Archives For Atonement

§8-10: Incarnation Quiz

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2014 — 2 Comments

Untitled44Here’s a pop quiz based on the first 10 sections of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

 

1. Prior to the Incarnation, God the Word was:

A) Far away from us with God’s back turned against us because we are sinners and God is holy.

B) Nearer to us than we are to ourselves because even prior to the Incarnation the Word imbues all things in creation and holds them in existence.

C) In Heaven.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we typically think of God as remote? 

 

2. According to St. Athanasius, God the Word took flesh in order to:

A) Suffer God’s wrath in humanity’s stead.

B) To pay the price, suffering sin’s penalty for us.

C) To die our death and, in doing so, exhaust Death of its power over us.

D) To demonstrate God’s holiness by demonstrating the wages of sin upon the cross.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we interpret the cradle and the cross punitively when Genesis 1 speaks of death as sin’s consequence in no such tones?

 

3. Athanasius identifies the debt paid by the Incarnate One as:

A) God’s honor

B) Sin

C) Fidelity

D) None of the Above

Bonus: Why do we literalize scriptural metaphors like ‘debt’ when the Church Fathers felt free to use them without explaining exactly how they worked. 

 

4. For Athanasius, the place and purpose of Christ’s teaching in the Incarnation is: 

A) For us to get right with God through right actions.

B) To describe for us the ideal human life which will be possible only in the Kingdom.

C) To show us what we should do because Jesus told us to do it.

D) To reveal the means by which our tarnished humanity may be restored in God’s likeness.

Bonus: Why do so many of our understandings of how Jesus saves us on the cross have little place for the life and teaching of Jesus? 

 

You don’t really need the answer key do you?

Untitled44When it comes to Christ’s cradle and cross, we typically use words like ‘goodness’ and ‘worthiness’ in a very specific way. In a very particular direction.

Jesus is the (only) one who is good. Jesus alone is worthy of God’s love and vindicating resurrection, making Jesus the only one who is worthy of our worship.

We- it need not be added but frequently is- are manifestly NOT good. We are sinners.

We’re worthy only of God’s wrath, deserving the punishment we God mete(s) out on Jesus.

As the popular CCM Hillsong song puts it:

Thank you for the cross Lord/Thank you for the price You paid/Bearing all my sin and shame…Thank you for the nail pierced hands/Washed me in Your cleansing flow/Now all I know Your forgiveness and embrace/Worthy is the Lamb…

We are not good.

Like Wayne and Garth before Alice Cooper, we’re not worthy.

This is the same acknowledgement most Catholics admit after they receive the host in the Mass: O Lord, I am not worthy/That Thou should’st come to me/But speak the words of comfort/My spirit healed shall be. 

We do not deserve the gift of salvation God offers to us in Christ.

That’s the very definition of grace, right?

Maybe.

Maybe not (exactly).

In §1 of On the Incarnation, Athanasius begins hinting at a theme that will recur throughout the essay. Of the many names by which Athanasius will refer to God, the first one he employs here in §1 is ‘Artificer.’

ar·tif·i·cerAthanasius-blog-Zachary-Franzen

noun- archaic

1. a skilled craftsman, artist or inventor.

2. God

The image of God as Artist and humanity as God’s art governs Athanasius’ understanding of the whence and whither of the incarnation. Having been made ‘very good’ by this Artist, who made us for no other motivation but as an expression of his Goodness, humanity fell into disrepair. The Artist’s original intent has been sullied. His art has been defaced.

The effect of sin and death upon the Artist’s art is not unlike the grime that obscures the frescoes on Medieval church walls.

Notice-

The problem for Athanasius isn’t guilt, which must be punished. It’s corruption, which requires restoration. Healing.

So it’s not so much that you are a loathsome bastard who deserves the punishment Jesus, the only worthy one, bears for you, a la most CCM praise songs. Instead, for Athanasius, it’s more like you’re the Artificer’s exquisite art whose original beauty has been defaced and needs to be restored.

The art motif is not incidental in On the Incarnation for it provides Athanasius with the means to illustrate the logical consistency of the faith and its scriptural arc. In his treatment, what was once made by the Word and declared by the Word to be ‘very good’ remains good- if marred- because of the surpassing Goodness of the Artist.

Not only do we remain the Artist’s good creation, the Goodness of the Artist would be called into question if he allowed his art to languish without repair. No matter our appearance or condition, we remain precious art simply because of the Artist who made us.

Our provenance makes us worthy of reclamation.

And if the Artist abandoned his matchless art, left it to waste away, then we would rightly judge the Artist no longer worthy of his title.

‘O Lord, I am You would not [be] worthy/That If Thou should’st [not] come to me…’

The Mona Lisa, for example, remains a great painting even if today it retains a fraction of the original sheen DaVinci gave to it. Likewise, you’d never suggest that the Mona Lisa is undeserving of painstaking restoration. It’s too rare and precious a work of art.

The Mona Lisa, in other words, is worthy of restoration. Indeed you’d likely argue that the art community was not worthy of the Mona Lisa if it turned its back on her and refused to restore her to her intended beauty.

Athanasius uses this image of God as the ultimate Artificer to turn our categories like ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ on their heads and, by doing so, Athanasius seeks to show how what God does in Christ isn’t a counter-intuitive surprise but is logically consistent with God’s very first creative impulse.

And dammit if I don’t think it would produce better praise songs.

Untitled44Many of you emailed me to say you planned on reading On the Incarnation along with me during Advent. Here’s my ‘intro’ to the essay. I’ll be posting my thoughts on sections 1-10 in the days ahead.

But Advent’s Not About the Incarnation, Right?

It’s chic in mainline churches to point out (in finger-wagging fashion) that Advent is actually the liturgical season given over to longing for the return of Christ not anticipating his arrival at Christmas.

Advent then is about the second-coming not the first.

Advent is about the eschaton not the incarnation.

Maybe but in my experience Advent so understood is so counter-cultural as to be unhelpfully unintelligible.

What’s more, the official season of Christmas gives preachers precious few days (only 12) and 2 of the lowest attended Sundays of the year to devote their congregation’s attention to the incarnation, the central doctrine of the faith. By the time people return to church from the Christmas holiday, the lectionary cycle of scripture already has Jesus being baptized by John.

There’s been no time spent reflecting on the core mystery that preoccupied the first centuries’ worth of Christians; namely, that Jesus of Nazareth is the image of the invisible God, the Word, which called things into existence, made flesh.

Regardless of appropriate and sanctioned liturgical sensibilities, I think Advent- this time before the ‘Feast of the Incarnation’- when people in and out of the Church imbibe at least the passing intimation that the baby in the creche is God made flesh, is the perfect time to ponder the why of it all. Why does God take flesh in Jesus?

 

Athanasius-blog-Zachary-Franzen

Who is Athanasius?

This is the question St. Athanasius addresses in his classic, little treatise On the Incarnation, which I invite you to read and reflect along with me over the coming weeks.

You can download it free here: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word

It’s no understatement to say that, like St. Paul before him or St. Augustine after him, the Christianity you know and practice would be significantly different were it not for Athanasius. Even if this is the first you’ve heard of him, his fingerprints are all over your faith. His conviction has been on your tongue any time you’ve said or sung the Nicene Creed and, for that reason alone, On the Incarnation is a worthy devotional for the Advent season.

