Giving Up the Theories of Atonement in Order to Move Toward an Evolutionary Understanding of Jesus: a Good Friday sermon

eloi eloi lamaI am indebted to Michael Morewood for the theological insights in his book “It’s Time: Challenges to the Doctrine of the Faith” for helping me to see beyond the idols in my head! This sermon was preached on Good Friday 2013 at Holy Cross Lutheran Church. Additional Good Friday sermons can be found here and here

The account of Jesus’ execution that we have just heard from the Gospel according to John lacks the rawness of the earlier accounts of Jesus death. The author of this account wrote at the turn of the first century, some seventy to eighty years after the Romans executed Jesus. That’s enough time for two, maybe three, or possibly even four generations to have pondered these events. The first account of these events, the Gospel According to Mark was written slightly earlier, sometime after the year 70. Most scholars date it between the years 70 and 85. That’s still 40 to 65 years after the execution; still time for one or two generations to have pondered these events. Perhaps it’s the closer proximity of the Gospel according to Mark that gives it much shaper raw feeling when it is read. Or maybe it’s the decision of translators down through the ages to preserve the intensity of Jesus’ cry from the cross in Aramaic. I don’t know about you, but I cannot begin to contemplate the events of this dreadful day without hearing the echoes of Jesus’ plaintive cry, in his mother tongue: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?”

“Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?” The rawness, the bitterness, the desperation of this horrendous moment, and all the horrendous moments that have transpired before or since are captured in Jesus plea, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” I have always imagined a dying Jesus gathering up what little strength he has to raise his head to the heavens and cry: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?” In most of the films depicting the crucifixion that I can remember seeing, Jesus looks up, up toward the heavens to utter this painful cry to God.Jesus’ question has haunted the followers of Jesus for centuries as Christians have struggled to understand how and why Jesus died.This question has left the followers of Jesus tied up in knots for nearly 21 centuries as our ancestors in the faith have struggled to offer up answers to the questions of the faithful. Why did Jesus have to die?

In pulpits all over the planet, preachers are struggling to help their listeners cope with the realities of the violence that murdered the One whom we seek to follow. I have spent most of my life, struggling to understand exactly why Jesus died and what Jesus’ death means for all the generations who have trusted and followed Jesus. I have studied the answers that have been offered by successive generations of Jesus’ followers. I can recite chapter and verse of the various theories that have been offered by the church to explain Jesus’ death as all part of God’s grand plan to reconcile humanity to God. I can tell you about the Apostle Paul, who looked back to the Book of Genesis to try to fathom a reason for it all and settled upon the story of Adam’s disobedience as the source of our sinfulness. I could talk for hours about the theologies that hang on that apple. I know far too much about the fall and original sin and the need for reconciliation. I could recount the various theories of how God went about settling the score; of making us one with God. The theologians called this process of reconciliation with God, atonement and then proceeded to develop all sorts of theories of atonement. Lutheran pastors are required to study them all; all the way from the moral authority and ransom theories to the favorite of the last few centuries aptly named the satisfaction theory.

The atonement theory that we’re all probably very familiar with is western Christianity’s favorite: the penal substitutionary sacrificial atonement theory. Popularly expressed as: “Jesus died as a sacrifice for my sin. Jesus died for me. Jesus died on the cross to pay the price for my sinfulness.” The theory of the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus lies at the very heart of so much of what you and I have been taught about Jesus. It also lies at the heart of so many of the reasons that people give for rejecting Christianity. And why wouldn’t it? I mean really who wants to worship a God who sets his, and I do mean his, creatures are set up in a beautiful garden and told, “you can eat anything you like; only don’t eat this fruit over here, no this is the fruit of knowledge and you mustn’t eat this.” We all know if you put a child in a room full of toys exactly where that child is going to go. So Adam eats the forbidden fruit because everyone know it is the sweetest of all fruit and for the crime of being human, Adam and his lovely wife Eve are cast out from the garden because God is ticked. According to the Apostle Paul, because Adam sinned we are all tarred with the same brush, we are sinners and the only way we can get back to the garden is if somebody via a sacrifice of some sort. So, Paul sets Jesus up as the new Adam, and casts the story of Jesus death as a sacrifice. Paul’s listeners understood sacrifice. Jewish audiences understood the death in terms of the Passover sacrifice, while gentle Romans schooled in Greek thought understood the sacrifice of scapegoats who were offered up on behalf of the people to placate the gods. It worked for Paul and later, Augustine would add his ideas and the notion of original sin, the fall and our need of a sacrifice would lead Anslem to weigh in with his scales of justice and have Jesus tip the scales in our favour by offering himself as a sacrifice for our sin. It was the kind of logic that worked for centuries to keep the followers of Jesus in line, convicted by their sinfulness and looking to Jesus to save them from the wrath of God by climbing up there on the cross to die in order to placate an angry God.

