Posts Tagged ‘atonement’

HEBREWS 9:11-14

11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

The high priest in Jerusalem entered but once a year through the curtain in the temple separating the Holy Place from the sanctuary commons, wherein the presence of God was believed to dwell in the fullness of glory. Interceding for himself and on behalf of the nation, he offered up to God the sacrificial blood of repentance, sprinkling it upon the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant according to strict ritual procedures.

Of course, what was really going on was a national catharsis of sorts, where Jews sought and received purification for their cumulative guilt over the previous year, and prepared to enter the new year with clean hearts. The atonement ritual in the temple by the high priest was the outward and visible demonstration of an inward and spiritual renewal of the people, made possible by the grace and forgiveness of God.

Continuing with his analogy of Christ as the high priest and sacrifice for our salvation, the author contemplates the contrast between the institutional high priest of Jerusalem and the heavenly high priest who by his own death and ascension has entered the realm of glory and motivated the grace of God on our behalf. Just as the annual ritual in the temple was really the outward display of an inward event of salvation, so the historical drama of Jesus’ ministry, revelation, and martyrdom for the kingdom of God was also the realization in time and location of a truly timeless and universal truth.

To understand this is to have our “third eye” opened to the mystical depths of religion where our heart’s true longing – to be pure, whole, and at peace – is satisfied. The spiritual purpose of religion itself is to instruct and facilitate our human progress into God.

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1 PETER 2:2-10

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:

“See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,”

and

“A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

The apostle Paul also used this metaphor of “milk” in reference to the teachings he first delivered to the converts in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:2). This was in contrast to the “solid food” that he thought would have been too much for them to digest (i.e., understand).

Milk is gentle on the stomach, but really only for newborns, since the production of the enzyme lactase, which is needed to break down the sugar found in milk, decreases significantly into adulthood. Research is showing how many health complications today might be traceable to the persistence of dairy in the adult diet.

With that in mind, we should question the wisdom of feeding a “milky” gospel to adults who are looking for authentic meaning in their lives. Could the significant arrest in church growth over the past several decades have something to do with the fact that preachers, teachers, and evangelists are serving an essentially tasteless and indigestible message to people who are looking for relevancy and substance?

The “spiritual milk” of the emerging Christian religion was focused on Jesus whose death had made atonement for the sins of the world. What we were unable to do – pay the penalty for sin and satisfy the conditions against God’s forgiveness – Jesus did on our behalf. Christianity made Jesus into its object of worship, eventually merging him into God as the Second Person of the Trinity. His divinity, virgin birth, miraculous powers, atoning death, literal resurrection, ascension into heaven and future return to earth became the diet of doctrines proclaimed as necessary for salvation.

And so it is to this day.

Jesus himself had spread a table of “solid food” – literally bread and wine, as the tradition goes. But intellectually speaking, he didn’t dumb things down or reduce his kingdom movement to a set of beliefs and a closed membership. Neither did he put himself at the center of devotion for his followers to worship. He didn’t let people rest in their assumptions and take the easy way. Instead he challenged them to give up everything and not look back.

Even more significantly, the gospel of Jesus was not about paying a penalty for sin or getting on God’s good side. His message was that God has already forgiven – everyone!  Jesus knew that the human future depends on our willingness to let go of resentment, set aside our demand for retribution, and let the spirit of love (rather than the demon of vengeance) move us back into relationship with our enemies. Don’t wait for repentance, he said. Just forgive, and don’t stop. This is God’s way.

Christianity would soon become an elitist religion of true believers with a  mission to save the world. The kingdom movement of Jesus, however, was an ordinary company of forgiven sinners, on fire with a joy they just had to share.

If Christianity is to become a creative force for the liberation of humanity, it’s time for a change of menu.

ISAIAH 58:1-12

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was a decisive threshold in the cultural evolution of Europe. Antecedent to it was the Renaissance, a literally ground-breaking flood of discoveries – long-lost Greek and Arabic texts on everything from physics and mathematics to philosophy and political theory, along with artefacts of ancient civilizations and the creative genius of the human spirit that is the wellspring of art, poetry, and music.

After the Reformation came the so-called Enlightenment, with the dramatic rise of rationalism, scientific materialism, and technology. It is truly baffling to contemplate how the earlier explosion of creativity and cultural rebirth in the Renaissance could have terminated in the sterile fields of the Industrial Age, with the soul disqualified from respectable science and the earth reduced to little more than a resource for technological progress. Baffling, that is, until we factor in the main achievement of the Reformation itself.

Such celebrated virtues as freedom, individuality, and personal conscience were not gifts of the Reformation, as is sometimes thought. These were actually the pillars of the European Renaissance. The outstanding achievement of the Reformation itself, in a sense capitalizing on these earlier advances but contradicting them as well, was its profound suspicion of human nature and its teaching of our universal depravity.

                                                                                       

While there had been some fairly minor traditions in pre-Reformation Christianity that were pessimistic over human worth and our potential for good, the reformers made this appraisal a centerpiece in their dogmatic systems. Any light, anything of positive value, even the will to do what is right and good was something, according to these new orthodoxies, that had to be brought in or deposited from outside.

In and of itself, human nature was seen as fallen, broken, corrupt, wicked and totally bereft of God. As the complement to and further development of this depressing philosophy, Reformation theories of salvation and the Atonement had to import such despicable notions as total depravity and the propitiation of a blood-thirsty deity.

