The Bible’s Three Stories: Story 3—The Priestly Story (2/26/06)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Today we examine the last of the three macro-stories of scripture. To begin, I will briefly recap the ground we’ve covered so far. “Story theology” is a relatively new development in Bible study. It is based on the belief that the wisdom and truth contained in scripture is found within the stories.
Story theology holds that when scholars attempt restate the truth found in Biblical stories by developing complicated philosophical theories, or when the church itself attempts to restate the meaning of the stories in creeds and doctrines, something important is lost in the translation. Lose the story itself, and you lose the wisdom contained in the story.
There are three ways to approach the Bible according to story theology. It can be viewed as one long and very complete story which begins with the beginning of creation and ends with the end of the world. Or each small story in the Bible can be examined and appreciated alone, for its own merits. And third, the Bible can be viewed as containing several macro-stories, underlying themes which shape both the content of the Bible and the character of people in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
It is the three major macro-stories which we have been examining in this series. We started with the Exodus story, certainly a story which Congregationalists identify with, considering our forefathers emulated the Exodus of the Hebrew people out of Egypt by making their own exodus across the Atlantic ocean to the New World aboard the Mayflower.
Next, we looked at the Story of Exile and Return, based on the Babylonian exile of the ancient Jews. And with both of those stories, the Exodus story and the story of exile and return, we saw that a human life is a journey—a faith journey.
The last macro-story, however, is different. It is what we call the Priestly Story. In ancient Israel, the priest was the person who made sacrifices to God in order to justify the people before God. Unlike the Exodus story and the story of exile and return, in which we could point to specific historic events which originally shaped the stories, the priestly story is an institution. The priestly story is a constant presence throughout the entire Old Testament, and for many, it is the very essence of the New Testament.
There were many cults in the ancient world, particularly in the ancient Middle East. Many of these cults had some form of temple worship, and the temples of these cults were constructed very much alike. The Jewish Temple, which the ancients viewed as the house of Yahweh, the home of God, was constructed in the same manner as those of the pagan cults.
A typical temple would be rectangular in shape, and would often have pillars across the front. The back third of the temple would be the holiest area. For the Jews, this rear third of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, where Yahweh resided. This area could be entered only once each year, and then only by the High Priest. The cultic temples worked on similar principles, with the pagan deity, usually a statue of some sort, housed in the rear third of the temple.
There was usually three or four steps which lead up to the front of the temple. At the bottom of these steps there was an altar—a slab of stone. It was upon this alter that the cultic priests would sacrifice animals to appease the anger of their deity. For the people of Israel, this sacrifice was viewed as a means of atonement. Atonement means, literally, at-one-ment. It is the means by which a sinful people can be at one with a holy and perfect God.
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So the priestly story is not a story of a journey. Unlike the stories we examined previously it does not directly relate to human conditions of bondage and exile. Rather, the priestly story is a story of sin, of estrangement from God, of human guilt. And it is the story of forgiveness and atonement. To put it in its broadest terms, it is the story of our ultimate bondage to sin, of our exile from God because of that sin, and of how that sin can be overcome, how atonement can be achieved,
I suspect you already see how this story relates to our modern practice of the Christian faith. As Congregationalists, I am happy to say that we are generally far removed from cultic practices. But look at our beautiful sanctuary. Look how the rear part of the sanctuary—the chancel—is set apart from the nave. In many churches there is an unwritten rule: people of the congregation do not cross that invisible line between the pews and the chancel. In some traditions, the Eastern Orthodox for example, there is an area in the rear of the chancel that is considered absolutely holy. In fact, no woman is allowed to ever enter that area.
Look at our communion table. Many traditions call the communion table the altar, and it is a direct descendent of that stone altar which sat at the foot of the steps of the Temple. And the celebration of communion is viewed by many to be a celebration of the ultimate sacrifice, the body and blood of Jesus, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the Cross, which once and for all served as humanity’s atonement before God.
The first and most obvious question is this: How? How could the crucifixion of Jesus in any real way make possible my own personal atonement? What I want to present to you are some of the ways theologians have tried to explain just that—the nature of our atonement through Jesus Christ. Of course, I assume you all know that I would not presume to tell you what you should believe on this subject. All I hope to do is provide you with some new ways to embrace the mystery.
First, I think I should say something about sin. Many Twentieth Century theologians believe we should just get rid of that word. Not because it is not real, but because it has lost its meaning. For some reason, we have decided sin is something naughty. It probably has something to do with sex. And to make matters worse, we have visions of television preachers with tears running down their faces, probably because they have been caught in some sex scandal, crying out, “I’m a vile sinner! Forgive me Lord!”
Paul Tillich, perhaps the greatest theologian of the modern age, said we should use the word estrangement. The fact is, sin is meant to describe a condition of human nature. God is perfect love. We are imperfect. We are selfish. We are not awful, we are not vile, worthless creatures who deserve to be tortured through eternity. But we are not perfect. We are estranged, separated, from the perfection of our Creator.
And no matter how hard we try to be good, we are still imperfect. So the question is this: How can somebody who is imperfect ever be united with God? If God and I become as one, then God is no longer perfect because my imperfections have become a part of God. To use an analogy, picture God as a barrel of pure water. If I am a tiny drop of water mixed with a little oil, and I am dropped into that barrel, then God is no longer pure water. My oil—my sin—has made the whole barrel impure.
