Sermon: March 17, 2024 5 Lent

I’ve been thinking a lot about atonement lately. Atonement is a theological term that basically seeks to answer the question, “Why does Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection matter to us and to creation?” When you read theological writings about the subject, you can begin to wonder if it is all simply another discussion about how many angels can dance on the end of a pin, in other words pointless theological meandering. But if you sit with the question for a few minutes, you will begin to realize that how you answer this question determines how you relate to God and to other people. And traditional ways of answering this question are becoming harder and harder for people to accept and are so unsatisfactory that these traditional answers are driving many away from Christianity.

The dominant answer to the question, “Why does Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection matter?” over the past millennia and a half has been called the penal or substitutionary atonement theory. This theory says that when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, they basically broke creation. Creation fell. Sin entered the world and every human being that followed is full of the sin of Adam and Eve and we continue to sin. In a just world God would kill us all, as we deserve death. The debt to God that our sin has created is so great that there is no way we can repay it. Only a sinless human being could repay this sin. So, God, to balance the scales of justice, sent his sinless, blameless son into the world to die in our place (substituting for us). Jesus takes on the divine punishment for us thereby relieving us of our sin and guilt.

This theory is difficult for many modern minds to get their minds around, including me. Now there are some aspects of this theory that are helpful. It is good to remember our individual sin and how hard it is to change all by ourselves. Indeed, sometimes it is darn near impossible. It is good to remember that it is through God’s grace that we are forgiven. But this theory also gives us an image of God that I personally find repulsive. Would God really condemn all of creation for something one man and one woman did long ago? Is that really the point of the Adam and Eve story? Or was it trying to simply describe a reality about humans—that we often want to put ourselves in the place of God, perhaps the cause of most of our sin. How can God be bound by anything, including rules of justice, and balancing the scales? Can’t God act anyway God wants? When we say that there is only one way that the debt that sin creates can be repaid, aren’t we tying the hands of God? Or if you argue that God created it this way, I would respond, “Why would a loving God do this?” I wouldn’t treat my own children this way, so why on earth would God, who is certainly far more loving than I am treat creation in this way?” And finally, is the idea of God sending an innocent human, the Divine Son, to a horrible death on the cross, really compatible with the idea of a loving God?

Do you remember the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of Christ, released in 2004? I never saw the movie; I knew that I would not have been able to stomach it. Did you know that about a year after the release of the original movie, Mel Gibson released an edited version. In the new version some of the more brutal scenes had been cut from the movie and some of the camera angles had been changed. It was an attempt to soften the graphic violence of the original movie. Gibson said that the new edition of the film would appeal to people who “want to take your Aunt Martha or Uncle Harry” to see it but who would find the original version too intense to watch.

I think there might have been more to the new release than Gibson’s explanation. The original film created a surprising and unintended reaction. It caused some people to question the very goodness of God. One woman who saw the film said, “I left the theater feeling sick. What sort of God would let that kind of violence happen to his own son? I guess I was supposed to be moved by the sacrifice of Jesus; instead, I was repulsed by the idea of a God who would will such a thing.” How we answer the atonement question matters quite a bit.

Or I could tell you the story of a man from a parish I served many years ago. His name was Juan. He was from Argentia. He was in his 80’s and very frail. His hands were almost useless from living with a lifetime of rheumatoid arthritis. I knew him during the time when the Episcopal Church was in great turmoil over the ordination of Gene Robinson as a bishop. Juan came from a fundamentalist understanding of Scripture and Christianity, and after my rector preached a sermon in support of Gene Robinson, Juan came to my office deeply disturbed.

I listened as he talked to me about the fallenness of humanity and how homosexuality was the effect of this fallenness. He compared it to his rheumatoid arthritis. He believed that all disease and illness, in which he included homosexuality, was ultimately caused by Adam and Eve’s sin, and that through Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice on the cross, all would be healed in the next life, but in the meantime people “afflicted” with homosexuality needed to suffer with it, but not act upon, knowing that they would be healed in the life to come just as he needed to suffer with his condition knowing that he would be healed in the life to come. This is what he wanted to hear from the pulpit. It is one of the saddest pastoral conversations I have ever had. How we answer the atonement question determines how we see our neighbor, ourselves, and God.

