For far too many centuries, the clarion cry to “REPENT!” has echoed through our Lenten liturgies, urging worshippers to remember “that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Our Lenten practices encourage us to pick up our metaphorical crosses and follow Jesus all the way to his death upon “the cross” and prayer after prayer is uttered to evoke the age old trop of a quid pro quo relationship with the DIVINE MYSTERY known as “the FATHER.” Metaphorical words are placed on the lips of the FATHER, who offers us a deal, “Repent! You wicked sinners! Repent!” And the gravity of your sinfulness is born upon the cross on which the “only begotten Son of the FATHER” is offered as a blood sacrifice for sin. To which my weary soul cries out with the HOLY LOVE which lives and breathes in, with, through and beyond me, “REPENT! REPENT!”
The appointed Gospel reading for this the fourth Sunday in Lent includes the infamous passage known simply as, John 3:16. This verse has been dubbed by many evangelicals as “the gospel in a nut-shell.” So popular is this verse that in certain parts of rural North America you will still find billboards out there in the field, which read simply John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” So many traditional interpretations of this verse have painted a particular picture of who Jesus was and why Jesus died. It is long past time for us to repent of so many of our tightly held beliefs about why Jesus died.
“Repent,” it comes from the Greek word “metanoia” which means “to think new thoughts”. Let us metanoia – Let us think new thoughts about who Jesus was and why Jesus died. Repent, Metanoia – let us think new thoughts so that we might ask: What can Jesus teach us? What does Jesus have to say to us?
The way in which the Jesus story has been told has crafted, molded and shaped the idol which masquerades as the MYSTERY which we call God. The stories about Jesus have been told in ways which paint a particular picture of what it means to be human. According to so many traditional interpretations, humans were originally created in a state of perfection to live in a perfect Creation. These perfect humans enjoyed a perfect relationship with their CREATOR. Then one day that perfect relationship was severed when for one reason or another the humans disobeyed the rules established by their CREATOR.
You all know this story. This story provides the raw material for the idol which we have created to serve as our god. According to the story humans are in bondage to sin and we cannot free ourselves. Humans were cast out of the perfection of the garden and alienated from their CREATOR. Humans have tried in vain to get ourselves back into the garden, to restore our ONEness with our CREATOR. But try as we might we are in bondage to sin and we cannot free ourselves. We need a saviour to rescue us from our sinfulness and our CREATOR needs us to pay for our sinfulness. We must be punished. So many interpretations of the life of Jesus insist that Jesus sacrificed himself, or was sacrificed by the Father, and took all our respective punishment onto his shoulders, died for us, upon a cross, so that our relationship to our CREATOR could be restored.
We’ve heard these interpretations of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection so many times that they have almost become indistinguishable from the idol which we have created to stand in for the MYSTERY which we call God. The trouble is, we all live in the 21st century, not the first century, and we know that the definition of what it means to be human which these stories rely upon, no longer rings true to anyone. We know that humans have been evolving over millennia. We know that humans were not created as perfectly formed creatures who fell into sin. We know that humans are continuing to evolve. Humans are incomplete beings. We are not fallen creatures. This knowledge has to change the way in which we see our relationship with the MYSTERY which is the very SOURCE of our being; our CREATOR if you will. This knowledge impacts how we interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
If we look at the stories which have been told about Jesus, the stories which have contributed so much to the creation of the idol that masquerades as the MYSTERY we call God, we discover a narrative which is preoccupied with Jesus’ death. It occurred to me the other day, that it is quite peculiar that most of what has been written about Jesus in the New Testament and indeed our liturgies, and even in the hymns we sing about Jesus, this stuff shifts our focus away from Jesus’ life, and celebrates Jesus’ death as the lynchpin of our relationship to the DIVINE. Imagine if you will, trying to understand the life of Martin Luther King, or Mahatma Gandhi simply by focusing upon their death. Imagine trying to understand who Dr. King was and focusing your attention upon his assassination. Imagine knowing everything there is to know about that final day in Memphis, about the motel, about the people who were on that balcony when Dr. King was shot, about the shooter, the gun which was used, about the funeral procession, the grieving, and about the people who tried to go on walking in the ways of Dr. King. Imagine all the information you would miss if you simply focused upon Dr. King’s death. You wouldn’t know very much about the civil rights movement, about Dr. King’s dream, his vision of equality, his struggle for inclusion, his cries for justice for the poor, his vision of economic equality, his passion for peace, or his commitment to non-violent resistance. So, let us repent. Let us metanoia. Let us think new thoughts by taking our focus off of Jesus’ death and all we may have heard or learned about why Jesus died, so that we can see what it was about Jesus’ life which endeared him to his followers. What can Jesus teach us? What can we learn from Jesus’ life about who, or what the MYSTERY we call God is? What can Jesus teach us about the God Jesus embodied?
The Gospel this morning comes to us from the anonymous gospel-storyteller which we know as John. This gospel was written some 70 years after the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The storyteller writes: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Today, which is the first day of Daylight Savings Time, when each of us is coping with the loss of an hour’s sleep, perhaps it is easier for us to understand that the way in which we describe reality does indeed change over time. Yesterday, when the sun was in the same position in the sky as it is now, we insisted that it was an hour later. Today, thanks to daylight savings time, the earth hasn’t quickened its course around the sun. The sun is in the same place at the same time as it was yesterday, but today all our clocks insist that it is actually 11 o’clock and not 10 o’clock.
