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Beneath the Cross of Jesus #1

Beneath the Cross of Jesus
Turning Away the Wrath of God

Reading: I John 2:1-3; Romans 1:18ff.

This semester at Lipscomb, for the first time in many years I am teaching a class that includes I John, material that Rubel and I preached in the Fall of 2003. We entitled the series “Life in Holy Community.” At the time, it was a further exploration of community and relational faith that we had preached in the summer months. As I re-visited the material recently, I realized that my questions about what we mean by relational faith have continued to grow and challenge my former interpretations of scripture, particularly these words at the beginning of I John about sin and confession and the role of Jesus on the Cross as the “atoning sacrifice” for sins.

We have a lot of language and imagery that we use to describe the events of the Cross. Since Mel Gibson’s movie last year, we all know to associate the word Passion with the events of the cross. From our earliest memories of prayer, we learned to say “Thank you for sending Jesus to die on the Cross and forgive our sins.” I do wonder how many years it takes for us to begin even faintly to understand what that phrase means. How is it that one person can die a humiliating and torturous death in the days of the Roman Empire and that death affect your life and mine? How do we make sense of this language of human blood sacrifice as a necessity for making the world right with Creator God again?

We teach and we learn the language of substitution somewhere along the way in our church experience. God became flesh and dwelt among us. At the cross, God substituted the death of his son for the judgment of death that otherwise stands against us. Sin separated humans from God, we say, and the justice of God demands that some penalty of death be paid in order for us to be declared not guilty. Sin and death are the way of human existence, but now Jesus has shed his blood on the cross and been raised from the dead and God has accepted that self-sacrifice as punishment and payment for our sins. We sing the songs that announced this idea of substitution. He paid a debt he did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay, Christ Jesus paid a debt that I could never pay.” I remember the words of an older hymn: “Sin had left a crimson stain; He washed it white as snow.”

We now find ourselves living in a world often described as post-Christian. That is to say that the majority of Americans either no longer practice or no longer know the stories that comprise the Christian faith. And more often than not, they have experienced organized religion in negative ways. In that world, the language of the cross and blood sacrifice is difficult to understand, much less believe in as a means of salvation.

This morning we begin a series of lessons that we have entitled, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus. After spending the beginning of our year attempting simply to be in the presence of God, we want to spend the next several weeks of winter and spring contemplating God’s greatest revelation and gift to us, the salvation of the world that comes to us through the Cross event. We want to be drawn nearer to that Cross, transformed by the cross, find forgiveness and promises of life at the Cross. And for those of us who have experienced Grace at the Cross, we want to announce our freedom from condemnation and judgment before the Cross. But we also want to admit all that we don’t understand about these events – all that is shrouded in mystery which we only approach through inadequate analogy and metaphor. That is our only choice always in speaking of the infinitely other who has created us and who claims to have revealed himself fully in this story of the Christ.

Thus the opening words of I John 2: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our but also for the whole world” (I John 2:1-3). The newer translations use two words, “atoning sacrifice,” to translate a single word in the original language. The word in Greek that John uses is a word that was used often in pagan religious settings to speak of human efforts to appease the wrath of an angry god. Much of the ancient world believed that the gods were generally unhappy with humans and that was the cause for pain and suffering and calamity in this life. So you offered sacrifices, even human sacrifices in some cases to appease them, to get on their good side, to merit favor rather than capricious calamity.

Older translations use words like propitiation and expiation to translate the word. Propitiation carries with it the idea of God’s wrath being turned away; expiation is a bit gentler. It suggests a penalty being paid to satisfy justice more than an attempt to assuage an emotion of God. The problem with any translation we might choose is that the concept itself is foreign to us. Apart from singing about it in church or talking about it in church, we don’t live with any notion of penal substitution in our own world of justice. And we rightly wonder – or at least it seems to me we should wonder – why the forgiveness of God or the justice of God is dependent on a blood sacrifice, on the death of anyone. Why can’t God simply decide to forgive? If justice and mercy are a paradox to begin with, why doesn’t God simply come to earth, announce the kingdom of God in Christ, and say “Believe in me and you will live,” and then skip straight to the ascension?
Why not simply announce amnesty – grace – and skip the business about his death substituting for ours?

