and, ultimately, God’s role in the world” (p. 26).

So what does all of this have to do with the cross?  It is the cross, and my understanding of what happens on the cross, that shapes my understanding of who God is, of God’s nature and character.  I cannot reconcile what happened on the cross with the idea that God’s hand was at work in the AIDS Crisis, in Hurricane Katrina, in the Tsunami in South East Asia, in 9/11, or in Newtown.

So we are back to the original question, “What happens on the cross?”  At the most basic level the answer to this question is that through the cross we are reconciled to God; that through the cross our relationship with God is restored.  That seems easy enough but now we come to the tougher question…  How is it that Jesus’ death on the cross reconciles is to God?

Did Jesus die for our sins?  Was Jesus’ bloody death on a Roman cross the blood sacrifice that was required to make satisfaction for our transgressions?  Did Jesus stand in as our substitute, enduring the agony and painful death that we all deserve for the sins that we have committed against God and one another?  Did God sacrifice Jesus in order to pay off the devil, ransoming us from captivity to sin and death?

Remember that quote from Living the Questions,

“The ideas that we hold about the nature of God and the language that we use to describe God play out in small ways – how or even whether we pray, how we think about our purpose in life, how we relate to those who do not share our beliefs.  But they also influence how we see the world and, ultimately, God’s role in the world” (p. 26).

Did God demand or require that Jesus die in order that we who have betrayed God and one another might be reconciled to God?

Does God require a blood sacrifice to make satisfaction for sin?

Does God’s wrath require that we die for our sins?

Does God’s justice allow someone else, someone innocent of our offense, to die on our behalf in order to atone for our sins?

These questions might seem flip or disingenuous but they are questions that beg to be answered when we hear people claim that God has visited death upon us through sickness, famine, or natural disaster because we have sinned.  They are questions that beg to be answered when people say that the obscene violence that seems to permeate our culture and society is God’s way of getting our attention and putting us back on the right path.

Is it possible that God uses pain, suffering, violence and death to reconcile us all, one to another, and to God?

In Thinking Theologically, chapter 3 of Living the Questions, the authors quote Harry Emerson Fosdick…

“…telling the story of a distraught student who exclaimed, ‘I don’t believe in God!’  Fosdick Replied, ‘Tell me about the God you don’t believe in; chances are I don’t believe in that God either’” (p. 24).

There is another way of understanding what happens on the cross.  God did not demand Jesus’ death.  We did.  God came into the world and shared God’s dream for all of creation with us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  We responded to that dream, to God’s love by pushing God away.  Unwilling to see ourselves through God’s eyes, unwilling to cede the fantasy that we are at the center of all things, we nailed God to a tree.  In giving God’s self into our hands God loved us enough to give up control of the outcome, loving us before we could love in return, loving us when we didn’t love in return, and refusing to abandon us even when we betrayed him to an awful, violent, and bloody death.

Having endured the cross God has experienced the worst very worst that lies within us.  There is no depravity hidden from the God who wants only to love us and who has died at our hands.

And yet, knowing who we are, knowing what we are capable of, knowing what we have done, God has not abandoned us!  God loves us still!

In coming posts I will be exploring traditional or classical understandings of the cross, seeking to offer a more nuanced understanding than is represented in this introduction to the conversation.  I will also be exploring the writings of some contemporary theologians whose ideas about reconciliation, atonement and the cross challenge the models or theories that seem to portray violence as redemptive.

If you find yourself intrigued and want to do some exploration of your own I highly recommend Living the Questions, chapters 3, 8, 10, and 11.

I would also recommend Why the Cross? God’s at-one-ment with humanity.  Published in The Christian Century, March 11, 2013.  Written by Charles Hefling.

I have added the Article by Walter Wink from which chapter 11 of Living the Questions draws its title, The Myth of Redemptive Violence to the reading list.  It offers a history and critique of a world view built around a God of violence and pain.

I hope that you will join me in this journey, offering your insights, questions, and reflections by commenting on this post.

Peace,

Andy+

Venturing anew into a very old conversation…

During the Season of Lent we at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church used the book Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity as a jumping off point for our conversations at the Sunday Forum.  During those weeks  attendance at the Sunday forum more than doubled.

We didn’t work through the book chapter by chapter, instead we allowed the material of two or three chapters shape our conversations each week, honoring the trajectory of the book, and allowing the cumulative weight of our readings and conversation to move us forward.

Our momentum took a real hit when we reached chapter 11, The Myth of Redemptive Violence.  What do we mean when we say that “Jesus died for our sins”?  What do we mean when, as part of our Eucharistic liturgy we say, “By his blood her reconciled us.  By his wounds we are healed” (BCP p. 370).  Are we saying that Jesus payed the price for our sins so that God’s wrath might be assuaged, God’s justice served, and our freedom purchased?

This is the question of “soteriology” or salvation and it is a question in which I am passionately interested.

I am going to spend some time over the next couple of months reading and studying soteriology, salvation, atonement, the cross and I would like to invite you to join me in this journey.  I will post summaries of the materials that I read and my responses to them and I hope that you will offer your comments, thoughts and reflections to those who join this forum.

The best way to keep up and to participate will be to subscribe or “follow” this blog.  There is a button on the sidebar of the home page that will allow you to follow the blog so that anytime something is posted you will be notified by email.

Comments on this blog are moderated, I have to approve them before they go public, but I will allow all ideas and perspectives to be heard.  I will only “edit” with an eye for civility and respect for difference of opinion.

My reading list is available here on the blog.  It is listed on the main menu on the banner of the home page.

I do hope that you will join us as we work together to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…” (1 Peter 3:15b).

Peace,

Andy+

You can find Saint Andrew’s on the web and on Facebook.  I post sermons and reflections about life in the church on my primary blog site, A Mad City Episcopalian.