Whether his name was chosen or a harbinger of things to come, I’m not sure and I’m too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia.

‘Athanasius’ though means literally ‘man of immortality.’

Not only is this a suitable name given the legacy he bequeathed the Church, the name is like a little, 5-syllable Cliff Notes reminder of his governing theme, immortality.

Like Cliff Notes however that doesn’t tell you the whole story because ‘immortality’ for Athanasius didn’t connote what it does for Christians today.

Immortality didn’t mean eternal life, at least not in the Jesus Prayer way we so often hear it. Immortality wasn’t shorthand for going to heaven when we die, some place that is not God where God is.

No.

Immortality meant union with the Triune God.

Immortality referred to the finite uniting with, becoming, joining the infinite.

So while his enemies called him ‘the black dwarf,’ his given name, Athanasius, gives you everything you need to know to read On the Incarnation rightly, for Athanasius believed that the eternal purpose of the incarnation and the very point of the Christian life is our union with the infinite we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

His incarnation is for our immortality.

Our union with God

Higgins, Mary, Scan

It’s an Evangelical Essay 

You can read online more about Athanasius’ historical context than I wish to regurgitate here. Suffice it to know that Athanasius wrote as a Bishop in the early part of the 4th century, a time for which 2 dates are key to understanding him.

In 313 AD, after 3 centuries of often brutal persecution, the Roman Empire- noticing the rapid growth of Christianity and reading the tea leaves- shifted to a posture of toleration towards the Church. Suddenly, Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had a stake in using the Church to unify his empire so in 325 he convened the first ecumenical council at Nicaea and “invited” its episcopal bishops to hammer out a consensus creed of the faith where a diversity of confession had previously been the norm.

Prior to 313 the experience of the Church was one of persecution. Post 325 the experience of the Church was one of theological infighting. Athanasius’ career and writings span the periods inaugurated by those two dates.

While most of his writings were occasioned by the intramural debates of the latter and are thus polemical in tone (he was frequently exiled when his views fell out of favor), Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation in the optimistic, take-a-deep-breath period following 313. Rather than being provoked by nasty in-fighting and controversy, it simply attempts a concise statement of the Christian faith, and rather than trying to settle an in-house theological question in dispute, On the Incarnation is an evangelical essay.

It’s 40-odd pages are meant to elicit a response in the reader, to compel the reader to make a decision for the Christian vision and life.

Athanasius’ imagined readers were neither the mass of the poor in Alexandria nor its philosophers but the ‘Nones’ of the 4th century, i.e., educated pagans. With them in mind he presents- as the Church must learn to do today for our Nones- Christianity as a rival to the world views which vie for humanity’s attention and loyalty.

SONY DSC

They Had the Opposite Hang-Up as Us

As critical, if not more, as historical context, is locating Athanasius in his theological context.

Whereas modern believers (and skeptics) have little trouble countenancing the real, genuine humanity of Jesus yet struggle with conceiving how the fully human Jesus could ever also be God, Christians for the 4 centuries of the Church’s history took it as self-evident that Jesus was fully God.

They had the opposite hang-up we do.

We struggle to comprehend how the human Jesus could be God; they struggled to comprehend how God could be One, since the human Jesus was self-evidently divine.

How could God be the Father and the Son and still be the one Lord of Israel’s shema?

To answer the question, Athanasius and his peers turned to a philosophical term common in their day, homo-ousios, which meant ‘of the same being’ or ‘of the same essence.’

Jesus is God, but God remains One because the Son is of ‘one being with the Father’ as we recite in the creed- thanks to… Athanasius.

Unlike you and me, the human Jesus- though still fully human, has no being or essence apart from the Being of the Father.

Being and essence are tricky terms for us (more on them later) but the divinity of Jesus and the oneness of God are the building blocks for Athanasius’ central theme in On the Incarnation: the re-creation of the fallen world by the Word who made the world in the very beginning. 

What Athanasius’ evangelical essay wants you to accept is the new life made possible by the life of Christ- which itself is made possible because that human life was lived by God!

As he puts it, and this is the whole essay in a nutshell:

Jesus’ divinity makes his human life powerful, and his humanity makes his divine life ours.

Holy Spirit

The Incarnation is the Most Natural Thing for God

Athanasius’ strong view of Jesus as the incarnate deity draws a sharp contrast to the two competing views of his day.

Plato believed the Supreme Being too remote and humanity too lowly on the scale of creatures for God ever to become incarnate. Meanwhile, Arius was a Christian thinker and eventual heretic who thought Athanasius’ doctrine of the incarnation threatened the unity and oneness of God. Alternatively Arius  understood Jesus as an intermediary creature between the true God and humanity, a demigod who can connect us to God without being God himself in the flesh.

Both the Platonic and Arian views, it’s important to note, saw God as a being within the universe albeit an exalted one, and, as a being within the universe, they assumed God was limited by the differences between creatures.

In other words, for Plato and Arius God cannot become incarnate because ‘divinity’ is categorically different from ‘humanity.’

Athanasius, on the other hand, believed God was absolutely transcendent, not a creature within the universe but a God, Father, Son and Spirit, in whom is contained all difference; in fact, the Trinity, a union of peace and difference, is the Source of difference itself.

For Athanasius, then, to say the incarnation is the most natural thing for God renders it no less mysterious.

rp_img2606411.jpg

Things to Notice

In the next couple of days, I’ll post my thoughts on sections 1-10 of On the Incarnation.  In the meantime here are some points that might help you make sense of what you read.

          Death vs. Wrath:

Unlike many Christians today, Athanasius sees the consequence of the Fall not as God’s wrath but as death. Thus God comes in the flesh not to suffer God’s wrath towards sin but to undo death by dying our death.

          Salvation is Restoration:

How you define the problem determines what you see as the solution. Because Athanasius sees death, not sin and wrath, as the problem ushered into creation by the Fall, he does not view salvation, as we so often do, in terms of forgiveness and redemption. Those are but motifs within his larger theme of salvation as restoration, the revivification of humanity in God’s image.

          God’s Like an Artist or a King:

Taking restoration as the main theme of the incarnation, Athanasius uses metaphors of artwork or kingdom to unpack the reasons for God’s coming in the flesh. It would not be good or worthy of an Artist such as God, he argues, to allow his handiwork to go tarnished and without repair. Suppose a king’s kingdom was pillaged by vandals in his absence. A good king must return, dispatch the invaders and set his kingdom to rights.

Whereas we typically use the term ‘worthy’ to denote our lack of worthiness for God’s gift of salvation, Athanasius turns it around. As God’s artwork, we are worthy of salvation. Indeed God would not be worthy (to his own goodness) should he leave us in our state.

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes:

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909

1.

“Nothing less than a strictly immutable (unchanging) God can provide the explanation of the world’s existence, and that, in consequence, the world must be, in the fullest sense, contingent and altogether unnecessary to God.

Various objections….complain that, on such a view, God could not have the intimate interest and concern with his creatures that is manifested in the Christian religion…while this would certainly be true if God was a finite being, it is not true if God is infinite. I do not believe that this is a logic that theology can intelligibly forsake.”

2.

“The first problem [in believing that God intended sin and evil in order to manifest redemption, i.e. Adam’s fault was to display the glory of the Cross] is that it reduces God to a being whose nature is not love (even if at the end of the day he turns out to be loving)…and should not evoke love in return.

