A sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
April 19, 2015
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church St Paul, Minnesota
I can recite all of the words from almost every Elvis song ever recorded. True, I wish that this space in my head was taken up by something more important than the lyrics to “Love Me Tender” but that’s the way it works. Words seep into our consciousness and stay there as long as they want to.
Television commercials work this way—they’re meant to. For example:
(Barbara) Nationwide…. (TEC) is on your side.
(Barbara) Like a good neighbor…. (TEC) State Farm is there.
(Barbara) Theme for Meow Mix Cat Food…. (TEC) Meow Meow Meow Meow/ Meow Meow Meow Meow/Meow Meow Meow Meow Meow
Our liturgy and our faith in general have their share of terms that we use so often we don’t even hear them any more, let alone question them even though we’ve never understood them that well: ”Body of Christ,” “Eucharist,” “salvation.” So in the spirit of today’s Gospel — where Jesus tells the disciples to open their minds to the meaning of the Scriptures — let’s consider this statement: “Jesus died for our sins.”
The phrase is immensely important to many of us: Jesus the Savior, the Redeemer, who suffers on the Cross in place of us. I don’t want to talk you out of it, only to cite some problems that many of have with this and suggest an additional way to think about this.
This phrase is part of what is called “atonement theology”: meaning that the death of Jesus wiped out the sins of humanity in the eyes of God. A look at Scripture and church history shows us how this idea came into being.
Jesus, of course was a Jew, and a regular at the great Temple in Jerusalem. The tradition of animal sacrifice was practiced there which is all over the Hebrew Scriptures beginning with Abraham and Isaac. You gave up (“sacrificed) an animal you might use for food (usually a goat or a lamb), and it was burned in the Temple as a sign of your repentance and burned up as an offering to God.
A faithful Jew couldn’t perform this ritual just anywhere, just like technically you can’t do a Communion service on your own – an ordained priest has to be present. You had to come to the temple in Jerusalem (there was only one temple) where the priests oversaw the process. So it was understandable that the writers of Scripture would write about Jesus as a sacrifice to the Creator, the same way that animals were sacrificed in the Temple.
But it wasn’t the same type of death. The Roman Catholic writer John Dominic Crossan says, “Those making sacrifices never thought that the point of the sacrifice was to make the animal suffer, or that the greatest sacrifice was one where the animal suffered terribly. An animal had to be slain but the animal was killed before it was burned and that was done swiftly and cleanly; Judaism still deplores cruel methods of animal slaughter. “ In fact, to “keep kosher” means that you only eat meat that has been killed by rabbis specifically trained to inflict minimal suffering on the animal.
If Jesus death was to reflect Temple practices, it should have been as swift and as painless as possible. It wasn’t, so the Scriptural references that equate the sacrifice of Jesus with the sacrifice of animals in the Temple are problematic.
A thousand years later, St. Anselm put a different twist on this idea. He said that to sin was to dishonor God, so a ransom had to be paid to God and this ransom was the life of Jesus. So we won’t be condemned to eternal punishment, as we deserve, if we believe that Jesus paid the price for us.
But what kind of picture does this paint of God the Father? Did the Creator stand up in heaven with a big bill of sins, saying, “Unless I get some blood, you’re all going to hell”?
Haven’t you wondered about this portrait of the Creator of the universe, the God whose love we experience every day of our lives, who created human life and plants and panda bears and lilacs and music and whose Scriptures are all about love and justice and forgiveness? Isn’t this demand for blood atonement, at the least, out of character?
And if Jesus atoned for our sins, does that mean we don’t have to? Jesus taught us that our sins are ours to confess and atone for ourselves with repentance and amendment of life and we are indeed promised forgiveness because that is who God is, and not because Jesus had to rescue us from God.
If we have trouble accepting this interpretation, what is the alternative? First, it is that Jesus dies not in place of us — but with us. Because God in Jesus died the way he did, we realize that the God we worship knows what suffering and pain and humiliation is like and we are never alone when these things come to us. Because Jesus rose again, we know that death is not a final ending, but a new beginning. We also know that in the many faiths which do not accept the death of Christ as the atonement for human sin, there is still passionate embrace of resurrection, new life. Forgiven and love still happen there because we don’t own God.
