Death or Life of Jesus? Passion Sunday, 2009
It was 13 years ago, on a mission trip to Belize, that I gave my heart to Jesus. I had maybe a year or so prior, given my life to God, but I was wishy-washy on the whole Jesus thing. I was even attending a Baptist church, but I was really in doubt about Jesus. I just never could get around the idea of Jesus’ blood being shed for me.
I listened to the metaphors in the worship services. I listened to what people said and what we sang about Jesus. I listened to the pastor pray. I saw people that I admired who were Christian. But I just couldn’t get there from that.
On our trip to Belize, we were in country, in a small town called Orange Walk Town. They called it Rambo Town, and it’s wasn’t because Sylvester Stallone had ever been there. People walking down the streets carried machetes. There was a guard at the door of the hotel, holding a very scary gun, probably an AK47. We were staying in a hotel called the D Star Victoria Hotel, which had two twin beds in a room, with a toilet that burped sulfur every half-hour, a window unit air conditioner that trickled water, at best, and didn’t work at all, at worst. The bed, if you banged on it, released something into the air (maybe it was dust?). And upon close inspection, there were bugs in the beds. The hotel was so high class, that even today, 13 years later, the hotel is advertised at $22-54 a night.
From the minute we got there, I was in complete culture shock, having never been to a developing country. Of course, I didn’t know it was culture shock, but as I look back, I realize that it was. The young women on the mission team and I spent the first sleepless night with one eye open, our heads on pillows that we had made clean by putting our own tee-shirts on them, with our socks over our hands and sleeves, and socks pulled up over our jeans, to keep the bugs out.
I woke the team leaders up at 5:00 a.m. the next morning. “You must airlift me out of here today,” I said.
My pastor looked at me, and said, “Lia, you have to give it one day. If you want to go home tomorrow, we’ll get you out of here.”
We attended a worship service that morning with a blood-and-guts pastor who preached about how everyone needed to be saved. He preached in a mix of Spanish and English, eyeing his congregants with disdain and the visitors from the United States with suspicion. He yelled. He cajoled. He cried. He was fake. I slept during his one-and-a-half-hour preaching session. And then I picked up the Bible.
And I read the words from the 6th Chapter of Matthew. I could imagine this fellow named Jesus saying this to me, and it felt so NOW, not tired, old, yucky, or anything like what the church usually said:
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these… Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
It sounded so much like Jesus. So much like someone I would like to follow. So much like someone who understood me, understood life, and had a lot to teach me.
It sounded like the Kingdom of God. But it didn’t sound like that blood-and-guts preacher.
There are three major theories about the “work of the cross.” That’s what they call it, whatever it is that happened on the cross. One theory states that humanity’s problem is that we’re trapped and oppressed by spiritual forces beyond our control. Christ’s death is seen as a ransom that frees us from captivity. Another theory deals with the subjective need of all people to know God’s love. This says that Christ’s death on the cross demonstrates God’s love so dramatically that we should be convinced of God’s love and can share it with others. Another theory assumes our problem is God’s wrath against us, and that we are in danger of facing that wrath eternally. This theory emphasizes how Christ represents us, and substitutes for us, facing God’s wrath so that we don’t have to.
It’s that last one that makes Renee hate the first two verses of Have Thine Own Way.
And it’s that last that comes under the most criticism. Some say that the theory of the atonement is inadequate, irrelevant, individualistic, and too violent.
As we consider these theories we have to ask of three questions: What does the theory say about God? What does it say to community? And what does it say to an individual?
The theory of substitutionary atonement, that Jesus died FOR OUR SINS on the cross, fares rather poorly with these criticisms.
What does it say about God if God requires the death of God’s son in order to look with love upon the people that God created?
The American Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou wrote, in his Treatise on the Atonement,
“The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree, that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries. The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men have been believed to exist in God…”
What does it say to our community if this theory is true? Rebecca Parker, a co-writer of Proverbs of Ashes, and, at the time a parish minister, preached:
“Do we really believe that God is appeased by cruelty, and wants nothing more than our obedience? It becomes imperative that we ask this questions when we examine how theology sanctions human cruelty.