When we focus upon the life of Jesus of Nazareth rather than the death of Jesus, we can begin to hear some of the things which Jesus was passionate about. Jesus’ passions reveal to us the image of the YAHWEH which Jesus worshipped. When we set aside the institutional narrative called “atonement,” which the church has relied upon to interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the idol which masquerades as god, the idol whose contours are reinforced in our worship services, by our hymns, our prayers, creeds, choice of scripture readings, and rituals, this idol begins to crumble. When we forgo our obsession with Jesus’ death and open ourselves to the passions of Jesus’ life, we begin to see new ways to understand the new images of the HOLY ONE which Jesus encouraged his followers to see. Jesus’ life reveals images of God which point far beyond the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, to the Ultimate MYSTERY which lies at the very heart of all reality.
The apostle Paul who was the first to write about Jesus, portrays Jesus as a doorway into the ULTIMATE. For Paul, Jesus was not God, but a human in which God is revealed. For us, Jesus can be the medium through which the MYSTERY which we call God can be imagined.
For centuries our imaginations have been limited by images created in the 4thcentury when the institution carefully crafted creeds about the nature of God and interpreted the death of Jesus which reflected their limited knowledge of reality. Our ever-expanding knowledge of reality is inconsistent with these 4th century interpretations of the experience of Jesus. Setting aside the doctrines of previous centuries, frees us to explore Jesus’ life from a whole new perspective; a perspective which embraces all that we have learned about what it means to be human; a perspective which is mindful of the vast expanse of the cosmos, a perspective which sheds light on the evolution of our species, a perspective which provides a window into the process of healing the wounds we created NOT by our bondage to sin, but rather by our incompleteness as ever-evolving creatures, a perspective which points beyond itself to a ONEness with the MYSTERY which is the LOVE that we call God.
Take for example Jesus’ passion for non-violent resistance to oppression. In a world where tribalism was the only remedy offered as a solution to our quest for survival, the life of Jesus represents a significant evolution in human consciousness. Jesus was able to move beyond tribalism, Jesus was able to evolve beyond the human instinct for survival and give himself to and for others. When we tell the story of Jesus’ life from this perspective, we, like the early followers of Jesus, we are able to see the LOVE which is God lived out in the life of a human being. In Jesus, God did not invade the world, coming down from heaven on high to pay a price for human sinfulness.
In Jesus we see a life in which the DIVINE ONE is revealed. Jesus broke down the boundaries and the barriers by which humans separated themselves from one another. The LOVE, which is God, that is seen in the life of Jesus, is the Way. Jesus insisted that LOVE is the only way of overcoming fear and division. In the presence and through the experience of Jesus’ life, the tribal barriers between Jew and Gentile, Jew and Samaritan, male and female, Jew and Roman, bound and free, rich and poor, life and death, all these divisions, they faded away. In the life of Jesus there was a humanity which included everyone and that dismissed no one. In the life of Jesus, a human community without boundaries could be imagined. In the life of Jesus God is imagined as the power of life, the passion of love, the ground of being which draws all lives into a new way of being human. In Jesus, we see the LOVE which IS God lived out in the life of a human being. In Jesus’ life we are able to see a way of being which moves us beyond our tribal instincts and points us toward a way of being which is open to the power of the REALITY which is the LOVE that is God. In the life of Jesus, the passions of Jesus, we are directed beyond the idol we worship as god, beyond the doctrines created by 4th century understandings of reality, beyond the primitive madness of blood sacrifice for sin, beyond the fear of a judgmental god, toward an integration of all that we are learning about what it means to be human in a cosmos far more incredible that our ancestors could ever begin to imagine.
The passions of Jesus are embodied in a life which reveals the LOVE that IS God. As followers of Jesus’ Way of being in the world, we are called to embody that LOVE here and now, in ways which will continue to move us beyond our tribal quest for survival, beyond our fear of death, beyond the divisions which threaten not only human life, but all life. As followers of Jesus’ Way of being in the world, we are called to evolve in ways which will expand human consciousness so that all may know the LOVE which is God.
Our clocks have moved forward. Surely, it is time for us to move forward. Like the sun, up in the sky, Jesus hasn’t changed, what is changing is the way in which we are seeing Jesus, the way we are telling Jesus’ story. The experience of Jesus remains the same, the explanations of that experience are changing. As we evolve, as our consciousness expands, so too do our understandings of what it means to be human. The life of Jesus continues to point beyond craven idols we create to worship, beyond our deepest fears, beyond our tribal urges, beyond our limited vision, BEYOND the BEYOND and BEYOND that also, to the ONE who is LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE ITSELF.
Repent, Metanoia, think new thoughts! Discover ways of being human in which we become more fully the medium through which the LOVE which is God can be seen and experienced here and now, in, with, through, and beyond us. Repent. Metanoia. Think new thoughts! For you are gloriously and wonderfully made to be LOVE in the world!
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