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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

Some of you are aware that I have been taking a class for Continuing Education Units, those professional development hours that a lot of us have to take in order to remain in the good graces of those who authorize us to do what do. Our focus for the class is Atonement Theories and Salvation. Yes, I planned my series knowing that I would be studying this at the same time. What I did not plan for, however, was how challenging the work would be from class—not intellectually challenging, but emotionally challenging.

For those that know me well, deep diving into theological topics like Atonement and Salvation are not only right up my alley, but topics that I could spend hours talking about. There are a couple of things that I have discovered in the last week, though, that may underpin my desire to keep going around in circles looking for an answer: First – NO theologian has written the definitive, accepted, or adopted answer to Atonement and Salvation. As I have shown throughout the series, there are multiple perspectives to this difficult topic, and all of them are scriptural. Second – Paul’s use of all the theories in his letters to the churches drives me nuts. It feels manipulative in the way “used car salespersons” often get blamed for being creepy. And Third – As stated by my instructor, “Preaching is persuasion. It is claiming a position that we expect others to hear and follow.”

And my instructor is right.

A different hard truth that I have had to face this week is that ALL of these conversations begin and end with how we view the Biblical Text.

I don’t want to take away anything from anybody, especially something that you have come to rely upon as being right and true in your life. I pray everyday that what I offer to the world is faithful to the process of learning and growing and being transformed along side others who are trying to do the same thing.

I talk a lot about our lived experience, and I must admit that my lived experience plays a huge role in how I see the life and work of Jesus in the world. I dipped my toe in the world of Unitarian Universalism for a time because I wanted the freedom to explore other religious traditions and to glean from those traditions the truths that reflect more honestly what I see in my own life, but I could not stay there because the life of Jesus is equally important to me.

I read a great article about the Dali Lama once in a Time magazine where he said, “If you were born Christian, learn to be the best Christian you can be. You do not need to become a Buddhist.” My take-away from the article is that all religions are fundamentally the same, only the names and histories of their development have changed.

I get why religion is so difficult for people. Over my lifetime I have observed the changes that have occurred in religious circles from being comfortable with the mystery of God to having to know for certain who God is and what God is all about. This level of certainty tends to squash our ability to grow with God and to imagine the possibilities for a more abundant life in God. Certainty stops the conversations, because once you know, what’s the point of going deeper or wider with your exploration.

What Atonement Theory is asking us to do is to understand the necessity of Jesus’ death on the cross, and perhaps even to attach some measure of salvation to that death. Because we have made this such an all-important topic in the life of the church, one would assume that Jesus talked about it all the time. Not so. The word Salvation is only mentioned six times throughout the gospels. The word is mentioned 84 times in the Old Testament, and always in the context of God’s willingness to ‘rescue,’ ‘spare,’ or save the people from complete destruction or annihilation.

In Luke 18:8-10, Jesus is visiting Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector at Jericho, and provides the same context for salvation as the Old Testament: “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

So often when we see the word salvation and lost, we immediately think of our current day understanding of these terms—someone needs to make a profession of faith because they don’t know God, and without this profession of faith, they are going to die in sin and be relegated to hell forever. But the Hebrew understanding of salvation was slightly different than our current understanding. When Jesus says that Zacchaeus is lost, he means he has lost his way, has strayed away from the law that specifically prohibits cheating or swindling people out of their money.

Jewish tax collectors were in a particularly difficult position. They were told exactly how much they must give to the Roman Empire for taxes, but they were not prohibited from collecting more in order to line their own pockets. For Zacchaeus to give up his lucrative operation, he had to have a change of heart. He returned to the law given by Moses and agreed with Jesus that this was no way to live. This is a salvation moment. Will Zacchaeus stumble and fall again? We don’t know. It would be nice to believe that this encounter with Jesus changed Zacchaeus’ heart forever and that he never cheated people again. But we don’t know because the text doesn’t tell us.

It may sound like I’m all over the map at this point, but I assure you there is a method to my madness. When we take what Jesus freely offers to individuals like Zacchaeus and assign it to the work of the cross, we are missing something in the message of Jesus’ encounters with folks while he was still alive.

In Matthew 16:21-23, Jesus has an encounter with Peter just after he has told the disciples that Peter is the rock upon which the church will be built. The text reads, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him saying, ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.’ But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’”

Jesus is clearly predicting that he must suffer and die, and he even names the religious/political leaders of his day as the cause of his death, but he also asserts in this moment that he will be raised from death to new life. This conversation comes on the heels of his conversation with the disciples about his true identity as the Messiah and his explicit instruction not to tell anyone. He wants his disciples to know something extraordinary about him, but is not ready to share this with the wider community. His identity as the Messiah has the potential to change the conversation for many, but he doesn’t use this title to coerce or manipulate folks into believing or behaving any differently. Even Peter who tries to protect Jesus from his impending death gets a lecture from Jesus about focusing on earthly things rather than heavenly things.