If God’s identity is constituted in his triumph over evil [if God predestined that he should be the crucified God] then evil belongs eternally to God’s identity.

And his goodness is not goodness as such but a reaction…One risks here converting the Christian God into a god of sacrifice…a god forged in such fires may evoke fear and awe, but not genuine desire.”

3.

“A God who can become, who can acquire determinations, who has his future as potential and realizes his future through dramatic self-transcendence- a God who changes and suffers, that is- is not God but a god.

Christianity in this respect has always quite properly been identified as atheism.”

“God does not have to suffer or change in order to love us or show us mercy- he loved us when we were not, and by this very ‘mercy’ created us- and so, as love, he can overcome all suffering. Love is not a reaction [for God] but is the possibility of our every action. God’s love requires no pathos to evoke it, no evil to make it good [because God IS Love].”

Calvinism: Old Debate, New Day

Jason Micheli —  September 19, 2014 — 1 Comment

CalvinismDebate_BannerTo prove that I’m not completely a narcissist- or that I’m at least sufficiently self-aware to pretend that I’m not a narcissist- I thought I would offer you a few nuggets from others that have come my way and proved fruitful for my own reflection:

Brian Zahnd is a pastor, author and blogger who, like me, has been deeply influenced by David Bentley Hart and the work of the early Church Fathers and Mothers. Brian recently represented what I’d call the ancient view of God and the atonement in a debate with Calvinists sponsored by Christianity Todayzahnd-photo

Don’t let the Calvinists’ propensity to machine-gun scripture citations fool you into thinking they’re making an argument, and don’t let it fool you into missing how deeply biblical Brian’s argument is itself.

The videos are long and, if you’re a theology nerd, that’s wonderful. Listen while you make dinner.

 

 

 

Mark Driscoll is in the news (again) for making cringe-inducing comments about women et al (again). Even I have a line so you’ll have to click here to read about his comments on the ‘pu#@%$#@ nation.’

But, both because this past weekend we read Romans 8 in worship and because Mark’s all over twitter with a very different God than the One I find in scripture I thought I’d repost this from last summer:

Who is against us? Who will condemn us?

Who can separate us from the love of Christ?

For the Apostle Paul, they’re rhetorical questions.

They’re Paul’s way of implying that if you sense any ambiguity about the answer, if you feel any uncertainty about the conclusion, then you should go back to chapter 1, verse 1 and start over.

Reread his letter to the Romans-because Paul’s left you no room for qualification. There’s no grist for doubt or debate or indecision.

Don’t left the punctuation marks fool you because there’s only one possible way to answer the questions Paul’s laid out for you.

No one.

No one is against us.

No one will condemn us.

No one- no thing- nothing can separate us from Christ’s love.

Of course, as a preacher, I know first hand the danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two listeners in the audience who don’t realize that the question you’re asking has no answer but the obvious one.

The danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two people who mistakenly think the question might have a different answer.

For example, take this response to Paul’s rhetorical questions from Mark Driscoll: Play Clip from ‘God Hates You.’ mark-driscoll

I thought that would get your attention.

Or at least make you grateful I’m your pastor.

Just think, I make a single joke on my blog about Jesus farting and some of you write letters to the bishop; Mark Driscoll preaches an entire sermon about how ‘God hates you’ and thousands of people ‘like’ it on Facebook.

If you read my blog, then you know I feel about Mark Driscoll the same way I feel about Joel Osteen, Testicular Cancer and Verizon Wireless.

But he’s not an obscure, street-corner, fire-and-brimstone preacher.

He’s a best-selling author. He’s planted churches all over the world.

The church he founded in Seattle, Mars Hill, is one of the nation’s largest churches with a membership that is younger and more diverse than almost any other congregation.

     Ten thousand listened to that sermon that Sunday.

And that Sunday ten thousand did NOT get up and walk out.

That Sunday ten thousand listened to the proclamation that ‘God hates you, God hates the you you really are, the person you are at your deepest level.’

And that Sunday at the end of that sermon somewhere near ten thousand people said ‘Amen.’

Which, of course, means ‘That’s true.’

Except it isn’t.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

After all, technically speaking, it’s a ‘good’ sermon. It’s visceral. It’s urgent. It’s confrontational and convicting.

It’s the kind of preaching that demands a response.

     Technically speaking, I bet Mark Driscoll’s sermon ‘worked.’

I bet it scared the hell out of people.

     But what did it scare them into I wonder?

Because when it comes to Paul’s rhetorical questions, Mark Driscoll gets the  response dead wrong. So dead wrong that anti-Christ is probably the most accurate term to describe it.

He’s wrong.

But you know that already.

 I can tell from the grimace of disgust you had on your face while listening to him that you know that already.

You don’t need to be a pastor to know he’s wrong. And you don’t need to be a pastor to prove he’s wrong.

All you need are a handful of memory verses.

Memory verses like Colossians 1.15: …Jesus Christ is the exact image of the invisible God…’ 

Which means: God is like Jesus.

And God doesn’t change.

Which means: God has always been like Jesus and God will always be like Jesus.

So no, God doesn’t hate you. God has never hated you and God would never hate you.

You don’t need to be pastor to prove he’s wrong; you just need to remember that John 3.16 does not say ‘God so loathed the world that he took Jesus’ life instead of yours.’ 

No, it says ‘God so loved…that he gave…’ 

You don’t need to be a pastor to know that God isn’t fed up with you. God isn’t sick and tired of you. God doesn’t hate the you in you because ‘God was in Christ reconciling all things- all things- to himself.’ 

In case you forgot, that’s 2 Corinthians 5.19.

It’s true that God is just and God is holy and anyone who reads the newspaper has got to think God’s entitled to a little anger, but you don’t have to be a pastor to know that none of those attributes trump the Paul’s Gospel summation that ‘while we were still sinners, God died for the ungodly, for us.’ 

God has not had it up to anywhere with you.

You don’t need to have gone to seminary to know that; you just need to have gone to church on June 30.

That’s when we heard Paul testify from his personal experience that no matter how much we sin, no matter how often we sin, no matter how we sin, no matter how much our sin abounds, God’s grace abounds all the more.

So that,

     ‘There is therefore now no condemnation…’

     ‘We have peace with God…’

Whatever needed to be set right, whatever needed to be forgiven, whatever needed to be paid, ‘it is finished.’ 

That’s in red letters in my bible. Jesus said it.

His cross, the Letter to the Hebrews says, was ‘a perfect sacrifice, once for all.’ 

For all.

So there’s nothing in your present, there’s nothing in your past, there’s nothing coming down the pike- and just in case you think you’re the exception let’s just say there’s nothing in all of creation- there’s nothing that can separate you from the love of God.

You don’t have to be a pastor to realize that you can say this a whole lot of different ways.

But it all boils down to the same simple message:

     God. Is. For. Us.

     Not against us.

 

But you know that.

Mark Driscoll may have 10K people in his church but I’d bet every last one of you would run him out of this church.

You would never sit through a sermon like. You would never tolerate a preacher like that- you barely tolerate me.

You would never participate in a church that had perverted the Gospel into that.

God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you. God’s against you. 

You would NEVER say that to someone else.

Ever.

But here’s the thing- and maybe you do need to be a pastor know this:

 There are plenty of you

who say things like that

to yourselves

all the time.

Not one of you would ever say things like that to someone else, but, consider it on the job knowledge, plenty of you say it to yourself every day.

