Archives For Atonement
For Episode 14 of Crackers and Grape Juice, Jason and Teer are joined by Dr. Johanna Hartelius as they check in with Fleming Rutledge. Johanna is one of Jason’s best friends and is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Pittsburgh. She’s almost as much of a fan of Fleming’s as Jason.
This is part 1 of a 2 part conversation. If you notice some sighs or scoffs, that’s just Teer & Johanna noticing how much Jason is kissing up to Fleming.
Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this crap, so spread the love.
If you appreciate this as much as you tell us, give us a rating and review here in the iTunes store.
It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.
‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.
Here it is:
Fleming Rutledge, if you don’t know her, is the best damn preacher in the English language. It’s most appropriate that she should be guest who breaks the Crackers and Grape Juice glass ceiling. I’ve often been accused (by my wife) of having crushes on older women. I dunno…but in Fleming’s case? Hello, darkness my old friend…
Fleming recently published a magisterial book on the cross, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. I believe its the sort of book that every preacher must read and every lay person should read, both, if they do, will find themselves not only grateful but emboldened.
Teer and I enjoyed a long conversation with Fleming about preaching, the satan, what makes for a ‘good’ sermon, and inclusivity. Here’s the first part our conversation with her.
Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.
Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.
‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.
In this installment, intentional mentor that I am, I delegated Teer to talk with my friend Tony Jones. Not only is Tony the editor of my forthcoming book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, he is the author of many books himself, including last year’s phenomenal Did God Kill Jesus? which comes out in paperwork soon. I first “met” Tony when he was finishing his PhD at Princeton and I was a lonely MDiv student working in the mailroom. I still have the muscle memory to place Tony’s Field and Stream in his box without looking.
Listen up. Tony’s a good dude, who does good theology and cares about the Church. Here, Teer and he talk about the United Methodist General Conference, the Cross, manipulative preaching, and how cancer is the perfect drop the mic excuse.
Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this shit, so spread the love.
Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.
‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.
For the past 18 months, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.
You can find all the previous posts here.
III. The Son
20. Why Did Jesus Die?
Because we killed him.
A crucifixion is how a cross-building world responds to the incarnate God come among us.
The theologians and church fathers have called the theological explanations for why Jesus had to die and what Jesus accomplished on the cross ‘atonement theories.’
Jesus dies to pay our debt of sin, some have explained. Jesus defeats the power of Death and Sin, others have answered. Jesus is the Second Adam. Jesus is our Passover. Jesus is our Ultimate Scapegoat, say the theologians. But Mark, the author of the earliest Gospel, shows you bitter irony.
Jesus’ career ends in what appears to be total collapse: his ministry is in shambles; he’s sold out by one of his close friends, deserted by the rest except Peter who then quickly denies ever knowing him. He’s arraigned before the religious authorities, tried and found guilty. His clothes, which once had the power to heal a desperate woman are torn from him. He’s brought before Pilate, where’s he tried, found guilty, mocked and stripped naked and executed by the political officials. His only words: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ are misunderstood by the crowd and the centurion’s confession upon his death is laden with sarcasm: ‘Surely, this is God’s Son (not).’
For those with eyes to see, however, the story has another dimension. The long-awaited enthronement of Jesus the Messiah does occur. Yet it’s Jesus enemies who play the role of subjects. It’s the high priest who finally puts the titles together that Mark’s Gospel began with: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ Pilates’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage.
The correct words all get spoken. Testimony to the truth is offered. But the witnesses have no notion what they speak is true. The messiahship of Jesus is for them blasphemous or absurd or seditious. But they still speak the right words. And that is, of course, the irony.
Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies. At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice.
Far from being in control, Jesus’ enemies seal their own fate by condemning him to death. Even their worst intentions serve only to fulfill what has been written of the Son of Man, just as Jesus says.
And perhaps the most threatening irony of all is that those ‘worst’ intentions come not from the worst of society but the best.
Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, and in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world. The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good.
The chief priests’ reasoning: ‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ is correct, a perfectly rational position.
The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves. But what the Gospels give us is different. Mark gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us.
The theologians give answers, but Mark leaves us wondering, simply, if the cross is the best we can do? Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to kill him?
Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross. All our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to a confrontation with God. A God who wills only to be gracious that ends with Jesus dead.
‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ – John 18.14
As a Thomistic alternative to my normal Barthian tendencies, I’ve been observing Holy Week/Eastertide this year by reading the theological essays of Herbert McCabe.
A Dominican philosopher, McCabe has revolutionized my thinking about the faith and prompted me to get back in to reading Aquinas this past year.
‘The crucifixion is the supreme expression of Jesus’ humanity- that is what crucifixes are for, to remind us of what human beings are, when we try to forget.
The crucifixion is the supreme expression of his obedience to the Father, of his eternal Sonship.
On the cross he casts himself simply on the Father. It is his prayer to the Father, the only prayer known to Christians, and the Resurrection is the Father’s response.
The crucifixion and the resurrection are no more to be separated than prayer and response, than two sides of a communication.
The resurrection is the full meaning of the crucifixion.
And this communication of eternal prayer and response is what the Holy Spirit is- which is why Jesus speaks of sending the Holy Spirit in history when he is united with his Father.
Just as the crucifixion/resurrection is what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father looks like when projected upon sinful human history, so the sending of the Holy Spirit is what the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit looks like when projected onto that sinful human world.
And the Holy Spirit appears in our world of course as catastrophic and destructive, as a revolutionary force making the world new, or the Church new, the individual new.
By reducing them first to chaos.
That, I’m afraid, is a very compressed sketch of what the Christian means to be saying when he or she speaks of God as Trinity. And in the end what it all boils down to is this central mystery:
God is love.’
Christ is Risen.
He is Risen indeed.
And indeed (sorry NT Wright) it’s not with ambiguity.
I marked this Holy Week by dipping again into the work of the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe. Here is an excerpt from his essay on Easter Vigil.
In it, McCabe reads the Easter stories as they are, straight up, in the Gospels- not as full-throated victory shouts but as qualified, murky signs of something more to come.
Jesus’ resurrection, says McCabe, belongs better to that category the Church calls sacraments.
“The cross does not show us some temporary weakness of God that is cancelled out by the resurrection.
It says something permanent about God:
not that God eternally suffers but that the eternal power of God is love; and this as expressed in history must be suffering.
The cross, then, is an ambiguous symbol of weakness and triumph and it is just as important to see the ambiguity in the resurrection.
If the cross is not straightforward failure, neither is the resurrection straightforward triumph.
The victory of the resurrection is not unambiguous; this is brought out clearly in the stories of the appearances of the risen Christ.
The pure triumph of the resurrection belongs to the Last Day, when we shall all share in Christ’s resurrection. That will not, in any sense, be an event in history but rather the end of history. It could no more be an event enclosed by history than the creation could be an event enclosed by time.
