I cannot and will not worship a God who demands a blood sacrifice for sin. But the residue of atonement theories still causes me to tremble – a Good Friday reflection

“Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” Absolutely, I was there when they crucified my Lord. For so very many years, my affirmative answer to this quintessential Good Friday hymn was based on what the church had taught me about the death of Jesus. I, like many of you, was taught that Jesus died upon the cross to save humanity from sin. I was also taught that I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myself. I was taught that I was born in sin, that sinfulness is part of what it means to be human and that God so loved the world that “He” and I do mean “He” sent his only son to die, because someone had to pay the price for sin. This quid pro quo portrayal of God the Father, led me to the undeniable conclusion that I was responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. My guilt, my shame, my sinfulness, compelled me to declare, “Yes! I was there when they crucified my Lord! I was there when they nailed him to the tree! I was there when they pierced him in his side! I was there when the sun refused to shine! I was there when they laid him in the tomb?” The sheer horror of my culpability in the Jesus’ sacrifice for my sin, caused me to “tremble, tremble, tremble. I was there when they crucified my Lord.”

The doctrine of atonement permeated my being and even though, I have long since stopped believing that Jesus died to save me from sin, the residue of atonement theories continues to cause me to tremble. Even though I have learned to look beyond the stories found in the scriptures in which various followers of the Way portray the crucifixion in ways that spoke to their particular communities, I still tremble.

I have learned much about the motives of the various anonymous gospel-storytellers and I know that the weavers of the passion narratives, where not eye-witnesses to the crucifixion. I know that the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call John wrote his interpretation of Jesus’ execution more than 70 years after the event. I know that this anonymous gospel-storyteller lived in a community that had experienced the wrath of the Roman Empire and lived with the reality that the Romans had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem and driven the Jewish people into exile.

Scholars have taught me that the fledgling community of followers of the Way had been driven out of Jewish synagogues and were at odds with the Jewish community. Scholars have taught me that the anonymous gospel-storyteller had all sorts of reasons for telling the story of Jesus’ death in a particular way, casting the Jews and not the Roman’s as Jesus’ executioners. We now know that crucifixions were carried out in the thousands by the Roman Empire as a means of striking fear into the hearts of the Jews. We know only too well, that the idea that the Jews would have shouted “Crucify him” is in all likelihood the story-teller’s attempt to shift blame from the forces of Empire onto the Jewish people. We certainly know that the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we call Matthew has done an untold amount of damage by putting into the mouths of the Jewish crowd, the words, “Crucify him. His blood is upon us and upon our children.” The deaths of millions of Jews, indeed even the Holocaust, can be directly attributed to Christian contempt for Jews malignly accused of being Christ-killers. And so, for years I sang, “I was there. It was I who crucified him. I who denied him.” in a vain attempt to point to a kinder, gentler, historically correct version of Jesus’ execution. And still, I “trembled, trembled, trembled.” Because it was my sin, our sin, from which we needed to be rescued. I could see myself there, watching from the sidelines, knowing full well that Jesus died to save me, and to save you. What my trembling self didn’t know, but now knows is that for centuries the atonement theory that cast Jesus as God’s sacrifice for sin, for centuries did not exist  in the Christian Church; indeed, the idea that Jesus was some sort of substitutionary sacrifice for sin was not fully developed until the 11th century.

I cannot and will not worship a God who demands a blood sacrifice for sin. Reading the accounts of the anonymous gospel-storytellers with eyes opened wide by biblical scholars, historians, and theologians, we’ve learned to read between the lines and beyond the page and the portrait of Jesus is being remembered in ways that reflect not the traditions of centuries, but rather the possibilities of Jesus time and place. We are beginning to understand Jesus the man and this causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble, because Jesus the man was a justice-seeker the likes of which the world rarely sees. Jesus steadfastly refused to take up arms against his oppressors. Jesus practiced non-violent resistance in ways that impacted his people and worried his oppressors. Jesus knew God as LOVE and proclaimed that LOVE, even going so far as to teach people to LOVE their enemies. Jesus challenged the religious authorities of his day to see beyond the scriptures and embody the God that he defined as LOVE. Jesus claimed ONEness with God and called upon his followers to understand their ONEness with one another.

