The Sermons for Good Friday and The Easter Vigil is a two-part series. I am presenting them as one document with two sections.
Atonement: From Good Friday to Easter
Learn in the Darkness
A sermon for Good Friday: Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Hebrews 10:16-25, or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9, John 18:1-19:42, Psalm 22
How did we get here? In years past, I’ve explored all sorts of ways we got here: from specious crowd behavior to corrupt Jewish and Roman officials acting from fear. But I am inviting us to be a bit more personal and to understand the question “How did we get here?” as “What did I contribute?” And that is going to take us to the cross, more specifically the crucifix, the cross with Jesus dying on it; and that is going to take us into the murky world of atonement.
There are multiple thoughts about atonement. Atonement is thought of: Jesus succeeding where Adam fails, or Jesus dying to defeat death, or Jesus dying to bring positive moral change, or Jesus paying the price that had to be paid to release humanity from captivity by Satan; who discovers that God pranked him~ because Jesus lives! Atonement can also mean Jesus victory over death, or Jesus paying the debt to God on behalf of our sins, or the idea that sin must be punished, which Jesus takes upon himself, to keep moral order, or that Jesus’ dying is the penalty substitute to satisfy God’s sense of justice; which is the dominate understanding today (wesleybros.com).
Generally, the beginning assumption is that God and humanity are one, and should be in a harmonious relationship; that God and we should be “at-one”. The need for atonement is because we breached the created unity between God and humanity (Genesis 3). The question becomes how to heal the breach.
The Hebrew words associated with atonement are: to cover, to offer, to effect reconciliation; and the Greek words are: to be, cause to be friendly, to render, and to leave (Carver). There are no good English translations.
The Old Testament emphasis is the sacrificial system; that eventually is centered in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is the system God sets up so that the Jews could make an offering to restore fellowship with God. There are lots of details on how to offer a sacrifice, but almost nothing about what is at work to heal the breach (Carver). By the way, one such sacrifice is for the High Priest to lay his hand on a goat, then set it free into the wilderness, taking with it the peoples’ sins; this is the source of the term ‘scapegoat.’
The New Testament emphasis is on the cross and metaphors for Jesus’ work: lamb, take away sin, ransom, give his life, blood which is shed us (Dominy). The New Testament is clear about reconciliation, but not the means by which it actually happens (Easton).
There is no question that Jesus dies on the cross. There is no question that his death is related to our salvation. our relationship with each other, enemies included (Sakenfeld, Carver). All this considered, today, Jesus as the substitute penalty is the denominate belief about atonement. The Temple sacrificial system could never be perfect; Jesus, the perfect human, is the sacrifice for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
The trouble is we’ve not been very good at being precise in what this means. David Lose writes:
… because God is just, God has to punish sin, and because God is loving, God beats up on Jesus instead of us. But I have a hunch that this understanding of the cross says more about our inadequate understanding of justice than it says about God.
Benjamin Corey put it this way
a rather poor realization of this notion of atonement has evolved and contributes to a broken justice system (Corey).
Edward Wimberley notes that “abuse is the attempt to gain meaning and value at the expense of another.” In oppressive and abusive situations, the object can internalize the abuse, taking responsibility for the abuse and oppression. An unhealthy connection between this process and atonement theology of Jesus as the substitute for us gives abusers an ideological powerful justification for their actions. A rejection of substitute or surrogate sacrifice is emerging, and we will explore those options in a day or so. For now, I want to us explore other ways skewed atonement theology furthers the breach between God and us being at one.
One consequence is a glorification of suffering. Jesus suffered for our sins; therefore, suffering is good for us. Such thinking can allow those with the responsibility to act for the common welfare justification for not acting because the suffering of the oppressed will lead to their greater glory in time to come. Another consequence is the presumption of moral or spiritual defect of those people whose life circumstances are penury. Their suffering is a sort of punishment; that will lead to their greater glory in time.
One of the background factors in Ferguson MO. was a police and court system collaboration that ticketed poor, disenfranchised people trapping them in a very expensive cycle of ever increasing court fines. It is an abusive relationship, with the police and the courts in the role of the abuser and the marginalized people internalizing their circumstances, assuming the emotional-spiritual responsibility for their inequitable treatment. The overly complex system, of social safety net services, behaves in a similar way and again the least of these suffer.
I don’t believe these decisions are actively made we just instinctually make these decisions. However, the harm is very real.
Tonight as we stand at the foot of the cross, Jesus’ broken, bloody body bears witness to the grossly out of control perverted justice systems of both the Temple and Rome. Jesus’ broken, bloody body bears witness to:
- the perversion of justice as tens of thousands of refugees are wintering in the open,
- as billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies quit producing effective, inexpensive drugs in favor of ruinously expense medications, sometimes of questionable improved efficacy
- as corporations move off-shore to avoid paying their share of the cost to sustain a safe and just society at home.
