Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Grace and Demands of Atonement

A couple of things have been happening the last few days as I continue in my traditional (I seem to do this every year) exploration of the meaning of Atonement.

The first of these is that I've come to believe that Atonement is rooted in the account we find of God cutting a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15.  It's a gory story.  Abraham had followed the "directions for cutting a covenant" straight out of the handbook.  He's taken a 3 year old heifer, a 3 year old female goat, a three year old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.  He's cut the larger animals in half and laid them out so that there is a path between the pieces.  All day long Abram sits there keeping the birds of pray from feeding on the carcasses.

The idea was that the two parties in the covenant would walk through the path created by the animal parts and meet in the middle. The oath symbolized by this  is essentially, "let me die like this animal if I betray our covenant."  But then vs 17 "When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces."  God, represented by these symbols, passes the whole way through the path made by the animal parts.  God takes the whole weight of the Covenant upon God's Own Self.

 Abram was called by God to help set the world to rights.  That's Abram's end of the covenant, "to be a light to the nations."  But he will fail.  Israel will fail. I will fail.  You will fail. America will fail.  And God will bear the weight by 'putting on skin' and going to the cross. 

The second thing is that I've been thinking of all the truly evil despicable people I've known in my lifetime.  My work as a therapist with sexual offenders has sometimes brought me in touch with people I would call truly evil.  My work as a pastor has as well.  And I have to ask myself 'what kind of tortured life does it take to bring a person created in the image of God to this kind of place?'  'What does it take to make a good creation push away from it's Creator to the degree that it actually begins to cease being human?'
The saddest, scariest part of my work life has been when I hear the stories that answer that question.

And so, the second thing is that I have to believe that Jesus died to free them too.  Do I like them? respect them:? Want to take a long car ride with them? NO.....does that matter?  NOT AT ALL.  Am I commanded to pass them the Bread and the Wine and say, "The Body of Christ broken for you".....absolutely.  In fact, Paul would say (I believe this application to be reasonable) that to fail to do so is to "drink condemnation of myself."

Which brings me to my third thought.  I am convinced that there is real, true Evil in the world.  Beyond evil men and women who do horrendous things, beyond all the systemic programs that rob the vulnerable of what they need....there is Evil.  A Power, a moving, devouring thing that has a life of it's own.  And I believe that on the cross Jesus kicked that Power's ass.  It's that blunt, it's that simple.  This, to me is part of the Atonement.  This is Jesus 'taking the powers captive.'
The Powers that take victims and turns the into perpetrators; the Powers that denies children and elderly medical care while reaping the financial benefits of the same programs; the Powers that make billions selling arms to both sides of a conflict.   These too were defeated at the cross.

And our choice?  It's the one echoed in the folk song from the coal mine wars; when the unions were fighting and scrapping for basic safety and living wage.  When it comes to the battle between Jesus and the Powers, "which side are you on?"

See, Atonement saves me....but it also commands me.  It rescues me, but it sends me into battle as well.  The fact that God takes the weight for my failure in covenant relationship does not give me permission to sit on the sidelines.  I am forgiven...I am set free....I am called to live as one redeemed.

Because He took up His cross, we must take up ours.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Another Visit To Atonement

As you can probably tell from my last post, the Lenten time of year often gets me thinking about the question of 'just what do we mean by Atonement.'  And I'm still thinking.  So today, a little bit more:

I'm reminded of an anthem which began with the words:

"O Love how deep,
  how broad, how high.
 How passing thought and fantasy..."

I'm afraid that we often settle for an Atonement Theory that is one dimensional, a flat view of what happened when God in Christ Jesus intervened on our behalf.  Like N.T. Wright, I believe that it takes multiple views coming together to even begin to describe this great love whose work is beyond "thought and fantasy."  Our view of Atonement needs to be 'thick' rather than 'thin'; and multidimensional rather than flat.  In fact, I believe that if we were able to apprehend the truth about this event it would be SO multidimensional that we would have to able to think in far beyond 3 dimensions (from a spiritual standpoint) to even begin to understand.

