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I am currently enjoying a continuing education leave in Belfast, Northern Ireland and so, it seems only right that I should begin by telling an Irish story. This particular story comes from the Irish author Frank McCourt. Some of you will be familiar with his most famous book, Angela’s Ashes. But this story comes from his autobiographical book entitled “Tis” McCourt was a school teacher and he tells this story about a particular class in which he was challenging the assumptions of his young students.
The story begins with a familiar nursery rhyme: “Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall; All the king’s horses And all the king’s men Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
McCourt asks his young students to tell him what’s going on in this nursery rhymed. The hands are up like a shot. “Well, like, this egg falls off the wall and if you study biology or physics you know you can never put an egg back together again. I mean, like, it’s common sense.
McCourt asks: “Who says it’s an egg?”
“Of course, it’s an egg. Everyone knows that.
Where does it say it’s an egg?
They’re thinking. They’re searching the text for egg, any mention, any hint of egg. They won’t give in. There are more hands and indignant assertions of egg. All their lives they knew this rhyme and there was never a doubt that Humpty Dumpty was an egg. They’re comfortable with the idea of egg and why do teachers have to come along and destroy everything with all this analysis.
“I’m not destroying,” insists McCourt, “I just want to know where you got the idea that Humpty Dumpty is an egg?”
“Because,” Mr. McCourt, “it’s in all the pictures and whoever drew the first picture musta known the guy who wrote the poem or he’d never have made it an egg.”
“All right.” Says McCourt: “If you’re content with the idea of egg we’ll let it be, but I know the future lawyers in this class with never accept egg where there is no evidence of egg.”
The story of Humpty Dumpty and the missing egg has a great deal in common with the story of Jesus and the missing sacrifice for sin. When it comes to the written word, we tend to see what we’ve been conditioned to see. Today’s gospel text is a good example of our seeing and reading into the text things that are not there. The gospel of John was written at the end of the first century; at least one possibly two generations after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We know that the gospel of John is not what we 21stcentury dwellers would call history. We know the story-teller that we call John wrote his interpretations of the Jesus experience to address the needs of his community who were struggling under the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. We know that the gospel storyteller that we call John relied heavily upon the stories, myths and history of the Hebrews to convey the magnitude of the impact Jesus life, death, and resurrection had on the small band of followers of Jesus, who were struggling to survive in very troubled times.
We do not know, but we are in the habit of speculating as to why the storyteller we call John wrote his stories about Jesus the way that he wrote them. When it comes to the stories in the gospel according to John we are like all readings and listeners of stories; we bring to our experience of each of these stories all of our own assumptions, prejudices, hopes, desires, fears, preconceived notions and to use as very old and tired 20thcentury notions, we bring to these stories all of our own baggage.
Some of our baggage is of the very costly sheepskin variety. And like all skin separated from its owner our sheepskin baggage is dead. Oh, it may have worn very nicely, we may be very fond of our sheepskin baggage, and you still may be able to cram a whole lot of stuff in there, but our sheepskin baggage is so worn out and dated that even in the fickle world in which we live, it is never going to come back into style.
So, now that I’ve stretched this metaphor farther than any old baggage ought to be stretched let’s talk about the non-existent stuff which we can’t help but read into the text. Into the mouth of Jesus, the gospel-storyteller we call John puts these words: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” We may read or hear sheep, but all too often we see a lamb.
“Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. Lamb of God you take away the sin of the world have mercy on us.” Over and over again, each and every Sunday, for those of accustomed to worshipping in a liturgical church, we summoned up the sacrificial lamb to sing our praise to the one who died as a sacrifice for our sin. If we are capable of separating the sacrificial lamb from this particular text, we look to the shepherd about whom the gospel-storyteller portrays as having laid down his life for the sheep and we assume that the gospel storyteller is insisting that the shepherd laid down his life as a sacrifice for the sheep and because we know in our heart of hearts that the Lord is my shepherd, and we shall not want, then surely we insist that our Lord Jesus sacrificed, or was sacrificed for our sin.
Woe is me, woe is me, for I am a miserable sinner. Jesus died up there on that cross because of me. Kyrie Elysion, Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy. Jesus died to save you and me. The good shepherd was sacrificed because we are wicked sinners. Help save comfort and defend us gracious Lord. But just like Humpty-Dumpty’s non-existent egg there is no sacrifice for sin in the Gospel According to John.
So, who can tell me what Humpty Dumpty is? Like many nursery rhymes, the origins are a little murky, however the most popular theory is that: Humpty Dumpty was actually the nickname of a cannon used during the English Civil War of 1642–1649. In 1648, the English city of Colchester was under the control of a group known as the Royalists, who wished for King Charles I to be able to rule the country without Parliament. In order to fortify the city against attack from the Parliamentarians (the group who supported Parliament and wished to oust Charles I), they erected several large cannons on the walls surrounding the city.On June 15, 1648, the cannon referred to as “Humpty Dumpty” was positioned on the walls.
By this time, the Parliamentarians had surrounded and laid siege to the city, so Humpty was used to bombard the enemy and prevent a full-scale assault. However, on July 14 or 15, a Parliamentarian cannonball blew apart the wall underneath Humpty Dumpty. This collapsed the fortification and sent Humpty Dumpty tumbling to the ground. Due to its size, none of the king’s horses and none of the king’s men were able to recover the cannon. On August 28, the city fell to the Parliamentarians, who eventually triumphed and toppled King Charles I in 1649, thus ending the war.