Plenty of you ‘know’ Paul’s questions are rhetorical.

You know there’s only one possible answer, only one way to respond: God is for us.

And yet…

When it comes to you and your life and what you’ve done and how God must feel about the person you see in the mirror, your inner monologue sounds a whole lot more like Mark Driscoll than it sounds like Paul.

You may know this, but as a pastor I definitely do.

Even though you’d never say it in a sermon, you tell yourself that surely God’s fed up with you for the mess you made of your marriage or the mistakes you made with your kids or the ways your life hasn’t measured up.

Even though you’d never dream of saying to someone else ‘there’s no God will forgive that’ that’s exactly what you tell yourself when it comes to the secret that God knows but your spouse doesn’t.

Even though there’s no way you’d ever consider saying it to someone else, you still tell yourself that there’s no way your faith is deep enough, commitment strong enough, beliefs firm enough to ever please God.

Even though it would never cross your mind to say to someone else ‘God must be angry with you for something…God must be punishing you…’ many of you can’t get that out of your mind when you receive a diagnosis or suffer the death of someone close to you.

     God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you. 

I can’t think of one of you who would let a voice like Mark Driscoll’s into this pulpit on a Sunday morning.

And yet I can think of a whole lot of us who every day let a voice just like his into our heads.

 

So here’s my question: why?

I mean- we know Paul’s being rhetorical. We know it’s obvious. We know there’s only one possible response: God is for us.

So why?

Why do we persist in imagining that God is angry or impatient or wearied or judgmental or vindictive or ungracious or unforgiving?

If it’s obvious enough for a rhetorical question then why?

Why do we persist in imagining that God is like anything other than Jesus?

Is it because we tripped up on those bible verses that speak of God’s anger?

Maybe.

Is it because we’ve all heard preachers or we all know Christians who sound a little like Mark Driscoll?

Sure we have.

Is it because we’re convinced the sin in our lives is so great, so serious, that we’re the exception to Paul’s ironclad, gospel

equation: God is for us?

Is it because we think we’re the exception?

Maybe for some of us.

But I wonder.

I wonder if we persist in imagining that God is angry and impatient and unforgiving and at the end of his rope- I wonder if we imagine God is like that because that’s what we’re like.

I wonder if we imagine God must be angry because we carry around so much anger with us?

I wonder if we imagine there are some things even God can’t forgive because there are things we won’t forgive?

I wonder if we imagine that God’s at the end of his rope because there are plenty of people with whom we’re at the end of ours?

I’ve been open with you in the past about my sometimes rocky sometimes resuscitated relationship with my Dad.

I’ve told you about how my dad and me- we have a history that started when I was about the age my youngest boy is now.

And I’ve told you about how even today our relationship is tense and complicated…sticky- the way it always is in a family when addiction and infidelity and abuse are part of a story that ends in separation.

As with any separation, all the relationships in the family got complicated. And as with many separations, what happens in childhood reverberates well into adulthood.

What I haven’t told you before is that I had a falling out, over a year ago, with my Mom.

The kind of falling out where you can no longer remember what or who started it or if it was even important.

The kind of rift that seemed to pull down every successive conversation like an undertow.

The kind of argument that starts out in anger and then slowly advances on both sides towards a stubborn refusal to forgive and eventually ages into a sad resignation that this is what the relationship is now, that this is what it will be, that this thing is between us now and is going to stay there.

We had that falling out quite a while ago, and I’ve let it fester simply because I didn’t have the energy to do the work I knew it would take to repair it.

And, to be honest, I didn’t have the faith to believe it could be repaired.

There’s no way I can say this without it sounding contrived and cliche.

There’s no way I can say this without it sounding exactly like the sort of sentimental BS you might expect in a sermon.

So I’ll just say it straight up and if it makes you want to vomit go ahead. I read Romans 8 late this week and it…convicted me.

And so I called my Mom.

‘We need to talk’ I said.

‘You really think so?’

It was a rhetorical question. There was only one possible answer: yes.

 

And so I began by telling her that I’d been reading a part of the bible and that I’d just noticed something I’d never noticed before.

 

I don’t know why I’d never noticed it before.

Romans 8.31-39 is, after all, one of the most popular scripture texts for funerals. I’ve preached on this scripture probably more than any other biblical text.

Yet preaching it for funerals, with death and eternity looming, I never noticed how this passage about how no one is against us, how no one will condemn us, how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus- it comes at the end of Paul’s chapter on the Holy Spirit.

It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are to live according to the Spirit- according to Christ’s Spirit.

It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are the heirs of Christ’s ministry, about how that inheritance will involve certainly suffering but that the Spirit will help us in our weakness.

This ‘nothing shall separate us’ passage- it comes as the conclusion to Paul telling us how the Holy Spirit will work in our lives to conform us to Christ’s image so that we might live up to and in to calling.

 In all the times I’ve turned to Romans 8 for a funeral sermon, I’ve never noticed before that, for Paul, it’s not about eternity.

 It’s about living eternity now.

 

Who is against us? Who will condemn us?

Who can separate us from the love of Christ?

Paul’s questions might be rhetorical.

The answers might be obvious and certain.

But that doesn’t make them easy or simple.

I’d never noticed that for Paul here in Romans 8- it’s actually meant to be the kind of preaching that demands a response.

Because if you believe that God in Jesus Christ is unconditionally, no matter what, for us then you’ve also got to believe that you should not hold anything against someone else.

If you believe that God in Christ Jesus refuses- gratuitiously- to condemn your life, then you’ve got to at least believe that it should be ditto for the people in your life.

And if you believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, nothing in all creation, then you must also believe that because of the love of God in Christ Jesus then nothing, nothing, nothing should separate us.

From one another.

 

rev-charles-moore-327x388You may have missed it in the mainstream press.

Last week a retired United Methodist pastor in Texas set himself on fire in a shopping center parking lot.

Rev. Charles Moore intended his self-immolation as an act of social protest against the death penalty, homophobia and racism of both his denomination and his home-state.

Not only did Moore see his suicide as his destiny, he saw it as an unavoidable act of faithfulness- the place where his Gethsemane led.

Methodists, I think it’s fair to say, aren’t known being particularly exciting or taking up extraordinary means to make their point. Moore’s immolation, however, reminds Christians that the line between mysticism and mental anguish has always been a fine one.

While I certainly don’t want to make hay of another’s struggles of the soul, I do think it worthwhile pondering whether Moore’s self-immolation can be construed as faithful according to Christian grammar.

In letter he wrote in June, Rev. Moore drew an analogy between himself and the Protestant saint of the 20th century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“This decision to sacrifice myself was not impulsive: I have struggled all my life (especially the last several years) with what it means to take Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that Christ calls a person to come and die seriously. He was not advocating self-immolation, but others have found this to be the necessary deed, as I have myself for some time now: it has been a long Gethsemane, and excruciating to keep my plans from my wife and other members of our family.”

Of course, any student of history could point out the obvious distinction that renders such an analogy erroneous: Bonhoeffer didn’t commit suicide.

Bonhoeffer didn’t choose death or martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer chose a path of faithfulness he knew might well lead to his death.

The difference could not be greater nor could their appropriation of the cross be more divergent.

Self-immolation is (I hope is clear) an outlier but nonetheless it relies upon a certain logic of the cross that is quite mainstream: the belief that a greater good can come from suffering and death.