Perhaps we could think of Christ’s resurrection and ours as the resurrection, the victory of love over death, seen either in history (that is Christ’s resurrection) or beyond history (that is the general resurrection).
‘Your brother’ said Jesus to Martha ‘will rise again. Martha said ‘I know he will rise again on the last day.’ Jesus said ‘I am the resurrection…’
Christ’s resurrection from the tomb then would be just what the resurrection of humanity, the final consummation of human history, looks like when projected within history itself, just as the cross is what God’s creative love looks like when projected within history itself.
Christ’s resurrection is the sacrament of the last times.
Just as with the change in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the resurrection can have a date within history without being an event enclosed by history, without being a part of the flow of change that constitutes our time.
The resurrection from the tomb then is ambiguous in that it is both a presence and an absence of Christ. The resurrection surely does not mean Jesus walked out of the tomb as though nothing had happened.
On the contrary, he is more present, more bodily present, than that; but he is, nevertheless, locally or physically absent in a way that he was not before.
It is important in the Thomas story that Thomas does not in fact touch Jesus but reaches into his bodily presence by faith.
It is important in the Mary Magdalene story that Mary does not at first recognize Jesus.
Here is a resurrected, bodily presence not too tenuous but too intense to be accommodated within our common experience.
So then Christ’s resurrected presence to us [through the sacraments] still remains a kind of absence: ‘…we proclaim his death until he comes again.’
There’s a lot of Jesuses out there you can choose.
For example, there’s the Jesus on the cover of the sympathy card I received from one of you a year ago.
Jesus is depicted from the rear. His cloak is piled around his ankles falling on the tile of a bathroom floor. Someone- maybe his mother, Mary- is holding his long, dark hair back away from his face. He’s squatting.
You know it’s Jesus even from the rear because you can see his wounded feet tucked under his knees. And his pierced hands are gripping the sides of a toilet bowl with the lid up.
He’s about to hurl.
The speech balloon above Jesus’ head reads: ‘Don’t listen to my followers. I never said my Father won’t give you more than you can handle.’
There’s a lot of Jesuses out there to choose.
I don’t think I realized how many until last year.
At the beginning of Lent last year, I learned I had Mantle Cell Lymphoma, this incredibly rare, aggressive, and incurable cancer. I’ll spare you the grisly, melodramatic details.
Easter is not a day to dwell on me sniffing Death and living again.
Suffice it to say, by this time last year I’d received hundreds of sympathy cards and emails, and I discovered just how many different Jesuses are available to us.
One came to me as a YouTube link to a music video titled ‘Cancer Jesus’ wherein a skinny, bald Jesus who looks either like Sinead O’Connor in the ‘Nothing Compares to You’ video or like a caucasian Fight Club Gandhi.
This Cancer Jesus is wearing a hospital gown and, to an electronica soundtrack, Cancer Jesus gatecrashes a concert and then proceeds to get medieval on a fictitious boy band who, I guess, must symbolically represent cancer.
There’s a lot of Jesuses out there to choose.
One card I received showed Jesus wearing not a crown of thorns but a stocking cap, crucified on two IV poles. ‘Feeling forsaken?’ this Jesus asks. ‘Remember, I’m with you always’ he goes on on the inside of the card.
There’s a lot of Jesuses to pick.
Like the pen and ink Jesus who stood in the middle of a card with sheep on one side of him and goats on the other side and above him were the redacted words from Matthew 25: ‘….I was naked and you clothed me; I was hungry and you fed me; I was in chemo and you gave me medicinal marijuana.’
That card came from a seminary student. An Episcopalian.
When it comes to Jesus, you have a lot of choices available to you- even if you don’t have cancer.
If you want a Jesus who sounds more like a horny boyfriend than a Lord and Savior, you need only tune your radio to 91.9 FM.
If you want a Jesus who sounds more practical and helpful than a Vitamix, you can tune in to Joel Osteen after church this morning.
There’s lots of Jesuses to choose.
If you want a Jesus so good-looking he makes me question my own sexuality, then you just have to wait until August when Paulo from season three of Lost plays Jesus in the remake of Ben-Hur.
Or, if you prefer your Jesus camouflaged in red, white, and blue then you can order the Duck Dynasty Faith Commander Bible (I’m not lying, such a thing exists) from Amazon for the hardcover price of only $21.14.
There’s a lot of Jesuses out there.
There’s even more than one Jesus to choose right there in Matthew’s Gospel.
One of the things we forget in all our Easter piety is that there was always going to be three crucifixions on Good Friday.
There was always going to be a man in the middle named Jesus.
If you were a Jew in Jesus’ day, Rome’s invasion left you with three political options.
If you wanted to hang on to your wealth and status then you could collaborate with the enemy. Think King Herod.
Instead of collaborating, you could spiritualize your faith and use Rome’s oppression as an opportunity to call people to reform and holiness. This was the route taken by the Pharisees.
A third option, popular with the masses, saw the overthrow of Rome as the only faithful option. Those who chose this option were called Zealots, and they pushed for an armed Revolution that would return Israel to the glory it had known under King David.
Depending upon your point of view, the Zealots were either terrorists or freedom fighters.
The real Barabbas was not like the suave, manscaped actor who played him last Sunday in Fox’s The Passion: Live.
The real Barabbas was a Zealot, and the Gospel indicates that he was something of a folk hero to the pilgrims gathered for Passover.
Every year, at Passover, to keep a lid on any Revolutionary fervor, Pilate had two choices. He could crucify some Jewish insurgents just to remind everyone who was in control. Or, he could release a prisoner in order to appease the crowds.
Usually, Pilate chose both.
So Pilate lines them up, side by side, and gives the crowd a choice.
And notice, here it is, according to the Gospel: they’re both named “Jesus.”
They both bear a name which means ‘Savior.’
The one’s last name ‘Bar-abbas’ means (you don’t even have to know Hebrew to figure it) ‘son of the Father.’
The other, not by name but by origin, claims the same identity. To be the Son of the Father, the Son of God, the Father.
In other words both of them are named ‘Jesus, son of the Father.’
They’re both criminals in the eyes of the chief priests.
They’re both opposed to the Powers that be.
They both ignite within their People the hope that one day soon they will be delivered.
Pilate lines them up, side by side. These two Jesuses.
‘Pick one’ Pilate asks.
You get your choice.
Between a Jesus who tells you to return hate with love, or a Jesus who gives you permission to strike back at those who do you evil.
You can choose between a Jesus who says: ‘those who pick up the sword will die by it,’ or a Jesus who invites you to take up arms against the world’s villains.
A Jesus who promises to liberate the poor or a Jesus who becomes poor and invites you to do the same?
