Year B, Lent 5 March 18, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Easter is right around the corner. We have Holy Week between here and there, but it is close. Why is Easter so important to us? The Resurrection, yes. But why is that so important, what does it accomplish in the world? In Rite 1, we thank God for “…rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.” (“The Same” being the whole Passion-Resurrection story). Do you ever think about that, how we benefit from the Crucifixion of Jesus? Well, the chief benefit is Salvation, right? In the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ we are saved. We are saved…
This is not something we talk a lot about as practitioners of the Anglican form of Christianity. We are even a little prideful of being an incarnational people, a theological bent that emphasizes God’s presence in the world in the Incarnation, the blessing on the world that this implies, the goodness of the creation and its inherent save-ability. True that. I am very there. But that is not the whole story. This bright and beautiful creation also includes quite an assortment of rotten apples, some of them lodged right in the middle of each of our hearts, right in the middle of each of our minds and bodies, and that with that presence in us, that spot of evil, we are all, at least a little bit, corrupted. We are all, in more traditional Christian language, sinners. Not utterly depraved, not completely sinful or irreparably corrupt, but that corruption, that sinful nature prevents us from being in perfect right relationship with God the Foundation of Being and everything else. Right? None of us are perfect. It is those rotten apples we all tote around with us that we need to be saved from. That message is all over the Bible, all over the Mass, it is what Lent is about, and this is what this sermon is all about.
I won’t go any further into the fact that we need to be saved or what it is that we are being saved from, suffice it to say that the alternative to salvation is not good, maybe not lakes of fire and everlasting torment, but alienation from the foundation of the Universe is plenty bad enough to ponder. What I want to talk about today is something I have never heard a sermon about in an Episcopal church. I want to talk about Atonement.
As I was writing this, I wondered what the reaction would be to me saying Atonement here. A groan? An uncomfortable shuffle in the pews? Blank stares? This is one of those doctrinal, theological details that get some people very worked up because it leads us to the very heart of the Cross. And that is upsetting. The Cross is upsetting, it is a terrible, filthy instrument of torture and execution perfected in the malevolent heart of the Roman Empire. That is upsetting all on its own, that such a thing would be thought of, let alone used on who knows how many tens, hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings. The kicker is that we, Christians, understand that not only our relationship to God, but the very salvation of our beings, the reconciliation of our collective and individual relationships with God occurred because someone was nailed to such a cross to die a humiliating, agonizing death. That’s terrible. Our spiritual existence is defined by the wake left by that Cross. We owe our lives to its punishing fruits: our sins are forgiven, our brokenness repaired, relationship with being itself is restored. We believe in it, whatever that means, we trust, have faith, take refuge in the saving, forgiving power of this horrible monument. Some of us wear one around our necks. Pretty upsetting. No wonder we avoid talking about it.
When we talk about Atonement, the doctrine of Atonement, what we are talking about is how the Cross works. How is it that the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Our Lord and Savior saved us. How a torturous execution on a hill in Jerusalem forgave humanity of its fundamental brokenness, ended our existential alienation from the Ground of Being. Atonement is all about how the death of Jesus saved us from eternal death and set us on the path of light and life.
I have to admit that it took a long time for me to even consider ideas of Atonement. That didn’t work out so well as Atonement was the subject of the Theology question on the General Ordination Exams all candidates for the priesthood have to sit for before ordination. It is a pretty brutal set of seven examinations taken over the course of a week. The question on Atonement Theology earned a blank stare from me when I read it. It is not something I had spent any time thinking about. My score on the exam reflected that.
So what is the doctrine of Atonement? First off, there are a bunch of them, and they go way back to the earliest fathers of the church, back to Origen and Augustine. And they vary, wildly. So first off, this is foot-stomp important! Theology is just theory. It is ideas about the meaning of things, okay? Theology is a very human creation. And as humans in an Anglican context, it is very important to remember that we, collectively as a church, do not prefer one theory or theology of the Atonement over another. We don’t have a dogma, a church teaching on it, a party line on the mechanism of the forgiveness of the Cross. We would sure say, as we do each week in the Creeds, that by His Cross and Passion we are saved, we are forgiven our sins, but how? That slips into the territory of the Anglican smug shrug. “Who are we to say?”
That does not mean that thinking on such things is not important. As Emerson wrote, “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our characters. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” It is not these ideas in their own right that are important, but ideas, in particular ones about the function of a basic aspect of our religion are important in that our thinking, our acting in the world, and our relationship with God and each other is all intertwined, inseparable, and defines our lives and our characters, and is fundamental in orienting our will, our worship. And that is very important, indeed.
So here’s the upsetting part; the actual theologies of Atonement. Let’s do a brief survey, in a vaguely historical order (don’t hold me to it, I didn’t do well on that exam). I’ll give you broad brush strokes, grist for your religiously imaginative mill of the variety of theories of the Atonement. It is Lent, after all.
Let’s start back in the late century 2nd century CE, with Ireneus of Smyrna. Coming straight from Paul, Ireanus developed what is called the Recapitulation Theory of Attonement. He saw Jesus as the new Adam. Where Adam failed and brought sin and death, and when Israel in the first covenant fails in their vocation to repair that rift, Christ succeeds, bringing life and light to all human kind. Recapitulation comes from the 1st chapter of Ephesians. “…he (God) has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 1as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” The Greek word for To gather things up was translated at recapitulate in Latin, hence the name, a gathering up of everything in Jesus Christ. That’s a theory of Atonement.
