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 3C: Now – a good time to get started

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Exodus 3:1-15; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

Spring has finally arrived. We know what comes next: the tax filing deadline, the Boston Marathon and the wonderful season of homegrown garden vegetables. They are all coming. We know that the time to get ready for them is now.  We need to collect receipts; jog some extra miles; order those tomato seeds, now. Because if we wait until tax day or race day, or the day we want to taste our homegrown tomatoes, it will be too late.

That’s what Jesus is talking about in the gospel of Luke.  He is not talking about avoiding death. None of us gets to avoid that. He IS saying we should not put off making changes that we need to make.

The news this week has shown us, again, that evil and brutality can interrupt our lives at any time, as can negligence, ignorance, hurricanes, cyclones, mudslides and floods. We have been reminded this week that the world can be a very dangerous place. Whether someone suffers violence or an accident or illness or terrible weather has nothing to do with whether or not they are a good person.

The passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians suggests otherwise. Paul says that ancient Israelites died in the wilderness because God was not pleased with them. I do not believe that. We do not know the mind of God any more than we know the look or substance or gender of God. In the book of Exodus, God says, “I am who I am.” That is not a lot for us to go on in terms of knowing what God is.

Still, at the heart of Christian thinking there is the notion that somehow, Jesus reveals something important about God’s self. What Jesus is saying to his friends in this gospel is simple and two-fold and probably already familiar to us.

First, Jesus reminds us that the only moment we can do anything with is the present moment. If we need to make changes in our lives, we should make them now.  If we keep putting it off until tomorrow, the day will come when we will have waited one day too many.

Second, he points out that change doesn’t happen overnight. “Repentance” is not merely a decision to change. It is the process of making the change. It requires that we make a start and then keep trying. New habits are not formed overnight.  Virtues do not appear fully formed in a day. They start as small as glimmers of hope and they grow. With time and care, sun and rain, good soil, good compost and good luck, they take root, mature and bear fruit.  It’s a process. Gardeners know that, and so they get started as soon they can.

We know that spring has arrived and that summer is around the corner. Even so, none of us really knows what tomorrow will bring. What we have for sure is “now:” the gift of today and God’s word that God goes with us. That’s enough to make today a good time to get started.