Pilate lines them up, side by side. Two different Jesuses.
Pick one, Pilate says.
Jesus Barabbas asks his people to take up arms, to make his country great again.
The other Jesus asks his people to take up their cross and follow.
Matthew says that the chief priests ‘persuaded’ the crowds to choose Barabbas over Jesus.
But you know as well as I do, they didn’t have to try very hard.
The reason we hang crosses on walls is so we don’t lie to ourselves that we’d ever choose a different Jesus than the crowd chose.
Of course, the promise and the threat, the good news and the bone-wracking, bad news of Easter is that we’re not the only ones who make a choice.
Even louder than we can cry crucify him, even before Jesus’ body is cold and buried in the ground, God announces his choice- by splitting rocks into shards, cracking open the graves of the dead, and quaking the earth itself.
God calls forth his entire creation- rocks, graves, tectonics- to witness that this is the Jesus God wants, this is is the savior God chooses.
That’s what resurrection meant for the first Christians: vindication.
Resurrection was about God declaring with the rumbling of the earth and the shock of zombies and a verdict as loud as an empty tomb that this Jesus is the life God intended for us from the very beginning.
For three years, this Jesus had taught a different kind of Kingdom than that other Jesus, a Kingdom where the poor are lifted up, where those who curse us are blessed, where strangers and aliens are welcomed not walled off, where those who have hungered for justice are filled with good things.
A Kingdom where cheeks are turned and enemies are prayed for, where trespasses are forgiven even when the trespassers know exactly what they’re doing.
He preached a Kingdom of mercy not might.
For three years, this Jesus had taught this kind of Kingdom, and on Friday we put all our chips on the kingdoms of this world and we bet on a president called Pilate to have the last word.
But then on the third day, God rocks the earth, pops open the grave and plucks this Jesus up from the dead and says ‘Yeah, my Kingdom is exactly like that.’
And just in case you’re deaf to the shaking of the foundations, God rolls away the stone from the tomb, a stone that bore King Caesar’s image, and God has his angel sit down on top of it.
God’s angel sits his butt right down on King Caesar’s face and says ‘This Jesus, he’s not here, he is risen.’
Don’t miss this. This is everything Easter-
The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom. He doesn’t repay evil with evil on his way to Calvary. He turns the other cheek all the way to the cross and, from the cross, he forgives his enemies and even prays for them with his dying breath.
The cross shows Jesus’ commitment to his teaching of the Kingdom and the empty grave shows God’s confirmation of it.
The empty grave shows God’s confirmation of it.
God’s vindication of Jesus.
This Jesus is exactly what the sign above his head says he is: a King.
Of course, the bad news is that a King requires not your opinion but your obedience.
A King demands not to be invited, subjectively, in to your wishy-washy heart.
A King demands your objective loyalty over all other allegiances.
I’m just like you. I’m fully invested in the kingdoms of this world. If it were up to me, I’d choose a different Easter.
I’d prefer to think of Easter as a metaphor for springtime renewal- even though it’s winter in Israel now.
I’d prefer to imagine Easter as story about how our soul lives on after our body dies- even though that’s pagan not scripture.
I’d prefer to dismiss Easter as a primitive superstition- even though resurrection was no easier to swallow for the ancient Christians than it is for us.
If it were up to me, I’d choose a different Easter.
I’d choose to think of Easter as a sign we’ll go to heaven after we die- even though Jews like Jesus didn’t believe in heaven.
I’m just like you. The kingdoms of this world have worked out pretty well for me so, if it were up to me, I’d pick a different sort of Easter.
I’d take tulips and bunnies over tremors and zombies. I’d choose an Easter where my soul flies away into the sweet bye and bye. I wouldn’t choose this quaking invasion by God that shakes loose any excuse I might have not to pick up my cross and follow.
I’d choose anything other than this Easter where God grabs creation by the collar, shakes away our obfuscations, and shouts with an empty grave: ‘What do I have to do to get your attention?! This is the way and the truth and the life I want from you.’
I’m with you.
I’d like to have Easter / and / have my world left alone.
My life is pretty good. Like most of you, I’ve got the right skin color, the right passport, and the right education to make the principalities and powers of this world work for me.
If I were to swap my citizenship to his Kingdom, it would rock my world to rubble.
It would feel like an unnatural disaster.
That’s what St. Paul is getting at when he says ‘If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile.’
If God has not resurrected this Jesus then we’re off the hook, you can take what Jesus taught or you can leave it. Allegiance not required.
If God has not resurrected this Jesus, then you can put his Kingdom teaching away in to a nice, gilded box and bring it out on Facebook when it suits you.
If God has raised this Jesus from the dead, then we Christians-
We welcome strangers and aliens, we pray for our enemies, we forgive those who trespass against us, we show mercy to those who curse us and show compassion to the poor, we offer grace where it’s not deserved.
We do so not because we have a My Little Pony naiveté about the world, not even because it’s a strategy to make the world a better place. It probably doesn’t work.
But we do it simply because Jesus commanded us.
And God has raised this Jesus from the dead, so he’s not just our teacher.
He’s our Lord and King.
Look, I’m no different than you.
I’m a nice guy. And I need to be needed. You can ask Dennis- they don’t let you become a United Methodist pastor unless you’re fundamentally risk-averse and narcissistic.
I want you to like me, especially you every Sunday types who pay my health insurance.
I wish it was my job to comfort you with any of those other versions of Easter that we’d prefer over this one.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t ordained to serve you. I was ordained to serve this Risen Lord. To herald this Easter announcement.
And just as much as you, I’d like to ignore this Easter. I’d rather choose another Jesus.
But I can’t because this Jesus…he’s alive.
He is. Trust me, after the year I’ve had- I know it.
But I understand. It’s no wonder we put so many Jesuses out there to choose from because the Jesus God chooses- it would shake our world if we took him seriously enough to give him our obedience.
Our loyalty. Our pledge of allegiance.
Maybe (look again) that’s why the angel at the tomb doesn’t bother to tell Caesar’s guards ‘Do not be afraid.’
The angel tells the women with their spices not to be afraid, but the angel doesn’t say ‘do not to be afraid’ to Caesar’s people.
And, let’s be honest, here in 22308, that’s who most of us are in the story: Caesar’s people, people for whom the kingdoms of this world work pretty well.
Maybe for people like us, we should be afraid.
Maybe for people like us Easter shouldn’t be a comfort.
Maybe Easter should afflict us with the right kind of nightmares.
Maybe we should be afraid.
Because God has raised this Jesus from the dead, he’s alive- I know he is- and that means we’ve already learned more of God’s will for our lives then any one of us are willing to do.
You can listen to it here below or in the sidebar to the right. Or, you can download the free Tamed Cynic App.