I almost feel like i should begin this next section with the famous words of disclaimer,  "the views expressed here...."  Nevertheless, here goes:

At the cross, God in Jesus did for us, and for all creation, what we could not, and cannot, do for ourselves.  In this respect the Atonement is "substitutionary".  I do not, however, believe it to be "penal"-that is that an angry God was demanding our punishment.  I don't argue that there is punishment, there are consequences built into being human. One of which is that (again I'm indebted to Wright) we can push away from what God created us to be, and from relationship with God, until we lose our humanity, until we cease to be human.  But I reject the idea that God demands blood revenge.

At the cross, God in Jesus conquered Evil (with a capital E) and Death (with a capital D) and 'bought us back"...that is "redeemed" us from the places and behaviors we have sold ourselves to in our compulsive, addictive search for soothing from our pains and fears.

At the cross, God in Jesus did not just take on my sin (the word for both my decisions that bind me to that which does not satisfy or nurture me; that which captures me and moves me further and further from what I was created to be in relationship to God and my inability to free myself); but took on the task of putting all of creation to right.  When I insist that this is just a "me and Jesus and personal salvation" conversation, I flatten out some of the other dimensions of what is happening.  Does this work begin in individuals?  Yes.  But it is not all there.  ALL of creation has be affected by our misuse of our free will.  Skies are polluted; governments ignore the poor; powerful people torture those they disagree with and justify their torture while condemning that done by others.  Jesus on the cross is God taking on ALL of this in vulnerability and love.

When I was a boy, I would take a small bottle and put baking soda in the bottom of it.  Then I would pour vinegar into the bottle and quickly put a cork in the top of the bottle.  The neutralizing of the vinegar by the baking soda would cause a reaction that would blow the cork off of the bottle.  Left behind was a gooey blob of "stuff."   On the cross; naked, vulnerable, bleeding, dying....God in Jesus drew to God's Self all that is wrong with creation.  All that our sins are and have caused....individually, corporately, physically, spiritually.  God opened God's Self to it all....took it in an 'neutralized' it....conquered it by "taking it captive" and robbing it of its final power.  Then (metaphorically) God took the gooey mess that was left, rolled it into a ball, and kicked it "as far as the east is from the west"......(really, that's what scripture says God does with our sins).

The reaction (that my little cork was a tiny image for) of this neutralization blew the doors off of hell and rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb as God vindicated this picture, this expression, this incarnation of God that Jesus had presented in His life and death.  God said, "Yes...that is Absolutely what I am like.  If you want to see Me, look at Jesus."

A final thought....Jesus did not do all of this just so I can go to heaven when I die.  Do I think I will go to heaven when I die?  Yes.  But to limit the event at the cross to just this is to dramatically shrink what God was doing in Jesus.

At the cross and the empty tomb (I do not believe they can really be separated) God's victory is won; the Kingdom is inaugurated; and Jesus' picture of what that looks like is vindicated.  And we are given a job to do.  If we want to ask, "If the Kingdom has come, then why hasn't God fixed things yet?" then perhaps the answer lies in our focus on "the sweet bye and bye" rather than the commandment that we "work for the night is coming."

I wish that this was a 'neater' description.  I wish I had it all wrapped up with a bow.  But I don't think, finally, that this is even possible.  All of creation...perhaps even the entire universe, turned a corner at the cross.  I won't find words or intellect to describe it.  I can only take the tiny bit of light shining through what I can see and try to describe it.  So..."the views expressed are neither totally true and are extremely limited.  Take what works and leave the rest."

I welcome your comments and thoughts and disagreements.  This is a Big Deal.  Nobody has it totally right.


Monday, March 2, 2015

The Church With The Withered Hand

There have been three things buzzing around in my mind lately that I'm going to try to weave into come coherent form in what follows-as much for my own sake as for that of anyone reading this blog.  Those three things are:
  • The meaning of Atonement and the Cross as we move through the Lenten season
  • The account in Mark 3:1-6 of the man with the withered hand
  • The impending execution of Kelly Gissendaner in Georgia today 
In A Community Called Atonement, Scot McKnight reminds us that "where we begin shapes where we end up.  If you begin with wrath, you get an atonement that tells the story of wrath being pacified."  This is, all too often, the picture that we have of what happened at the Cross.  Now, if we mean by "wrath" the fact that built into creation is the fact that misuse of our free will eventually destroys creation in all it's forms; including the earth itself, my relationship to neighbor, my relationship to my own self, and my relationship to God....and that I am incapable of rebuilding those destroyed relationships, then, yes, "wrath" is a part of the Atonement picture...But it is not ALL of what's going on.
If, however, our theology is one of "sinners in the hands of an angry God" who "holds us like a loathsome spider" over the flames of hell, we miss the meaning of God's wrath, God's intention for creation, as well as what Jesus is doing on the Cross.