Or there was the time at a young life winter camp for teenagers in which I was one of the adults accompanying a group of youth from the Diocese of Delaware. It was a three-day winter camp, and every morning began with a sermon from one of the young life staff. The sermon was about 20 minutes long but can be summed up very succinctly: We are all dirty rags inside, and without the blood of Christ cleansing us we will all go to hell. I watched the faces of our teens. I saw horror. I knew that one of the teenagers was struggling with severe depression and I wondered how she heard this sermon and what effect it might have on her. I knew that we would lose them all if we didn’t sit down with them after this sermon and listen and talk. They were blunt in their response as only teens can be. One teen said, “If God created me a dirty rag that only the blood of Christ can clean, then God is insane, and I want nothing to do with him.” What we say about the atonement matters.

So, what can we say then? Well, first we have to recognize that any answer we come up with for the question of atonement will be incomplete. This is a mystery after all. We have to recognize that any answer, including the traditional answer, is culturally conditioned and not the Gospel. This includes anything I say this morning.

Second, we have to look at the breadth and depth of scripture without cherry picking passages that support our favorite theory. And what I see in the breadth and depth of scripture is a God that created out of love and continues to seek a relationship with all that was created by the Divine because of this love. And what God most desires from creation is love in return. But love, by its very nature, cannot be coerced. Love has to be freely and willingly chosen. So, we have free will. We can choose to love or choose not to love. When we choose not to love, we sin. Some of this sin becomes part of our culture, our world and takes on a life of its own. Some of this sin becomes systemic. Racism would be a good example of this kind of sin. This systemic sin is much harder than individual sin to overcome, though it is difficult to overcome individual sin as well. And God, because God is love, continues to seek to draw us into the divine love. And God, because God is love, continues to seek to empower us to break down the systemic sin in which we are imprisoned.

And this systemic sin is what our passage from John for this morning is all about. Jesus knows he is facing his crucifixion. He knows that systemic sin is going to kill him. He has tested the powers of the world, and the powers are angry. God isn’t sending him to the cross, the world is sending him to the cross. The world that is organized in opposition to God’s purposes. And he knows that it is his mission as God’s son, to accept his fate. He is not to acquiesce to the systems of the world, by running away or stopping his ministry, in order to save his own life. He is not to fight back with violence, thereby perpetuating the cycles of violence that fuel the sinful systems of this world. As difficult as it is, it is his calling to continue his mission that will lead to his death, that the light of God might shine into all the sinful corners of the world, clearly showing the sin of these systems.

Jesus’ crucifixion in John doesn’t relieve us of our condemnation and guilt. Rather Jesus’ crucifixion judges the systems of the world and draws out the rulers of the world. Jesus’ crucifixion brings into awareness that the systems of the world are not God’s systems but instead systems of domination, violence, and death. Jesus’ crucifixion shows us a God who will not use domination, retaliation, and violence to win victory. Jesus’ crucifixion shows us that the way of God is non-violent, forgiving, non-vengeful and loving. And as followers of Christ, we are called to this same way of living. We are called to all of creation in non-violent, forgiving, non-vengeful and loving ways as well. And when we fall short, we return to God asking forgiveness and we begin again, and again, and again.

How we answer the atonement question matters because it goes to the very heart of who God is and who we are to be in relation to ourselves, our neighbors and to God. I have shared with you this morning how I think about atonement. You may or may not agree with me, but either way I hope you will begin trying to answer the question for yourself, or if you already have, consider your answer and what it means for you, your relationship with your neighbor and your relationship with God. Read what others have said and thought about the subject. Pray about it. Be open to new ways of seeing atonement. Allow what you discover to transform you and how you relate to the world. I promise you that the process will bring you into deeper relationship with God and you will mature in your faith.

Jesus said, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”