I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel one Lenten morning when I was a student at Princeton. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day- my teacher and Jedi Master, Robert Dykstra- drew an unnerving parallel between the death of Jesus upon the cross and the death of Matthew Shepard, the gay teenager who was beaten savagely and then tied to a barbed wire fence and left to die, humiliated and alone, in the Wyoming winter.
Matthew Shepard, one of his neighbors noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’
It was Holy Week when I first heard that sermon. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked.
On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at what they took to be an ‘unreligious’ story getting equated with the Passion story. The preacher’s parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar, excrutiating pain entailed by crucifixion.
‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was gay so he definitely wasn’t without sin…’ I remember someone at the lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.
My liberal colleagues, on the other hand, who typically had less enthusiasm for the cross, applauded the sermon that day, seeing the mere mention of a gay person from the pulpit as an important witness for social justice.
They saw both Matthew Shepard and Jesus Christ as victims of oppression against which Christians called to minister.
Where conservatives saw Christ’s cross as unique, they saw it as symbolic of the unjust sacrifices humanity repeats endlessly.
Both groups of hearers- and I honestly can’t recall where I fell among them that day- received the preacher’s message according to the reified political and theological categories we had brought with us to chapel that morning and, in doing so, we unwittingly underscored St. Paul’s insistence that the message of the cross is deeply offensive to the religious and ill-fitting to the assumptions of the secular.
The religious, says Paul, will forever conspire to mute the cross’ offense while the secular will always prefer more palatable notions of justice, not to mention more charitable appraisals of humanity.
Only recently have I been able to grasp the word the preacher was likely attempting to proclaim that day in Holy Week in Miller Chapel.
The preacher was not announcing that Christ died a martyr’s death, a victim of injustice in solidarity with other persecuted victims. Nor was the preacher suggesting that Christ’s death was archetypal rather than absolutely singular.
The preacher was focusing, as we should do tonight, not on the fact of Christ’s death but on the manner of it.
The manner of Christ’s death, the impunity of it, is what proved to be a stumbling block to us students every bit as much as the Corinthians.
The point of the cross isn’t the pain Christ suffered- that’s why the Gospels say so little about it.
The point of the cross is the shame Christ suffered.
Like Matthew Shepard, Jesus’ death was primarily one of degradation and abasement.
When we proclaim at Christmas that ‘God became human so that we might be with God’ we’re not telling the whole story or, even, the critical part of the story.
God didn’t simply become human in any generic or benign sense.
No, God became the human who became less than human, subhuman even, before he was raised so that we might join God.
To say that Jesus’ death was just a part of the incarnation, that his death was merely a consequence of his taking on life, does not take seriously the nature of that death. But neither does supposing the point of the passion is the pain suffered.
It’s the manner of Christ’s death not merely the fact of it with which we must contend. The question Christians so often ask this week ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ is the wrong question.
The better question- the right question- to ask is ‘Why was Jesus crucified?’
Anything we say on this Good Friday must be measured against the degree to which it grapples with the fact that God chose not any death, not just a painful death or an insurrectionist’s death, but an accursed death.
When United Methodists actually open their bibles and try reading them, they’re often surprised to discover how spare the gospels are in narrating the grisly details of crucifixion. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don’t do what Tyler Perry did in The Passion: Live on Fox.
Little is said by the gospel writers about the cross because little needed to be said. It was self-evident to the gospels’ first hearers that the cross was foremost not a painful means of torture but a repugnant scandal, outrageous and obscene, an image every bit as irreligious as Matthew Shepard hanging like a sodden scarecrow on a barbed wire fence.
The one certainty the disciples don’t need to puzzle out on their walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus is the scandalous nature of Jesus’ end.
The reason Christ’s disciples flee in the end, isn’t because they believe his messianic mission ended in failure.
No, they flee because they believe his mission ended in godforsakenness.
The disciples abandon Jesus because they believe God had abandoned him. They flee not only Jesus but the curse they believe God had put on him.
No one, in other words, expected a crucifixion. In no way did anyone in Israel expect the Messiah to meet with such a shameful death.
God, so far as the disciples could surmise on that first Good Friday, had actively scorned Christ, leaving Jesus to a death God’s own law proscribes as the ultimate degradation and abandonment.
Consider this, one of the commandments God gives to Moses on Sinai:
“When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
– Deuteronomy 21.22-23
Paul takes up this commandment in his letter to the Galatians. In the entire Torah, only this particular method of death, being nailed to a tree, do the commandments specifically identify as being a godforsaken death.
According to Jesus’ own scriptures:
“…someone executed in this way was rejected by his people, cursed among the people of God by the God of the law, and excluded from covenant life.”
Again, it’s not sufficient on Good Friday to ask why Jesus died.
Just as it would be offensively dismissive to say, blithely, that Matthew Shepard died from exposure, to take seriously Christ’s death is to ask why did God choose a manner of death religiously repugnant to God’s own law?
Why did God choose for Christ a manner of death that signaled to his own People the ultimate shame before God?
Why a manner of death that marked Jesus out under God as accursed?
It’s not enough tonight to ponder ‘Why did Jesus have to die?’ Christians must ponder: ‘Why, having taken on humanity, would God choose a mode of death that denied him any vestige of humanity?’
Why a death that made him exactly what he cries out with anguish: forsaken?
Heard agains the backdrop of the Torah, Jesus’ cry of dereliction expresses not just his existential anguish or his physical pain. It narrates something objective that transpires upon the cross.
God puts God’s self voluntarily into the position of greatest accursedness on our behalf.
God forsakes God for us. In our place.
Our enslavement to Sin, our unrighteousness before God, is such that it can only be rectified by God choosing the one manner of death singled out in the Old Testament as being degrading to the point of eliminating the sufferer’s humanity?
Paul writes in Romans 6 that in baptism ‘we have been united in a death like his.’
His accursed, godforsaken death.
You can’t sit with a mystery like that for long before you start asking other troubling questions.
Does it mean that we, with Christ, are put in a position of grave accursedness? Does it mean we should identify ourselves not with someone like Matthew Shepherd, degraded and left to die a shameful scarecrow’s death, but that we should identify ourselves with those attackers who left him there?
Does it mean we’re more like the victimizers than we’d ever admit? Does it mean, as religious as we are, that we’re actually the ungodly?
And perhaps the most troubling question of all on this night when good and religious people like ourselves push God out of the world on a cross:
Is God’s ‘Yes’ to us in Jesus Christ itself also God’s ‘No’ to us?
By getting so close to us, in the flesh, does God, in fact, reveal our distance from him?
I leave it to you, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As a Thomistic alternative to my normal Barthian tendencies, I’m observing Holy Week this year by reading the theological essays of Herbert McCabe.
