Final Thoughts on Atonement
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.