Isaiah 53:1-12, Psalm 22 and Mark 14:25-39
(Preacher’s note: Palm Sunday worshipers may recognize (thankfully) that the text of the sermon is longer than what I actually preachedI I excerpted on the fly to make room for the other aspects of Palm Sunday worship– especially the procession with the palms! But here is the sermon text in full.)
I spoke with a woman a few months ago. She’d like to come to church: she needs the community and believes she has some faith.
She shares much of what could be called the Christian outlook on the world — that God created everything, that all humans are somehow broken, that God’s continuing presence and spirit and work offer healing and wholeness to our brokenness, that we’re never alone (despite how often lonely we feel).
But she rejects a God who demands an innocent’s sacrifice in order to forgive the guilty’s sins. You know the story– not just personal sacrifice, as in “we should all make sacrifices and settle for something shy of our every desire.” No, her roadblock is understanding how God could demand the sacrifice of an innocent who is unfairly condemned, tortured and dies.
A God who need ransom for the guilty, and for whom the death of one who is not guilty of any crime — someone without one blemish, an innocent victim — would actually pay that price.
She called such a plan the heavenly version of “state terrorism.” She spoke about “God as torturer” who in a scapegoat’s suffering finds satisfaction for some perceived affront, injury, loss or injustice.
Aware of her own loss, she explained, “if that’s who God is… if that’s how He (sic) is… then what such a Deity has to offer is hardly forgiveness or grace. Rather it’s misplace payback, off-target revenge. How could I worship and follow such a God? The contradiction is so great, I could never believe in much less love that God.”
I remember the conversation because it reminded me so much of an earlier time in my faith life. I have never really experienced or feared… or could even imagine God as a wrathful One (a blessings of being cradle UCC). So my struggle wasn’t exactly like hers.
However, as I was finishing seminary and moving towards ordination, I had a struggle of faith, albeit in a very rational or intellectual form. I felt I couldn’t become a minister if I couldn’t understand redemption in some way that seemed more fitting to whom God is than the old “Jesus died as the punishment God demanded for our sinfulness.”
I suspect, on some level, maybe less consciously, that’s one of the questions for everyone as he or she considers making the commitment of Christian faith. The cross is central, unavoidable, horrific.
Where then does it fit in our faith.
Or, more importantly, how is it part of God’s plan?
We know what our tradition says the crucifixion is about — whether we find it helpful or not! A certain interpretation has been taught to us since our Sunday School days:
~ We remember how we have heard the words from John’s Gospel, “Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world.”
~ We know how we have understood singing…
“And I love that old cross where the dearest and best // For a world of lost sinners was slain,” or
“Upon the cross of Jesus within my mind I see the very dying form of One who suffered there for me.”
…This is not even to mention the prevalence and centrality of the crucifix in certain branches of Christian faith.
…Even the low-church “Jesus saves” that signifies a certain assurance of faith– how those two words bring with them whole, complex picture of how God used the cross.
None of this is surprising since a certain explanation of atonement has actually held sway for a millennium. What might be more surprising is that for the first 1000 years, the church wasn’t so clear or at least unified about how to interpret the cross.
It’s called substitutionary atonement. And it goes like this– Jesus served as the substitute God needed to die for human sinfulness. It comes in a few different versions:
Christ ransomed us from the debt of sin;
Christ defeated death that is the punishment for our sin;
Christ paid the price, satisfied the sentence we owe that we might be forgiven.
There are a few biblical passages that allude to such a proposition– starting back in the Hebrew Scriptures, where the suffering servant theme gets extended, often through the prism wherein one’s sacrifice can restore right relations with God… Until Christ is offering himself as the sacrifice that can placate God’s wrath over sin begun with Adam and Eve’s obedience.
But, so the thinking goes, a sacrifice from anyone guilty would simply be their punishment. We who are imperfect have nothing to offer that is sufficient.
The only sacrifice that could fulfill the need must be innocent. Without blemish. So it is to be made by God Godself in the second person of the Trinity. God sacrificed his perfect son to free us from a Divine wrath that had lasted so many generations, like the sin that has been passed down and part of the rest of our lives since the first humans.
