The Cross: Horror Story or Love Story?
Scripture: Song of Solomon 8: 6-7; Philippians 2: 1-8
This is the second of a two part series offering alternative ways of understanding Jesus and the cross. Alternative, that is, to the traditional, orthodox way of understanding, first, Jesus as uniquely divine and, then, the cross as some kind of substitutionary atonement for our sins. Rather, to review last week, I talked about one take being that Jesus is the son of God, indeed, but as all of us are sons and daughters of God, Jesus just to way more a honed or evolved extent. I said that, like Jesus, we too have the imagio dei, the image and likeness of God, imprinted into our very core. We are, at our most central core, good and whole, made in the image of God to be sure. Any compromise to that clear reflection, that basic goodness, comes later and is secondary, as is represented in our creation stories where Adam and Eve ate the apple only after they had enjoyed the beautiful garden as people whose divine nature was the only reality. I talked about Jesus coming not to proclaim himself, but rather to proclaim the kingdom of God, the way of love, which we, as his body, are to start creating in fits and starts, just glimpses, right now. And insofar as Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life" I posited that a better rendition would be "mine" or "this" is the way, the truth and the life- this way of inclusion and compassion. This higher, counter-cultural way of choosing the upper path, of choosing love over fear.
So this week we ask, if Jesus came not to proclaim himself or his death, then what is the cross about? A central tenant of our faith is that it somehow procured our salvation. How does atonement, at-one-ment with God, work? Well, I want to say first that just as there are lots of ways to understand Jesus, so too, are there lots of ways to understand the crucifixion. The one I will advocate this morning is only one. And CS Lewis says that understanding this, particular doctrine is a bit like understanding nutrition. We eat food to nourish us even though all but trained nutritionists lack the advanced knowledge of precisely how food nourishes us. Lewis says the atonement is similar. We do not have to understand the particulars for it to work. And so, I invite you to cook what I am about to say on your own stove, then eat what for you is the meat, even as you spit out what you find to be bones.
So here we go. First, it might be clearer to start with what I, personally, don’t believe about the cross. And actually, I'll sort of be blending two theories that are similar. So first, I personally don't believe that the crucifixion of Christ was any kind of transaction by which God was somehow paid off for human debt, or appeased by the sacrificial death of an innocent. Indeed, that understanding of the cross, known as substitutionary atonement, codified by Anselm in the 11th century, is often talked about as if it is the only way to understand the whole thing. Anselm’s belief went something like this: In the beginning, human beings lived, sinless, in the Garden of Eden, in perfect harmony with God. But then they disobeyed, separating themselves from God. Because of their sin, God had no choice but to demand repayment, and the penalty for sin is death. God loves us but God cannot tolerate sin. So to resolve this problem, God sent his only son Jesus into the world to die in our place and pay our debt, to bear the punishment that we all deserve.”
Again, this is one way to understand it, and it especially made sense in Jesus’ time where the notion of the Sacrifice Lamb was central, in other words, offering something substitutionary as sacrifice. Further, it made sense to Anselm in the 11th Century who lived amidst the culture of a penal code, and people literally paid legal debts for one another. Now, I suspect many of us grew up thinking this was the only way to understand the cross. But for some of us, this understanding hasn’t particularly made sense in our culture where such things are no longer practiced. For me, the question remains, if God were prepared to let us off, then why didn’t God simply do so without exacting what sounds like a pound of flesh? What sense does it make for an innocent to be killed? And isn’t the whole point really that God CAN tolerate sin? That God loves us exactly as we are, and that God’s unconditional love in the midst of our brokenness is precisely what frees us to change, not so God will love us more, but so we will find greater joy and wholeness and abundant life?
So for some of us, Anselm’s understanding doesn’t work very well. It made sense in that time, when kidnappings for ransom were common cultural occurances, and legal debts had to be paid. But it isn’t necessarily a meaningful metaphor now.
However, there emerged another understanding at that time, which came to be known as “The Moral Influence Theory” put forth by theologian Peter Abelard who took issue with Anselm’s view. Abelard believed that more important than the nature of his death, was Jesus’ life and teaching. Jesus was a person of wholeness, a person of "higher consciousness" as Polly's students might say. Scripture calls him the "second Adam", in other words, Adam as originally created whole and good, before the fall. He embodied all that and he taught a radical, counter cultural ethic of inclusion of the outcast, empowerment for the powerless, healing for the sick, forgiveness, compassion and intimate connection with God regardless of what the religious structures of the day required. And because all of this was such a threat to the powers that be, Jesus was executed by the Roman Empire. He knew it was coming, and still held firmly to his message of God's love, in unbroken integrity.
So Jesus’ death, for Abelard, was simply the political result of his radical allegiance to the vision of the Kingdom of God, the way of love. What was far more important than the nature of his death was his life and his teaching, then later, his resurrection (literal, metaphysical or metaphorical) whereby love is shown finally to be stronger than death, and the most ultimate force in the world. We, as his followers are morally transformed by his life, his teachings, and his radical faithfulness despite the cost.
To me, that understanding makes more sense. It understands Jesus to have been killed not because God had to be appeased, but as a very predictable result of the fact that Jesus was a rabble rouser who threatened the power structures of both the political and religious institutions of his day. He threatened them because he was so committed to his first and most passionate concern: The Kingdom of God, the community of love, the kind of love which enrages the pharisees.
And there is another way to understand the cross, besides these two. Actually, it could go along with either of them. It is to say that Jesus death modeled for us what should be our way of life, our spiritual practice, which among other components, also should include little deaths along the way, death to our lower or smaller selves. We allow the fallen parts of ourselves to be crucified, if you will, to be refined by the refiner's fire, until we become pure gold. I will be getting into this further in my last sermon here on August 11, but for now let's say that Christ's death is a perfect embodiment of death to all but love. As we allow the Spirit to work on us, through the instructional material of our own lives, we are made more whole and grow, more and more fully into our own divine nature. Everything that is not love should, bit by bit, be dying in us. Death, indeed, for the Christian, is a part of the spiritual life- the big death at the end, to be sure, but also little deaths along the way to all that would compromise our own divine natures.
But here is the most important part of this sermon: no matter what you believe about how the cross saves us, whether you believe Anselm or Abelard or somebody else, the most important part is not that you believe any particular theory. The most important part is that you somehow live the way of the cross. And for that, I leave you with a final thought: Jesus was profoundly, spiritually connected to his source, to God. The vertical dimension you might say, like a tree whose roots plunge straight down to the spiritual water table and. whose top extends to the heavens. But, he was equally passionate about reaching out horizontally through the radical love ethic by which he lived, to all of creation: both individuals and larger structures and systems… and there you have it: a symbol of vertical rootedness in the underlying source, overarching source, and the horizontal outreach of love to the world. The cross.
Jesus lived as if the Kingdom of God, the way of love, was all that mattered, and nothing else had any power over him. In doing so, he offended the powers that be, and was crucified. And then he rose again, proving that love cannot be contained, even by death. Now, he invites us to live in the same manner. I daresay we probably won’t be crucified for it, but we may be mocked as impractical dreamers, or rejected as ones who challenge the status quo by crying out for justice, be it in our jobs or communities or country. Nonetheless, we, too, are called to live from that radical love ethic, no matter what the cost, and therein to begin to create glimpses of the Kingdom of God, the community of love, here and now, on earth as it is in heaven.