But the Bible represents the human being in a much more positive light over all. Although we can find passages that speak to our limitations, brokenness, and tendencies toward selfishness and violence, the dominant perspective of the Bible on the subject affirms and celebrates the goodness and light that are already present, if presently dormant, in all of us.

In the end, it is not our “good works” that God wants so much as our goodness itself to be expressed in all that we are. The manifested goodness of the human being is the very light of God’s glory and grace shining out on the world. Isaiah’s challenge is our own today: Open up and let it shine!

JOHN 1:29-42

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41 He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42 He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

“Look, here is the Lamb of God!” With remarkable frequency the words of the Bible in poetry, prophecy, story and song call us to open our eyes: Look! Behold! Awake! See! Why is that?

Simply because it is our tendency not to be spiritually alert and perceptive. We get lulled into the trance of ordinary consciousness, put to sleep by the dogmatic yet spiritually irrelevant instructions of our tradition. While all around us the splendor of divine radiance flashes and shines through creation, our eyes are glazed over and our souls are nodding away. Wake up! Look here!

When John pointed to the passing Jesus and announced Behold, the Lamb of God! he wasn’t expecting his audience to literally see a lamb walking by. Clearly this was a metaphor. But for John it was a designation that pulled back the veil on the deeper truth of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world was a conflation of two essentially separate images, one from the Exodus tradition and the other from the Wilderness tradition of Israel’s story. In Egypt lambs had been slain and their blood smeared on door frames for protection of firstborns against the angel of death. This sacrifice, then, was associated with protection and deliverance, for it made possible the escape of the firstborn from captivity.

In the wilderness, after the great exodus had secured new life for the Hebrews, a scapegoat sacrifice annually removed the guilt of the people and set them free from the accumulated burdens of the past.

                                                                                             

What John the baptist is saying about Jesus – or more likely, what the author of the Fourth Gospel is saying about Jesus through the literary figure of John the baptist – is that he (Jesus) is the one who can set us free from the regime of captivity as well as from the long chain of guilt and regret. By fusing the two distinct sacrifices and their traditions, the author invented a new symbol for seeing into the deeper truth of Jesus.

Just as the Exodus tradition and the Passover sacrifice was essentially about being delivered from death and given a second chance at life, so do Jesus and his gospel rescue us from the fear of dying. They do this not by the promise of personal immortality, but rather by lifting us into God’s eternal purpose and helping us see infinitely beyond ourselves.

And just as the Wilderness tradition and the Atonement sacrifice was essentially about being exonerated from guilt and given a clean slate to begin again, so do Jesus and his gospel save us from the oppressive weight of self-disappointment and constant blame.

In combining these symbols and their distinct meanings, the author of the Fourth Gospel was doing something both unconventional (and therefore shocking) and highly creative. In effect, he is saying to us: Behold!

HEBREWS 2:10-18

10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

13 And again,

“I will put my trust in him.”

And again,

“Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

As “the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people,” Jesus’ suffering and death are being interpreted by the author as having accomplished the reconciliation of the world to God. How is that?

The imagery and its meaning is fairly straightforward. In the ritual of atonement as described in the book of Leviticus, the dynamic of reconciliation is represented in two separate but essentially related “episodes.” In the first, a goat (selected by the casting of lots) is sacrificed and its blood used to sanctify (make pure) the communal space between  God and the people. This was understood as God’s provision and initiative (since it is the first of the two episodes) on behalf of human salvation.

Following this, a second goat was brought before the people. The high priest placed his hand on the head of the animal and confessed the collective guilt of the community, effecting a transaction whereby the goat was made to carry this burden of guilt into the outlying wilderness and away from the people. This, then, was the response of the people to God’s provision of grace and forgiveness. God acted first and the people responded. Grace was revealed, guilt was confessed, and reconciliation was accomplished.

In using this ritual of atonement as a paradigm for the interpretation of Jesus’ passion and death, the New Testament authors were offering a lens into its meaning for human salvation. His blood sanctifies the place of contact (the cross), and our confession places the burden of our guilt on his body in order to receive a forgiveness already accomplished.

                                                                                               

Whereas early Christian reflection upon the mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ centered its attention on his atoning death on the Cross and the Resurrection mystery, later generations expanded the frame with the symbols of Nativity and Ascension (the coming and return to God) of the world savior, and still later with Incarnation and Pentecost (the embodiment of the cosmic-creative Word in Jesus and the indwelling Spirit of Christ in the disciple community of the church).

A responsible theology will not simply throw these concepts under a common category, but will search out the evolution of Christian experience by following their expansion as symbols in the growing traditions of the New Testament.

And throughout, we must keep our eyes on the figure who is the axis around which all these symbols turn: Jesus of Nazareth, the one who lived among us, proclaimed the New Reality, reached compassionately into our pain, confusion, fear and need, suffered our rejection but came back every time with forgiveness and the promise of authentic life.

In the end, the full meaning of his life eludes the grasp and control of our rational minds. Jesus revealed something, and in Jesus something was revealed that escapes the logical formulas of dogmatic orthodoxy, something that instead invites us to ponder its mystery and contemplate its meaning for the adventure of our human journey into God.