Wait, you ask, “just a few passages in the bible about that? Ones that allude to what Christianity is all about?”
Would there, could there be any Christianity that didn’t insist that Jesus on the cross is God’s way of saving us from our sins because we can’t save ourselves?
Friends, that’s my point, this one interpretation of the meaning of the cross has become so imbedded in the tradition that it’s almost impossible to imagine Jesus, Holy Week or the Christian faith without it. Even though many struggle with many aspects or implications of the this one explanation of how God has affected the atonement.
Or, to be more direct, as in the case of the woman with whom I talked, many find it more off-putting, then enlightening, inspiring or salvific. The common or predominant understanding of the cross actually distances people today from God, rather than bringing them closer and giving them insights into the ways and will and working of God in Jesus. Instead of calling them into faith, it turns them away.
Maybe it’s time the church needs to reconsider this interpretation?
Or at least, as I’m suggesting, acknowledge it’s not the only faithful way of understanding Christianity or required for living out the Christian faith.
As with the Christmas story, we tend to conflate the different accounts– Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s with what Paul had written in letters before they penned their Gospels. And this sense of there being one story lends credence to our belief that there’s always been only one way of understanding.
(All this had to do with another common misunderstanding– that Truth, capital T, demands a oneness that can admit no variety. But that’s a completely different sermon, and I’d only remind you what our order of service notes next to our Affirmation of Faith: “in non-essentials diversity; in essentials unity; in all things charity.” Our faithful question could then be, “does God need us to have one certain understanding of atonement in order to be able to effect redemption, to save us?”)
Substitutionary atonement is theological interpretation of Jesus’ death that didn’t become predominant until Anselm in 1074. For a thousand years after the crucifixion, Christians made their way, lived faithful lives, shared the faith with a variety of understandings, or, perhaps, in their humble lack of understanding!
But as this single interpretation took over the central place in our theology, we begin to see and hear it everywhere. As if there can be on other way of understanding the faith. We even read substitionary atonement back into the animal sacrifices that were the center of the Temple’s religious observance in Jesus’ day.
Long before animal sacrifice was invented, human beings knew two basic ways of creating, maintaining and restoring good relations with one another — the gift and the meal. They our outward signs of an internal disposition towards another. They come with whole sets of delicate protocol — what, when, how, to whom, why, by whom.
Gifts given and meals shared– they are probably more fundamental, and certainly proceed sexual activity as fundamental human bonding activities.
How then could people create, maintain and restore good relations with a divine being? What visible acts can we employ to reach an invisible being? Not surprisingly– offering a gift and sharing a meal became modes of relating and occasions for God’s presence.
Temple sacrifice was a gift– a valuable animal or other foodstuff burned on the altar. The smoke rising represented the transfer from earth to heaven, from the human donor to the Divine recipient.
Sacrifice was also a meal. In this case, it’s blood was poured over the altar, thus transferring the property to God, and the meat was returned to the offerer as divine food for a feast with God.
Sacrifice could be about restoring right relations when some offense had broken them, but the Temple sacrifice of giving a lamb or two turtledoves was not primarily punishment or payment for one’s sins. Rather it was the currency for on-going relations. A meal together. Gifts given to God who also clearly gives us gifts.
Likewise, church, there can be meanings to the cross that have nothing to do with some sacrifice God demanded wherein Jesus serves as the substitute for the punishment we deserved.
I know, it’s hard to believe. We’ve become so inculcated. So immersed. So full of pre-understandings that we hear in between the lines, between words, between the notes, in the images and movements of the holy story — meanings that may or may not be there.
As I said, it took almost a 1,000 years after Jesus’ crucifixion before this substitutionary atonement theology became the predominant understanding of the cross, of how it was that God acted in Jesus to offer us saving grace.
Yes, of course, there were whispers as early as Paul’s letters or the Gospel of John. But Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was the author of what became the triumphant explanations. So much so that most people think its “the real reason” for Jesus’ death, the orthodox and the official “Truth” about Good Friday, God and Christianity.
