Archives For Rene Girard

Untitled44There’s no better time than the Advent season of ‘holy anticipation’ to reflect on what I think is the most important question for Christians to ponder:

Why does God takes flesh in the first place?

Does God become incarnate in Jesus in order to die upon the cross; so that, we can be saved from our sins?

Is Christmas merely instrumental? Is the Incarnation just the means by which humanity pays the sin-debt owed to God, satisfying God’s wrath against us in the process?

Or is the Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas itself salvific in some way?  Is humanity in some measure saved simply by God assuming our humanity?

And what do we mean by ‘salvation?’

For all you theology nerds, church geeks and preachers desperate for sermon ideas, I invite you to join me this Advent in reading and reflecting upon the Church Father Athanasius’ short essay On the Incarnation.

A bishop in the early 4th century and a leader against the Arian heretics (those who did not believe that the fullness of God dwelt in Christ) at the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation is one of the very first texts of developed Christian theology.

Plus, its short. 40 pages.

Even better, it’s free. Right here: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word

Print it out and after you’ve stuffed your face like the pilgrims of yore, get to reading.

Starting the week of 12/1 we’ll go at a 10-15 page pace a week.

Each week of Advent I’ll post my thoughts on what we’ve read, the context behind it and why it matters for thinking about and following Christ today.

Plus, each week I’ll post a podcast conversation about On the Incarnation between me and some special guests:

061213soulenDr. Kendall Soulen, Professor of Theology at Wesley Theological Seminary

Michael Harden, a Rene Girard scholar, author of The Jesus Driven Life and Executive Director of Preaching Peace

Bobby Ray Hurd, House Church Planter at Simple Church and the smartest dude I ‘know’ on the interwebs.

So read, listen, and send me a thought or question via email or the Speakpipe on the screen.

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To wet your whistle, here’s this money quote from Athanasius:

“Because the true story of the world has been lost in the seemingly endless epic of sin, Christ must retell- in the entire motion and content of his life, lived both toward the Father and for his fellows- the tale from the beginning.

The Logos became flesh in order to reestablish the original pattern after which the human form was crafted in the beginning, and to impress upon creation the beauty of the divine image.”

Want to know just how important those two sentences are for making sense of Christmas, Good Friday, the teachings of Christ and our hands-on embodiment of them for others?

Read.

Listen.

Ask.

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Do it.

 

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.’

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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.

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     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?

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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     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.

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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.

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Jesus, the Scapegoat

Jason Micheli —  September 14, 2013 — Leave a comment

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     Here’s a Lenten sermon from a while ago that I thought would be appropriate to share again for Yom Kippur. 

 

     The ancient church fathers believed the Book of Hebrews was originally one long sermon on Leviticus 16.

Leviticus 16 details God’s instructions to Moses for the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur revolves around the 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.

Remember, in the Hebrew Bible God is a consuming, refining fire.

And as much as God loves us and as much as we love God, in the Hebrew Bible no one can come near God’s presence.

And live.

So when the high priest enters the Holy of Holies, he risks his life.

And because of that, every detail of every ritual matters.

The high priest must bath the right way.

The high priest must dress the proper way.

The high priest must make prescribed sacrifices for his sin and his family sin.

When he’s done with the 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 sins and places them on the goat.

And after the priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the wilderness.

     The wilderness symbolized exile and forsakenness and death.

The high priest transfers the sins of the people onto the goat and then the goat is sent away to where the wild things are.

You see, Yom Kippur isn’t about God wanting to punish you for your sin.

Yom Kippur’s about God wanting to remove your sin.

The Day of Atonement is not about appeasing an angry, petty God.

It’s about God removing that which separates us from God and from each other and sending it away so that it’s not here anymore.

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 into exile while the people shouted ‘ahzahzel.’

Take it away. Take our sin away.

So that it’s not here anymore.

The Gospels all say Jesus dies during the Passover Feast not Yom Kippur.

But I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.

Because the Gospels tell you the calendar says Passover, but what they show you looks an awful lot like the Day of Atonement.

The Gospels show you Jesus being arrested and brought to whom?

The high priest.

The Gospels show you the high priests accusing Jesus of blasphemy, placing what they say is guilt and sin upon him when in reality all they’re doing is transferring their own guilt onto him.

The Gospels show you Pilate’s men ritually humiliating 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.

The Gospels tell you that the calendar says Passover, but what they show you is Pilate holding Jesus out to the crowd and Pilate asks the crowd what to do with Jesus.

And what do the crowds shout? Not ‘Crucify him!’ Not at first.

First, the crowds shout ‘Take him away!’

