This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Atonement Notes: 3


Hebrews 9:1-15; Isaiah 53

I.

In the movie, The Poseidon Adventure, (the first one,) there is a scene in which Gene Hackman is a young priest leading the intrepid group of people trying to escape up through the bottom of an overturned cruise ship. At some point, after having faced and overcome impossible obstacle after impossible obstacle, they run into yet another one. It is as I recall an impassible spray of steam directly in their path.

At this development, Hackman has had it. He jumps off the catwalk, and, gripping and hanging from a pipe, he challenges God. I don’t remember his words exactly, but the effect is he says, “Okay, God, if you demand a sacrifice before you will help us, so be it!” And he lets go of the pipe, and falls to his death. At that instant the steam abruptly stops. And the group is permitted to go forward.

I think the movie-makers were thinking of him as a Christ-figure, giving his life so that others may be saved. And they depicted God in the way that has become standard according to this model of the atonement. That is, God is a heartless monster who will not forgive or redeem unless and until someone pays for it in their own blood. Once he has been dutifully bought off in living flesh, God is satisfied and withdraws his wrath.

This is the way we have been taught to think of God. It shows up again in the more recent movie, The Passion of the Christ. God demands blood. And this blood had to be extracted through such monumental and terrible suffering — after all, he’s got billions of people’s sins to pay for — that Jesus is brutally whipped and mercilessly beaten for a large part of the movie. In the end, he is covered by enough blood and gore and open wounds to impress even Quentin Tarantino.

The gospels, however, do not devote endless verses and whole chapters to detailing Jesus’ every wound. They include no graphic descriptions of his bleeding and pain. His flogging and beating are not the main focus. They are mentioned, but only tersely in a few words.

This gruesome and grotesque theory, about God demanding suffering and blood to appease him before giving up his wrath and bestowing his forgiveness on anyone, is a product of medieval theology. It is not in the Bible, although it has been so consistently read back into the Bible that most people think it is there. Yet it is still assumed that this model is what we mean when we talk about the atonement.

Is it possible to love this God? Is it possible to imagine this God loving Jesus, let alone any of us? Does God really require a violent, horrific death before he will save us? Is that the condition? Is that the God Jesus reveals to us? Is that the God of the Prodigal Son story, for instance?

Of course not. God says to Ezekiel: “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezekiel 18:32). And to Hosea, God says “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6.6). And, of course, nothing was more abhorrent to the God of Israel than human sacrifice.

II.

So what is going on here? How does Jesus’ cross save us?

The early church wove together several different traditions in the Hebrew Scriptures. Hebrews shows how Christ fulfills Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) from Leviticus 16. And the church has always understood the Suffering Servant passage which we read from Isaiah 52 and 53 as prefiguring Christ’s suffering.

In the Day of Atonement, the blood of the sacrificed goat is used to purify the sanctuary, and by extension, the whole creation. Blood represented, or was, life. This is something we need to get through our heads before the cross makes any sense to us. Blood in the Bible does not usually represent horror or violence or suffering or murder or death. Blood is life. The animals that were used in sacrifices were not made to suffer for sin. They were killed quickly and so their blood could be offered back to God and their meat shared in a communal meal of reconciliation.

The blood was then used by the priest to anoint the sanctuary as a way of blessing, restoring life, and reconnecting or reconciling the creation to God. The life, represented in the blood, is good and blessed. By spreading the blood upon the sanctuary, representing creation, the brokenness of the people was mended and healed.

In Christ we see that it is the Lord himself whose life-blood is offered. This ultimate atonement ceremony does not have to be repeated annually. God sees it and accepts the creation as sanctified once and for all; and then we participate in it repeatedly and continually. This blood is less our protection from God and more our connection to the God of life.

In the Isaiah reading the violence inflicted upon an innocent person shows that suffering is often inevitable for anyone who resists the powers of evil at work in the world. If we live the life of divine goodness, we are likely to draw down on ourselves the hatred and violence of the powers.

But this suffering is not in vain. It is a manifestation of discipleship and loyalty to God, and therefore blessed. Following the way of truth and love is its own reward. Life in harmony with God is eternal.

The Servant of God is not just a substitute for the people, but their representative. He doesn’t suffer and die so we don’t have to, he shares in the suffering that comes to those who trust in God... and he reveals its powerlessness to stop or hinder the love and redemptive will of God.

We see this in the last few verses, about seeing his offspring and prolonging his days, and about the will of the Lord prospering, coming out of anguish, finding satisfaction, making many righteous, and being allotted a portion with the great.

III.

The insight we acquire from this is, as Paul says, “if we have died with him in a death like his we will surely be united with him in a resurrection like his.” So, even here in Isaiah, it is not the suffering that is the point, but the resurrection — Christ’s resurrection and our resurrection with him.

So, God is not placing obstacles in our way. God is not demanding to be paid in blood. God is not balancing our sin with our suffering. God has no pre-conditions for reconciliation and forgiveness. God’s love is out there, woven into the very fabric of the universe. God’s love permeates the creation the way blood flows to every cell of our bodies. God’s love is the life of the whole universe.

It is as if the forces of evil invest all their time and energy in killing the God of life. They use horrific and gruesome violence.. but in every place God’s blood falls miraculous new life sprouts and grows and blossoms forth. They thought they were exterminating God’s love; instead they were causing it to spread.

And it spreads through us, through the vows we make and keep when we participate in his Body and Blood, and in the way that participation energizes our ministry and witness in his Name.

The challenge of Good Friday is to keep in our hearts the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and the Kingdom of God. For even when our faith brings us to difficult days, times of loss, failure, pain and heartbreak, times of confusion, betrayal, and sorrow, these do not have the power to break us... unless we give in to their terror. They don’t have the power to break us because they are not ultimately real. It is the end of the story that matters, and we know that the end of the story is resurrection life.

We have to make that end present in our daily lives now, by living together in peace, justice, reconciliation, and love. This begins here in this place... and then it extends outward into the whole world.

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