Sure, Luther came along and challenged the angry God stuff that the church was using to keep the people in line and the theology of grace is indeed a thing of beauty. It softens God. For we are indeed wicked sinners in need of forgiveness and so God who is gracious and merciful becomes one of us; takes on flesh in the form of Jesus and dies to set us free from our sin. We could spend the rest of the day exploring the answers that have been offered up to explain why Jesus died on the cross, but I dare say no matter how many hours we spend tracing the details of these answers, some questions will remain. We all know what happens when the answers don’t quite answer our questions; that’s where faith comes in. If it doesn’t make sense, if you don’t quite get it, don’t worry just have faith and believe. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ question from the cross continues to echo so loudly in me, “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?”

Maybe if I just had enough faith, I wouldn’t hear Jesus question quite as loudly as it rings in my ears; in my heart and in my mind. My God, My God why did you forsake Jesus? I mean really what kind of god, gets ticked off at children for doing precisely what children do? What kind of god allows their wrath to so overwhelm them that the only way they can be satisfied is if somebody pays the price!!! What kind of god sends their own child to pay that price? I know, I know there are those who will try to remind me that maybe just maybe Jesus was God and that Jesus dying on the cross was actually God dying on the cross; so you see God is so gracious that God Godself is willing to die for us. But why? Why does anybody have to die, let along God? What is God trying to convince us of? Does God think that some divine suicide is going to convince the world to join hands and sing kumbya? Well it’s 21 centuries and counting and I don’t think it’s working. So, the question remains, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t have an answer to this question. But I’m not going to pat you on your sweet little heads and tell you, “There, there dear ones. Just have faith and God will take care of you.” I can only respond to Jesus’ by making it my own question. My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why can’t we end these endless cycles of violence? Why do we keep crucifying you? Over and over again?

When I have the courage to allow the echoes of Jesus’ cry penetrate my very being it hurts and there is pain, and loneliness, confusion and a distinct feeling of fear. What if we really are abandoned? What if we are all just left here to squirm on our various crosses; wounded by our encounters with the world? My God, My God, Why? When echoes of Jesus’ plea become our own; when we take up our cross and make that horrible journey to Golgotha and feel the pain as we are wounded by the world and hoisted up upon the cross from which we can see the violence, the poverty, the disease and the madness that surrounds us; when we too cry out, “My God, My God, Why?” Then and only then can we begin to look beyond the religious platitudes that have protected us from the realities of our humanity.

