Giving Up Theories of Atonement for Lent in Favour of Listening for God’s Laughter

Laughter St Teresa

Traditionally the season of Lent is a mournful time filled with calls to repentance and self-examination as we follow Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted and then on that long march to Jerusalem where the powers that be will have their wicked way with him. Our liturgies take a mournful tone as we lament our woeful human existence, confess our sinfulness, and hear exultations to take up our crosses so that we too can follow Jesus to the bitter end. Over and over again we are asked to remember that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, as we gaze upon the cross remembering that Jesus our savior bled and died as a result of our wicked sinfulness.

Lent is a strange season that harkens back to a forgotten era. Unlike so many of the seasons of the church year it’s not exactly a season that attracts people to church. Not many of you got out of bed this morning and said, “Yippy it’s the first day of Lent. Oh goodie!  We get to be reminded that we are sinful, that life is miserable and unless I’m willing to take up my cross and follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha, there’s precious little hope cause we’re all going to die and when the time comes we want Jesus to remember us.”

Now I know that there are some people who just love Lent and I must confess that I like the quieter, more somber tone that our liturgies take. I actually enjoy the opportunity to slow things done and be more reflective in our worship together. I savor the silences and the opportunities to be more contemplative. I love the colour purple with all its vibrant hues and the best part of all is that the beginning of Lent means that spring is just around the corner. What I don’t like about Lent are the signs, symbols, hymns and stories that make it so easy for us to fall back into the 11th century.

It is so easy for us to lean not on the ever-lasting arms of Jesus but on the scales of St. Anslem and find ourselves not looking forward to the promise of resurrection and the gifts of eternal life, but rather dreading judgment day knowing that the scales of justice must be balanced and fearing the moment of truth when our sins are piled onto the scale and knowing that our only hope for reconciliation with our Maker is that Jesus is sitting on the other end of the scale.

“Woe is me.  Woe is me for I am sinful. My sins are too numerous to count. There are all the things I have done and all the things I have left undone. Thank God Jesus died for me. Somebody had to pay the price for my sinfulness. Jesus died for a reason, and you and I dear sisters and brothers are that reason. A blood sacrifice had to be paid. God’s justice demanded it and Jesus paid the price with his very own blood.   Jesus took our place up there on that cross and the least you and I can do to say thank-you is to spend some time shouldering our own crosses as we retrace Jesus steps to Jerusalem.”

The season of Lent with all of its liturgical trappings makes it so easy to fall back upon St. Anslem’s theory of atonement.  St Anslem the 11th century English monk, a legal scholar who came up with the theory about why Jesus died on the cross known as substitutionary satisfaction. Jesus stood in on our behalf to satisfy the debt that had to be paid.

St Anslem’s theory may have satisfied the minds of worshippers in the 11th century but a lot has changed in the last ten centuries. Take for example the sixteenth century — Martin Luther a name near and dear to the hearts of Lutherans everywhere.   Good old Martin Luther was so obsessed with his own sinfulness that he spent many a long night agonizing over those things that he had done and left undone that he often found himself flagellating of an evening. You don’t hear much about flagellation these days; at least not in church. But flagellation was all the rage among the religious of Martin’s day. 

Why Marty would whip himself into a positive frenzy just thinking about his sinfulness; and I do mean whip himself. Flagellation is the fine art of punishing oneself for ones’ sins by stripping down to the waist and whipping one’s back to the point of drawing blood so that you could bleed just like your Saviour bleed for you before he was led through the streets of Jerusalem on his way to Golgotha. Martin became so obsessed with his own sinful nature that his own priest feared for his life. Father Staupitz, the priest to whom Martin was constantly confessing his sins to is said to have become so frustrated with Martin’s obsession with trivial sin. I mean how much can a faith monk, living in a monetary have to confess. Legend has it that Staupitz grew weary of Martin’s confession of every trivial sin, that in desperation he once told Luther to go and sin boldly, perhaps hoping that Luther would at least have something to actually flagellate for.

Happily for Christendom, Martin Luther eventually came to the realization that far from being a harsh judge of our sinfulness, God is actually a gracious God and thus the Luther’s theology of Grace gave birth to the Reformation. No longer did the faithful have to worry about balancing the scales with acts of piety because God’s grace is sufficient. God in Christ freely forgives us all our sins, not because of any merit we might gain from acts of piety but simply because in Christ, God took on human form and travelled to the cross and paid the ultimate price. Thanks to Luther we all know that we are justified by faith through grace.  We are made righteous in the eyes of God through Christ and there is nothing that we can say or do about it.

Now that’s all worked very well for about 500 years. Just a few years ago, even the Roman Catholic Church agreed that when it comes to the doctrine of grace, Martin Luther was correct. We humans it can be and is said, are simul justus et peccator;  we are both sinners and saints all at the same time. Yes we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, but by God’s grace we are also forgiven, and set free to live in joyful response to God’s amazing grace. So, for about 500 years we’ve been chugging alone, delighted that we are all forgiven sinners and then along comes Darwin.  

Oops. You mean Adam and Eve weren’t actually the very first people on earth? And then along comes archeology. Oh, I see there’s actually a whole lot of bones that tell us that we humans didn’t arrive ready made, that actually over millions and millions of years we actually evolved into the creatures that we are and indeed there’s lots of medical evidence that insists that we are still evolving. Okay, so you mean to tell me that Eve didn’t actually cause us to fall from grace. There is no garden to which we can return to? 

Now how are we going to explain who we humans are? If we are no longer understand the human condition according to the theological concept of “The Fall”, then why did Jesus have to die? The idea that we were once perfect creatures who committed some outrageous sin, and fell from grace and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden, just doesn’t jive with the facts on the ground.

