light reading for father Zebadee

For Zebadee — the draft of today’s sermon (which always changes in the telling). It won’t offer much explanation, but will allow you to join in with all the rest…

Teaching Sermon: Atonement
Easter 2
15 April, 2007
There has been a rare debate raging in the papers over the nature of atonement. Or — to put it in less theological terms: over the question of why Jesus’ death on the cross does us any good. — but let’s get used to that word now, because I will need to keep using it. Atonement. How we are made one with God, or reconciled to God, or forgiven.

The conflict in the press began with a Lent talk on the BBC given by Jeffrey John — the Dean of St Alban’s. Jeffrey John put forward a view of atonement that stressed above all else the primacy of God’s Love. And he challenged any view of atonement that says that Jesus must die because God needs to punish someone for human sins. And that is when all hell broke lose — or rather, when some theologians feared all hell would break loose if innocent Christians started believing such risky theology. Because Jeffrey John had not only challenged a long familiar theory of atonement. He had challenged THE theory of atonement — the one that most of Protestantism, and all of conservative evangelical Protestantism has offered as the best and fullest explanation of salvation that there is.

And we need to introduce another term here, as short hand. The theory of atonement JJ challenged was the theory of Penal Substitution. Basically: the idea that Jesus pays the price of sin — is punished — in our place. Penal — because it’s about law courts and justice: we sin, we should be punished. Substitution — because Jesus substitutes himself for us.

Now, before you start thinking Jeffery John is a dangerous radical, it’s worth mentioning that some of the objections he has to penal substation have been around for as long as the theory itself – for hundreds of years, in fact. Because the question is self evident: how can a God of Love demand punishment for sin? Why would a Loving God – any God at all worth believing in—take satisfaction from Jesus’ painful and degrading death? How can we make sense of the fact that somehow our salvation is bound up with Jesus death on a cross without making God seem like a monster?

That was the question JJ was asking — and the one that a number of his colleagues took umbrage with lest he upset the apple cart. And I’ll come back to that later…
But why on earth am I talking about this, when we have that lovely story of Thomas to deal with? When it’s Easter, and we’re supposed to be past all this gloomy talk of Atonement. Two reasons: first because it’s not often that one of the central issues of Christianity has top billing in the press, and it’s worth thinking about. And second, because the question of atonement really is an Easter questions. It’s the question of the church in light of the cross and resurrection –Thomas’ question and Peter’s question, and our question — what does it all mean?

And if we look at our readings today, we can almost see the church thinking out loud. Finding words, making sense. It begins with the disciples – locked in fear. Then Jesus comes and says, ‘peace be with you, receive the Spirit.’ and the disciples have to learn what that means. Jesus says ‘the sins you forgive are forgiven, the sins you retain are retained…’ and they have to learn what it means. Then it’s all too much for Thomas, and he refuses to believe unless he can touch Jesus’ wounds – so Jesus comes back for him, offers his hands and his side – and Thomas jumps miles ahead of the others ‘My Lord and My God’.

Then in Acts we see the outworking of this. The disciples, full of the Spirit, full of confidence in the risen Lord, go out preaching. And they get themselves in trouble with the religious leaders. The Jewish leaders say ‘We told you to stop preaching, and you kept preaching. What are you doing? Are you trying to pin Jesus’ blood on us?’ And Peter says, ‘We do what we have to do – what God tells us to do. And this Jesus, whom you killed, God raised – so that there is reconciliation. So that there is forgiveness of Sins.’

But what does that mean?
Is Peter saying, ‘You killed him. God raised him. Now Repent.’ Or is he saying, ‘We have to tell the story. When you killed him we thought it was the end, but it wasn’t. Jesus is alive. God is forgiving. Believe.’

Either could be true. Or both. One binds the religious leaders in their sin and the other releases them. But which did Peter intend?

The church is feeling its way forward. The people around them put words in their mouth (‘is this about Jesus’ blood?’) and they find a way to respond: (‘maybe. By blood you are saved.’) They encounter the risen Jesus, and come to know that they are forgiven. But then they have to find a way to talk about it. How did it happen? What does it mean?