Such a belief consequently baptizes suffering and death as means towards greater aims for it reads the Cross as what God requires/desires in order for the transaction of redemption to be complete.

The myth of redemptive suffering/violence IS a myth.

To put it more clearly if more crudely only a penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement can lead to someone like Rev. Moore construing his own self-inflicted suffering as a divinely sanctioned means to a social justice end.

It’s a broad generalization but this IS a blog after all:

Rev. Moore’s logic of the Cross is no different than the understandings preached from pulpits on most Sundays and sung in nearly every 19th century hymn and contemporary CCM song.

Rev. Moore’s self-immolation reveals how destructive such interpretations of the Cross can prove.

My recent theo-crush, the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe once wrote: timothy-radcliffe

“Jesus teaches us two things.

First, he teaches that in order to be a human being we must love fully and without condition.

Second, he teaches us that if we do love this way, they’ll kill us.”

More ably put perhaps but this is the same point McCabe makes when he writes:

 “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human…And this is what Jesus sees as a command laid on him by his Father in heaven; the obedience of Jesus to his Father is to be totally, completely human.

Thus, Jesus was crucified because he was human not because the Father planned to have him killed for some greater cause.

We must always remember and never shy away from the fact that we crucified Jesus, not the Father. 

We have created a world that is characterized by suffering and death—by oppression, torture, and even crucifixion. We must not become confused on this point: God never causes suffering. God is always God for us, always for human flourishing, always for love.

Jesus was killed not because God wanted him to be killed but because we wanted him to be killed.” 

McCabe seeing Jesus as the truly human one is a point not altogether different from what Paul means in Romans 1 and 3 when he identifies Jesus as the Faithful One.

Because Jesus shows us what it means to be authentically, fully human, he also accordingly reveals to us what it means to be faithful. And what we see revealed by Jesus is not someone desiring death nor someone who sees violence as the means by which God chooses to redeem.

Rather in Jesus the Faithful One we see a lover of God who accepts- with no small amount of terror and regret- his death rather than resort to violence himself.

Without Easter, the Cross just is what Rome intended it to be: tragic.

And when we remember that the Cross is what we do to Jesus not what God does to Jesus we can see Rev. Moore’s act for what it so sadly is: suicide.

 

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s my sermon for Memorial Day weekend. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I highly recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in there sermon.

You can listen to the sermon here in iTunes or download the free mobile app here.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

chagall

In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

     It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

     But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill. For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not- that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

lightstock_128163_small_user_2741517

Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died- making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen- to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again- when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

image001This weekend both in a blog post and in my sermon I emphasized the ancient doctrine of God’s immutability:

Immutability = God doesn’t change.

Far from being a deficiency in God, I’m increasingly convinced that retrieving the ancient conception of God is vitally necessary in a post-Christian culture. Too often the god I hear young people reject is a god but not the God of Genesis 1, John 1, Colossians 1 or even Thomas Aquinas.

St Thomas AquinasSpeaking of Aquinas, my comments this weekend channeled the theologian Herbert McCabe who himself spent his lifetime channeling the ‘dumb ox.’

About God’s immutability, McCabe writes:

“It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this; that God deals out to us what we deserve. … I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all.

Look at the parable of the prodigal son. The younger son takes his inheritance and squanders it in a far country. Eventually he finds himself impoverished and hungry. In despair he acknowledges how his sin has altered his relationship to his father: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”

But what precisely has changed?

Has the father ceased to love his son?

Has he become the angry patriarch the son now fears him to be?

On the contrary, the father has been waiting for his son to return, and upon seeing him in the distance, he jubilantly rushes to greet and welcome him home.

No, what has changed is the son. Because of his sin, the prodigal is no longer capable of seeing the father as he really is.”

McCabe continues: images

“Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us.

The father does not need to be persuaded to forgive and welcome his son. He does not need to change his mind. He loves his son. That is his truth. All the son needs to do is to see his sin for what it is. He recognizes himself as a sinner, and at that moment he ceases to be one. His contrition is forgiveness. All the rest is celebration and feasting: “This is all the real God ever does, because God, the real God, is just helplessly and hopelessly in love with us. He is unconditionally in love with us.”

God doesn’t change his mind about us, McCabe declares;

“God changes our mind about him—again and again and again.”

That, in sum, is the point of everything McCabe ever wrote.

Next, McCabe hides the dense, nuanced theology of Aquinas behind his simple, spare prose:

“God is not a being within the universe; he is not a part of the world. He is the infinite mystery who utterly transcends the world he has made. The world makes no literal difference to God. This is what we mean when we say that God created the world ex nihilo, out of nothing. He did not have to create the universe, and if he had chosen not to, his glory and being would not have been diminished one iota.

God plus the world is not greater than God alone. The world does not add anything to God; it does not change or affect God. Ultimately it does not make a difference to God. God is God, in infinite glory, majesty, and love.”

Crucial to the ancient Christians’ view of God’s immutability is Genesis 1 where we are told that God created the universe from no-thing. In stark contrast to the pagan worldview, scripture conceives of God as totally transcendent of contingent creation.

This distinction between Creator and the creature, therefore, qualifies all our speech about God. We must use language if we are to proclaim the gospel, yet, as Thomas Aquinas noted, the metaphorical nature of these stories must be affirmed, if the Christian distinction between Creator and creature is to be respected.

UnknownOne such problem of language is forgiveness.

Christians talk about the forgiveness of God;

but what exactly do we mean when we say God forgives us?

McCabe elaborates:

“God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin. So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but agrees to overlook the insult. What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re- creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God.

We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner. God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God. It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.”

Now, I know the pushback that will come at this point. The language of scripture IS filled with conflicting images of God—the image of the wrathful God who hates our sin, who requires propitiation; the image of the God who endures our sins, who is jealous, who is righteously angry at injustice.

While it’s true scripture speaks this way, it is also necessary, says McCabe, for us to think clearly:

“The initiative is always with God. When God forgives our sin, he is not changing his mind about us; he is changing our mind about him. He does not change; his mind is never anything but loving; he is love. The forgiveness of God is God’s creative and re-creative love making the desert bloom again, bringing us back from dry sterility to the rich luxuriant life bursting out all over the place. When God changes your mind in this way, when he pours out on you his Spirit of new life, it is exhilarating, but it is also fairly painful. There is a trauma of rebirth as perhaps there is of birth. The exhilaration and the pain that belong to being reborn is what we call contrition, and this is the forgiveness of sin. Contrition is not anxious guilt about sin; it is the continual recognition in hope that the Spirit has come to me as healing my sin.

So it is not literally true that because we are sorry God decides to forgive us. That is a perfectly good story, but it is only a story. The literal truth is that we are sorry because God forgives us. Our sorrow for sin just is the forgiveness of God working within us. Contrition and forgiveness are just two names for the same thing, they are the gift of the Holy Spirit; the re-creative transforming act of God in us. God does not forgive us because of anything he finds in us; he forgives us out of his sheer delight, his exuberant joy in making the desert bloom.”

God is not a god.

Nor is God the Jekyll and Hyde of so much Calvinism, the god so many people rightly reject, fear or secretly loathe.

God is not a god we need to appease. God is not a god we need to persuade in order for him to forgive.

God is not a god who puts conditions on his mercy and care.