It’s taken some 14 billion years for us to arrive at this moment and it is an amazing moment. Yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made, but humanity was not created in an instant. Humanity has been evolving for millions and millions of years. There are no perfect creatures back in there in the past who fell from some perfect garden. We are evolving and part of the reality of our evolution is that it is a mess undertaking. We have evolved into creatures who are capable of such great goodness and creatures who have the capacity to do great evil. Our evolution has involved some of the most horrific evils. All around us we can see the evidence of the destructive power of our nature. All around us we can see the evidence of the magnificent power of our nature. We have gazed into the farthest reaches of the universe and we have plumbed the depths of depravity. We know that God is not up there in the sky like some grand puppeteer controlling our strings. We have learned so very much about the man Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died in such a way that humanity has been and continues to be changed by his teaching, his life, his death and his ability to live on. In this the great information age we are no longer held captive by the powers that be. We can dig and dig, learn and study, question and theorize for ourselves. We are free to explore the wonders of creation; free to examine the life and teachings of Jesus, of Moses, Mohamed, Buddha, and Confucius. The sacred scriptures are open to us and we can read for ourselves the Gitas, the Upanishads, the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, the Quran, the Dead Sea Scrolls, together with the wisdom of the ages. We are not confined by the logic of the Apostle Paul who wrote to articulate his own struggles with Jesus’ question. Nor are we bound by the legalisms of Anslem, who balanced Jesus questions with the sensibilities of his generation. Even though we bear his name, we are not Luther, oppressed by the powers of the church struggling to comfort the afflicted by convincing them of God’s grace by offering God up as a sacrifice. And we are certainly not like so many people today willing to check our brains at the door in order to protect our faith. We have been up and the sky and know that God is not sitting up there on a throne. So, let us feel the echoes of Jesus’ question resonate in the core of who we are. “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?”

Let Jesus’ question move us to a deeper questioning of our own. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It was not until I set myself free from the idols that have been made of God that I began to let Jesus’ question resonate in me. When we allow ourselves to question, then we can begin to know Jesus. Not the theological construct of Jesus but Jesus the Jewish man who preached the urgent need to establish the kin-dom of God on earth; Jesus the inspiring and courageous man in whom those he met could see the depth of the Divine Presence in human form. Jesus did not believe that he had to die in order to win God’s forgiveness. We only have to read his parables about God’s mercy to know that he did not believe in a vengeful God or a God who dispensed justice measured against our sins. Jesus would not have told people to walk in relationship of utter trust with God, if Jesus believed that God was withholding forgiveness from people because of Adam’s sin. Jesus died a shameful death on a cross because that was where his life, his teaching and his preaching took him. He accepted the consequences of what he stood for. He did not see himself as a grandiose, other-worldly god figure striding the heavens and the earth setting everything right between God and a sinful humanity.

Jesus was a courageous Jewish man who gave the best possible human expression he could to the gracious, life-giving, compassionate, Divine Presence within him. We are told in the gospels that Jesus taught with authority. We can presume that this was not the sort of authority the temple priests and the legal experts from Jerusalem exercised, but the authority of someone who lived what he preached. Jesus was a man who knew the pains and struggles of the human condition. Jesus demonstrated in his own pan and struggle that it was passible to hold onto belief in the utter goodness and graciousness of God, and to trust I the presence of God, whatever the darkness. Jesus lived in integrity to the fullest extent possible. Jesus did what many others have done and continue to do: he stood up for what he believed and accepted the consequences. Jesus final journey to Jerusalem was precisely that, he knew that in the face of such a corrupt, violent regime as the powers that be in were, he was about to take a stand which would set him at odds with evil and he was willing to take that stand. Jesus was willing to die for what he had lived his life to exemplify.

The human condition and human systems of control and governance led Jesus to his death, not a God ruling from the heavens. Life took Jesus and tested him. Jesus struggle to be fully human in the face of all that life dished out can be heard in Jesus plea from the cross, if we remember the very nature of the God whom Jesus proclaimed. The Abba to whom Jesus’ teachings point is not some far off distant God up there, or out there; but in here, in you and in me.

Jesus declared, “I and Abba are one.” “If you have seen me you have seen Abba.” Jesus embodied God and pointed to God who dwells, in, with and through us. Jesus believed and taught that the Divine Presence is in all people. Jesus’ insight about the here and now reality of God’s presence in people is missed when we contemplate Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin. When we look at Jesus human integrity, his courage, and his faithfulness, we can begin to see the Spirit of God in this man. When we honour the reality that Jesus was human like us, we can begin to understand that the very same Spirit of God is active in our lives when we struggle to be good, to be courageous, to take a stand, to bear suffering and disappointments, to be faithful to what we know to be true, to be just, to be loving. Jesus’ way of dying reveals the extraordinary capacity of the human to rise above evil and pain and struggle and fear.