It was human greed and fear that put Jesus on the Cross. The Roman authorities were threatened by losing their immense power and by the implications of the teachings of Jesus: how much would providing food for the poor cost? If we give justice to everyone, how will we keep our slaves, our servants, our economy, our women under control?
Those who want to keep their power are still crucifying our brothers and sisters and as we conspire with the forces of fear, greed, hatred and intolerance — as we give into those actions and feelings of selfishness and revenge, ourselves, or are too lazy or uninvolved to get out of our shell and engage with the world, we participate in the crucifixion of Christ.
And the Cross? Certainly the cross is the central Christian symbol and what a versatile symbol it is. It appears on a necklace worn on Pope Francis and on the bare chest of a rock god spewing lyrics of hate and rebellion; it appears above the altars of the most splendid cathedrals and on cheap necklaces from Walmart. It is cast in solid gold and crudely carved in wood. In whatever form, as followers of Jesus, we bow before it.
In Roman Catholicism the cross or crucifix usually includes the body of the suffering Christ. In Protestant churches, usually our cross is an empty cross, emphasizing that Jesus is no longer there and has been resurrected.
But the best cross I have ever seen was in the chapel at the College of Preachers in Washington. With a fully-clothed Jesus on the Cross is a human being, who is weeping, suffering, as we suffer, and is being embraced by Jesus, both of them up there on the Cross. I believe that Jesus dies with us, not for us.
Some times it’s not about gritting our teeth and trying harder to believe something, but opening our hearts and offering up our most honest questions.
Words and symbols are powerful. Tyrants and ruthless leader sometimes dislike the truth so much they try to reduce its power by forbidding people to use certain words, words like “climate change”.
In Oscar Wilde’s play, “Salome,” when Herod hears reports that Jesus of Nazareth has been raising the dead. he says
“I do not wish him to do that. I forbid bid him to do that. No no no no…I allow no man to raise the dead. This man muse be found and told that I forbid him to raise the dead.”
“’Where is this man? demands Herod.
“He is in every place, my lord,” replies the courtier. “but it is hard to find him.”
When someone does something for you we are grateful, but if that person does something with you it can be transformative.
The ancient Jews attached great importance to the death of animals and so does a scientist named Temple Grandin. Born autistic, she related to cattle more than people. On her uncle’s farm, she used to go and lay down among them in the field. She watched them for days; She said she knew what they were thinking. Of course, no one believed her.
But after years of study and a Ph.D, Grandin designed the most humane and efficient model ever for animals as they walked to the slaughterhouse. It has been adopted world wide, especially when plant owners determined that it also made money because cattle that were less stressed provided better meat. She created curved walkways because cows are afraid of sharp corners. High walls where they can walk single file and see each other because they are herd animals. No distraction on the path that would spook them. They would walk on surfaces familiar to them – grass and through water. The stun guns used before their death were improved to be 95% accurate, to eliminate as much suffering as possible.
Grandin did this because she knew what it was like to be afraid, as she had been afraid her whole life. She cared about how cattle spent the last five minutes of their lives. She could do this because she loved them and considered herself one of them.
Ten years ago a young father at Holy Apostles Episcopal Church became very ill and needed a kidney transplant. The vicar, Bill Bolson, could have done something for him: organized a fund-raising campaign for medical bills, talked to doctors about securing treatment, arranged for help for his family. So he did all of this and then that young vicar, himself a father of two, took on the surgery – the recovery – the worry—the whole experience — with his parishioner and gave him one of him own kidneys. This is Jesus.
A final commercial reference: I used to hate ads for a line of jewelry called the open heart series – two incomplete heart shapes one on top of the other. I would mock its tag line: “If you keep your heart open, love is sure to follow.” But I think it’s true.
If we keep our hearts open – to our Scriptures, to those beloved in our lives, to the lonely and the strangers who cross our path, to the hurt and rejected, the ignored and the victimized, to those across town or across the room, Jesus says that is the place he will meet us, ready to go to work with us and for us. To really know and understand this, is resurrection.
John Dominic Crosssan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome Then and Now, 2006 “God does not demand blood” by Daniel M Bell, Christian Century, February10 2009.
Selected writings on humane slaughter by Temple Grandin, PhD, and Internet sources.
Movie, “Temple Grandin” with Claire Danes