God is the God who comes to us in love, only in love, relentlessly and passionately in love.

 

Jesus-the-Prisoner‘Christ didn’t just suffer in the past. Christ still suffers today with us, with anyone who suffers in the world.’

I first heard those words from Brother Alois, the prior of the Taize monastic community, last May during a pilgrimage to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

His words hit me with converting clarity.

Because not one of us 1K pilgrims missed the clear, straight, connect-the-dots line he’d just drawn from the Crucified Christ to the all-but-crucified Lakota Indians on whose land we prayed.

When Brother Alois mentioned ‘collective suffering’ an accompanying illustration or further explanation wasn’t needed.

imagesI thought about those words again last week at Pub Theology as I listened to a friend and lawyer in my church, Brian Stolarz, reflect on his experience of working for nearly a decade to get an innocent off death row in Texas.

Alfred Dewayne Brown had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case.

At one point in his story, Brian shared a memory of meeting with Brown on death row and afterwards coming upon:

“a church group passing out bibles. They were also passing out fish platters for the prison staff because they were “doing God’s work,” according to a banner draped over a table.

I didn’t want to debate the fact that God would probably not be cool with an innocent man being executed, or probably executions at all, and they should check themselves a bit. I just took the bible and said thank you. I grabbed one and remember reading some Psalms and some of the New Testament on the plane ride home.” 

One Big Setup, 222

Brian went on to mention the dubious reaction from the Christians when he suggested to them that maybe he too was doing God’s work by advocating for the condemned.

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that those same Christians believed their ‘Christian duty’ was to prepare the prisoners (vis a vis the sinner’s prayer) for eternity, not accompanying them in the present.

Here’s what hit me about what Brian shared:

The ‘traditional’ evangelical understanding of the cross, what theologians call ‘penal substitution,’ not only has nothing to say to people like the Alfred Dewayne Brown, penal substitution speaks no good news to them because it simultaneously privileges people like me.

Penal substitution is an understanding of the atonement ideally suited for oppressors and people who benefit from oppressive systems.

On the pop level, penal substitution is the understanding of the cross that says ‘Jesus died for you.’

For your sin.

Jesus died in your place. Jesus died the death you deserve to die as punishment for your sin. Jesus is your substitute. He suffered (suddenly I realize how the past tense is key) the wrath God bears towards you.

On the purely theological level, I’ve always had my theological gripes with that way of understanding the cross, but when as I listened to Brian the this-world, moral deficiencies of penal substitution hit me like a slap across the face.

Saying Jesus Christ died for you, for your sin, for your sin to be forgiven is good news to… sinners.

But what about the sinned against?

What we flipply call ‘Amazing Grace’ is good news for wretches like Isaac Newton. For slave-traders and slave-masters. Thanks to the cross, they’re good to go. Their collective guilt and systemic sin…wiped clean by the blood of the cross.

Hell, we might as well continue in those sinful systems because what matters to Christ isn’t our collective guilt but our individual hearts.

Yet what about those whom the ‘wretches’ has made life an exponentially more wretched experience? What about those innocents wrongly condemned to die at the hands of the State- just like, it’s so obvious it shouldn’t need to be pointed out, Jesus?

At the Lord’s Supper we proclaim that Christ came to set the captives free, yet we persist in an understanding of the cross that bears zero continuity with that proclamation.

We spiritualize and interiorize gospel categories like ‘suffering’ and ‘oppression’ and ‘deliverance.’

Because it suits us.

Because we are ourselves are not oppressed, have no actual desire to be delivered from our ways in the world and suffer only the affliction of the comfortable.

Penal substitution, I realized upon hearing Brian’s words, makes the mistake of acting as though Jesus of Nazareth is the only one to ever be strung up on a cross of shame and suffering.

Put differently, there’s something profoundly wrong about any ‘theory’ of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross that doesn’t lead straightaway to Christian solidarity with modern-day prisoners.

6a00d83458da2d69e200e54f5bc5ac8833-800wi

By making the cross theologically ‘necessary’ for atonement, penal substitution obscures the real, messy, historical fact that Jesus’ indictment, sentencing and death were all unjust.

When we abstract Jesus’ execution out of its historical context, it becomes too easy for us to stop identifying with those in Jesus’ place in our own contemporary context.

That 100% of Christians in America worship a God who was executed by the State but the majority of Christians in America support execution suggests that we’ve so theologized the story that we’ve lost the plot.

To suggest the primary meaning of the cross is that Christ died for their oppressors’ sins is to perpetuate, in a very real way, their suffering.

If Jesus wept over Jerusalem, I’ll be damned if he doesn’t weep over a place like Houston. And if he called the Pharisees ‘white-washed tombs’ for turning a blind eye to Rome’s oppressive systems, I wonder what he might call us?

Listening to Brian, I realized again that Christ doesn’t die for us so much as Christ dies

A) because of us and

B) as one of us.

With us. In solidarity with those who’ve suffered like him at the hands of empire and indifference.

Location, location, location.

Real estate can make you hear the gospel with different ears, even if it’s from behind bars. That’s what I realized again listening to Brian.

The cross is the opposite of good news unless it is today what it was for the first Christians: a symbol of protest, a demand for and a sign of an alternative to the world’s violence, a declaration that Christ not Caesar is Lord.

The primary message of the cross for someone like me, then, isn’t that God’s grace has saved a wretch like me though it can include that message.

No, the primary message of the cross is that it’s a summons to suffer, as Christ, for those whom the world makes life wretched.

Rather than Jesus being the answer, the solution to our selfishly construed problem, the Cross is meant to afflict us with the right nightmares.

Here is the first sermon in the Leaving Left Behind Behind series. Though it’s a sermon about ‘the satan’ the text is from the Easter encounter of Jesus to his frightened disciples in John 20.19-23. ‘Satan’ is a tradition that’s evolved over the course of the tradition so the sermon couldn’t possibly map the entire history. Instead, I chose to focus on the root of the word- which I think yields an insight far scarier than any Al Pacino depiction.

If you’re interested in the treatment below, I highly recommend the Rene Girard book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening.

You can listen to the sermon here below or on the sidebar to the right. You can download it in iTunes here or download the free mobile app here and listen wherever you are.

My dad had a heart attack a couple of years ago.

I flew up to Cleveland when I got the call. He almost died.

Some of you probably don’t know this about me:

My dad and me- we have a history that started when I was about the age my boys are now. Even today our relationship is complicated and tense and…sticky- the way it always is in a family when addiction and infidelity and abuse are part of the story.

Some hurts never go away and some scores never get settled.

A few days after his heart attack my dad went home.

We were sitting in his garden- just him and me and my stepmom. My dad’s face was black and his nose was broken from where he’d fallen on the street. His chest was sore and his breathing tight from the CPR.

My dad and me, we don’t have the kind of relationship where we know how to just sit in the garden with each other- if you know what I mean.

So we were sitting there, he’d just come back home, he’d just come back from the dead and some of the first words out of his mouth?

He started picking at me.

Picking at old wounds.

Picking old fights.

 

I hadn’t seen him in nearly 2 years. His heart had stopped beating for several minutes. He’d gotten a new chance at life; he’d gotten new life and I’d gotten a new chance at a new life with him. But there in the garden he just wanted to go back at it.

 

There was no ‘I once was lost but now I’m found’ moment.

I thought: Really, you want to do this now? Right here?