What becomes clear to me is that throughout Jesus’ ministry he is reorienting people toward a kingdom view of the world. Jesus keeps pointing back to God the father, our creator. He keeps telling stories about how we are to behave with one another, how we are to live in covenant with one another without violating each other’s personhood. Jesus makes it clear that none of us is made perfect, but we have the capacity to live in line with God’s will for us here on earth. He tells his disciples, “You’ll do greater things than these,” which illuminates our capacity for living our lives in alignment with God's idea of covenant and community.

So, when it comes to Jesus’ death, it seems to me that what Jesus accomplishes on the cross is our recognition of how we treat one another; with spite, malice, and lack of forethought. Jesus reveals how self-centered we are at our cores, but he is also telling us to remember that it doesn’t have to be this way. When Jesus eats Passover with his disciples, he tells them in that critical moment to remember him. Jesus doesn’t want his life to be in vain; his teachings to fall by the wayside, instead, he wants the disciples to be bold enough to teach the same concepts Jesus taught, but to a wider audience.

The cross, often held up as the moment where Jesus takes on the sins of the world, is more aptly described as the moment where we recognize we are misusing our will. I don’t want Jesus to take on my sins, but I do want Jesus to show me how I am sinning and how to make right what I make wrong. He demonstrates this when he is hanging on the cross and says, “God forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The same way that Jesus forgives is how we need to forgive and be forgiven. I must clean up my side of the sidewalk, and keep it clean, so that my life becomes a reflection of the life of Christ.

When I look at the cross, I see an instrument of torture. I see one of the cruelest ways anyone could die. I see Jesus on the cross and how he is able to forgive, he is able to hold space for the thief hanging on the cross next to him, he is able to remember the whole of Israel, he is able to cause a shift in those who have incredibly closed minds and is able to spark conversations that never would have happened without this seminal event. Jesus is able to show us, even in his final moments, what he expects from us every day of our lives.

The resurrection is the outcome of this shift in the way we think and act. As we grow and change, we, too, are transformed. We go from death to life, even in the here and now. We are able to see our full potential as followers of Christ. God shines a light into the dark places of our lives, and we can no longer hide the ugly. If we are bold enough with our lives, it can feel as though we are literally reborn. There is no waiting on heaven; it isn’t about the afterlife; it is about the present life.

For those of you who are wondering about folks we categorize as the worst of the worst; folks like Hitler or serial killers, I have come to a place in my life where I believe that even these folks will be reconciled to God whether they choose it or not. I use the word reconciled in the sense that even though it appears they have zero connection with their creator, God draws them back to God because they are part of creation, and creation is good. God is able to love even that which appears to us to be completely unlovable. I do not get to determine for God who is worthy enough to be loved by God. That is clearly above my paygrade. What I do get to do, though, is choose every day how I am going to live in this wondrous life I have been given.

This may seem like a lot of heady stuff, but the more we question how we think about God, question how we love God, and question how we behave as a result of our relationship with God, the more we realize that this stuff matters. It is in our wrestling that we find the most peace. We discover that God is with us in the mess helping us to organize the chaos just as God continues to order the chaos of creation. We call this a journey because we learn along the way. We aren’t born with all the answers, but what we discover as we live gives us strength for all our adventures with God.

It is also clear to me that I don't want to be like Paul, the creepy car sales person, so I offer this in the spirit in which I offer all things: take what you need, and leave the rest.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

This week we are looking at my personal theory of Atonement, which aligns most closely with the Moral Influence Theory, one of the earliest theories posited by theologians, as early as the 4th century. There are several interpretations of this theory, but most importantly, this theory doesn’t look strictly at the death of Jesus as a means of salvation, but instead sees the cross as a ramification of the moral life of Jesus, thus holding Jesus up as a martyr due to the radical nature of his moral example.

The Moral Influence Theory looks at the life of Jesus, all of his words and actions that define who he was as a human walking among us, as well as his death and resurrection. His death is understood to be the catalyst that will transform societies, hopefully inspiring us to live as Jesus taught—to compassionately hold space for one other while acting justly and creating equity for a broken world. To live a moral life means that we take seriously the consequences of the choices we make. Free-will is a huge part of the Moral Influence Theory in that our choices have consequences, and we are called to align our lives with that of Christs on a daily basis.

Throughout the ministry of Jesus, he taught people to pay attention, to be aware of their behavior. Through his parables, he was providing illustrations that they could understand about how to behave; how to treat one another in community. Jesus never parted from this path.

On at least two occasions Jesus had the opportunity to outline what must be done to achieve eternal life, and both times he comes back with, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” In Luke 10 he continues with the story of the Good Samaritan and adds the concept of showing mercy. No where in Matthew or in Luke, when referring to loving God, or eternal life, does Jesus say anything about accepting Jesus as a personal savior, being baptized, or joining a church. Instead, he talks about our behavior. He repeatedly points back to our behavior and tells us how we should live; what justice looks like, and how God expects us to treat one another.