The origins of the story that Jesus died for our sins is not nearly as murky as the origins of tale of Humpty Dumpty. The idea that Jesus was a died to save us from our sin, is just as much a product of our all too human tendency to read into the text things that simply are not there. But unlike the reality that broken eggs cannot be mended, the that we are such wicked, evil sinners that God needs a human sacrifice in order to be able to forgive us, is so unrealistic that the very idea of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin, has turned the gospel-storytellers tale of the Good Shepherd into unbelievable nonsense.
We have learned so much about what it means to be human. Whole new realms of knowledge about our humanity is emerging in the fields of archeology, biology, psychology, and in this century the study of consciousness is leading us to questions about what is and isn’t human as we begin to create artificial intelligence. We have cracked the egg and it cannot be mended. The notion that we emerged fully formed without the benefit of evolution is preposterous to 21stthinkers. The ideas of original sin, the fall from grace, and human sacrifice lie smashed and broken; rotting beneath the walls of the prisons the church constructed to capture and control all who dared to question interpretations, which fail to nourish or sustain life.
The good news is that the various theories of atonement, which have vied for supremacy in the hearts and minds of theologians, these theories are dying. The sad news is that people for centuries have linked the story of Jesus to these interpretations of the story of Jesus and now it is difficult to separate the death of our interpretations from the life-giving stories about Jesus. Atonement theories and Christianity have been so intimately linked that the death of these ideas that Jesus died to save us from our sins, to placate a judgmental, vengeful god who demanded human sacrifice, has lead so many people to conclude that Christianity itself is dead.
The good news is that Atonement theology was not and is not part of the story of Jesus. Atonement theologies did not raise their ugly heads until the fourth century and they were not solidified until the 11thcentury. The church has never agreed on any particular theory about why Jesus died. The theory that Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins may be imbedded in recent Christian history, but there is a whole host of Christians who lived and thrived without ever believing that we are saved in the blood of the lamb. Popular notions about what it means to be a Christian fail to plumb the depths of Christianity. For over three centuries, the followers of Jesus struggled to understand the realities of who and what Jesus was and is.
The popular notion that Jesus paid the price for our sin comes from ideas first made popular by Anslem in the 11thcentury. Anslem was a lawyer and saw things in terms of the scales of justice. Looking around he saw the inhumanity of his sisters and brothers who were perpetrating all sorts of injustices and as a lawyer he believed that criminals ought to be punished in order that the scales of justice could be balanced. God could not simply forgive sinners; a price must be paid and so Jesus died in order to balance the scales and bring us back into God’s good books. Anslem’s theory of atonement – of making us one with God, became so popular that in the last three centuries it has become almost synonymous with Christianity.
As atonement theories die, so goes Christianity. Unless we can leave our lambskin baggage outside of the church, Christianity will die a slow death as thinking people smash atonement theology on the altar of reality. The good news that atonement theory and the stories about Jesus are not one seamless whole is beginning to be heard as the church begins to recover the stories of Jesus and individuals learn to divorce the stories that have been handed down to us from the theologies which have held us captive.
The good news that Jesus of Nazareth lived so fully into his humanity that the divine was seen in, with, through and beyond him, is once again calling us into a new way of being in the world. That Jesus of Nazareth lived so fully, loved with such abandon that his contemporaries were able to see the divine in him represents a giant leap forward in our human development. Where humanity was obsessed with its own survival and individual human beings could not see beyond their own needs, Jesus steps into the human consciousness and embodies a new way of being in the world, a way of loving that enables Jesus to see beyond his own survival to risk loving so deeply that injustice perpetrated on the lest of humanity, cannot be ignored but must be resisted, a way of loving that enables Jesus to have the courage to resist injustice not with violence but with love, even if the very act of love might get him killed. A way of loving that inspired in Jesus such tenderness for those he loved that he was willing to give his life, his whole being to that love. A way of loving that enabled Jesus not to flee from the wolves that threatened those he loved but to resist the temptation to seek only his own survival, to step in and stand up to the forces of evil and injustice. A way of being human that understood the consequences of loving fully and deeply and trusted that the love itself could not die. A way of being human that lives on in the love we continue to share with one another.
Jesus of Nazareth’s life and death have the power to call us into a new way of being human, a way of loving that no amount of injustice can destroy; a love that will never die. Jesus was a giant leap forward in human evolution and the power of the love which Jesus embodied is, was and ever more shall be holy, sacred, divine; a love that continues to live in, with, through and beyond all those who embody the love that Jesus embodied. You will know the power of Jesus followers in the love, which they embody; a love beyond our abilities to comprehend, a love that lies at the very heart of all that is and ever shall be. A love that continues to call us to live more fully and deeply into the wonders of our humanity. A love that has the power to transform our baggage into life-giving compassion for one another. A love that reveals the power, grace, and immensity of the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being. A love that made the gospel-storyteller that we call John think of a Good Shepherd who loved so deeply and lived so fully that her own survival was assured by that love and so she was free to give her life to love; never abandoning her beloved even in the face of great danger. A love that even death cannot overcome. A love that lives, in, with, through and beyond us. A love that is, was, and ever more shall be Holy, Divine, Life-giving. Interpretations will come and go, but LOVE will live Beyond the beyond and Beyond that also.