Perhaps a more important question is this: Does this metaphor taken from the sacrificial worship of ancient religions, including Judaism, lead to transformed living or is it only a means of escaping the fires of hell and the ultimate wrath of God? I fear that too often we have defined salvation and the cross event itself only in terms of final destinations. There is the wrath of God in hell or the joy of God in heaven. Believe that Jesus has died for our sins and you get heaven rather than hell. But is that really what the cross is about? Is that what John is trying to say? If we take seriously the idea of God’s wrath being turned away by this event, who or what is the object of God’s wrath.

This word translated “atoning sacrifice” is used twice in I John, first in chapter two and then again chapter 4. In both contexts, it seems like Jesus is “atoning” for our sins – at least that’s how the translation comes to us. In chapter two, Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins.” In chapter four, John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (I John 4:10). Commentators remind us quickly, therefore, that in these texts that God’s wrath is toward the sin, not the sinner.

But is that really possible? Can we separate our humanity from our sins? You know, love the sinner, but hate the sins. God loves the human but has to get rid of this substance that is collecting in us and on us called sin. But is that ever really possible? Do any of us humans live in that kind of compartmentalized existence? In theory it sounds great, but is it actually possible? Yes we can lovingly treat people who are sinning in terrible ways. But can we actually separate sin and sinner any more than an addicted person can somehow live or think outside the addictive behavior?

Here’s the real problem I’m having this morning: Sin is not a very popular word in our world apart from being a religious cliché. Equally unpopular in our world is any image of God that is angry and judgmental. Yet these have been the dominant understandings of the whole Cross event for the last 1600 years in Western Christianity. God as judge has been the primary metaphor for reading these stories. Sin as an evil substance that attaches to our human existence has been the primary way of understanding the nature of evil in our lives. But notice I said 1600 years, not 2000 years. Sin is a substance that comes to us in the act of procreation itself was set forth as the doctrine of original sin by Augustine. While our particular church tradition does not believe that humans are born with this substance already attached, we do think of sin primarily as a detachable substance. That’s when we think of sin at all.

But we live in a world that rarely speaks of sin. Rather we talk in legal terms about law and law breaking. Or we talk in medical terms about illness and disease or in psychological terms about success and failure. When we use legal terms, we generally are trying to assign human responsibility. Breaking the law is entirely the fault of the one who breaks the law. In medicine however, illness and disease and addiction and even failure are no-fault problems.

I’m sure I’ve lost you by now, but here’s the point: we humans can only talk about God and God activity by using analogies from our own contexts to try to make since of it all. And we often have ended up compartmentalizing sin and its hosts – us humans – to make sense of this paradox that comes to us as God’s love and his justice. The cross, we say in song, is the place where heaven’s justice and love meet. Justice demands punishment; love demands mercy.

So here we are this morning as sinners who have been saved. “Sin had left a crimson stain; he washed it white as snow.” But we continue to deal with our failures, our flawed behavior. And while the separation of sin and sinner seems helpful at first, it’s never that simple, because sin is more than a substance that is external to our lives. It becomes our life and it mars all of life around us. Sin is more than breaking the rules and having a punishment to bear. It is more than a sickness to be healed. The language of law and medicine never quite gets to the reality of sin because ultimately sin is not a substance as much as it is relational breakdown.

This is where the idea that God is a relational being can help us. God invites his creation to live relationally with one another and with the God who is simultaneously Father, Son, and Spirit. In that relational understanding, sin is not so much a substance that attaches to us as it is a break in the relational link – the relational link with God and/or the relational link with other humans. When you think about sin this way, it is not that the substance of evil attaches and then detaches when we are saved. It is that broken relationship is restored. Jesus comes to the earth and lives the sinless life, which means he lives the relational life with God and with humans without breaking relationship.

