Faith After Certainty: Why Your Theory of Atonement Stinks

April 3, 2016


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
April 3, 2016

“Faith After Certainty: Why Your Theory of Atonement Stinks”
Colossians 5:17-19

A few weeks ago, Paul talked about Jesus and Christology. He illustrated that Jesus followers have many different ideas about him that we could locate on a scale from 0-10. Those near the bottom of the scale think of Jesus as fully human, a good teacher, a peaceful and moral person. Those near the top of the scale identify Jesus as God, holy and perfect.

It isn’t that one end of the scale is right and the other wrong – or that one end is better than the other. It simply offers an explanation of the varying ideas about who Jesus was historically and is to believers today.

One of the most important questions we ask as Christians is “When did Jesus the man become the Christ”? We can talk about the historical Jesus – the human being who lived in 1st century Galilee. And we can talk about the cosmic Jesus – the one who performed miracles, healed the sick, rose from the grave, was divine, and continues to be present to us today. But when did Jesus the man become Jesus the Christ?

All of us may have different answers to that question. In fact, the Bible has different answers to the question.
• The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus’ genealogy and advocates that Jesus was the Christ at his birth when he fulfilled ancient prophecies.
• The Gospel of Mark skips over Jesus’ birth and goes straight to his baptism and the temptation. Mark focuses more on Jesus’ suffering than other writings and leaves it to the reader to experience Jesus as the Christ for themselves.
• The Gospel of Luke tells a beautiful story of Jesus birth. This is the gospel with the census; the trip to Bethlehem; the angels and shepherds. But in Luke, Jesus becomes God when he is resurrected and appears to the disciples.
• The Gospel of John puts more emphasis on Jesus as the Christ than any other gospel. In fact, Jesus appears almost alien to the world.
• Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus when he was converted is the key to his belief about when Jesus becomes the Christ… he believes it happens for each individual believer when they encounter Jesus in their lives. There is no one time in history Jesus becomes the Christ for Paul; it is an on-going process that happens again and again.

For many Christians today, Jesus becomes the Christ when he was crucified and then resurrected. Over the centuries, many theories about why Jesus died have been put forth by theologians. These theories all have a Biblical basis (because the Bible has a variety of explanations for Jesus’ death too).

Atonement is actually a 16th century English word that was put together from 3 words: at, one, ment. Atonement is the idea that God becomes one with humanity at the cross. But how that atonement works… well, there are a number of theories!

The “satisfaction theory” of atonement (also known as the substitution theory) is one that most of us have heard. The theory goes something like this: humanity is bad; we have sinned against God. God’s wrath has been kindled because of our repeated sinful behavior. All of God’s anger would be directed at us, except that, Jesus takes the punishment on our behalf when he is beaten and crucified, and that act has allowed God to forgive us.

Other atonement theories are listed in your bulletin. Most of them are focused on the problem of sin and the existence of evil. The problem with these atonement theories is that Jesus was not focused so much on sin and evil. His teachings show that he inaugurated a new order based on partnership, equality, compassion and non-violence. There are a number of scholars and theologians who find it ironic that Jesus’ teaching and example have been eclipsed by an emphasis on human unworthiness that ultimately demands the need for a violent, suffering, atoning death.

Make no mistake; history is rife with evidence that humans have the capacity for evil. We need only look around for evidence of this! It is easy to lose faith in human goodness just by watching the daily news. But to spend energy concentrating on how sinful and hopeless human beings are is to fail to appreciate the incredible good that humans are capable of – wonders of science and symphonies, art and generosity, the gentle touch, the healing word.

Joe Bessler, a theology professor at Phillips, recently told about a discussion between a Rabbi and his students. They were talking about blood atonement and sacrifice. In the ancient Hebrew tradition, of course, animals were often sacrificed to God as payment for sin. The students asked about sacrifice and how it worked. The Rabbi said, “One of the truest forms of sacrifice is for you to sacrifice yourself with acts of random kindness.”

9 years ago, I had an acute attack of pancreatitis. Until then, I hadn’t heard of this terrible and painful disease. In the span of a couple of hours, I went from exercising at the YMCA to the ambulance to hospital admittance to multiple organ failure. Two of my children were in college and they immediately dropped everything to come home. I was in the hospital 13 days with pain I cannot describe. I was without food and water all of that time and my body was literally devouring itself. It was a horrific experience.

After days in the ICU not knowing whether I would survive pancreatitis, my family doctor came to visit. The hospitalists had been supervising my care, but Dr. Windholz just came as a friend. The observation he made has echoed in my ears ever since. He said, “Robin, it has been my experience that people who make it through a crisis like this are never the same again. I am looking forward to seeing the new person you become when you recover.”

I cannot tell you enough about what his comment meant to me. For the first time, someone dared to mention that I would recover. Not just recover, but that there would be something redemptive about my experience… that I would become a new person.

For days, my life had been all about pain and suffering. People whispered outside my hospital room. Suddenly, I had hope. It took me 3 months to recover, but when I did I knew I wouldn’t be the same again. Those who made a difference in my illness were the ones who sat with me, cried with me, slept in a chair beside my bed, bathed me in the bed, and offered hope.

What if Jesus’ suffering wasn’t to appease an angry God who demanded a blood sacrifice? Would he still be the Christ to us?

Of course, I don’t have the answer for everyone who is here today. In this church, you are free to think and believe for yourself. My role is to explore faith with you and to help lay out thinking points.

I can tell you that I don’t believe that Jesus died for my sins. I believe Jesus died because he was a threat to the Roman Empire. But he is no less the Christ in my life. He became the Christ – the ultimate teacher and savior of my life – because of his way of living.
• When he categorically rejected the racial, gender, cultural, and social barriers between people, he became the Christ.
• When he claimed the children’s place on his lap, he became the Christ.
• When he spoke to the woman at the well who was a societal outcast, he became the Christ.
• When he ate with his friends and did not turn away the sick, he became the Christ.
• When he broke bread and shared fish and loaves with the multitude, he became the Christ.

As our traditional word for today says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” II Cor. 5:17-19

When I pattern my life after Jesus, I am “saved”. I am saved from:

You may then ask, “What, then, is the significance of the Resurrection?” The answer is that the Resurrection provides the evidence that an atonement occurred. The Resurrection extends the impact of his death, and thereby extends the impact of his life and teachings.

Jesus’ teachings and example were for us the way to “at-one-ment” with God. We are the bread of the world, the image & likeness of God scattered the world over.

We are taught to love as God loves us, as demonstrated through Jesus of Nazareth. The teachings are to bring us to the realization that we are God’s image; God is in us, and we are in Him. When we come to this knowledge and understanding, and accept it and strive to live our lives accordingly – loving as we are loved, forgiving as we are forgiven — then we will discover our own atonement. -The Progressive Episcopal Church