But it didn’t take long for me to take the bait, and there I was arguing 20 year old resentments with my nearly-dead-dad.

There we were trading blame and accusation back and forth, blame and accusation.

We didn’t get very far though. A couple of minutes. A couple of raised voices.

And then my stepmom stood up, gestured in the middle of us and scolded: ‘Whatever you think is between you. It’s gone. It’s removed. It’s not here anymore.’

And then she pointed at me or, rather, at the cross on my neck and said: ‘I expect you, at least, to understand that.’

pastedGraphic.pdf

Alright, you may not be wearing a cross around your neck, but you are here today. So, at least in theory, you should understand too.

So here’s my question:

What did she mean?

What was she talking about?

 

To keep it basic, you could say sin- the sins between us, the sins committed on the other, the sins suffered because of the other.

On a basic level, you could say she was talking about sin.

 

To get more theological, you could say she was talking about Good Friday and Easter, the Passion and the Resurrection, the Empty Cross and the Empty Grave.

On a theological level, you could say that’s what she thought I should understand.

 

But to get specific, painfully, dangerously specific, you could say she was talking about satan.

xir185972

     And there’s your question, right?

Satan? What do you mean she was talking about Satan?

Satan is red.

Satan has horns and a tail.

Satan carries a pitchfork. Satan smells like sulfur. Satan slithers on the ground.

 

Satan’s the Prince of Darkness; he rules like a god in Hell, he has dominion over this fallen world especially the House, Senate and Department of Motor Vehicles.

And when Satan speaks, it’s probably in parseltongue.

Sometimes he appears to resemble Al Pacino, but Satan’s a fallen angel, a serpent, a creature.

As in, not human.

Not one of us.

Not like one of us.

Satan’s nothing like us.

So what did she mean? My stepmother, what was she talking about?

 

pastedGraphic_1.pdf

Here’s our problem:

Biblically speaking, Satan isn’t a proper name. Later tradition turns it into a proper name but initially in the bible Satan isn’t a proper name. It’s a noun.

‘Satan’ isn’t a person. It’s a title.

Biblically speaking, it’s not Satan with a capital ‘S.’ It’s satan with a little ‘s.’

It’s not Satan. It’s the satan.

In Hebrew it’s ha-satan (שָּׂטָן).

‘Ha’- is the Hebrew definite article for ‘the.’ Ha-satan is the noun form of the Hebrew verb: שָׂטַן.

 

And the first place you find that verb in scripture is in Genesis 3.

After God has created all that is and called it ‘good.’

After God has created Adam and then Eve and called everything ‘very good.’

After the serpent asks Eve ‘…did God really say…?‘

After Adam and Eve wonder whether God is ‘very good’ and they eat.

After God goes looking for Adam and Eve.

And after God asks Adam what has happened…what does Adam say?

     Eve made me do it.

     It’s because of her. It’s her fault. She’s the reason.

     He points the finger. He passes the buck.

     He finds a scapegoat.

Eve’s guilty too, sure, but that doesn’t mean Adam’s not scapegoating her. Rather than deal with and repent of his own sin and guilt, he takes it and puts it on someone else.

     And that’s the first place where you find that verb satan.

     It means ‘to blame.’

     ‘To accuse.’

When we talk about original sin, we always think of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

When we talk about original sin, we’re so used to thinking of the tree in the garden that we completely miss how the first sin of humanity against humanity is when Adam blames the only other person he has to share this world with.

     Blame and accusation- satan- that’s our original sin, on each other.

Turn the page and our very next sin is murder, when Cain kills his brother- what Jesus refers to as the foundational sin of the world.

Blame and accusation- satan- leads to violence.

Our original sin leads to the foundational sin of the world.

‘Satan’ is not a proper, personal name- at least not initially- it’s our propensity for blame and accusation- a propensity that inevitably leads to violence.

     ‘Satan’ is not a proper, personal name. The blame game is satan’s name.

     I suppose in that sense it’s the most personal name of all.

It’s less about a supernatural, otherworldly god-like character and more about the spirit of blame and accusation and recrimination and judgment that so easily captivates us and so quickly leads to casualties.

When you dig down to the dirty root of the word, it’s no wonder we’ve preferred to imagine Satan with horns and a pitchfork. Because while ‘Satan’ doesn’t look much like any of us, I don’t know about you but ha-satan is the spitting image of me.

No wonder we’ve preferred to make him the Prince of Darkness and put him down in Hell to rule and reign because that’s a lot less frightening than staring at him in the mirror every morning.

You see, imagining a ‘Satan’ who smells like sulphur is just another way we try to convince ourselves that our s#$% doesn’t stink.

 

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

Of course, not wanting to smell our own s#$% is exactly the problem.

The Book of Genesis is the first book in scripture for a reason. You miss what’s going on here in the first few chapters and you lose the plot to the rest of the scripture story.

The original sin of not trusting God’s love and goodness produces the first sin we commit against each other other: satan, blame and accusation.

And our first sin against each other leads to the foundational sin of the world.

Separation from God, blame and accusation of each other and violence, physical and emotional violence.

This is what’s wrong with our world. This is what’s wrong in our relationships, and this is what’s wrong in our communities and nations.

The ancient Jews had a system of dealing with this problem: Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

In case it’s been a while since you read your Leviticus, Yom Kippur revolves around the Jewish high priest. The person who represents all of God’s people, the only person who can ever venture beyond the temple veil and into the Holy of Holies, where the ark and the presence of God reside, and ask God to remove his people’s sins.

yom_kippur_azazel_goats

Because when he enters the Holy of Holies he enters God’s presence, every detail of every ritual matters.

When he’s done with the ritual preparation, the high priest is brought two goats.

Lots are cast so that God’s will would be done.

One goat is sacrificed to cleanse the temple of sin.

The second goat is brought to him alive.

The high priest lays both his hands on the head of the goat and then confesses onto it all the iniquities of the people of Israel.

The priest removes all the people’s sin and guilt and puts it on the goat instead.

It’s a ritualized exchange of satan, blame and accusation, from the guilty onto the innocent.

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

While the high priest prayed over the goat, the king of the Jews would undergo a ritual humiliation to repent of his people’s sins: he’d be struck, his clothes would be torn, the king would ask God to forgive his people for they know not what they do.

When the high priest’s work is done, the goat’s loaded with all the sins of the people. Chances are, you wouldn’t want to volunteer to lead that goat out into the wilderness.

So the man appointed for the task would be a Gentile. Someone with no connection to the people of Israel. Someone who might not even realize that what they’re doing is a dirty job.

That Gentile would lead the goat away with a red cord wrapped around its head- red that symbolized sin.

The name for the goat is ahzahzel. It’s where we get the word ‘scapegoat.’

Ahzahzel means ‘taking away.’

The Gentile would lead the scapegoat to the forsaken place while the people shouted ‘ahzahzel.’

Take it away. Take our sin away.

So that it’s not here anymore.

pastedGraphic_4.pdf

Our first sin against each other leads to the foundational sin of the world.

Mistrust of God, blame and accusation of each other and violence.

This is the dynamic at play in the Passion story too.

When Jesus is arrested, he’s brought to whom?

The high priest.

And what’s the high priest do to Jesus? He satans Jesus.

He accuses Jesus. Casts blame on him.

They satan Jesus of blasphemy, but that’s God incarnate standing there before them so who’s really guilty of blasphemy?