For 2,000 years now, we have been feeling our way forward – trying to speak the truth. And still the debates rage: Did God punish Jesus on the cross? Or did we punish God? Did the Father kill the Son, or did we? Does God love us, or is God angry with us? Or both?

In the New Testament, answers are scattered like seeds. The disciples use whatever language they think will work to convey something of the surprise and the joy they found on Easter day. Words to express the change that came about – through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. So sometimes they talk about Sacrifice and Atonement – words the Jews could make sense of. And sometimes they talk about Reconciliation and Redemption – words the Greeks would have understood. Image after image. Trying to make sense.
If we cluster the biblical images, we get at least three sets of ideas about how Jesus saves us:

First — there are images of redemption and release. These images assume that without Jesus, we are trapped – in sin, in slavery, by death. So Jesus comes to free us – by paying the ransom that will release us from slavery, by overcoming sin and death, by destroying all that would imprison us.

Second — there are images of transformation. Jesus comes to heal and restore. He offers us life with God, the indwelling of the Spirit, moral transformation so that we can be like Christ. And there is even a suggestion that we can be like Christ in his divinity – that through Christ we come to share in the divine nature. Heady stuff. And a long way off ideas of punishment and guilt.

Third– there are images of Reconciliation & Atonement. By sin we are separated from God. Jesus’ holiness draws us together again. Jesus is offered as the perfect sacrifice – he makes the perfect oblation, so that we can approach God without fear.

In the New Testament all these images rub alongside each other. None has primacy. They are all facets of the truth. And because the New Testament offers a narrative – a set of stories – it’s OK if the perspective keeps shifting. If the images are not wholly consistent. Images don’t always have to be logical.

But theories do. So for 2,000 years the theologians have been busy looking for a unifying image, a theory that will explain how we are saved, just what it means to say ‘Christ died for our sins.’

They have tried to explain atonement in terms of Sacrifice, Satisfaction, Penal Substitution, Christ as Exemplar, Christ as Second Adam, salvation by deification. It would take all day to explain the theories – so I’ll leave you guessing for now, and offer a bit more on the blog during the week. But for now, just hold onto this: in the whole history of the church, there has never been one theory of atonement that held sway. Never one story that told the whole truth – or didn’t imply un-truth by mistake. Different models have won favour at different times – and always behind them, there is the multiplicity of voices in the New Testament. Scattering images. Correcting too simplistic — or too limited– a view.

And this takes us back to Jeffrey John.

Jeffrey John dared to say in public that one of the church’s theories of atonement wasn’t very helpful anymore. It may have been once — in a different cultural context, in a different time — but it wasn’t helpful now. And others disagreed.

So I’m going to end by trying to summarize the theory he criticized for you, so that you can decide for yourself. Does this way of speaking help you make sense of God — and of our salvation? Or could we find other ways, better ways, to speak of the central act of God’s love?
Penal Substitution goes like this:

  • Human beings are trapped in sin.
  • Sin is a breach of Divine Law that hurts other people and that hurt us.
  • The punishment for Sin is Death.
  • God hates sin, but loves us.
  • He doesn’t want us to die.
  • But since God is just, he must exact the punishment for sin.
  • Quite a dilemma for God…
  • …until he decides to take the punishment for sins on himself, to meet the requirement of both justice and love.
  • God becomes incarnate in Jesus.
  • Jesus lives without sin, and therefore, should not have to die.
  • But Jesus willingly chooses to die in our place –to take the punishment for sin, so that we can live.
  • Jesus is punished in our place – suffers and dies to pay the price of sin so that the Law is satisfied and God’s love can prevail.
  • And this is supposed to be OK because Jesus is God
  • God is only hurting himself – and all for Love’s sake.

So what do you think? Is that the best we can do?
Or are there others ways – better ways – to make sense of our Easter Joy – the story of our Salvation?

3 thoughts on “light reading for father Zebadee”

  1. A magisterial sermon. (I’m struggling to avoid non-PC language like ‘masterly’!)

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