At this time of year, I am often asked, “So, if you don’t believe that Jesus died for your sins, then why do you even bother celebrating the events of Holy Week?” Behind this question lies the assumption that the only way to understand Jesus’ death is to frame it within the context of the theology of “sacrificial atonement”, which is the technical name for the understanding of Jesus’ death which insists that: we are judged to be sinful creatures, punishment is required, and so God, who is imagined as a supernatural being, sends Jesus to pay the price for our sin. This theory of atonement was not formulated until the 11th century by the Benedictine monk known as St. Anslem. Anslem’s theory continues to hold sway in the minds of far too many followers of Christ.
The success of the theory of sacrificial atonement is a testament to the power of our liturgies and hymns to form our theology; for our liturgies and hymns are filled of sacrificial atonement images. However, Anslem’s theory is not they only faithful way to understand Jesus’ death. When one seriously engages the question, “What kind of god would demand a blood sacrifice?” the answers often render God impotent at best and at worst a cruel, and vindictive, a child abuser. The too small god of sacrificial atonement is a far cry from the ONE who is MYSTERY, beyond the beyond, and beyond that also; the ONE some 21st century Christians relate to using the phrase first coined by the 4th century saint Augustine of Hippo, who described the DIVINE MYSTERY as our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself.
While atonement theories all too often cast their god as little more than a cosmic perpetrator of filicide, who can only be placated by a blood sacrifice, of a beloved child, we only have to look as far as the Book of Genesis, to discover a vastly different view of DIVINITY, which offered to us by our Hebrew ancestors. The story of Abraham’s flirtation with child sacrifice, ought to have serve as an eternal reminder to the descendants of Sarah and Abraham that YAHWEH, the GREAT I AM, is not ONE to demand child sacrifice. Fortunately, theologians continue to open up different ways of understanding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that empower the followers of the Way to see new ways of understanding the life and the death of Jesus of Nazareth, ways which empower us to practice resurrection here and now.
On Maundy Thursday Jesus’ followers commemorate not just the events leading up to Jesus’ death. We celebrate Jesus’ gift of a “mandatum” from which we get the word “maundy” – a mandatum is a commandment and so today we celebrate Jesus’ gift of LOVE. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. And you are to love one another the way I have loved you. This is how all will know that you’re my disciples: that you truly love one another.”
That we should “love one another” is not a new commandment. There were many before Jesus, and many who came after Jesus who commanded, advised, encouraged, implored, and even begged us to, “love one another.” What is new about Jesus’ commandment is that we are to love one another the way that Jesus loved us. Which begs the question: How exactly did Jesus love?
I believe that Jesus loved in ways that I am only beginning to understand. I believe that Jesus was so open to the power of the LOVE which is God; that Jesus was able to live his life fully without fear. I believe that Jesus wanted more than anything else for his followers to be so open to the power of LOVE which is the DIVINE MYSTERY we call “God,” so open, that they too would live their lives fully without fear. I believe that this is what Jesus meant when he said, “I have come that you might have life and live it abundantly.” I believe that Jesus lived life abundantly and that living life abundantly means that Jesus loved abundantly and without fear. Jesus was so open to the power of the LOVE, which is God, that Jesus would not let the powers of darkness stop him from loving and living fully.
The kind of LOVE which Jesus embodied and taught is limitless. No darkness, no power, no fear, not even death can limit the power of LOVE which IS God. For if LOVE is limited by death, then LOVE will always be qualified and quantified. That Jesus was willing to LOVE without limits, came at great cost to himself.
But Jesus was willing to pay that price in order to show others the way; the way to LOVE without limit, without fear, without boundaries. Limitless LOVE is abundant life. That Jesus’ LOVE endured the worst that the world could send his way, that Jesus’ LOVE was for all the world, dead and buried, and yet bursts free from the grave, in ways we are still learning to understand, bears witness to the power of LOVE. That Jesus’ LOVE could not be destroyed, not even by the thing we fear the most, death itself, saves us from our need to fear death. Jesus has shown us the way. We can live abundantly, lives which are free from the fear of death and because Jesus has shown us the way, we are free to live fully, to love extravagantly and be all that we are created to be. LOVE shines in the darkness and darkness shall not overcome LOVE. If Jesus, life, death, and resurrection teach us anything, surely, they teach us not to be afraid. Not to be afraid of the darkness. Not to be afraid of living fully. Not to be afraid of loving extravagantly. Not to be afraid of the powers of evil. Not to be afraid of the power of death, because LOVE will endure. LOVE lives on, and on, and on. Jesus cannot save us from life. There is still evil to contend with. There will be darkness and there will be death. Jesus couldn’t save himself and he cannot save us from life. Darkness and death are both part of life.
Each of us must walk into the darkness which lies before us. We can beg God to take the cup from us! But the darkness will still come. And there will be days when the darkness will triumph. There are Good Fridays too many to mention out there. We can shout all we want for Jesus to save us, but in the end we too will have to take up our cross and find a way to follow Jesus into the darkness and beyond, trusting that even though it feels for all the world that God has forsaken us, we will make it beyond the darkness. The cross will not look the same for each of us. But there will be crosses to bear. But, Jesus has showed us the way. If we are to follow Jesus, then we must love one another the way that Jesus loved. LOVE is the only way beyond the darkness.
Do not be afraid of evil. Do not be afraid of death. Do not be afraid of the darkness. Follow Jesus who by LOVE frees us from the power of darkness to hold us captive to our fears, so that we can live life and live it abundantly. How exactly did Jesus love? Without limit. What did Jesus save us from? Our fears. Jesus saves us to love one another, just as Jesus loved. This is the way of abundant life, to LOVE one another, for LOVE is of God, the ONE who is BEYOND the BEYOND, and BEYOND that Also, our LOVER, BELOVED, and LOVE Itself. Amen.
VIEW the full Maundy Thursday Worship below