A Dominican philosopher, McCabe has revolutionized my thinking about the faith and prompted me to get back in to reading Aquinas this past year.
This is from his essay ‘Freedom’ in the volume God Matters, which was published shortly after McCabe’s death.
‘The story of Jesus is what the eternal trinitarian life of God looks like when it is projected on to the screen of history, and this means on the screen not only of human history but of sinful human history.
The obedience of Jesus to the Father, his obedience to his mission, is just what the eternal procession of the Son from the Father appears as in history. His obedience consists in nothing else but being in history, human.
Jesus did nothing but be the Son as human; that his life was so colorful, eventful, and tragic is simply because of what being human involves in our world.
We for the most part shy off being human because if we are really human we will be crucified.
If we didn’t know that before, we know it now; the crucifixion of Jesus was simply the dramatic manifestation of the sort of world we have made, the showing up of the world, the unmasking of what we call, traditionally, original sin.
There is no need whatever for peculiar theories about the Father deliberately putting his Son to death.
There is no need for any theory about the death of Jesus.
It doesn’t need any explanation once you know that he was human in our world.
Jesus died in obedience to the Father’s will simply in the sense that the Father will the Son to be human in our world.’
Holy Thursday is often called ‘Maundy Thursday’ from the Latin word ‘mandatum.’
Thought most Christians mark the day by recalling the Passover meal Christ celebrated with his disciples, ‘Maundy’ instead recalls John’s scene of Christ washing his friends’ feet and then giving them the ‘mandate’ to wash one another’s feet as a sign of love.
Consequently, Maundy Thursday is a day when Christians give a lot of lip service to the word ‘love.’ However Christians often exhibit little awareness of how impossible love is- especially when we speak of God’s love for us.
The late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote much on the impossibility of God’s love. Taking Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity with the seriousness it deserves, McCabe works out a response that mines the riches of the ancient Christian tradition.
I’m marking this Holy Week by again reading through some of McCabe’s relevant work:
“From one point of view, the cross is the sacrament of the sin of the world- it is the ultimate sin that was made inevitable by the kind of world we have made.
From another point of view, it is the sacrament of our forgiveness, because it is the ultimate sign of God’s love for us.
Love requires a relationship of equals.
To love is to give to another not possessions or any such good thing. It is to give yourself to another, but this other must share equality with you (or, as in the case of parents and children, the potential for equality) or it is not really love you share…
You will, I know, recognize immediately that this presents a problem about God.
God is evidently incapable of loving us simply because there cannot be this relationship of equality between God and his creatures.
In one very important sense then the Father can only love the Son because only in the Son does he find an equal to love.
The Father can be kind and considerate to his creatures as such, he can shower gifts and blessings upon them, but in so far as they are simply his creatures he cannot give himself, abandon himself to them in love.
That is why any unitarian theory, or any Arian theory that diminishes the divinity of Christ, leaves us as our only image of God that of the supreme boss.
It leaves us, in the end, with a kind of master/slave relationship between God and his creatures. In a sense, it leaves us with an infantile God who has not grown up enough to have learnt to lose himself in love. Such a god may be a kind and indulgent boss, but he remains a master of slaves- even if they are well-treated slaves.
This is exactly the idea behind the rejection of Christianity made (rightly) by Nietzsche.
If, however, with traditional Christianity, we take the Trinity seriously, we too have to join Nietzsche in rejecting the idea.
For the Christian tradition, the deepest truth about people is that they are loved.
But that is only possible because we have been taken up into the love that God has for his Son.
It is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love we call the ‘Holy Spirit.’
God loves us because we are in Christ and share in his Spirit. We have been taken up to share in the life of love between equals, which is the Godhead.
Nietzsche was absolutely right. God could not love creatures; he still can’t love creatures as such, it would make no sense.
But Nietzsche omitted to notice that we are no longer just creatures: by being taken up into Christ- whom the Father can and does love- we are raised to share in divinity, we live by the Holy Spirit.
To trace the line of the argument again:
- God the Creator cannot love creatures as such. To think he could is not to take love seriously. It is like speaking of someone loving his cat- except even more so.
- But God, as the Gospels continually affirm, loves Jesus. Therefore Jesus must share equality with God. There cannot be two individual Gods any more than one individual God.
- Jesus came forth from the Father as it is said in the New Testament: ‘the Father is greater than I.’ He is sent from the Father both in his mission in history and in the eternal procession that that mission reflects.
- We can say this only because we have been taken up into the mystery itself, taken up into the Holy Spirit, the eternal love between the Father and the Son.
Or have we?
If we have not, we have no right to say any of this, no right to say that God is love.”
That’s not the only problem with how we often speak on Good Friday.
To many Christians, the crucifixion is the means by which God solves the problem incurred by Adam’s Fall. Not only does this ‘solution’ seem much worse than originating problem (fruit of the tree vs. torture and execution of an innocent man), it seems to miss the (obvious) extent to which the crucifixion is an intensified instance of the first sin: the rejection of God’s love.
Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who died a decade ago, enjoyed subverting the conventions of popular piety. In the excerpt below, McCabe meets head-on the challenges posed by Darwin et al to any literal understanding of the ‘Fall.’
By first concurring that social science suggests humanity’s ‘Fall’ was up not down, McCabe locates what Christians mean by ‘original sin’ not in a mythic, primordial Garden but in the historically concrete case of the crucifixion:
“I can remember a time, it seems quite long ago, when it was definitely not respectable to talk about original sin. The notion plainly belonged to some depressing and pessimistic version of Christianity…the other thing that made original sin less respectable was its connection with the whole Adam story.
It seemed ludicrous that one man’s failure should somehow infect everyone else.
And, any way, how many people could still possibly believe in anyone called Adam?
But it seems reasonable for us to try in terms of our ways of thinking to answer the question ‘How come human society is the way it is?’
I would say that the answer is that human beings ‘fell’ not down but up.
That is to say, humans are maladjusted because they have powers which are greater than they can control…
I would also like to propose a Pickwickian sense in which the occasion on which original sin was committed was the crucifixion of Jesus- that this finally gave meaning to this state of Sin.
In the crucifixion of Jesus it is finally manifested that the maladjustment of man amounts to a rejection of God’s love.
The sin of the world comes to a head in the crucifixion, shows itself fully for what it is. And, of course, in coming to a head is simultaneously conquered.
The Cross is both the manifestation, the sacrament, of the sin of the world, and the manifestation, the sacrament, of the redeeming act of God. It is just as we realize our death that we find life. It is only when it appears as sin that it can be forgiven…
To believe that Jesus is God is to believe that, in rejecting him, people are making the most ultimate kind of rejection, the final contradiction of themselves.
The crucifixion is not just one more case of a particular society showing its inhumanity. It is the whole human race showing its rejection of itself.