While that analogy is a little silly, and almost makes trite a matter of great importance, it hopefully gets across the point. We are good, but we are imperfect, estranged, dare I say it, sinful by nature. And there is nothing we can do to make ourselves perfect enough to be united as one with God.
Enter Jesus as the means of atonement. There are several ways to view the atonement, images of what the atonement means. Among them are the judicial image, the financial image, and the sacrificial image. Much of the modern church has latched on to the sacrificial image, which is my least favorite.
This image comes directly from the priestly story, and holds that Jesus of Nazareth was a sort of blood sacrifice to appease the anger of God. Just as the blood of a perfect calf, or of a couple of hens could calm Yahweh’s anger at the Hebrew people for their transgressions, the blood of Jesus acts to appease God’s anger at humanity for it’s sin.
The reason I have difficulty with this image, besides my repulsion at the idea of child sacrifice, is that it holds God is angry with us. I simply don’t believe God is angry with humanity. I strongly suspect God is disappointed with us! I believe we fall considerably short of the loving and caring creatures God intends us to be. But that disappointment does not turn into anger. In fact, I imagine the reason it is said no person can look upon the face of God is not because of the mighty anger, but rather because of the incomprehensible love, and the incredible sorrow.
Another image of the atonement is the judicial image. This image works like this: We are guilty. In the light of God’s perfection, no matter how good a life we have tired to lead, we are guilty of sin. We are convicted. But we do not have to serve the sentence, because Jesus has offered to serve the sentence for us. Justice demanded that the time be served, and Jesus willfully served that time for us, upon the Cross.
Another image of the atonement is the financial image. This image holds that we owe a debt. We were created to be loving, giving people, and we fell short of the mark. It doesn’t matter if we whole-heartedly devoted our lives to serving God and humanity with all the love we could possibly muster, there were times when we passed by the woman with a flat tire, stranded on the side of the road. There were times when we could have helped a person in need, and for selfish reasons we chose not to.
We owe a debt. Justice demands that the debt be paid. But we do not have to pay that debt. Jesus interceded on our behalf, and paid the debt for us. Again, that debt was paid on the Cross.
These are just images. They are not definitive explanations, clear snapshots of the atonement. They are instead broad sketches which, when viewed in the right light, and with the right frame of mind, help some people come to some understanding of a great mystery.
Throughout Christian history, theologians have attempted to state in a definitive way the nuts-and-bolts of the atonement, and it has proven to be a mystery which defies precise analysis. The closest anybody has come was probably Saint Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury about 900 years ago, who wrote a magnificent work entitled Cur Deus Homo, or Why God Became Man. Anselm laid out the basic plan for salvation through Christ as he understood it in about a hundred pages, but the crux of his analysis can be summarized in a few paragraphs. Its consists of a problem, and a solution. This is the problem:
Humanity was created by God to live in blessed obedience, but chose to rebel against God. This frustrated God’s plan for humanity, and brought death, sin and destruction into the world. Because humanity sinned, rebelled, there is nothing humanity can do to earn salvation. There is nothing a person can do to make the wrong things from his or her past simply never have happened. If God simply decided that people could have eternal life in spite of the bad things they have done, then the universe would be a place devoid of justice. Ultimately, then, there would be no difference between right and wrong. But God is perfectly just and perfectly righteous. Therefore humanity is doomed, and there is nothing humanity can do to earn its salvation.
And according to Anselm, here is the solution: An offering of ultimate obedience must be made to God to restore the harmony God intended for creation. Humanity should make this offering of obedience, but humanity cannot do this because everything humanity is has been given to it by God. They simply have nothing to offer. Only God has the power to make such an offering, but God should not do this because the offense belongs to humanity.
Therefore, a God-man is necessary, and this God-man was Jesus Christ. Jesus lived a perfectly obedient, godly life, but suffered and died as if he had been disobedient. This changed the entire balance of the universe. Jesus did not deserve to suffer and die, but he did. So, to put it in crass terms, God owes one to Jesus. And the eternal life that was wrongly taken from Jesus may be bestowed on those whom Jesus chooses.
That, dear friends, is a rather complex argument. If it is in any way helpful to you, feel free to embrace it. If you find it to be cumbersome, overly complex, and a vain attempt to explain that which cannot be explained, don’t loose any sleep over it.
There are many people who rightly call themselves Christians who do not even believe in the atonement. They believe that it is the teachings of Jesus which create and maintain the Christian faith. Others believe it is the incarnation—that God came to be reflected so perfectly in a human being—that gives Christianity its unique place among the world’s many religions. And many, like myself, find elements in each of those Christian ideas—the moral teachings, the incarnation, and the atonement—which allow us to embrace our faith in our own ways. The fact is, there is no “correct” way to be a Christian. The Christian faith is in many ways a mystery, and all of us, in our own ways, embrace the mystery of our faith.
And that brings to a close our review of the priestly story, which in turn brings to a close our examination of the three macro-stories of scripture. I hope this series has been beneficial to you, and I hope you have some level of appreciation for story theology. There is no such thing as “just a story.” It is in the stories that we find our truths. And our story—the story of humanity—is a vast and beautiful story in which each of our lives is an important chapter.
I hope most of all that you will consider thinking about life as a journey, a journey with God, and to God. Because whether or not we allow God into our lives as we make our way through life, God most certainly is our ultimate destination. And it is God in whom we live, and move, and have our being. It is in that joyful fact that we find our meaning, our purpose, and our greatest comfort.