If your faith is such that an understanding of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement brings you closer to God, I wish to do nothing to dislodge or disturb your spiritual connection. More power to efficacy of that theological formulation.
But if you are one of the Christians who can’t quite figure out how a loving, forgiving God could demand the suffering and death of an innocent to pay someone else’s debt…
If you are one of the many who stays away from the church or rejects the label Christian, or pushes away some modicum of faith because of the picture of God such theology paints…
If explanations of the cross as “redemptive violence,” rather than opening up God to you, seems to erect an other, perhaps unscalable wall, between you and God, then hear me this morning:
There’s not just one way to understand the cross.
There’s no single teaching about the why or the what behind the cross one must adhere to in order to earn the faith.
Even more deeply, there’s no way to view the cross without some interpretive framework. That’s been true since the beginning.
The disciples and women who witnessed the crucifixion, from various angles, distances and perspectives, though the Gospel accounts certainly make it clear that Jesus had apparently forewarned them, tried to explain it to them… well, those same Gospels are clear– his followers weren’t quite ready, didn’t expect, or understand how it could have happened. Think of Cleopas and his companion on the Road to Emmaus.
And remember, that all those accounts, were composed at least 30 years after the crucifixion, from oral traditions. In other words, they were already products of the desperate search for meaning of the crucifixion.
It’s not hard to see how the first generation had trouble dealing with the violent capital punishment death of their beloved spiritual teacher.
Not hard to understand why would have struggled and failed to foresee it coming. Who would be able to hear easily that one’s beloved teacher was to be defeated and put to death by his opponents?
Or once it happened, how they didn’t the emotional space to make sense of it… while they’d be fearing for their own lives? (that’s why they are in the locked upper room when Jesus appears to them!).
We know the end of the story and we still struggle to figure out what it means! How can this be Good Friday? How can Good News comes of a story that pivots on a crucifixion?
The first disciples, and pretty much everyone since, are left scrambling to make sense of their Jesus’ defeat in his struggle against the authorities and injustices that characterized his ministry.
This is why we hear so many reflections from Hebrew Scriptures in the Gospels. The faithful searched their holy literature, the language of their faith, to figure this out, what it could mean.
Was God’s plan defeated?
Or was God accomplishing something in tragedy that they were missing?
Paul’s letters don’t retell the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution, after all Paul was not a witness. But in these first of the Christian writings, Paul offers some interpretive judgements.
And the Gospels retell the story, not just because it’s holy to remember, but because they are explain God in Christ… what God can accomplish in suffering, what it means for our lives.
That work goes on well after the New Testament canon was written and closed. It’s the stuff of patristics, the church fathers. And the great ecumenical councils, and all the creeds and well through the whole first millennia.
Even today, as each of us determines if we are going to make the faith our own — a faith whose symbol is a cross — don’t we also have to struggle to bring God and the crucifixion into the same sentence?
So again, I give you permission: substitutionary atonement isn’t the only way to understand the cross.
To make my point, as I have been through this whole Lenten sermon series, let’s look at Mark’s retelling of the story. He offers little that suggests the crucifixion was about Jesus ransoming us from the debt we owed God for our sin.
Mark offers four primary interpretive details:
Darkness coming over the land. This is literary symbolism, an author expressing the grief and judgement of the moment. The cosmos itself joins in mourning what is happening. Darkness signifies the guilt of worldly rulers resorting to the state terrorism to murder “the Lord of glory.”
But as I’ve said over these last Sundays, Jesus’ ministry — this Reign of God he was preaching and inviting his followers to take up living — was clearly a non-violent, but deeply political protest of the injustices promulgated by the Roman Empire and its puppets in the local religious authorities.
The crucifixion reminds us that the empires of this world will resort to murder to protect even the most undeserved and most oppressive privilege. The Reign of God is an alternative to the injustices of worldly empire. But there is a high cost to such discipleship.
The Curtain in the Temple was torn in two. The holiest of holies, where only the high priest could draw near the particular place of God’s special presence was cordoned off from the rest of the Temple with a curtain.
To say the curtain was torn signifies first a judgement on the Temple and its authorities’ conllusion and collaboration with the Empire and all its injustices, right down to Jesus’ death.