The resurrection is the Father’s refusal to accept this self-rejection of man.”
I’m marking another Holy Week by reading the work of the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe.
Here, McCabe cautions against any understandings of the cross that are exclusively religious or theological. The very fact that Jesus was crucified suggests the familiar cliche that ‘God willed Jesus to die for our sin’ is not nearly complex enough nor this worldly:
“Some creeds go out of their way to emphasize the sheer vulgar historicality of the cross by dating it: ‘He was put to death under Pontius Pilate.’
One word used, ‘crucified,’ does suggest an interpretation of the affair.
Yet [that word] ‘crucified’ is precisely not a religious interpretation but a political one.
If only Jesus had been stoned to death that would have at least put the thing in a religious context- this was the kind of thing you did to prophets.
Nobody was ever crucified for anything to do with religion.
Moreover the reference to Pontius Pilate doesn’t only date the business but also makes it clear that it was the Roman occupying forces that killed Jesus- and they obviously were not interested in religious matters as such. All they cared about was preserving law and order and protecting the exploiters of the Jewish people.
It all goes to show that if we have some theological theory [about the cross] we should be very careful.
This historical article of the creed isn’t just an oddity. This oddity is the very center of our faith.
It is the insertion of this bald empirical historical fact that makes the creed a Christian creed, that gives it the proper Christian flavor. It is because of this vulgar fact stuck in the center of our faith that however ecumenical we may feel towards the Buddhists, say, and however fascinating the latest guru may be, Christianity is something quite different.
Christianity isn’t rooted in religious experiences or transcendental meditation or the existential commitment of the self. It is rooted in a political murder committed by security forces in occupied Jerusalem around the year 30 AD…
Before the crucifixion Jesus is presented with an impossible choice: the situation between himself and the authorities has become so polarized that he can get no further without conflict, without crushing the established powers.
If he is to found the Kingdom, the society of love, he must take coercive action. But this would be incompatible with his role as as meaning of the Kingdom. He sees his mission to be making the future present, communicating the kind of love that will be found among us only when the Kingdom is finally achieved.
And the Kingdom is incompatible with coercion.
I do not think that Jesus refrained from violent conflict because violence was wrong, but because it was incompatible with his mission, which was to be the future in the present.
Having chosen to be the meaning of the Kingdom rather than its founder Jesus’ death- his political execution- was inevitable.
He had chosen to be a total failure. His death meant the absolute end his work. It was not as though his work was a theory, a doctrine that might be carried on in books or by word of mouth. His work was his presence, his communication of love.
In choosing failure out of faithfulness to his mission, Jesus expressed his trust that his mission was not just his own, that he was somehow sent.
In giving himself to the cross he handed everything over to the Father.
In raising Jesus from the dead, the Father responded…
This is why Christians sat that what they mean by ‘God’ is he who raised Jesus from the dead, he who made sense of the senseless waste of the crucifixion.
And what Christians mean by ‘Christian’ are those people who proclaim that they belong to the future, that they take their meaning not from this corrupt and exploitative society but from the new world that is to come and that in a mysterious way already is.”
I’m marking Holy Week again by reading the work of the late Herbert McCabe, a Dominican philosopher who had a gift for articulating the ancient Christian tradition in concise, clear, crisp prose.
“In the first place, it seems to me that Jesus clearly did not want to die on the cross. He was not crazy, he was not a masochist, and we are, of course, told that he prayed to his Father to save him from this horrible death. Matthew, Mark and Luke all picture him as terrified and miserable and obviously panicking in the Garden of Gethsemane.
He came through this terror to a kind of calm in accepting the will of his Father, but he is quite explicit that it is not his will- ‘not my will but thine be done.’
He did want to accept his Father’s will even if it meant the cross, but he most certainly did not want to the cross itself.
Well, then, did the Father want Jesus to be crucified?
And, if so, why?
The answer as I see it is again: No.
The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human.
Any minimally intelligent people proposing to become parents know that their children will have lives of suffering and disappointment and perhaps tragedy, but this is not what they wish for them; what they wish is that they should be fully alive, be human.
And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid upon him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to the Father is to be totally, completely human. This is his obedience, an expression of his love for the Father; the fact that to be human is to be crucified is not something the Father has directly planned but something we have arranged.
We have made a world in which there is no way of being human that does not lead to suffering and crucifixion.
Jesus accepted the cross in love and obedience and his obedience was to the command to be fully human.
Let me explain what I mean. As I see it, Jesus, not Adam, was the first human being, the first member of the human race in which humanity came to fulfillment, the first human being for whom to live was simply to love- and this is what beings are for.
The aim of human life is to live in friendship- a friendship amongst ourselves which in fact depends upon a friendship God has established between ourselves and God.
When we encounter Jesus, in whatever way we encounter him, he strikes a chord in us; we resonate with him because he shows the humanity that lies more hidden in us- the humanity of which we are afraid.
He is the human being we dare not be.
He takes the risks of love which we recognize as risks and so for the most part do not take.”
– Good Friday: The Mystery of the Cross
At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.
After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.
Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.
So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.
He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.
He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?”
He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.
It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’
And he chuckled.
Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.
He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’
Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.
He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’
I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.
Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.
And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.
So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’
He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.
And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:
‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’
The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’
And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’
I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.
‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’
He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.
‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’
Again with mock sincerity I said:
‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.”
And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’
When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’
And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’
Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor.
Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.
So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’
A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.
At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.
His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.
And establish peace.
The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.
For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.
From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.
It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.
But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.
It’s his deeds.
The mighty deeds.
The deeds of the power.
The healings and the miracles.
As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.
There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.
It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.
The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.
They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.
And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.
And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’
He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.
And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.
He’s talking about:
Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled
Embracing society’s untouchables
Eating and drinking with outcasts
Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven
Greatness redefined as service to the least
Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor
Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home
A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world
He’s talking about the Kingdom.
Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.
With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.
Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.
They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.
‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.
‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’
Did I mention I was feeling cranky?
Well I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’
The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’
I nodded my head in concession.
‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’
‘That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.
‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’
In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.
The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.
The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.
It’s like he knew. It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.
And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.
He goes up.
Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.
As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-
for him to forgive those who trespass against him
and for him to turn the other cheek
and for him to bless those who curse him
and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak
and for him to love his enemies
all the way to a Cross
just so we might finally see
the things that make for peace.
The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.
The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.
My friend, Tony Jones, recently featured a guest post on his blog from someone who advocated altering the traditional serving words for the eucharist (The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.) to:
‘Christ is here, in your brokenness. Christ is here, bringing you to life.’
Or, ‘Christ broken, with us in our brokenness. Christ’s life, flowing through our lives.’
