Sunday, April 17, 2011

Don't Know Much About Atonement

Philippians 2: 5-11

What does it mean to say that “Christ died for us”? The ten dollar term for it is Atonement. The dictionary says that it comes from the middle English, “at-one-ment”, meaning reconciliation. There is no shortage, they say, of ways to think about why Jesus died on the cross. Most of the writers of the New Testament have some version, some understanding, of explaining or referring to why Jesus did it. Some say he is the last and final sacrifice God required, the last sheep thrown on the altar, and none need be sacrificed after him. Some say he is the price paid for our freedom from the ransom of sin. There are others, as well, and Paul alone makes reference to jesus death of the cross as a substitution for the death we deserve, a sacrifice in the Hebrew way, his death being the ultimate sacrifice of love for humanity, the way soldiers throws themselves on a grenade to save his brother and sister soldiers.

I wrestle with this, because I believe that God’s love is perfect, and all powerful, and I do not quite know why it is we need to have someone pay for the gift of that perfect love. So, take this with a grain of salt, but walk a little while with me, why don’t you, as I share with you where I am on this, on this Passion Sunday.

I believe in God. I believe that God loves the world. All of it. But the part he thinks about the most are it’s humans. They’re the ones he created to be his companions in the beginning. But because he created humans to have free will, so that they might choose him freely and not be housepets, he let go of a little control over humans. And because you and I have free will, we do not choose relationship with a loving God, always. God is always pursuing this relationship, however, and the Bible in it’s fullness shows us the different ways in which God has tried to reconcile us to him. There was the covenant that he gave to Moses, and that relationship took various forms such as the Ten Commandments and giving the people a king when they wanted it, though God didn’t think it was a good idea.

God’s people could not find their way back, over time, it got harder and harder for them to realize that they were moving farther and farther from God. So God sent Jesus, who had the perfect relationship with God-perfect in understanding, perfect matching of his will to God’s, perfect ability to show God’s love, though he was flesh and blood just like us. And Jesus’ life showed us that it was possible to live a life filled with the presence of God, even amidst the trials and tribulations of a human life, and in his doing so, both pointed to the existence of a loving God, and was a model for humanity to know that they could do it too. Humans could live in the presence and love of God, like him. Humans could live a life full of God. We would not have Jesus’ life, but our own lives would be soaked, drenched, infused with God. It was possible.

The problem then became people hearing this message and getting it, and dropping out of the existing religious structure. This became a problem to that structure, and the system it had set up to provide what was thought was needed. As so often happens, an institution set up for the benefit of it’s people soon turns it’s attention to its’ own survival, and it sometimes makes choices that are self-defending instead of choosing to serve the common good. Institutions are necessary mechanism to get anything large scale done, but as Mary Shelley wrote, the creation made with the best of intentions can sometimes go horribly awry, like Dr. Frankenstein and the synthetic human he created.

Presented with the existence of Jesus, the existing institution created for relationship with God did not choose to adapt and reconcile it self to God, it chose to destroy what threatened it. This is nothing against the particular people who were running the institution. There is nothing inherently evil in the priests in the temple-it could have been Ford owners, vegetarians, or Apple computer users. It just so happened that the people running the institution were Jewish priests, and their system was threatened.

And now we come to the instructive part. Anyone who speaks out, becomes a squeaky wheel, can choose to be quiet, to hush up, when confronted with the demand for their silence. To continue takes courage. A price will be paid for their continued agitation. As the threat ratchets up, it continues to take courage. When threatened, finally with the threat of your own death, it takes supreme courage to continue. Jesus chose to continue when it became clear that he was under threat of losing his life. Jesus’ bravery was itself evidence of a loving God. Jesus’ choices showed us that a relationship with God makes us perfect in this life-brave, loving, peaceful. Oh, he was not unaware of what was before him. He was scared, he was afraid of the pain, and there were moments of doubt. He was, after all, human. But he discerned that his death would be the best evidence for God’s love-here he is, the model of God on earth. It’s a crossroads; he could make himself be free, lift himself down off the cross, and demonstrate God’s power. Or he could stay there, and demonstrate God’s love and the courage of the people who are in God.

Well, we already knew about God’s power. There was much less evidence of God’s love in that world. So Jesus chose to stay up there, and to die.

We can show love to those whom we love through roses, through gifts, through support and through affection. But sometimes, what’s called for is sacrifice. I’ve already mentioned the sacrificial soldier. A loved one donates a kidney. A spouse accompanies their love through a final journey of disease, when they could very easily run and leave them to their fate, alone.

This is the love that Jesus showed us by submitting to the religious authorities and their silly little ways. God’s love was demonstrated to us one final time, in Jesus’ choosing to die rather than exercise the power available to him.

This is what we worship, this is what we honor, this is what we revere.

May it always be so.

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