Lent 5B – It’s not about satisfaction

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-120, John 12:20-33

On Christmas Eve our first year in Florida, we decided to go to an Episcopal Church we had not yet visited. It had its own parking lot, looked accessible and wasn’t too far from home. We arrived early enough to get good seats and congratulated ourselves for not having to contend with winter cold and snow.

The service started. We sang some Christmas hymns and heard the usual lessons and prayers. The Christmas Eve gospel (Luke 2:1-20) was read. It is about Bethlehem, mother and child in a manger, singing angels and shepherds.  Lovely. We settled in for the sermon. The priest mentioned the baby in the manger but moved quickly to Jesus’ crucifixion and death. She never went back to Bethlehem.  For her, what mattered about the baby Jesus was that he would grow up to die for our sins. 

We didn’t go back to that church. If she could preach that sermon on Christmas Eve, she would surely want to preach it most Sundays too, and that is not what I think of as “the gospel.”

Even during the last weeks of Lent, Jesus’ death is not what I think of as “the gospel.”

It is for some. It is for those who embrace one or another version of “satisfaction atonement,” which is the notion that Jesus death “was a payment made to God’s honor in order to restore justice and harmony in the universe.”[1] It makes Jesus’ death either a ‘propitiation’ (a sacrifice offered as compensation) or ‘expiation’ (Jesus pays the penalty which sinners deserve.)

If it sounds medieval, that’s because it is. “Satisfaction atonement” is generally attributed to Anselm of Canterbury, a Benedictine monk, theologian and Archbishop who lived from 1033-1109.  He used imagery based on the social relations of medieval feudalism.

From the beginning, it had its critics.[2] Contemporary critics point out that taken literally, satisfaction atonement reduces the life of Jesus “to an elaborate scheme whose purpose was to produce his death.”[3]  Moreover, since Jesus dies either to restore God’s honor or satisfy God’s requirement that someone be punished, it paints an alarming picture of God. Finally, it seems to make both Jesus and those who killed him the doers of God’s will.

Even so, satisfaction atonement is ubiquitous.  It is depicted in church art and reiterated in our prayers and hymns.[4] In at least one Episcopal church in Florida, it was the sermon on Christmas Eve.

It was not always so.

In Saving Paradise, Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker argue that Jesus’ crucifixion has not always been central to Christianity. “Images of [Jesus’] corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century.”[5]  Similarly, the earliest Eucharistic prayer we have found[6]  “does not mention the death of Jesus or his body and blood…”[7]  The dominant image of early Christian sanctuaries was paradise. Not in the sense of “heaven” or the afterlife.  “Paradise” meaning “this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God.”[8]

Early Christians did not ignore Jesus’ death. But there was much less certainty or agreement as to what his death meant.  Many tried to make sense of it. This week’s gospel reading is one such reflection. (John 12:24 – If a grain of wheat dies, it bears much fruit.)  The second reading from Hebrews is another. There were more.

In other words, if “Jesus died for your sins” doesn’t work for you as a Christmas Eve meditation, or even as a Lent and Holy Week meditation, you are not alone. In fact, you are in very Christian company.

Next week: Palm Sunday – Saving Paradise Part II

[1] J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI. 2d ed. 2011) digital location 275.

[2] Notably, a contemporary: Peter Abelard (c.1079 – 1142.)

[3] Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement, digital location 1167.

[4] For example, in The Hymnal 1982, (The Church Hymnal Corporation, New York, 1985), #168, O Sacred Head vs. 3: “In thy most bitter passion my heart to share doth cry, with thee for my salvation upon the cross to die.” or #158, Ah, Holy Jesus vs. 3: “Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered; the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered; for our atonement…”  or #693,  Just as I Am  vs. 1: “Just as I am without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me…”

[5] Rita Nakashima Brock & Rebecca Ann Parker, Saving Paradise: Howe Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, (Beacon Press, Boston) 2008 at 27.

[6] The Didache – a church order document believed to be of the first century C.E.

[7] Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical and Theological Perspective. (Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI.) 2016 at 37. Saving Paradise, digital location 2882-2938.

[8] Brock & Parker, Saving Paradise at xix.

Image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay

Lent 4B – Seeing it

Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama civil rights activists invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to help them in their efforts to desegregate businesses and government facilities. Their strategy was non-violent direct action: Sit-ins at lunch counters, kneel-ins at churches, marches on city streets and business boycotts.Things were not going well. There were not enough protestors, and the money was running out. Protesters who were arrested could not count on being quickly bailed out.  They could be in jail for days or weeks.

King came to Birmingham and agreed to march and be arrested. Held in solitary confinement for nine days, he wrote his now famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.   His arrest attracted national attention and worry, but it did not result in more protesters.

Twelve days later, hundreds of Birmingham children – from first graders to high schoolers – joined the struggle.  They left their schools to march to government buildings downtown. More than 600 were arrested.  The next day there were more young marchers. This time, the Police Commissioner, Bull Conner, turned the dogs and fire hoses on them.

Journalists were there to capture photos of dogs attacking teenagers and people being blown off their feet into walls by high-pressure fire hoses. The photos went national and international. The publicity and outrage gave the activists the leverage they needed to compel the city to negotiate.   “The Birmingham Truce Agreement” was finalized a few days later.

The violence Bull Connor used on the protestors in Birmingham on May 3, 1963 was nothing new. What he did and much worse had been done to Black men, women and children since 1619.[1]  But King knew that the country had never taken Black peoples’ word for the regime of violence they endured.  White Americans needed to see it with their own eyes and be outraged. King said:

To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion. .. Injustices to the Negro must be brought out in the open where they cannot be evaded. [2]

On that day in 1963, Bull Connor enacted the horror in front of photographers and television crews. Everyone saw it.  

In John, Jesus says he will be lifted up like the bronze serpent in the first reading.  If by “lifted up” he is predicting his crucifixion, Jesus is predicting for himself the experience of horrific Roman violence. To imagine that a crucifixion is something else – including the fantasy that it is part of a loving God’s purpose or plan for anyone – is to save ourselves the burden of outrage by looking away and just not seeing it.

Next week: Lent 5B – “Saving Paradise”

Photo: Birmingham, AL on May 3, 1963. Photo by Charles Moore while on assignment for Life Magazine. (Birmingham News Archives.)

[1] There is a long history of Whites using dogs against Blacks. The history lives. Fifty-seven years after Birmingham, Trump threatened to use dogs.

[2] David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2015) at 228.