In Matthew 23:1-3, Jesus rails, once again, at the scribes and Pharisees while admonishing the crowd saying, ”The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Jesus tried to reorient the people toward a purposeful life filled with action, a life designed to promote justice and create equity for all. He also understood justice and equity as part of the inheritance of the Hebrew people as a collective. Atonement, in the Hebrew world, was a collective act of reconciliation. Jesus called people together as a community, not as isolated individuals. The idea of individual salvation would have been strange to Jesus, who called together his own community to then serve in community.

Christ, in Jesus, becomes the best example of moral living and is the foundation of our Christian faith, which promotes moral ways of being in the world.

What we see too often in the present day is the watering down of Jesus’ call to live a moral life, replaced by forgiveness offered by the cross, regardless of how I live. Those who are proponents of the Moral Influence Theory argue that Jesus’ life is designed to affect change in us individually and at the community level. We are forgiven when we learn to forgive ourselves and others. We are saved when we offer salvation through practical application like feeding, clothing, and rescuing people at their darkest hour. When we love others, when we offer hope to the most marginalized in our society, when we live just and equitable lives, we are meeting our moral obligation.

Free-will is not for the faint of heart. For every action, there is a consequence. To be the change we want to see in the world is not easy. It takes commitment. We hold ourselves to a higher moral standard because we understand what is at stake. All of the social ills of our day are affected by our actions; how we personally respond to racism, violence, and the rights of the marginalized. We must be willing to “take up our own cross and follow Jesus,” to see that the world needs us to show up and be accountable for our words and actions.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

"This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

I had this huge epiphany this week; so monumental that I am rethinking parts of my own theology to ensure that I am in alignment with what I now see as part of the saving work of Christ. Let me explain."

We are studying atonement theories and the necessity of the cross and looking this week at the atonement theory of Christus Victor. The primary premise of this theory is that through the cross, Jesus overcame, or was victorious over, sin, death, and evil. There are a number of reasons why this theory does not resonate with me. For starters, when I look at the world, I immediately have to do some crazy mind manipulation to believe that Jesus defeated sin, death, and evil through his death on the cross. It doesn’t take much to realize that sin, death, and evil still exists, all we have to do is look around at the overwhelming evidence: mass shootings, police killings, rape, robbery, domestic violence, hate crimes, and the list goes on.

A key concept of this theory is that God takes the initiative to decisively change the relationship between God and the world through the death of Christ on the cross. It places the focus of the conflict not between God and humanity, but God and the powers of sin, death, and evil. The part of the theory that pits God against sin, death, and evil only brings up more questions for me? Where did sin, death, and evil come from? Can we build a theory of atonement on the story of creation and the fall of man if we understand that story to be a myth?

These questions lead me to another reason I don’t like this theory. Christus Victor still puts God in an awkward position of needing to reconcile God’s own creation to himself. I cannot escape the idea that if God is the creator of all things, then God created the circumstances upon which creation became, entered into, or found sin, death, and evil. This concept will always seem strange to me.

What hit me squarely between the eyes, though, is that Christus Victor reveals to us what it is we most want and need from the one we worship—we need a victory.

So much of our lives are steeped in the ick of the world. We find ourselves trapped by shame, guilt, hatred, fear, greed, and self-centeredness. When we have an experience of the Divine, it gives us a glimpse of what hope looks like, what the world could be if we lived more compassionately toward one another. Sadly, we struggle to find our way in a world that revels in darkness. We need a victory.

When we see Jesus upon the cross, we want to create meaning out of this horrible act of violence. Our brains want to right the wrong, to fix what seems like a huge miscarriage of justice. We create for ourselves the perfect victory solution. We need a victory. We need something greater than ourselves to life us up and out of the ick of the world. We need God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit to show us what real hope looks like and that life is actually worth living. We need a victory. To say that Jesus defeated or overcame sin, death, and evil means that we, too, have a chance to defeat or overcome these things in our own lives, with the help of Christ.

With Jesus on our side, we can defeat our addictions, we can learn to be patient and tolerant of others, we can even learn to be compassionate. We can lay down our anger, set aside our pain, be healed of physical and mental maladies, and find hope. It is the hope that we are looking for. No one, and I mean no one, want to slog through life without hope, even if hope is knowing that on pay day, I get tacos for supper. There has to be a reason for living. Most of us exhaust the worlds reasons—they simply are not good enough or lofty enough to matter—but the hope that Christ brings to us, that matters.

So, while this theory in its academic form does nothing for me, the value it has on our lived experience may be necessary for our salvation. After all, it is hope that ultimately saves us from the drudgery of this world.

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