Remember: Jesus opposition with the Temple and its functionaries was not any condemnation of the Jewish faith itself. The Temple and Jewish practice could be faithful, a means to God. But, Jesus’ position was that religious institutions could be compromised and fall short of what God expected of them and what people needed from them. When the Temple and the religious authorities were so involved with — in bed with really — the Empire, Jesus suggested God would find other ways.
Therefore, Jesus, like John before him, suggested God’s grace could find other venues outside religious institutions that had fallen short and were failing to serve God’s purposes. God’s presence could be known in others places and in other ways.
The curtain tearing is confirmation of what John and Jesus have been saying and showing and doing all along. Access to God is no longer limited. Jesus has offered, mediates, even in death, a new way of relating to God apart from the Temple (and all the collaboration and injustice it had come to represent in the first century).
The witness of the Roman Centurion, who was actually charged with Jesus’ crucifixion. He announces, “Truly this man was God’s son.” The Roman Centurion– the first human in Mark’s Gospel to call Jesus “the son of God.” Not identified as in any way religious or even spiritual. Or even a Jew. He is, instead, a representative of the Empire. The enemy. But he undercuts all the Roman imperial theology and all its claims:
~ not the Emperor, but Jesus.
~ not the power and privilege of Empire, but promise of the Reign of God.
Psalm 22: Mark has Jesus’ word from the cross echo the painful line of despair and desolation from the Psalm that all his readers would be familiar with: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Mark’s account of Jesus’ passion uses other echos of Psalm 22 — casting lot for his clothes. The soldiers mocking him.
Whether or not Mark found interpretive clues to what happened in Psalm 22 or the details in the Psalm actually generated some of Mark’s narrative is hard to tell, and probably doesn’t matter.
Because Psalm 22 becomes the frame in which Mark sees and understands the crucifixion. It is a prayer for deliverance. It describes a person experiencing intense hostility and the extreme suffering that comes of it. The sufferer has been faithful and does not understand why he is suffering. At this point, we can say, even Jesus is struggling to understand the meaning of the cross. Perhaps doubting there can be meaning in such inhuman cruelty and the misery of such suffering.
But in the Psalm, the despair and doubt of the first half gives way abruptly to a prayer of thanksgiving for deliverance and vindication. There is an end to the torture and suffering. But death is not the end of the story. Nothing empire can do can destroy God’s Reign.
The righteous Jesus was condemned and suffered at the hands of the power of this world. But for God the violence and injustice of empire never gets the last word. This is the vindication that God offers Jesus. Resurrection. It’s not finished. The struggle continues.
Church, for Mark, Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t so much a divine necessity as a human inevitability. Stand non-violently against the injustice of Empire, and the world will kill you. Jesus was just one of thousands of crucifixions. We can name martyrs down to our time too.
God needs us to stand up for this other way. We might rightfully wonder why God allows the world such power and effectiveness when it comes to destructiveness.
But maybe what God does that is redemptive isn’t in the martyrdom, but in disallowing its effectiveness, in the resurrection?
That doesn’t sound strange and foreign does it? In fact, it sounds deeply Christian.
The violence and destruction, the world’s attempts to silence the voices and servants of justice are real. And painful. As they attack and try to destroy those who do God’s will.
But God doesn’t give up. God doesn’t let go of all those beloved servants. Or their faithful service. Or the cause to which they gave their lives.
God gets the last word over every Empire.
Jesus was faithful. So is God.
Remember the woman I spoke about in the beginning, who was struggling to find and to relate to God despite all the talk of substitutionary atonement? I told her it would be ok to mourn, even hate the cross, as I believe God had to.
Because she might find her meaning in another emptiness, the tomb three days later.
Good Friday is incomplete, an offense against all the God says is sacred. It’s not any Divine Necessity. Resurrection is God’s necessity. So that Good Friday makes no sense in our faith without the resurrection of Easter morning.
Not only will the struggle continue.
We’re called to see, to believe, to live that that nothing in all creation has the power to hold God back…
And that woman, she’s started coming to church. Because the story hasn’t ended. Thanks be to God.