So, here we are at the beginning of Lent in the full throws of another Reformation and we are struggling to understand our place in the grand scheme of things. When you reject the theory of “The Fall” and you begin to understand yourselves not as broken people, but as incomplete people, people who are still evolving into whatever it is that we were created to be, well you can’t but help to look at Jesus differently. Couple that with the explosion of historical knowledge that has  brought us all sorts of new insights into the first century in which Jesus of Nazareth actually walked the earth, and you begin to ask yourself, what are we too do when we get together to worship the creator of all that is and ever shall be.

So, that was my dilemma as I was trying to figure out how we should set off on our Lenten journey. I was busy contemplating the theory of original sin. Which dates back not to Jesus day, but rather to St. Augustine of Hippo who lived during the fifth century. The theory of original sin is one way of understanding the Creation story from the book of Genesis. You see as a result of our fall from the garden, humans, who were originally created to live in a perfect relationship with God, were somehow tempted when evil came to the garden in the form of a snake. Because Eve and then Adam, succumbed to the temptation of evil, God got annoyed and kicked them out of the garden and took away the gift of immortality. This fall from grace meant that from that day to this every human is born sinful by nature.

So there I was in my office contemplating the notion of original sin, when I was distracted by the tone on my computer that indicated that a new email had arrived. Tired of thinking about original sin, substitutionary satisfaction and the doctrine of grace, I gleefully succumbed to temptation long enough to open the email.  It was from my daughter in-law. The subject line read:  Happy Addison followed by an exclamation mark. The body of the email included one of those viewing screens above which was this message:  “There is no video, just wonderful sound!” I eagerly clicked play: and to my delight came the sounds of our nine-month-old grand-daughter. She was laughing and laughing and laughing. Her mommy was playing peek-a-boo with her and her laughter was infections.

There is nothing in heaven or on earth quite like the sound of a baby laughing out loud with such  great gusto, that all you can do is laugh right along.  I laughed and I laughed, until tears of joy rolled down my cheeks. And I knew once and for all that the theory of original sin is nothing but a crock of ….Well you get the picture. Babies are not born sinful. Sinful babies are not being born all over the world as a result of an apple being eaten by some mythical creature. Now, I know full well that the doctrine of original sin is nothing more than a theory used to describe the human condition.  I know the dangers of taking theories literally.

If we are indeed in the midst of a new reformation and I really do believe that we are. Then we really do have to begin to examine the theories and metaphors that we’ve been using for centuries to see if they are still life-giving ways of helping us to live in relationship to our Creator. When we no longer see ourselves as creatures born defined by original sin, we are set free to begin to explore human evolution in ways that will help us to evolve into the humans that we were created to be.

Lenten celebrations that flagellate us with words that reinforce a definition of ourselves as wicked sinners who can only be redeemed by a blood sacrifice simply won’t do in the 21st century. Not if we want to equip ourselves to live in communion with our Creator and our fellow creatures. Evolving Christians know that despite our weak and deliberate offences we are not the sum total of our weaknesses for we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of our creator; albeit an incomplete image. While we still look to our relationship with our Creator longing for the development of a clean heart with in us, we do so trusting that the Ground of All Our Being works in with and through us to ensure that we evolve into all that our Creator dreams that we can become.

So during the season of Lent we can look to the stories of Jesus of Nazareth who in his time and place revealed to his contemporaries a view of our Creator that challenged their notions of reality. We look to the life and witness of Jesus of Nazareth to see what we can learn about who we are and whose we are. And thanks to the struggles of all those who evolved before us, we can also look to the one we know as the Christ to seek understand of how God works in with and through us to achieve the evolution of humanity into creatures that live in ways that reflect the life of Jesus.

This is an exciting time to be alive. These are exciting days for the church. Excitement can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be frightening. So, sometimes we cling to the things of former days, and we hold on to the familiar. Those familiar comforts are all well and good if they provide us with some sense of security in these exciting times. But those familiar comforts can also be vain comforts if we begin to worship them.

So, during this Lenten season, I invite you to wander off into the wilderness. Now don’t be afraid, because we are after all Canadians and Canadians know how to handle a journey into the wilderness. Take heart for we are not going out into the wilderness alone. Jesus goes on before us. And we will follow his story to see what we can learn from his life and witness. And we’ll take the Mystics along with us to help us see the wisdom of the centuries in new ways.

Imagine if you will a baby in your own life. A baby from your past perhaps, you baby brother or sister, maybe your own babies when they were just new and discovering the joys of creation. Such a beautiful little child.  So much ahead of her. So much to explore. But for now a simple game of peek-a-boo.  Ah, such laughter. You can’t help but laugh along and as you laugh, the tears of joy stream down your cheeks as you begin to imagine the wonders of the beautiful human being this child will grow into. And as you are over-come with joy, you won’t be able to help yourself as you are compelled to thank the Creator of such a beautiful little creature. And as you give thanks, listen to the words of St Teresa of Avila  whose joy echoes down through the centuries to help us evolve into the vision of our Creator: Teresa writes: “Just these two words God spoke changed my life, “Enjoy Me.” What a burden I thought I was to carry— a crucifix, as did Christ. Love once said to me, “I know a song, would you like to hear it?” And laughter came from every brick in the street and from every pore in the sky. After a night of prayer, God changed my life when God sang, “Enjoy Me.”

A Benediction:                             Listen, listen closely,

can you hear the memory of a baby’s laughter?

Such beauty, such potential, such joy.

 Now listen again,

can you hear the voice of God?

Listen carefully,

listen beyond the laughter and you will hear God say:

“Enjoy Me”.

“Enjoy Me!”

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