Then they shout ‘Crucify him!’ (John 19.15)

The Gospels tell you that the calendar says Passover, but what they show then is Jesus being 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?’

The Gospels tell you its Passover, but what they show you isn’t a Passover Lamb but a Scapegoat.

This is what the Gospels show you when Jesus breathes his last and the veil of the temple- the entrance to the Holy of Holies- is torn in two, from top to bottom.

This is what the Gospels show you when they quote the prophet Isaiah:

‘He has born our grief.’

‘He has carried our sorrow.’

‘Laid on him is the iniquity of us all.’ Those are all references to Leviticus.

This is what the Gospel shows you at the very beginning right after the Christmas story when John the Baptist points to Jesus and says he’s the one who ‘ahzahzels the sins of the world.’

This is what St Paul alludes to when he says that because of Jesus Christ ‘nothing can now separate us from God.’

The Gospels tell you the calendar says Passover, but what they show you is a Day of Atonement.

Unlike any other.

Every year after the ahzahzel goat was led into the wilderness the red cord that had been tied around the goat was taken off.

And the cord was hung on the altar in the temple where, over the next year, Jewish tradition says the cord would turn from red to white, signifying God’s forgiveness of the people’s sin.

However, according to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD that red cord stopped turning from red to white.

The Talmud, I should add, was written by Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah.

According to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the temple was destroyed, the lot cast between the two goats on Yom Kippur no longer was able to discern a scapegoat.

The doors into the sanctuary stopped opening at the high priest’s oblation on Yom Kippur.

40 years before the temple was destroyed in 70 AD- the whole process of atonement stopped working.

It was no longer effective, says the Talmud.

70 AD – 40 AD = about 30 AD.

In other words….

Around the time Jesus was led away to Golgotha while crowds shouted ‘ahzahzel’ the atonement that had been repeated year after year since Moses met God on Mt Sinai- stopped working.

Says the Talmud.

Or maybe you could say it stopped working because it had already worked perfectly.

Maybe you could say it had worked once and for all.

I’ve been a minister now for almost 11 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.

And for still others of you, it might not ever occur to you what that has to do with that (the cross).

On the Jewish calendar, this year Yom Kippur will be on September 25.

And next year, Yom Kippur will be on September 13.

And the year after that it will be on October 3.

And the year after that the Day of Atonement’s scheduled for September 22.

It’s already on the books: on Saturday, October 12, 2025 the Jewish high priest has to get up and do this all over again.

And I’ve had a goat in my office all weekend.

Trust me, Yom Kippur’s a lot of work.

But our High Priest, our Great High Priest, Hebrews says, sat down.

He sat down.

And he’s not getting back up again.

Not next year. Not the year after that. Not in 20 years.

54Crucifixion    It’s Lent, in case you didn’t know. We’re beginning our journey to the Cross. As part of Lent, Tony Jones this morning issued another of his ProgGod Challenges. I’ve responded to them in the past so I’ve got to keep up.

This one is for bloggers to answer the question: ‘Why the Cross?’ What Tony is after, I suspect, is the need for Emergent Christians to articulate an understanding of the atonement that is as robust and scripturally thorough (and I would, preachable) as the ubiquitous penal substitutionary atonement theory.

Unless I missed it, Tony didn’t issue a maximum number of allowable entries. So, here is stab #1, a textually-based look that unintentionally has some affinity with Rene Girard.

If the cross has less power for us today, then I think maybe it’s because we’ve explained its power away. I think maybe it’s because we’ve turned the cross into a tidy transaction or a shallow symbol.

The theologians and church fathers have their ‘atonement theories.’ Theological explanations for why Jesus had to die and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. 

     Jesus dies to pay our debt of sin, some have explained. Jesus defeats the power of Death and Sin, others have answered. Jesus is the Second Adam. Jesus is our Passover. Jesus is our Ultimate Scapegoat, say the theologians.

      But what if instead of the predictable preferential option for our favorite theologian- and what if instead of trying to harmonize the kaleidoscopic array of imagery in the two testaments- we simply zero in on a specific text of scripture?

     What if we pretended we had only one scripture text to make sense of the cross? Would our ‘atonement theories’ still seem so self-evident? Or would the text suggest a different impression intended by the cross?

What if, for example, we just looked at our prototype Gospel, Mark?

Mark wasn’t a theologian. Mark wasn’t interested in theories or explanations. Mark didn’t care about answering all your questions or giving you happy endings. Mark didn’t bother tying off loose ends so that Jesus’ cross fits snugly into some cosmic plan that can comfort you instead of challenge you to your core. Mark wasn’t a theologian. Mark was an artist.