You get the idea. And perhaps you are uncomfortably aware, that with a little self-examination, you will discover similar instinctive behaviors of your own.
I know that you know, that the story is not over. However, the growing edge for us tonight is to resist the temptation to jump to the next chapter. Our growing edge is to stay here in the midst of the uncomfortable truths, of our actions, as a community and individuals, instinctive as they may be. Our growing edge is to learn in the darkness.
A Surprise To Live By
A Sermon for the Easter Vigil: Genesis 1:1-31; 2:1-4a, Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21, Isaiah 55:1-11, Ezekiel 37:1-14, Zephaniah 3:14-20, Romans 6:3-11, Luke 24:1-12
Good Friday’s homiletic reflection was a rejection of today’s dominate understanding of The Atonement. It was:
- a rejection of the idea that Jesus is a substitute or surrogate sacrifice for our sins
- a rejection of thinking that suffering is good for us
- a rejection of allowing those, with the responsibility, to act for the good of the people, the justification for not acting, because the suffering of the oppressed will lead to their greater glory in time
- a rejection of the idea that those people whose life circumstances are penury have some sort of moral or spiritual defect
- a rejection of the notion that suffering is a sort of punishment;that will lead us to greater glory in time.
Friday night we left sulking in the darkness born in the midst of the uncomfortable truths about our actions, as a community and as individuals, instinctive as they may be. Having spent the last day pondering our stance in the shadow of the cross this evening is a reminder that the cross is a symbol of grossly out of control perverted justice systems.
Tonight we have journeyed through several reminders of life in the presence of God.
- have traveled from creation; from the first light to our creation in God’s likeness and our stewardship of cosmos
- have traveled through Israel’s being guarded by a pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day, and being saved from destruction at the Red Sea
- have traveled to gleaning that God thoughts are not our thoughts, so, as stiffed necked as we have been, everyone who thirsts, comes to the waters; and those who have no money, are to come, to buy and to eat; they are to buy wine and milk without money and without price
- have traveled to dry desert valley and witnessed that even though our lives are as desiccated as dry bones God’s spirit breath will be breathed into us, and we will live
- have traveled to the point where we have grasped that all judgment has been removed from us, that disasters have been turned aside, that our oppressors have been dealt with, that the shame of the lame and the outcast will be changed to praise and renown
- have traveled to where we have seen, this very night, light bursting forth from a new fire as the Light of Christ.
We have not only renewed the story, but we have also renewed our baptism, in which we are bound to the story of life in Christ including the requirements, the vows we make governing how we will live in this world. We have heard Paul’s summary of this surprising morning; that Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father so that we might also walk in newness of life.
The summary is surprising because the story is surprising. And the story is surprising because it is completely unexpected for Jesus’ tomb to be empty. It may have been reasonable for the disciples to think that the authorities would steal Jesus’ body; but not likely. But it is in no way reasonable for anyone to anticipate that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women, would see God’s messenger and be asked: “Why are you seeking the living among the dead!” Yes – I know Jesus told everyone he would rise on the third day, but no one really believed him. We have a hard enough time believing it now, and we have generations of generations of witnesses to the power of the hope that arises from this morning’s joyfully disturbing surprise.
From Friday night’s experience, we can now confess: Jesus died not for our sins but because of our sins. However, at this moment, we can also confess that by God’s almighty grace the Divine Word did not return empty, but is accomplishing God’s purpose (Isaiah 55:11) in that by The Resurrection Jesus is restoring us to right relationship with God and each other (Sakenfeld). We can now confess, that with Jesus returning to God, at his Ascension, and with the sending of the Spirit, a complete holistic understanding of atonement: including Jesus’ Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension (Wimberly (112-117).
This morning’s joyfully disturbing surprise is a surprise because no one expects it. It is disturbing because tombs should not be empty. It is joyful because now we know God’s grace is more powerful than our all sins; now we know that we and all creation are becoming at one with God and each other.
It is a surprise here and now because the Atonement is no longer a millenniums ago moment in which Jesus’ followers became at one with God and themselves. Now The Atonement is the continuing transformation in which each of us, and all of us, with all of the cosmos, are becoming at one with God and each other just as Jesus and God are one (John 17:1-2, 11, 20-23). It’s a surprise we can live with. Better yet, it is a surprise we can live by.
Carver, William Owen. “Atonement.” INTERNATIONAL STANDARD BIBLE ENCYCLOPEDIA. Ed. James Orr. WORDSearch, 2014.
Corey, Benjamin. “How A Poor Theology Of The Cross Created America’s Broken.” Sojo.net. 04 02 2014. <sojo.net/blogs>.
Dominy, Bert. “Atonement.” Holman Bible Dictionary. Ed. Trent C. Butler. Prod. Holman Bible Publishers. n.d.
Easton, Matthew George. “Atonement.” Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp. n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
wesleybros.com. 21 July 2015.
Wimberly, Edward. Counseling African American Marriages and Families. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1977.