I love how one writer describe the problem of sin: “It is something we experience both as species and as individuals, in our existential angst and in our willful misbehavior. However we run into it, we run into it as wrecked relationship: with God, with one another, with the whole created order. Sometimes we cause the wreckage and sometimes we are simply trapped in it, but either way we are not doomed….The choice to remain in wrecked relationship with God and other human beings is called sin. The choice to enter into the process of repair is called repentance” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation,” Cowley Publications, 2000, pp. 57-58).

The events of the Cross defy all of our human images and metaphors. We try to get close to this God event with legal language: Our sin created a debt we could not pay. In the ancient world, John tried to get at it with the legal language of religious sacrifice practices. Our sin brought about the wrath of God and that wrath could only be mediated by sacrifice and blood. In the ancient world, God’s justice was served through sacrifice, and the people understood that metaphor in both their judicial and religious world. But sin is more than breaking laws and salvation is more than justice being served, then or now. This was one metaphor that partially got at the activity of God in Christ. But we humans of the 21st century Western World have not lived in a sacrificial system for centuries. Does the legal understanding of God as judge or even angry judge translate very well in our cultural understanding of justice and judgment? I don’t remember the last time someone prayed to God the judge, because we understand that judge is figurative language for God, just as Father is figurative language and even giving human emotions like anger to God is figurative. God’s essence is Spirit; God’s nature is Love.

It is true that in Romans, Paul speaks of the wrath of God that is being revealed:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die – yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them” (Romans 1:18-32).

Paul lists all that has gone wrong relationally with humans and creation and God. God “gives over” humans to these behaviors are all destructive of relationship and dehumanizing to other humans. Thus the “sins” that close the list: every kind of wickedness, greed, evil, and depravity; envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossips, slanderers, god-haters, insolent, arrogant, boastful. On the one hand, Paul is making sure than no one feels left out! But the list is all about broken relationships.

I’ve been practicing this week with a medical metaphor that is inadequate, to be sure, but perhaps gets at the same idea in our time as atoning sacrifice was for their time. I don’t believe that our use of medical metaphors has always been helpful. Labeling sin a disease and making it no one’s fault may not be any better than making sin a violation of law that is all-my-fault. But see what you think of this:

When I was in late junior high, as I recall, in health class, we had to watch this movie on what smoking does to the human body. This was when the anti-smoking campaign was just getting started, and of course living in Oregon made this campaign a bit easier than it was in the world of tobacco here in the South. But I can still see in my mind the progressive set of pictures in the movie of human lungs getting blacker and blacker from inhaling the smoke and nicotine. The point of course was to impress on us juveniles that healthy lungs have this healthy red coloration, and black, smoker lungs can only mean death. Decades later we know much more about the relationship of smoking to lung disease. But more is at stake than simply the smoke accruing to the lungs. Yes, if one quits soon enough, there can be some reversal in the health of the lung. But if one smokes too long, life and breath itself are lost. That was the story we heard when Johnny Carson died.

One’s lungs can become so blackened and breath can become so labored that only a lung transplant could give life and breath again – and it’s a surgery we humans haven’t yet figured out. But even if we did, like heart transplants, it would require the healthy lungs of someone else who died.

I understand the flaws in the analogy. It’s not fully relational – in most cases, people who die and donate their organs neither die nor donate for the sake of another specific person. Kidneys, yes – because both people still live. God relationally loves us enough and his judgment against our relationship breaking and damaging behavior is such that he suffers a break in his own relational existence in order to bring us back to life. He suffered the first rupture when the son became flesh. He suffered a further rupture when the son embodied all that is most heinous and shameful among humans – wrongful death by crucifixion at the hands of the powers of this world. But when he brought life back to that relationship, he brought life to us all. Only the breath of life that comes from those new lungs can save us. Yes, God’s wrath is being revealed against all human activity that defaces and defiles relationship. But at the same time, our Spiritual Emphysema is taken away by the gift of relational life that has come to us through the Cross.

If you knew that you were being given new lungs and new life, can you imagine deciding to pollute the new lungs in the same way the old ones had brought death? This atoning sacrifice for our sins is not permission to keep on sinning with the claim of grace and forgiveness as a free pass. It is the call to transformed and reformed living. It is the hope of relationship for all creation!

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, February 6, 2005.

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