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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Atonement Notes: 2


Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 9:1-15a; Leviticus 16 (sel.); Mark 15:16-41

“For Us”

I.

“Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). “Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “One has died for all” (2 Corinthians 5:14). These verses describe one of the basic articles of Christian faith. The Nicene Creed says, “For us and for our salvation [Christ] came down from heaven.” This “for us” character of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, is fundamental to what it means to be a Christian. Somehow what Christ did has something to do with us. What he did he did for us.

But what does that really mean, “Christ died for us”? For the word “for” is very vague and can mean many things. My dictionary lists 34 meanings of the word “for” in English. In the original Greek the word is “‘uper,” which is a preposition that can mean “on behalf of,” “in the place of,” “with reference to,” or “on account of.” From ‘uper we get the prefix hyper-. And its oldest and deepest meanings are “over,” “across,” or “beyond.” Someone who is hyperactive is overly active; hypertension is when blood pressure is over what is normal; if you are hypersensitive you are over-sensitive.

Were we to read the Scriptures this hyper-literal way we might say “Christ died over our sins.” That is, Christ died because of or on account of the wrongs we have done. Our sins were the cause of his death. This is not hard to imagine.

While it is true that we were not each personally around at the time of Jesus’ death, the sins we commit were. Even if it was not we who committed them, the same sins we commit were being committed by others.

It was the sins of the dominant system of his time, the religious and political leadership of Jerusalem, that killed him. Their sins are no different from sins of the dominant system of our time. We should not fool ourselves and convince ourselves we would have done otherwise. If we are at all honest, we are all too aware that had we been in the position of the scribes, Pharisees, and priests, or of the Roman authorities, we would probably have used the same reasoning to do the same thing to Jesus.

I say that because we still do the same kinds of things, using the same reasoning, causing the suffering and death of innocent people all over the world. We show all the time that we agree with Caiaphas the High Priest who said, “It is better... to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:49). We still reserve to ourselves the right to decide who gets to die for our vision of the way things should be... which is always closely related to what serves our interests.

We are united in sin with Pilate and, to a lesser degree, with Caiaphas. We continue to do the same things they did. Christ died because of what they did, and people continue to die because of what we do. Therefore, when we say “Christ died for (or over) our sins,” we literally mean that our sins caused his death. And this insight is in some ways reflected in our hymnody. We just sang a hymn with the line “‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied you; I crucified You.”

II.

If that were all it meant to say that “Christ died for our sins,” or “Christ died for (or over) us,” the only response would be guilt and self-punishment. Not to say that this isn’t a major component of the way we Christians have talked about Jesus’ death over the centuries, but this can’t be all it means. Guilt only goes so far. Clearly these confessions mean more than that we are responsible for his death. They also imply that there is some benefit that we gain by his death.

Indeed, we confess and affirm that we gain salvation, forgiveness, acceptance, new life, and even union with and in God in and through Jesus’ death. How does this happen? How does Jesus’ dying ‘uper, over, or “for” us, accomplish this?

The theological doctrine which discusses the meaning of Jesus’ death “for us” is called the atonement. For nearly a thousand years the Western church has thought about the atonement in terms of a blood payment to make up for our sins, made by Christ to satisfy God’s absolute righteousness and justice. This view of the matter shows up all over our hymnody and prayers. It is so common that most Western Christians think it is the only way to talk about the atonement. According to this approach, “for us” means “instead of us.” Christ endured the just punishment of an angry God in our place. He was a substitute for us, enduring the punishment we deserved. Now that God’s righteous wrath is satisfied, there is no barrier to our being reconciled to God.

Unfortunately, this model bears very little resemblance to the ways the atonement is actually expressed in the New Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, for that matter. It has more to do with the Medieval mindset and feudal context of St. Anselm, who dreamed up this way of putting things in the 11th century.

Contrary to this view, the God we know in Jesus Christ is known for love and forgiveness. Think of the gracious Father in the story of the Prodigal Son. The God whom Jesus reveals does not have a rigid sense of justice that can only be satisfied by punitive suffering. Other ancient near-eastern deities demanded blood as the price of their favor. The God shown in Jesus does not.

Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, when God asks for blood sacrifices, it is not to appease or satisfy God’s wrath or buy God’s favor. Rather it is to offer back to God what belongs most clearly to God: the life of the animal. In Hebrew thought, blood represented life.

When the blood of the lamb is spread on the doorways of the Israelites in Egypt, it was not an offering of blood demanded by God, but life given as a sign of God’s protection of the people against the death of the first-born in the tenth plague. And when the blood of one goat is sprinkled in and around the Temple on the Day of Atonement, it is not a matter of appeasing God but of restoring the purity of the Temple, protecting it from the effects of the people’s sin. The sin itself is not “paid for” in blood to God but loaded on the head of the other goat (the “scapegoat”) and sent away into the wilderness. There is here no sense of suffering for sin. On the one hand the sin is sent away; on the other the Temple is repaired of sin’s destructive effects.

III.

The Hebrew word for atonement is kippur. And this word means “cover,” “recover,” “cover again,” or “make good a torn or broken covering.” Atonement, then, has to do with covering something. This is not so much to hide what is covered, but to protect it or to make it shine. As we might protect and enhance a silver plate by polishing it, or a book by putting a cellophane cover on it.

The relationship in English between the words “over” and “cover” is obvious. A cover is something that goes over something else. Thus a relationship is disclosed between ‘uper and kippur. They both reflect a relationship of one thing over, or covering, another.

It is not that difficult to imagine Jesus, as he is lifted up on the cross, being raised over us, looking down upon us from a higher vantage point, mourning and grieving over us and what we have done, who we have become, surveying the wreckage of a creation God declared very good, and at how the image of God in us has been defiled and defaced in us, in our allegiance to violence and fear.

This is particularly clear in John’s gospel. Especially in chapter 3, Jesus says, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” John sees this as one fluid, continuous, lifting-up motion: cross, resurrection, and ascension.

On the cross, Jesus literally dies over us in this sense, as he dies actually hanging above the heads of the witnesses who gathered around. He is lifted up ‘uper us, over us. At the same time and in the same action he kippurs us, he covers us, he Atones us, he makes us one again with God by shedding his blood over us, so that his blood becomes a kind of window connecting God and God’s creation. Thus the life of the Creator is reconnected to the life of the creation by the blood, or life, of Christ. Life is connected to life by life.

It is his blood therefore that, in a sense, covers us symbolically and figuratively, spiritually and imaginatively. It protects us and separates us from evil and death like the blood of the slaughtered lamb protected the Israelites during the Exodus; it draws us out of Pharaoh’s regime and into God’s Kingdom. It also restores us and the whole creation to wholeness like the blood of the sacrificed goat in the Day of Atonement ritual restored the sanctity of the Temple. His blood, representing his life, the very life of God and at the same time the true life of humanity, is, in a sense, spread out over us, between us and God, connecting us to God and to each other.

IV.

This is why we regularly and frequently share in his body and blood in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. When we take in his blood we take into ourselves this protection and this receptivity to life. Like an inoculation that preserves us from disease and also energizes us and enables us better to metabolize what truly feeds us. What was over us, covering us, is taken into us and becomes part of us. Now it covers us from within, which is where the real danger comes from anyway.

So when we say things like “Christ died for us,” “Christ died for our sins,” Christ freed us from our sins “by his blood,” or even “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities,” we are saying that by the death of Christ the whole creation is covered by God’s protective and energizing grace over us. Sin and death no longer have any power over us other than what we choose, out of our fear, blindness, or foolishness, to give them. Christ’s blood now intervenes, separating us from violence and injustice, sin and death, fear and anger; his blood now is what unites us to God.

With this blood over us, covering us, we our existence cannot be dominated by the corrupt and destructive rules of secular power. Under his blood we cannot reason and justify our actions by the standards of fear, anger, violence, and sin. With Christ’s blood covering us the pure love of God may shine fully into our lives, freeing us to live according to the standards of peace and love, goodness and truth, forgiveness and grace, kindness and compassion, faithfulness and hope, justice and righteousness, knowledge, peace and love, that we may perfectly love God and each other, that we may worthily magnify God’s holy name, and walk in beauty forever, in Jesus Christ.

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