Such redactions just won’t do the heavy lifting if one is committed to taking seriously the language of scripture. While the traditional imagery of blood sacrifice may make some squeamish, Fleming Rutledge, in her new book The Crucifixion, insists it is ‘central to the story of salvation through Jesus Christ, and without this theme the Christian proclamation loses much of its power, becoming both theologically and ethically undernourished.’
Mainline and progressive Christians frequently express disdain for the blood imagery of scripture. We judge it, snobbishly Rutledge thinks, to be primitive; meanwhile, we let our kids play Black Ops 3, we fill the theaters for American Sniper, and we refer to those innocents killed by our drones as ‘bugsplat.’ That is, if we care about the droned dead at all. We exult in gore and violence in our entertainments, but we feign that we’re too fastidious to exalt God by singing ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’
Rare is the Christmas preacher bold enough take the Slaughter of the Innocents as his text while the Washington Post app on my iPhone makes it uncomfortably obvious that the slaughter of innocents goes on every day.
In our disinclination towards the language of blood and sacrifice, treating it as a detachable option in atonement theology, Christians today could not be more different from the writers of the Old Testament who held that humanity is distant from God in its sin and atonement is possible only by way of blood. Viewed from the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures, we make the very error Anselm cautions against in Cur Deus Homo. We’ve not truly considered the weight of sin.
Editing out blood sacrifice commits the very act is intended to avoid, violence.
It commits violence agains the text of scripture by eviscerating the language of the bible.
Scripture speaks of the blood of Christ 3 times more often than it speaks of the death of Christ. Such a statistic alone reveals the extent to which blood sacrifice is a dominant theme in extrapolating the meaning of Christ’s death. Scripture gives the witness repeatedly: God comes under God’s judgement as a blood sacrifice for sin. Put in the logic of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system: something of precious value is relinquished in exchange for something of even greater gain. Blood for peace.
We might find such language repellent. Many do. Perhaps we should recoil at it considering how its an indictment upon our own sinfulness. We might wish to alter the words we say when handing the host to a communicant.
What we cannot do is pretend blood sacrifice is not the way scripture itself speaks.
Not only is blood sacrifice a dominant motif in scripture, Fleming Rutledge demonstrates how its a theme upon which many other atonement motifs rely, such as representation, substitution, propitiation, vicarious suffering, and exchange. Something as simple as switching from ‘The blood of Christ shed for you’ to ‘The cup of love’ effectively mutes the polyvalence of scripture’s voice.
And what does lie behind our resistance to blood sacrifice?
Reading The Crucifixion, I can’t help but wonder if the popular disdain for blood sacrifice owes less to our concern for the violence of the century past (and the ways our theological language underwrote it) and if it has more to do with the way that the worldview of blood sacrifice contradicts our contemporary gospel of inclusivity along with its charitable appraisal of human nature and its ever progressing evolution. The self-image we derive from American culture is that I’m okay and you’re okay. We translate grace according to culture so that Paul’s message of rectification becomes ‘accept that you are accepted.’ God loves you just as you are, we preach, Because of course, God loves us. How could a good God not love wonderful people like us? As Stanley Hauerwas jokes, we make the doctrine of the incarnation ‘God put on our humanity and declared ‘Isn’t this nice?!’
The governing assumption behind blood sacrifice could not be more divergent. ‘The basic presupposition here [in Leviticus],’ says Rutledge,
‘is that we aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. Something has to transpire before we are counted as acceptable…the gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings is assumed to be so great that the sacrificial offering has to be made on a regular basis.’
The self-satisfied smile we see in Joel Osteen is a reflection of our own. Our glib view of ourselves is such that we cannot imagine why God would not want to come near us. Scripture’s sober view of us is that we cannot come near God, in our guilt, without God providing the means for us to live in God’s presence. Another life in place of our own, a blameless and unblemished one.
Whatever our reason for spurning blood sacrifice, our disdain for it raises an even more pernicious problem, for, as Fleming Rutledge implies, if we refuse to interpret Christ’s death as a blood sacrifice, ruling such imagery as out of bounds, what connection remains between Jesus and Jesus’ own scriptures? To jettison blood sacrifice is to unmoor Jesus from the bible by which he would have understood his own deeds and death, making it unclear in what sense it makes any sense to say, as we must, that Jesus was and is a Jew.
Disdain for blood sacrifice becomes a kind of supercessionism.
Desiring to cleanse our view of God of any violence we unwittingly commit a far worse sort of (theological) violence: cleansing God of God’s People.
Which begs the question, my own not Fleming’s, if progressive Christians in America today are substantively different than the Christian European sophisticates of the late 19th century who viewed the ethnic, cultic faith of the Jews with similar disdain.
If we profess the conviction that a crucified Jewish Messiah is Lord, then we must submit to understanding him according to the terms by which he would’ve understood himself.
It’s cliche, for those in mainline and progressive circles to say they favor the Church Fathers’ emphasis on the incarnation rather than the modern, Western emphasis upon the cross.
Such a position however, as both Rutledge and Hart point out, ignores how, in the Church Fathers especially, God’s conquest of Sin and Death is the only way we’re incorporated into an incarnate new humanity and that this new humanity is a present, social reality nowhere else but in the community that preaches Christ crucified and baptizes its members into his death and resurrection.
If Rutledge and Hart are correct and Anselm is well within the stream of patristic theology, then what do we with the most troubling and caricatured of Anselm’s atonement analogies? As rookie theology students learn in too cursory a manner, Anselm likens our sin before God to a medieval lord whose ‘honor’ has been offended by his vassals and must be restored, satisfied. In The Crucifixion, Rutledge glosses over this piece from Hart’s A Gift Exceeding Every Debt, and it’s an omission that leads them to two, somewhat dissonant, conclusions and reveals their underlying theological commitments.
Hart translates ‘honor’ as goodness, arguing that in Anselm’s day a lord’s honor was shorthand for the social order to which he was bound and responsible.
Put biblically, God’s ‘social order’ is creation itself and God’s honor is God’s Goodness to which the good creation corresponds. God’s goodness (honor) requires God to act for his good creation. God cannot not intervene to rectify a creation distorted by Sin and Death.
So then, contrary to the abundant caricatures, Anselm’s God is not an infinitely offended god who demands blood sacrifice, even his own, in order to rectify our relationship with him. Anselm’s is an infinitely merciful triune God who, in order to fulfill his creative intent, says Hart:
‘…recapitulates humanity by passing through all the violences of sin and death, rendering to God the obedience that is his due, and so transforms the event of his death into an occasion of infinite blessings…Christ’s death does not even effect a change in God’s attitude towards humanity; God’s attitude never alters: he desires the salvation of his creatures, and will not abandon them even to their own cruelties.’
