Yom Kippur, from this week’s sundown Tuesday to sundown Wednesday, is for our Jewish neighbors the day of atonement.
If I understand contemporary Judaism sufficiently (I checked with a friend who is a rabbinical student!), forgiveness is always open to Jews for no more than “turning back to God.” It’s a privilege that comes to the people of God from God’s “chesed,” steadfast or covenant faithfulness. To show the importance or ‘right place’ of “teshuavah” — repentence — God created right after Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), a “day of atonement,” on which the need and opportunity for turning back to God is focused, maybe even more powerful.
(It’s funny for me to realize, despite Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees’ works righteousness, modern Judaism asks only that its adherents — who are born into their faith — admit their sinfulness and lean into God’s forgiveness. Whereas, in contemporary Christianity, it’s more often assumed, at least in most of the classical formulations, that we need to, first, accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and second, repent of our sins. But in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, forgiveness is ultimately and undeniably a possibility that comes only of the nature of God. It’s in the Christian tradition that the equation requires more, at least two steps, from the sinner. So much for any sense that Christianity is all about grace and Judaism is about works!)
How do we Christians understand atonement? Not in one single way actually! Some of us might even confess, “Hardly at all!”
Despite the assurance with which some church communities trumpet their favorite understanding as the only true, right and saving way to interpret the whole (and holy) crucifixion and resurrection event, the church has never agreed on a single teaching about atonement. Instead, there are a number of different ways to understand what the cross and empty tomb promise Christians. For example, there are the ransom theory, the moral influence theory, the satisfaction theory, the penal theory, the scapegoat theory… among others. (I should probably offer a short explanation of each one, but, I find most of them incomprehensible, at least logically. Ah, another mystery that belongs to God…)
So, friends, if ever you thought that you can’t be a Christian — or that you are not a very good Christian — because this or that atonement theology makes no sense to you (or is downright repugnant to you!), here’s some reassurance. Or, alternatively, I’m not sure you have an excuse anymore! Even if you can’t quite figure it all out, that’s no reason to deny yourself faith or let yourself off the hook (depending upon how you feel about the prospect of discipleship). Our foreparents in the faith had more wisdom and room for difference than our most dogmatic contemporaries often like to let on.
Maybe the least you have to believe is that Jesus is — somehow??? — God’s means for making God’s love — and the forgiveness that flows from it — present to us. …And that — again somehow? — the crucifixion and the resurrection are integral (but not some sign of failure of God’s plan!), to how God is at work through Jesus.
For me, the struggle with understanding the crucifixion has always been about why a loving Father would need his only begotten Son (to rely on the traditional, exclusive language to make a illustrate the family ties) to die a horrible martyr’s death. Would God really utilize a Roman’s instrument of capital punishment? In what reasonable or loving way could that be the will of a good God? And how can we understand it to have made a difference?
Ok, maybe I’ve wondered (like Jesus’ enemies), why would God let a beloved, any beloved child so to suffer? (That question extends beyond the crucifixion, doesn’t it?)
I used to struggle with my inability to get my heart and mind around the explanations I thought I had to believe. In fact, during seminary, I used to think to myself, “I can’t — I just won’t — get ordained if I haven’t figured out the heart of Christianity!”
My resolution was partial, of course. We “see through a glass darkly.”
I came to believe that while the crucifixion was unavoidable, but its inevitability had more to do with human sinfulness and the unwavering love of Christ… than with some arcane, redemptive strategy of God. Of course, God sent the Christ into the world with a good guess how it would work out… how the world would respond and the resulting suffering for the Divine. But, for me, it’s not actually the crucifixion that is redemptive, but the resurrection.
Jesus was more fully about loving than we can be. As such, the powers of the world recognized the threat in him. And, recognizing a threat, humans did what it is too easy for us to do… hurt, even destroy someone else in hopes of protecting, saving ourselves. But Jesus, being different, wouldn’t strike back. Or even defend himself. Could there be something redemptive in that?
So, for me, Jesus — in some full recognition and acceptance of how the world is and who he is — submitted himself to death on a cross… more than God sending him to that death.
God’s move, really, was on Easter morning: not letting the worst in us hijack God’s way, ending God’s love for us, or being the end of the whole, holy story.
Curiously, Christians find their atonement pretty much just like Jews — by throwing themselves wholeheartedly into depending on God’s steadfast grace and mercy. We probably can only do so when we recognize how far we fall short and our deep need for help. Teshuavah!
The difference for me is more about how it’s all described — the story of holy week sort of breaks it down and offers it to us in a particularly bracing and inspiring movements: God’s love; human defensiveness and selfishness and destructiveness and the harm it causes; God’s love again, some more, forever. Oh, yes, and we know God’s love in the intimate person of Jesus. In him, we see again that God’s love can’t be dissuaded or overpowered.
I won’t see you in church this Sunday, but let’s all pray for the success and safety of the rest of this week.