You see, they’re putting their guilt and sin onto him.

They satan Jesus of threatening to destroy the Temple.

They satan Jesus of fomenting armed revolution against the empire.

They satan Jesus of teaching that his followers should hold back taxes to Caesar.

They accuse and blame Jesus.

Even though it’s Pilate who wants to destroy the Temple.

It’s Herod who skims off Caesar’s taxes for himself.

It’s the High Priest who breaks the first commandment when he says ‘We have no King but Caesar.’

And it’s the hosanna-shouting crowds who reject Jesus a few days later because they want their Messiah to be a violent revolutionary.

They satan Jesus with their own junk and put it on him.

Then Pilate’s men ritually humiliate this ‘King of the Jews.’ Mocking him. Casting lots before him. Tearing his clothes off him. And then wrapping a branch of thorns around his head until a cord of red blood circles it.

Afterwards, Pilate presents the crowd with two prisoners: Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas.

One is the incarnate Son of the Father; the other’s name means ‘Son of the Father.’

It’s like the crowd’s being asked to choose between two identical goats.

And when Pilate asks the crowd what to do with Jesus.

What do the crowds shout?

Not ‘Crucify him!’ Not at first.

First, the crowds shout ‘Take him away!’

Then they shout ‘Crucify him!’

After Caiphus and Herod and Pilate and Caesar and the crowds all put their sin on to Jesus, satanically blaming and accusing him of the very things they’re guilty of, Jesus is led away, like an animal, with a red ring around his head, with shouts of ‘ahzahzel’ ringing in the air- led away from the city by Gentiles to Golgotha.

A garbage dump.

A barren place where some of his last words will be ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’

Our original sin of mistrusting God’s goodness produces our first sin of blame and accusation, satan, and that leads to the foundational sin of the world, violence.

That’s the dynamic at play in every heart, every crowd, every community and every nation.

That’s what the Gospels try to show you.

It’s what John the Baptist meant at the very beginning of the Gospel when he pointed at Jesus and said he’s the one who will ‘ahzahzel the sin of the world.‘

It’s what St John means when he says Jesus was ‘slain from the foundation of the world.’

It’s what Caiphus reveals about us when he decides once and for all to scapegoat Jesus: ‘…it’s better that one innocent man should die…’ than all of us.

We like to imagine Satan as fiendishly red with horns and a pitchfork to go with his tail, but when you look at the Passion story, satan, is found on every face in the crowd.

We like to picture Satan as a mythic, rival to God instead of confronting that satan, blame and accusation, is what we do to each other.

We blame and accuse.

We backbite and judge and gossip.

We find fault.

We point the finger and pass the buck and cast the first and second and third stone.

We satan until we do it to God himself.

ecce-homo-antonio-ciseri

     pastedGraphic_5.pdf

And we still do it.

According to a Pew Survey on Religion in America, those who check ‘None’ when surveyed about their religious affiliation are the fastest growing religion in America.

Surveys have shown that what’s behind the rise of the Nones, in many cases, is an image problem for Christians.

In one survey, when given a list of possible attributes to describe Christians:

81% checked ‘yes’ next to the adjective ‘judgmental.’

85% checked ‘yes’ to ‘hypocritical’ which is just another word for blame and accusation.

Only 70% checked ‘yes’ to insensitive while 64% said they thought Christians were ‘not accepting of those different than them.’

     In other words, when those outside the Church look at those inside the Church they don’t see Jesus. They see Satan, satan.

Blame and accusation.

And that reveals not just an image problem. It shows that we’ve lost the plot.

We’ve forgotten the very first thing it means to confess ‘Christ is Risen Indeed.’

pastedGraphic_6.pdf

When you go back to read Leviticus, about the Day of Atonement, one of the things you realize is that once that scapegoat is loaded down with all the sins of the people and sent away into the god-forsaken wilderness to die, the last thing you want is to have that goat come wandering back.

Cain sure didn’t want Abel coming back.

Scripture says the innocent blood of Abel cries out from the ground.

Innocent scapegoats coming back just leads to more satan, blame and accusation, until it leads to revenge and retribution.

     You don’t want the scapegoat coming back.

lightstock_128163_small_user_2741517

     Think about it- that kind of news would be absolutely terrifying if you were guilty or had had any kind of hand in it.

But Jesus he’s the scapegoat slain from the foundation of the world, the scapegoat of scapegoats.

And he wasn’t just innocent, he was God.

After he’s led away to forsaken Golgotha to die and left in a tomb never to be heard from again, he comes back.

He comes back.

And it’s turn the other cheek time no more.

He throws Caiphus up on a cross of his own and he gives Pontius Pilate a dose of his own medicine and he says to the hosanna-shouting crowds: ‘Pay back time.’

No.

He doesn’t even bother with Caiphus.

He doesn’t give Pilate a dose of his own medicine, he grills his disciples fish.

And the first thing this scapegoat says to them, the first words out of his Easter mouth, the first word of God’s New Creation is ‘Peace.’ שָׁלוֹם

Which is the Bible’s shorthand way of saying ‘I forgive you.’

‘I want to restore not retaliate.’

‘I want to heal our relationship not harm it more.’

‘I want to make all things new.’

      The first word of Resurrection is the opposite of satan.

lightstock_65120_small_user_2741517

pastedGraphic_7.pdf

I’ve been a minister now for 13 years.

I’ve pastored in 4 churches, 1 hospital and 1 prison.

And in at least 1 way, you’re all the same.

All of you could tell a story like the one I told you about my dad and me in the garden.

All of you have someone in your life who might say: ‘I forgive you, let’s move on.’

But the next time a fight erupts, you know, it’s all over again. All the archived animosities will come out.

All of you have someone in your life with whom it’s never done. It’s never finished. It’s never put to rest.

Someone with whom you can try to put it behind you, but next time it’s right there between you again. Like it never left.

All of you have someone in your life for whom what you’ve done is never done with.

Someone for whom the past is only in the past until it comes back tomorrow or next year.

It’s never gone once and for all.

And for some of you, that someone in your life is you.

You’re the one who can’t put it away, can’t send it away, who always brings it back to where or how it started.

You can’t face and repent of your own junk and so you’re always looking to put it on someone else.

     We like to picture Satan red with horns and a pitchfork to go with his tail, but when you dig down to the dirty root of the word you realize that ‘Satan’ is not a proper, personal name.

     The blame game is satan’s name.

And if the first word of Resurrection, the first word of God’s New World, the first word that summarizes everything Jesus did and everything he undid- if the first word on Jesus’ Easter lips is ‘Peace,’

Then there should be no margin of error in the surveys: 100%

Christians should be known as those people who renounce the blame game in Jesus’ name.

lightstock_65120_small_user_2741517

 

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.

marc-chagall-revolution-resurrection

“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.’

Good Friday is ground zero for speculating about the atonement.

Many of ‘theories’ of the atonement rely upon a literal reading of the ‘Fall’ in Genesis to which probably Jesus himself, being a Jew and Rabbi, did not subscribe.

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:

chagall

“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 Holy Week this year by reading the work of the late Dominican philosopher Herbert McCabe.

Here, McCabe cautions against any understandings of Good Friday 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:

chagall

“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.”

 

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 wading through some of McCabe’s relevant work:

1024px-Caravaggio.emmaus.750pix

“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:

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”

God Matters