Saturday, April 3, 2010

Atonement for the Masses

Jesus died for you.

I have been told this more than a few times. Maybe you have heard it said as well. Maybe in a very well meaning way you even said it to somebody. Maybe you even said it to me.

When I ask why Jesus died, then I am told that Jesus died for my sins or maybe even for all the sins of the world. When I ask again why he died for sins, then I am told that it was God's plan. When I ask why it was God's plan.... ah, here is where the answers start to get a little bit confusing.

1. satisfaction or reparation for a wrong or injury; amends.
2. (sometimes initial capital letter) Theology. the doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind, esp. as accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ.
3. Christian Science. the experience of humankind's unity with God exemplified by Jesus Christ.
4. Archaic. reconciliation; agreement.

The word was invented by William Tyndale in the 16th century. But that doesn't mean that Jesus Followers haven't been trying to explain what was happening in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus from the very beginning. More recently even Mel Gibson tried to explain it all to us, although he pretty much left off the life of Jesus and only gave a couple of minutes at the end to the resurrection, leaving many pop-culture Christians to think that Jesus' death is really the main point.

This week, thanks to Brian McLaren and Rowan Williams, I've been RE:Thinking what it might mean to take atonement theory seriously. More specifically, what is a potential way for a Jesus Follower to look at the cross?

There will be many good people hunting Easter eggs with children, many people will dress up and head out to Christian churches, families will gather and share time and soul nourishing food and laughter. But, there will also be a few folks wondering what it all means. Some of these questioners will be Jesus Followers, some will be Atheists, some will just be weirded out by the Christianized language about blood, death, and God.

So, let me start where an original Jesus Follower might have started, with Hebrew Scripture:

"Come, let us return to the LORD;
for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us;
he has struck down, and he will bind up.
After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD;
his appearing is as sure as the dawn;
he will come to us like the showers,
like the spring rains that water the earth."

~Hosea 6:1-3

The reason I start with Hebrew Scripture is simply because those closest to Jesus, those who first tried to make sense of his life, death, and resurrection, those who tried to make sense of his words and deeds, well, we know they turned to Scripture. I know many postmodern people would object to this today but I do think it is somewhat logical to try and think about Jesus the way people originally thought about him. So hang in there with me a little longer, and see if we can come up with something slightly more helpful that bumper sticker slogans about "God's plan" etc.

Those who actually followed Jesus seemed to understand that he had something to say for God. People who disrupted life as usual were seen as Prophets. And by all accounts, most people thought of Jesus as a Prophet. He was much more than a Prophet (according to Christians) of course, but he was nothing less than a Prophet either.

In Scripture, God seems to have a concern for those people who reside on the margins. The people who get left out of egg hunts and who don't dress well enough to be accepted in a mega-church. Those who have some health problems that we would rather not think about, or maybe their lifestyle would discredit us if we hung out with them.

Now Prophets not only said brilliant words of justice from God but they also symbolized in their actions what God was concerned about, what God was up to in the neighborhood, what God saw.

Jesus was this type of Prophet in both word and deed.

Now these Prophetic types, well, they cause a lot of problems for the Priestly types who are in charge. The Priestly types like order, they worry about buildings, rules, $$$, keeping the authorities happy, fitting into the culture, etc. The Prophetic types are totally disruptive to the business as usual folks. Priestly types avoid conflict, they want everybody to like them, to laugh at their jokes. Prophetic types want to be liked also (I think) but they are sold out to God's disruptive work. [Let's be clear, there are plenty of disruptive people who are not the least bit prophetic, but, Prophetic types are ALWAYS disruptive!]

Jesus suffered. Can we agree on this point? Jesus suffered greatly. He lived in poverty. When he was arrested, he was tormented, beaten, mocked, tortured, and put to death, a violent death. His life and death were his Prophetic witness to what God sees. Do you think that God sees people who suffer? Through the Passion of Jesus, could God be saying to us "You're now torturing ME. You're now killing ME." to prophetically disrupt our lives of business as usual. Do YOU see suffering people? Do I? God does.

And when did this happen? During high-attendance season at the Temple. High Attendance = High Giving ($$$). So, bad timing to be disruptive as far as the Priestly types can think. Especially if The Powers That Be find out. Disruption could cause lots of problems. Let's get back to business as usual. And let's do it quick.

When we look at what is happening around us, we each choose a particular lens to look through. If you love college basketball you might look at the world through "brackets" if you love movies you might look at the world through Speilberg films. When you view Jesus' death do you use a priestly lens (business as usual) or a prophetic lens (do I have your attention now)?

Hosea reminds me to see God's work through a Prophetic lens. It is all about getting back to God. That ultimate TURN. To God. Away from business as usual. Jesus' death reminds me again, in a most serious way to TURN to God and away from business as usual.

And in that awful and violent image of Jesus on the Cross, I am also reminded by Hosea, God heals us, God revives us, God raises us up. Like rain that waters creation, God disrupts our dryness. Isn't that what forgiveness really is? Fresh rain on dry ground. Healing. Revival.

Scot McKnight says that "The gospel we preach shapes the kind of churches we create. The kind of church we have shapes the Gospel we preach."

The mega-church of Jesus' day wanted business as usual. No disruptions. Let's not hurt attendance. Let's not risk low giving ($). Let not make the authorities unhappy. And it got Jesus tortured and hung on a cross to die. And he did. Business as usual kills. It kills you. It kills me. It even kills God.

What will Easter Sunday look like for Jesus Followers? Will our actions say to the world that Jesus died so let's wear fancy clothes to a fancy building, hide some eggs, claim high attendance on bureaucratic forms, heal budgets and ignore suffering? The Homeless. The Hungry. Poverty. War. Lack of medical care. Abuse. The list is long. God suffers. Time to TURN.

Will Jesus Followers simply follow Jesus?! Prophetically?!

Charles W. Harrison