 

Mark’s story of Jesus’ trial and death is not theory or explanation; it’s art. And where the theologians give you answers and explanations, Mark gives you irony. In Mark, Jesus’ career ends in what appears to be total collapse: his ministry is in shambles; he’s sold out by one of his close friends, deserted by the rest except Peter who then quickly denies ever knowing him.

 

He’s arraigned before the religious authorities, tried and found guilty. His clothes, which once had the power to heal a desperate woman are torn from him. He’s brought before Pilate, where’s he tried, found guilty, mocked and stripped naked and executed by the political officials. His only words: ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ are misunderstood by the crowd and the centurion’s confession upon his death is laden with sarcasm: ‘Surely, this is God’s Son (not).’

For those with eyes to see, however, the story has another dimension. The long-awaited enthronement of Jesus the Messiah does occur. Yet it’s Jesus enemies who play the role of subjects. It’s the high priest who finally puts the titles together that Mark’s Gospel began with: ‘Are you the Christ? The Son of God?’ It’s Pilate who formulates the inscription: ‘The King of the Jews.’ Pilates’ soldiers, not realizing they actually speak the truth, salute Jesus as King, kneeling in mock homage. The correct words all get spoken. Testimony to the truth is offered. But the witnesses have no notion what they speak is true. The messiahship of Jesus is for them blasphemous or absurd or seditious. But they still speak the right words. And that is, of course, the irony.

Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies. At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice.

     Even the mockery of Jesus as a prophet highlights another of the many ironies. At the very moment that Jesus is being taunted with ‘prophesy,’ in the courtyard outside one of Jesus’ prophecies is coming true to the letter as Peter denies him three times before the cock crows twice. 

Far from being in control, Jesus’ enemies seal their own fate by condemning him to death. Even their worst intentions serve only to fulfill what has been written of the Son of Man, just as Jesus says.

 

Where the theologians give you answers and explanation, Mark gives you irony.

And perhaps the most threatening irony of all in Mark’s Gospel is that those ‘worst’ intentions come not from the worst of society but the best. We conveniently forget- Judaism was a shining light in the ancient world, offering not only a visible testimony to God who made the heavens and the earth but a way of life that promised order and stability and well-being of the neighbor.  And in a world threatened by anarchy and barbarism, the Roman empire brought peace and unity to a frightening and chaotic world. The people who did away with Jesus- Pilate and his soldiers, the chief priests and the Passover pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem- they were all from the best of society not the worst.

And they were all doing what they were appointed to do. What they thought they had to do. What they thought was necessary for the public good. I mean….the chief priests’ reasoning: ‘It’s better for one man to die than for all to die…’ is correct. That’s a perfectly rational position.

The theologians give explanations: that Jesus had to die in order for God to be gracious, that Jesus had to die in order for God to forgive us of our sin, that Jesus had to die to pay a debt we owed but could not pay ourselves.

But what Mark gives us is different.

Mark gives us the bitter pill that Jesus had to die because that’s the only possible conclusion to God taking flesh and coming among us. The theologians give us answers, but Mark just leaves us wondering, simply, if the cross is the best we can do? Wondering if the only possible result of our encountering God is our choosing to kill him?

Mark doesn’t give us answers. Mark just gives us painful irony- that those who should’ve known best, those on whose expertise the world relies, those who presumed themselves to be God’s faithful people, those much like ourselves, they felt they had no other alternative but to do Jesus in.

     And I think that  is where all our theological explanations for the cross fail.

They make the cross seem almost reasonable.

Or, at least rationally necessary.

They make the cross a necessity for God to do away with sin. 

     Instead of a necessity for us to do away with God.

They make the cross seem inevitable because of who God is instead of confessing that the cross was inevitable because of who we are. That’s why, even after Easter, Mark and the other disciples still struggled with the cross. They struggled coming to terms with the fact that, given who we are, it couldn’t have been different. That, deep down, we prefer a God who watches from a safe, comfortable distance. And when God comes close then inevitably we have to defend ourselves. That Christmas could come again and again and every time we would choose the cross.

Mark doesn’t give us answers or explanations. Mark won’t allow us to think our way around the cross or theologize our way through it. Mark won’t let us off the hook tonight. There’s no good news here at the foot of Mark’s cross. There’s just the painful irony that all our hopes and aspirations and plans and talent and knowledge come to this: a confrontation with God. A God who wills only to be gracious. That ends with Jesus dead. Mark leaves us with the bitter irony that the only person who can make us whole is dead, forsaken and shut up in a tomb.

Our only hope is that God won’t leave him there.