“If God is imagined as a fatherly torturer, earthly parents are also justified, perhaps even required, to teach through violence. Children are instructed to understand their submission to pain as a form of love. Behind closed doors, in our own community , spouses and children are battered by abusers who justify their actions as necessary, loving discipline. ‘I only hit her because I love her.’ ‘I’m doing this for your own good.’ The child or the spouse who believes that obedience is what God wants may put up with physical or sexual abuse in an effort to be a good Christian.”
And what does it say to individuals? Rebecca Parker writes about a visit from a neighbor of the church.
“I haven’t talked to anyone about this for a while,” she began, her smile fading, and sadness deepening in her eyes. “But I’m worried for my kids now. The problem is my husband. He beats me sometimes. Mostly, he is a good man. But sometimes he becomes very angry and he hits me. He knocks me down. One time he broke my arm and I had to go to the hospital. But I didn’t tell them how my arm go broken.”
I nodded. She took a deep breath and went on. “I went to my priest twenty years ago. I’ve been trying to follow his advice. The priest said I should rejoice in my sufferings because they bring me closer to Jesus. He said, ‘Jesus suffered because he loved us.’ He said, ‘If you love Jesus, accept the beatings and bear them gladly, as Jesus bore the cross.’ I’ve tried, but I’m not sure anymore. My husband is turning on the kids now. Tell me, is what the priest told me true?”
“In the stillness of that moment, I could see in Lucia’s eyes that she knew the answer to her question, just as I did. If I answered Lucia’s question truthfully, I would have to rethink my theology.”
Jesus’ death on the cross was a horrible, terrible event. And death, as you all know, is about separation, not joining or merging. Friedrich Nietzsche, in Anti-Christ, wrote a piece directed to the apostles. Nietzsche’s point is that the death of Jesus on the cross was so horrible that the apostles had to invest some sort of meaning into it so that they could bear the pain of the loss of Jesus, especially in the way that they did. He wrote:
And now an absurd problem arose: ‘How could God have allowed that to happen?’ To this, the disturbed reason of the little community found a terrifyingly absurd answer: God gave his Son for the forgiveness of sins, as a sacrifice. All at once the gospel was done for! The guilt sacrifice, and this in its most repulsive, most barbaric form, the sacrifice of the guiltless for the sins of the guilty! What ghastly paganism! — For Jesus had abolished the very concept of “guilt” — he had denied any separation between God and man, he lived this unity of God and man as his “good news”… And not as a special privilege!
Because death is separation, not joining, as the disciples would have had you believe.
April 4th was the 41st anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Do we celebrate his death? Or do we celebrate his life? Have we added meaning to his death by believing that it makes us, somehow, closer to God? Do we see MLK as a sacrifice for us? For all time? No. We celebrate his life. It is his life that moves us forward in fighting injustice. It is his life that spurs us to higher action. It is his life that brings us into the conversation to do better.
As it is with the Christ. It is Jesus’ life that spurs us to love God. It is his words that draw us in. It is the way he related with one another that moves us to worship God. Because, no doubt, Jesus was filled with God. He shows us how to be with God.
But he doesn’t lock us into adding meaning to his death. His death on the cross, just as with Martin Luther King, Jr. was a terrible injustice. And it was the price a person pays for standing against the powers that be.
Stephen Mitchell, in The Gospel According to Jesus sums up Jesus’ life and death by quoting the Lao-tzu:
The Master gives himself up
to whatever the moment brings.
He knows that he is going to die,
and he has nothing left to hold on to:
no illusions in his mind,
no resistances in his body.
He doesn’t think about his actions;
they flow from the core of his being.
He holds nothing back from life;
therefore he is ready for death,
As a man is ready for sleep
after a good day’s work.
Let us allow Jesus’ death to be what it is. A crying shame. A huge injustice. A reflection of his life.
Let us follow that life.