Last night as we gathered around a meal to remember Jesus I was struck by the capacity for courage and love that I have seen and experienced here in this community. Over the years I have seen the Spirit of God live and breathe in, with and through you as you live and work together to be God’s Love in the World. As the bread and wine was passed among us, it occurred to me like a blinding light that I have been worshipping an idol for too many years. I said before that when I hear Jesus cry from the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” I have always imagined Jesus looking up to the heavens to ask God why? But last night, seeing the face of God in this community I realized that I need to let go of that image that has become an idol.

What happens if we imagine that Jesus knowing full well that the Spirit of God lives and breathes and has its being in the people of God, didn’t look up and cry, but looked out? What can we see in the image of Jesus looking out at his executioners, appealing to the Spirit in them? Looking out at the jeering crowds and beseeching the Spirit of God in them? Looking to the women who were gathered below, and crying to the Spirit of God in them? Shouting to those who abandoned him and fled he knew not where, pleading to the Spirit of God in them: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?”

When we begin to understand that our God is the One in whom we live and move and have our being, we can perhaps see Jesus plea from the Cross as a cry to the Spirit of God that he knew in himself and his sisters and brothers and yes even in his enemies. When we begin to understand that the Spirit of God lives and breathes in with and through us, can we begin to hear Jesus plea from the cross as a plea to the Spirit of God in us.

As we gather here in this time and in this place can we hear the echoes of Jesus cry from the cross as the embodiment of all those who have cried out from far too many crosses, “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” hoping against hope to stir the Spirit of God in their fellow human beings. Can we begin to hear in the echoes of Jesus cry from the cross the utter sadness, desperation and misery at humanity’s failure to give expression to the Spirit of God? Can we look beyond the idols we have worshipped for so long; see past the theories and conjectures, and actually begin to feel not for ourselves and our own failures, but for Jesus and every other sister and brother in whom the Spirit of God lived and breathed and see the death that has been wrought because of humanity’s failure to give full expression to the Spirit of God that dwells in, with and through us?

For the sake of the Jesus who gave such beautiful expression of the Spirit of God, and for all those who in giving expression to God have picked up their crosses, can we listen to their cries and work together to give expression to the Spirit of God who is LOVE?

If we cannot hear Jesus cry; if we cannot hear the cries of the countless millions of those who have been forsaken, abandoned, tortured, abused, left to die, then all the sadness of this Good Friday and every day, is for naught. As we weep for Jesus, let us hear the cries of the people of God who look to us and cry: “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” Let the awesome responsibility of responding to the cries for justice, peace, mercy and love, stir in us so that the Spirit who dwells in us can find expression in us. “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani?”

 

3 thoughts on “Giving Up the Theories of Atonement in Order to Move Toward an Evolutionary Understanding of Jesus: a Good Friday sermon

  1. I am so grateful for your blog/sermon posts. I am a cradle Episcopalian and left the church in my late teens because, while Episcopalians say we encourage questioning and questing, that there’s room for everyone in the conversation, I got the message loud and clear that the questions I had were the ones NOT to ask. I’ve recently returned to the church now in my mid-thirties and while I’m in a progressive area and a rather progressive church, I find myself continually frustrated by the silence on questioning attonement theories from the pulpit. Thank you for sharing your sermons, they have become my go to when I’m feeling “stuck” or seeking another way to view scripture. I appreciate your understanding of historical context and the way you very practically make connections for modern Christians. Thank you!

    Best,
    Mary Anna

    • Thanks Mary Anna! It is not easy to challenge atonement theories from the pulpit. It can only happen in a supportive environment. I have and do know preachers who long to challenge doctrine and know that to do so puts their job in peril. Sadly, some have left the church, others try to move their communities in other ways. Institutions are difficult places to change. But they do change…it takes courage and patience. I happen to believe that it is worthwhile. Shalom, Dawn

  2. Pingback: Good Friday Sermons | pastordawn

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