Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Meaning of Atonement

Picture the scene.  It’s the second world war, and the Japanese army is forcing British prisoners to build a railway, from Burma to China, crossing over the famous River Kwai.  At the end of each day’s hard, sweating , labour in the sun, the soldiers are lined up and counted.  Also counted are the shovels they have been given for the day’s work – to make sure that none can be used for escape plans. 

But on this day, it is discovered that one shovel is missing.  The Japanese soldiers scream their anger at the lined-up British soldiers.  “Unless you tell us now who has taken the shovel, you will all be shot!”.  For a moment, there is stunned silence, as each man comes to terms with the news that he might be about to die.  Then, one soldier steps forward.  “It was me,” he says. “I took the shovel”.  A Japanese soldier puts his gun to the man’s head, and shoots him dead on the spot.

Later that day, the shovels are counted again when they work party returns to the barracks. Then it is discovered that there has been a mistake.  All the shovels are in fact there.  There are no shovels missing.  The soldier who apparently confessed his crime, was in fact completely innocent.  He took the punishment that had been threatened to all his brothers.  He died so that they might live.

And there, in this apparently true story, we find an eloquently simple parable of what the death of Jesus meant.  Like the innocent solider who gave his life for others, the church has generally taught that Jesus took the punishment which should be ours.  Evangelical and Orthodox theology calls this the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’.  Jesus takes the punishment due to human beings who ignited the righteous wrath of God.  It’s the picture – or at least something like it - that I guess most of us have in our minds, when we think about the death of Christ.  But there are many other ways of grappling with this idea.

Most theology about the cross rests on the idea of atonement:  that is 'at one-ment' - the idea that somehow, by his death, Jesus managed to bring fallen, sinful humanity to one-ness with God.  Many different images are used in pursuit of this idea.  Drawing from Isaiah's visions of the Suffering Servant, theologians have proclaimed that 'it is by his wounds that we are healed'.  Suffering then, and specifically God's suffering for our sake, is crucial to this theology.  Another popular image is taken from Jewish tradition, when, on the day of atonement, a goat would symbolically have the sins of the people laid on it - and it would then be led out into the desert to die.

Another at-one-ment image is the idea of ransom.   According to that theory, our sins make us the moral property of the devil.  Because we sin, we belong to Satan – whom Jesus described as ‘the ruler of this World’ in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus, as the only sinless human being who has ever lived, was the only price which could be paid to 'redeem' us back - to pay the ransom demanded by the devil.  He is the priest-forever – the eternal mediator in the order of Melchizedek – who becomes ‘the source of salvation for all who obey him’ – as the writer to the Hebrews put it, in our New Testament readings.

But we would do well to remember that all these images are just that...images deployed by theologians like St Paul, and many after him, to attempt to get a handle on precisely what Jesus was doing that day.  Because, conspicuously, Jesus himself, never explained precisely what was going on.  The nearest we get to an explanation from Jesus himself is the words we use at every Mass:  'this is my body, given for you; do this in remembrance of me'.  'This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me'.  Clearly, from Jesus lips, his sacrifice has something to do with forgiveness of sins...but what, precisely?  How did it work?  What was the mechanism?  That's what thinking Christians for two thousand years have asked.

For comes down to this.  Whatever all those different atonement images point to...the one, unquestionable fact is this:  Jesus took it.  Jesus took all the hate, all the malice, all the worldly power, all the fear, all the violence that the world could throw at him.  He took it, and absorbed it.  He took it, to the point of utter powerlessness.  He took it to the point where he was so overpowered by the hatred and sin of human beings that his own connection with God was lost.  "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

But the story of the cross doesn't end at Golgotha.  The story of the cross ends three days later, when, having taken all the hate and sin, Jesus rises from the dead.  Death and sin are defeated - but not in some mechanistic kind of way.   Sin is not defeated because somehow our sins were individually nailed onto Jesus.  It's not as if the sin I committed yesterday is somehow floating around the spiritual be picked up and nailed onto Jesus 2000 years ago.  Sin doesn't exist in the sense of being a real, albeit spiritual thing.  Rather, sin is a description of a way of living that is contrary to the ways of God.  

Jesus rises from the tomb because Jesus could take it.  Jesus is bigger - universally, galactically bigger, than our petty human sins.  And therefore Jesus could overcome them. They simply don't matter to him anymore.   One image, often used in the Bible, is that God covers our sins.  Another is that he forgets them.  The Jews celebrate 'Yom Kippur' - the Day of Atonement.  'Kippur' comes from a root word which means 'to cover, or to hide'.  Another word is 'obliterate'.  Our sins are not an actual thing.  They are actions and thoughts which God, mercifully, is big enough to be able to simply cover over.  In the words of Jeremiah – our Old Testament reading for today – the Lord simply remembers our sins no more.

By his death, and crucially by his resurrection, Jesus pronounces that our sins are as nothing to him.  He can shrug them off as easily as he shrugs off death itself.  Like an earthly parent who shrugs off the mis-doings of their beloved child, Jesus pronounces, by his actions, the forgiveness of sins.  The new Covenant written on the Cross is a Covenant of unconditional forgiveness. 

By his death, Jesus declares that our sins are washed away, in his eyes.  Anyone who turns to him can find forgiveness.  Not a grudging forgiveness.  Not the sort of forgiveness which the world offers.  We human beings will only offer a sort of grudging forgiveness won't we?  Anyone who has ever had to fill in a criminal records bureau check is only too well aware of how conditional is the forgiveness that human beings can offer one another.  "I can forgive....but I can never forget" one of the most oft repeated phrases we use.  "I will forgive you for what you have done, as long as you never do it again".  We hold each other in a sort of provisional forgiveness.

But this is nothing like the forgiveness of God. Jesus takes every bit of hurt and sin and anger and power-crazy nonsense that the world can throw at him...and what does he say?  Does he rail at his accusers?  Does he say, "Stop doing this to me, and perhaps I'll let you off"?  No, he says "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they are doing".

Compared to the goodness and mercy and holiness of God, human sin is as nothing.  God wipes away sin, like it was a fly on his nose. Remember the story of the Prodigal Son?  The Father of the prodigal doesn't even demand that his son should repent of his actions and beg forgiveness...he just runs to greet him, and welcomes him home. The son's sin is not even mentioned.  Its dealt with.  It’s done.  It is forgotten.  It just doesn't matter anymore.  It doesn’t even matter what the precise spiritual mechanism is.  Penal substitution?  Atonement? Ransom?  Redemption?  Moral imperative?  Example Theory?  None of these contain the whole truth.  They only glimpse it.

Let me put this another way:  there is nothing you and I could do, no penance, no act of contrition, no wailing and knashing of teeth, no amount of sack-cloth and ashes, no amount of giving up chocolate for Lent! - which could make God forgive us any easier than he already does.  Acts of penitence are good for us – they discipline us, they help us to look to what matters, and not what we fancy.  But they have no effect in themselves on God’s forgiveness for us.

Not only does Jesus death and resurrection declare that he can take everything we throw at him.  It shouts out that these sins are as nothing, compared to the grace and the mercy of God.  "Forgive them, Father...they are like children in the playground.  They don't know what they are doing."

"Come unto me, all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, for I am meek and lowly in heart...and you will find rest for your souls."

Jesus doesn’t invite us into a theological debate.  He invites us instead to trust Him.  He invites us to live our lives as those who are forgiven and freed from our past, and who choose to walk with him along his Way of eternal life.  He calls us to follow his example, of a life poured out for others, in which sins are forgotten, and life is abundant.  That is the way of the Cross.  And that’s the way we travel.


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