What also happens is that this theology gives us license to kill.  If God demands blood sacrifice for the sins of humankind, it is not a far leap to think that we, too, have the right to demand blood and death in payment for the sins/crimes committed by others.  This brings us to Kelly Gissendaner.  

To me, personally, the fact that Kelly turned her life around in prison, that she has become a help to others, that she completed a Certificate in Theology from Chandler School of Theology while in prison....even the fact that the man who actually committed the murder that she orchestrated got life while she was sentenced to death......these are pale issues compared to the fact that Georgia is about to kill a human being who bears the image of God, who is redeemed by Christ's sacrifice, and who is part of Jesus' family.  How do we think Jesus feels about our killing members of His family?

But what if we start somewhere else?  What if we start our discussion of Atonement at creation?  Humankind, created in God's Image and given this huge 'garden' called earth to take care of....maybe even so that we participate and imitate in that care the way that God cares for the whole universe.  Humankind failed at that job.  God sets into motion in Abraham a nation that was to set things right, to put creation back in order.  This nation was to live in such a way that all the earth, "from north and south and east and west" would stream to it to learn how to live in relationship with God and neighbor.  Israel failed just as the first humans did.  So, in mercy, God put on flesh and came to begin the task of setting creation to rights.  Jesus did what we could not, cannot, do for ourselves.  Like filings to a magnet, Jesus on the Cross drew all of our sins, all of the toxic results of those sins, even death itself into Himself and defeated them.  In rising on Easter Jesus announced His victory and inaugurated the beginning of the Kingdom...and then sent out His disciples, and consequently us, to teach what that Kingdom looks like and to work to put the creation we were tasked to care for back to rights.  That task Jesus gave to His followers; followers who often refer to themselves as Church.

So what's that got to do with the man with the withered hand in Mark 3?
In addition to being a challenge to the Pharisees to reinterprete their view of Sabbath and how they marked their identity as Israel; and in addition Jesus' act to heal a man whose crippled hand stiffled his livelihood and kept him from participating in Temple worship; this man may also serve as a metaphor for you and me.

We in the church often seem to have a "withered hand."  The hand that holds on to rules and rituals, that deals in strict obedience to our favorite commandments (while ignoring far to often the ones we don't like), commandments that seem somehow to apply to 'other folks'....that hand is healthy and strong.
But the hand that engages in relationship, in reconciliation, in making a place at the table even for folks who make us uncomfortable....that hand is often withered and crippled.
It's not enough to make this a discussion about welcoming the inmate on death row, or gay christians, or the homeless, or liberals, or conservatives or whatever group we define as "outside."  In God's Kingdom we don't get to make that call.  Judgement is reserved for God and God alone.

Our task is to reach out.  If we want to be healed, if we want that 'hand' to work again (and I believe many of us desperately want that) then we need to hear Jesus say to us to "reach out your hand."  Take the very hand that is crippled, broken, withered and reach outIT IS IN THAT REACHING OUT THAT OUR CHURCHES WILL BE RESTORED, AND ONLY IN THAT REACHING OUT WILL WE FIND HEALING.

Which brings us full circle.  Atonement is the total work of God through Jesus the Christ in putting this broken creation back together, including my sinful self.  We participate in the work of Atonement by joining Jesus in that labor as the Body of Christ.  It is a far larger picture that I was ever taught growing up; and a deeper, richer love that I could ever imagine.  But it frees me, even when I do not fully grasp it, to bring my burdens to the Cross and to lay them down there.  There I will also pick up, not my burdens, but my toolbox and a task given by the Risen Christ to follow Him out into the world.