Another 2nd or 3rd century theory has its origin in Origen. Origen is one of the most important theologians in all of Christianity, his influence cannot be overstated. His idea, which he also developed straight from Paul, is called the Ransom Theory. Jesus, it posits, died as a ransom from our sins. His sacrificial death was a payment to Satan (though some say to God the Father), in any case a payment to satisfy the debt we all carry due to Adam’s original sin. Jesus’ death was a payment of a ransom, and with that debt paid off, we are free.
Sacrifice, religious sacrifice, like religious blood sacrifice is a pretty abstract concept for us. It would not have been for Origen. It most certainly was not for Jesus and His friends, or St. Paul and his contemporaries. The Temple was all about sacrifice, blood sacrifice as a repayment of the debt of sin. Various Roman cults ritually slaughtered all sorts of creatures, sometimes the priests bathed in the blood. Humans actively sacrificed animals to God for a lot longer than we have not been doing that. That is just to say that the idea of this kind of sacrifice both foreign AND horrible to us. Back then, it would have just been horrible. Remember the context in your disgust.
Another early theology of Atonement came from St. Augustine of Hippo. Writing in the 4th century, Augustine, the greatest of the father of the Western church, has a completely different take on Atonement. His is called the Moral Influence theory, and it holds that Jesus affects a positive, moral change in humanity through His ministry, His teaching and His example, including His sacrifice of Himself on the Cross. Not a lot of detail in that, but that the whole movement of Jesus Christ in the world changed us, changes us for the better. That one is not so upsetting.
Yet another early theory of Atonement, and one that many think was the dominant theory for the first thousand years of the church is called Christus Victor, just like the prosphora stamp we use on our Eucharistic bread in Lent. You could also call this the Aslan theory, after Aslan the great lion in Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Aslan’s death in book two, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was distinctly a Christus Victor moment. In this theory, we have to understand that humanity is held in the bondage of sin and death, of evil.) That is Narnia’s Witch and the everlasting winter, with no Christmas)! Christ’s death somehow defeats evil, and we are freed. How? It is mystery, what Lewis fictionally renders as the Deep Magic. The death of an innocent shatters the binders evil has on us like the Stone Table is shattered. There is no debt paid to anyone, just (just!) the defeat of evil and the liberation of us all. A life is laid down to defeat evil… Heartbreaking. And compelling.
Then St. Anselm comes along in the 11th Century. Among other things, Anselm was the Archbishop of Canterbury, so he’s in our linage for sure. He developed the Satisfaction theory. Satisfaction is the satisfaction of a debt. In the ransom theory, God pays Satan our debt with God’s Son. Anselm didn’t think God owed Satan anything; we did. So Jesus died to pay God back for our sinfulness and injustice, thus satisfying the justice of God. Hmmmm… That’s kind of dark. But it gets darker.
Here is where Calvin (and Luther) earn some of their bad reputation. Penal Substitutionary Atonement. That just sounds bad. This is related to satisfaction, the satisfaction, payment of our debt to God for our sin, but added to it is a penal element. Punishment. We (humanity, by our nature) sinned, hence we deserve punishment. There is a legalistic demand for punishment. (I am not preaching this, I’m just sharing the theory). Jesus comes and offers Himself as a substitute for all of us, and takes our punishment on Himself. Like from Isaiah, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” We say that in the Stations of the Cross each Friday. Since the punishment has been doled out, the retribution required by God’s justice is completed, hence God is willing to forgive us. This is the most brutal of the theories of the atonement and it is the most wide-spread amongst our Reform and evangelical brothers and sisters.
There is a variation on Penal Substitutionary Atonement called the Governmental theory. Methodists are associated with this theory. I don’t know if this is more or less disturbing than the Penal Substitutionary theory, but the governmental theory says that Jesus gets punished on our behalf, but not the full punishment we deserve, just a punishment. His death demonstrates God’s anger, disappointment, displeasure with us and our sinfulness. I don’t know if crucifixion was more than we deserve or less. In either case, this is hard stuff.
Then there is a more contemporary idea called the Scapegoat Theory. Think of our Sequence Hymn this Lent, “O saving victim, opening wide, the gate of heaven to us below our foes press on from every side, thine aid supply, thy strength bestow.” In this theory Jesus’ death does not satisfy God’s justice or pay a ransom, it is not a sacrifice at all, but rather Jesus is a victim. In the ancient Near East, annually a community would take a goat and ritually lay all of their sins on it and then release it into the wilderness, thus taking the sins away. It is mentioned in Leviticus. Here is a rendering of the Scapegoat theory of the Atonement: “1) Jesus is killed by a violent crowd. 2) The violent crowd kills Him believing He is guilty. 3) Jesus is proven innocent, as the true Son of God. 4) The crowd is therefore deemed guilty.” Jesus overcomes our violent nature by substituting Himself not to receive our punishment, but to become the victim in our stead. Wheh.
That is a very brief survey of these ideas. There are others. You don’t need to choose one. You don’t need to believe in any one of them, again, whatever believe means. But if you are going to be here, in a Christian community, it behooves you not to ignore it. Especially in Lent. These ideas, our imaginations, they do affect us. They change us. They make us who we are.
And it goes beyond not needing to choose which theory makes sense, or rings true for you. You don’t have to take any of these theories into your heart at all, really. They are just that, theories, ideas, ways to chew on, make meaning of these things that happened long ago. Theology, as much as it informs it, is not Christianity. Christians don’t all agree on how important some of these theories are, and we, as Episcopalians, practitioners of the Anglican form of Christianity, don’t lay down many of these theories as definitive. We should take heed of the wisdom of C.S. Lewis here, that the events in our spiritual history, the Nativity, the Transfiguration, Crucifixion, Atonement, the Resurrection, that those things happened is, in Lewis’ words, “infinitely more important than the explanations.”
Palm Sunday is next week. Breath deep. We’re almost there. AMEN