Jesus was anything but a pacifist. Jesus was an activist, an agitator who practiced civil disobedience in ways that got him noticed by the powers that be. Jesus refused to avoid confrontation with those powers.   Jesus was political, always speaking out on behalf of the poor and the marginalized. Jesus threatened the status quo. Jesus threatened the economic system because it oppressed the poor and enslaved the wealthy. Jesus threatened the military might of Empire because of the needless suffering and death that was all around him. Jesus taught a way of being in the world that encouraged his followers to live life abundantly, and to love extravagantly, pointing to a God who is LOVE.

I tremble just thinking about the kind of trouble Jesus stirred up. I tremble knowing that Jesus loved so fully that he was willing to take the ultimate risk because he believed that death could not conquer LOVE. I believe that Jesus embodied that LOVE, the LOVE that we call God. I also believe that death could not conquer the LOVE that Jesus embodied and that in remembering Jesus we experience the LOVE that is God.

When I remember Jesus’ embodiment of the LOVE that is God, I see a man who had dreams of what might be; a man who dared to imagine that people could be set free from the ideas and images about God that enslaved them. I see in Jesus a man who understood that every act of human kindness connects us with the LOVE that is God. In Jesus, I see a man who loved so greatly and taught so clearly and courageously that people were able to see in Jesus the embodiment of the very God that Jesus defined as LOVE and that this LOVE lived on in the LOVE that Jesus’ followers were able to embody beyond Jesus’ death. And so, I tremble, tremble, tremble.

I tremble because I know that the crucifixion of the embodiment of LOVE is not over. We are surrounded by crucifixions. Just as surely as Jesus died upon the cross, those who follow the Way of Jesus, the way of justice and peace, those who embody LOVE, continue to be tortured, battered, abused and hauled up upon crosses and executed by the forces of violence and death.

The crucifixion didn’t happen once and for all, way back when. LOVE is crucified over and over again as the ways of greed, violence, war, and death exact their punishment on the innocent victims of the world. LOVE is crucified all over again when calls for peace through justice go unanswered. LOVE is crucified all over again in the countless deaths that are claimed by our lust for power and our quest for stuff. LOVE is crucified all over again when creation is scarred, wounded and poisoned by our arrogance and greed. LOVE is crucified again and again, when we fail to see the face of God who is LOVE in our sisters and brothers of every clan and race.

And so, I tremble, tremble, tremble, because I know that I am there when they crucify my LOVE. I am there, all too often, lurking in the background as they nail LOVE to a tree. I am there, all too often, when I fail to embody the LOVE that is God, when I do not speak out, or act up, but cling not to the cross but to the status quo. I am there each and every time and it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

How about you? Where you there when they crucified our LOVE? If you tremble at the truth of the death of LOVE in so many places, in so many ways, over and over again, please try to remember Jesus; a person who steadfastly refused to confront violence with violence, a person who embodied the LOVE that is God and gave his life to setting people free, a person who pointed beyond himself to the ONE who is LOVE itself, a person who trusted that LOVE is eternal, that LOVE lives beyond death.

Remember Jesus and look beyond the crucifixions to the power of LOVE to live beyond the grave. Remember Jesus and see the power of LOVE to transform fear into hope and hope into new life. Let us remember that we were there when they crucified our LOVE and we will be there when LOVE rises from the tomb. Oh, yes this causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. We’ll be there when LOVE rises from the tomb! Amen.

4 thoughts on “I cannot and will not worship a God who demands a blood sacrifice for sin. But the residue of atonement theories still causes me to tremble – a Good Friday reflection

  1. Dear Dawn, Thanks for your thoughts (your sermon) on the Atonement. None of the variations on Atonement have struck me as having any validity. In the Church of England, our liturgies and hymns are loaded up with Atonement references, as in many other denominations. Although we have a number of Eucharistic Prayers from which to choose, it’s difficult to find one that approaches a more progressive theology. (Rather frustrating.) I have been enriched by many of your sermons, and enjoyed my first gathering of the PCN Britain a week ago, meeting many kindred spirits. Bless you in your ministry, and I hope we meet some day!
    Peace, Tim Yeager, Team Vicar of St George’s, Westcombe Park (Diocese of Southwark, England)

  2. If we truly believe and understand that Jesus shows us what God is like, then PSA is impossible. You cannot have the Son of God telling us to love our enemies and to respond to violence with love, telling us to love our enemies, then have a God who must punish sinners to appease his wrath. Love and appeasement of wrath are incompatible. The cross is God’s answer to man’s violence. It is his emphatic no to blood sacrifice. Man continually tries to make God in his own image. PSA is nothing more than attempt to do so.

  3. Pingback: Good Friday Sermons | pastordawn

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