University Congregational Church
Apr. 6, 2014
“The Last Week: Saturday”
Galatians 2:19-20 and Romans 6:3-4
In the early 1990’s at the Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally challenged, assembled at the starting line for the 100 yard dash, and took off at the sound of the gunshot. None could be described as really “dashing” as they ran, but with sheer determination on their faces, you knew that each of them wanted to race to the finish and win.
All, that is, except one boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times and began to cry. The other eight heard the boy crying. One by one they slowed down and paused. And then they all turned around and went back. Every one of them. One girl with Down’s syndrome bent down and kissed him and said, “This will make it better.” Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for ten minutes. People who were there are still telling the story. Why do you think that is?
Someone contemplating that question decided this: “Because deep down we know this one thing: What matters in this life is more than winning for yourself. What truly matters in this life is helping others.”
We’ve been following the Gospel of Mark during Lent and the book “The Last Week” by Borg and Crossan. Today we are looking at Saturday of Jesus’ last week. We know that he died on Friday and rose on Sunday. But what happened on Saturday? According to Mark – nothing. Mark does not mention Saturday. Jesus was dead. He had not yet ascended to heaven. His body and his spirit were dead. In Jewish thought, he had gone to Sheol, or the afterlife place of nonexistence.
Non-existence. How does that feel? Being dead – inside and out. Complete nothingness. This is what Jesus experienced on Saturday.
And yet, the dead spaces of our lives are ripe with possibility. It is in the dead spaces that we are prepared for newness. And so, while Jesus was in that world of non-existence, what was happening?
On Saturday, while Jesus was dead, we learn that something wonderfully mysterious was happening…. atonement. The word “atonement” is a word Christian theologians use to describe how God accomplished our salvation through the cross. The gospels and Paul’s writings give us many ways to think about atonement. The image of Jesus dying as a substitute for us, because God demanded a sacrifice for sins, is one image, but it is by no means the only way to understand this mystery. When God raised Jesus, at one level, God vindicated the teaching and example of Jesus, demonstrating that the violence of the empire was vanquished by the self-giving love of God. This view of atonement, for example, understands Easter as a victory over the powers of this world.
Today, I want to think about another model of atonement – a participatory model.
Galatians 2:19-20 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Romans 6:3-4 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
In Galatians, Paul spoke of being “crucified with Christ.” He did not mean that he and the Christian household were likewise nailed to a cross. What he meant was that in the cross, God revealed a path of personal transformation in which we die to the old way of life and are raised to a new way of life.
Borg and Crossan speak of this transformation as an “identity transplant” – our identity is replaced with the character and identity of Christ. This is what happens to us in baptism – we are born again as new people. This understanding of the cross sees Good Friday and Easter as an invitation into the transformed life demonstrated by Jesus and empowered by the same spirit which raised Jesus from the dead. The cross gives us a way to experience the transformed life.
Jesus helped us by his death to show us that self-giving love is more powerful than any other power. He also helped us by living among us as God Incarnate and revealing the character of God.
Like other Jews of his time, Paul believed that God was bringing the present age to an end and ushering in a new era in history, one marked not by dominating empires like Rome but by justice and peace among people and throughout all creation. The resurrection of Jesus was a sign that that new world had already begun.
Obviously, Paul was incorrect about the timing. We are still waiting for that final hope. If we can get past concerns about timing, though, we see in Paul’s proclamation of the resurrection an invitation to participate in resurrection – to share with God in the remaking of this world. – Rev. Grace Burton-Edwards
We were on the bus headed toward the Dead Sea. Our guide, Miri, was giving us some guidance about the properties of the dense saltwater in the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea lies at the bottom of the Syrian – African Rift Valley, about 1280 feet below sea level. This sea is the lowest natural place on Earth. The waters of the Dead Sea are very unique, having a total salt concentration that is 10 times higher than ocean water, reaching 33%. Because of this, there is no plant or animal life in the sea. The Dead Sea does not provide life to anything around it and does not send water into other places – rivers, lakes, or oceans. It is completely stagnant.
The concentration of salt, Miri said, meant that there was no such thing as swimming in the Dead Sea. You will float, but you cannot swim. You will not be able to put your face in and swim underwater. The buoyancy is too strong. And when it is time to get out? Miri suggested that we might want to help each other out because once you were floating, it was difficult to get your feet on the ground.
You need help walking out of the water? No way, I thought. I can put my own feet on the bottom and walk out the same way I walked in. I don’t need any help. Ridiculous, really, when I thought about it, I was sure I could manage on my own.
But when I was gently floating on that high density saltwater, and tried to put my feet down, the buoyancy of the water caused me to lose my balance. I nearly tipped over – and my feet wouldn’t go down. The water kept popping them back up to the surface. I’m certain it was fun to watch from the shoreline. One in our group literally crawled onto the shoreline.
When I finally gave up, my mom and I worked together to put our feet down. Together, we had enough strength to move our feet through the water and toward the bottom. But that wasn’t it. To keep our balance, we continued to hold onto each other… one of us taking a step and then the other. That’s how we made it out of the Dead Sea – one step at a time, together.
It seems to me a good metaphor for our lives.
- Sometimes we need support to get back on our feet.
- It often takes help to get out of hot water.
Progressive Christians understand this phenomenon in a spiritual sense. The resurrection of Jesus happens each time someone lives and acts by his teaching. When we feed the hungry, adopt the orphans, clothe the needy and work for justice, we are participating in Jesus’ resurrection. Participatory atonement didn’t happen 2,000 years ago; it happened then and it continues to happen! It is not a place in time, but an action.
This is not a new concept. It is depicted in scenes throughout Christendom. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he was not alone. He ascended with Adam & Eve, Solomon and David, Elijah and Elisha. He pulled all the saints and the sinners out of their graves – out of nothingness – and gave their lives new meaning.
Have you ever been in the Dead Sea? I’m talking about spiritual deadness … empty, flat, completely purposeless, barren? That was what Jesus experienced on Saturday of Holy Week.
But the dead places in our lives are pregnant with possibility. It is in the dead spaces that we are prepared for newness.