Click over to read the full essay: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/03/10/anselm-reconsidered/
And as commonplace as such speech is for Christians today, it contradicts the ancient Church Fathers and, even, Ansem of Cantebury who emphasizesd the necessarily nonviolent mode of the atonement.
Even after you’ve avoided the common problems with substitutionary atonement, making clear it is not merely our individual sin (read: moral impurity) for which Jesus dies or insisting we must not divide the Father’s and Son’s wills against one another, that the cross in no way effects a change in God, or that God’s wrath is poured out on the cross not against his creatures but against the Sin that enslaves them, substitutionary atonement still sees the cross as an apocalyptic battle waged by God.
Even after you resolve the popular problems with substitution, a graver problem remains:
God chooses violence to be the means by which we’re delivered.
Whether or not the fact of God endorsing and using such violence is ameliorated by the fact that God suffers it in our stead is a matter of debate.
To my mind, a more urgent question becomes whether or not a community of perichoretic love, the Trinity, whose very nature is peace, could ever employ violence to good ends?
Is not such an act contrary to God’s nature? And God, by definition, cannot act contrary to God’s nature, such a god would be a god of sheer will not a God who is Goodness.
The idea that the cross reveals the nonviolence of God is commonplace in the ancient Church Fathers:
‘God does not use violent means to obtain what he desires.’
‘God does not liberate us from our captivity by a violent exercise of force.’
– Gregory of Nyssa
In his retrieval of Cur Deus Homo, David Bentley Hart argues that Anselm, in harmony with the Fathers before him, does not view God as using the violence of the cross as the means to remit sin.
Quite the opposite, the violence of the cross is our violence, our choice. The cross is a product of the system of Sin to which we’re bound.
‘the violence that befalls Christ belongs to our order of justice, an order overcome by his sacrifice, which is one of peace.’
Hart argues that the same boundless gift God gives in creation the Son gives back in his obedient life offered to God even unto the cross and that such a superabundant gift ‘draws creation back into the eternal motion of divine love for which it was fashioned.’ Thus, Hart concludes, Christ subverts the very logic of substitution and sacrifice from within by subsuming it into the trinitarian motion of love.
As opposed to a violent, apocalyptic defeat of Sin through the cross, Christ’s obedience is simply, as Anselm puts it, ‘a gift that exceeds our every debt.’
Image: The Descent from the Cross by Max Beckmann
I’m blogging during Lent over at Scot McKnight‘s popular Jesus Creed site on Fleming Rutledge‘s new book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.
Here’s a snippet from the latest post.
I remember a sermon I heard preached in Miller Chapel when I was a student at Princeton Theological Seminary. In an artful, show-don’t-tell way, the preacher for the day drew an unnerving parallel between Jesus’ death upon the cross and Matthew Shepard’s death, beaten and tied to a barbed wire fence in the Wyoming winter. Shepard, one observer noted, was abandoned and left dangling on the fence ‘like an animal.’
The season for that sermon was Lent I believe. I can’t recall the specific text nor can I recall the thrust of the preacher’s argument, but I do remember, vividly so, the consequent chatter the preacher’s juxtaposition provoked. On the one hand, my more conservative classmates bristled at an ‘unreligious’ story being equated with the passion story. The parallel with Matthew Shepard, they felt, mitigated Christ’s singularity and the peculiar pain entailed by crucifixion. ‘Christ was without sin and Matthew Shepard was…a sinner’ I remember someone at a lunch table being brave enough to say aloud what others, no doubt, were thinking.
To read the rest, click over to Scot’s site:
Preaching on Psalm 51 this Ash Wednesday, I noticed something as I followed along with the lector from the pew bible open on my lap. David’s indulgent confession of sin in Psalm 51 ends with this startling moment of recognition:
‘…for you [God] have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give you a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is [only] a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’
Surely this is a stunning epiphany to anyone who knows the Old Testament wherein sacrifices are frequent, systematized, and not only a delight to the Lord but prescribed by the Lord himself from Mt. Sinai. Consider even the remarkable dissonance- what I discovered Ash Wednesday only because my pew bible was open flat on my lap- of Psalm 51 with the psalm that immediately precedes it:
‘Those who bring their thanksgiving sacrifice [as commanded in Leviticus] honor me…’
Declares God, in Psalm 50.
Israel’s prophets, who come after David and voice God’s judgment upon the greed and false piety of David’s heirs, introduce an even more virulent strain into the bible’s thinking about the necessity and merit of sacrifice. The Christian Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi heaping scorn upon sacrifices offered in vain, and the angry prophet of the rural poor, Amos, most famously announced God’s wrath thusly:
‘…you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground!
…the Lord is his name, who makes destruction flash out against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’
Those last lines abut justice are familiar to us from Dr. King’s sermon on the National Mall, but excised from their original context they lose their punch and, I suspect for white Christians, turn Amos from a prophet of judgment into a dispenser of vague liberal hope.
For anyone with ears to hear, there is this unresolved tension running throughout the Old Testament as to whether sacrifice is something that God in any way desires or requires.
What do Christians make of this ambivalence regarding sacrifice when we consider what we consider the ultimate sacrifice, Christ’s expiatory offering of suffering and death upon the cross?
Is God’s self-giving in the Son through the Spirit pleasing to the Father, as the poet of Psalm 50 might imagine? Or is the murder of an innocent scapegoat upon a cross but another example of what Amos decries as the status quo’s practice of turning justice into wormwood? Worse, would God look upon us, who turn such an injustice as the crucifixion into a pleasing, even necessary sacrifice, and thunder ‘I hate, I despise, your worship?’
‘I know the Bible interprets Christ’s passion as expiatory, the world’s suffering as the consequence of sin, for which Christ is a guilt offering. I note as well that when God speaks through the prophets about sacrifice he treats it as the expression of a human need he tolerates rather than as anything he desires.
Certainly the death of Christ has been understood as expiation for human sin through the whole length of church history, and I defer with all possible sincerity to the central tenets of the Christian tradition, but as for myself, I confess that I struggle to understand the phenomenon of ritual sacrifice, and the Crucifixion when explicated in its terms. The concept is so central to the tradition that I have no desire to take issue with it, and so difficult for me that I leave it for others to interpret. If it answered to a deep human need at other times, and it answers now to other spirits than mine, then it is a great kindness of God toward them, and a great proof of God’s attentive grace toward his creatures.
I do not by any means doubt the gravity of human sin or question our radical indebtedness to God. I suppose it is my high Christology, my Trinitarianism, that makes me falter at the idea God could be in any sense repaid or satisfied by the death of his incarnate self.’
Is our thinking, I wonder in Lent, that Christ’s cross is a necessary sacrifice for sin a ‘kindness’ God permits because, though God hates all devotion devoid of any concern for justice, it’s just this offering, needful or not, that delivers what God truly desires: a broken and contrite heart?