Thursday, October 09, 2014

New Metrics

This past Sunday, Gracyn and I joined folks at a UCC church in Wailuku, HI for worship on World Communion Sunday.  We were warmly greeted by members of the congregation and by the Pastor.  As the Pastor began the announcement time (Elder who was supposed to do announcements walked in five minutes late), he looked right at us, apologized for the low attendance, and explained that the church had a food booth at the local county fair, so many people had either been working late into the night on Saturday or were currently working.  First of all, way to make visitors feel awkward by singling them out first thing, but that's beside the point of this reflection.  The question that immediately popped into my head was: Why do we pastor types ever feel the need to apologize for attendance in worship?

Is it our egos?  Do we want the visitor to know that actually we're way more thriving than that one day might exhibit?  Do we hope the folks who are there might lay a little guilt trip on the ones who aren't?

For the record, there were probably 50 people in attendance at Iao Congregational Church on Sunday, which would probably make a lot of churches feel pretty psyched.

That little moment in what was otherwise a great worship service full of intergenerational & multi-racial leadership, worldwide perspective, and a most-inclusive invitation to celebrate the Eucharist, caused me to spend much of the afternoon reflecting on the metrics we pastor types use to measure "success" in the churches/ministries where we serve (going forward, I'll just use the word church, but mean all manner of worshipping communities).

Frankly, I'm over attendance being the primary metric for churches.  In fact, I'd like it to to be pretty low on the depth chart.  As an aside, Jesus didn't have the best attendance numbers.  He had 12 guys who followed him around, plus the rest of the traveling entourage.  I'm not even sure the Sermon on the Mount drew a crowd equal to Willow Creek's weekly worship attendance.

I'm ready for a meaningful conversation about what really matters to the church.  If it's just about getting people in the door, I feel quite certain we've lost our way.  To be honest, I'd rather have 20 folks exploring scripture, engaging in deep theological reflection, and intentionally seeking to discern how best to follow Jesus Christ in the world than 1,000 people who come because the choir really nails the anthem and the sermon "just makes them feel so good about Jesus" or whatever.

Clearly, this is turning into a series of posts.  For now, here are some questions to ponder:

What metrics does your church use to measure whether you are meeting goals?
What metrics matter to you?
If not attendance, how do we decide whether we are being faithful to God's call on our communities of faith?
What would it look like for church to embrace smallness?
Is there an ideal size for a church?
Is there a number at which churches might follow a missionary impulse to reach out in new ways?

As always, I welcome the thoughts of anyone and everyone.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Connectional Church

To be honest, I've had numerous reasons to be frustrated with my presbytery in the past year or so. While I won't get into all of that in this post, I will say that I've struggled to embody/live into any excitement about participating in a "connectional church."  And then, yesterday, I was given the gift of sharing a cup of coffee with my friend Lee Cannon.  Lee is an elder at Downtown Presbyterian Church here in Nashville and was recently featured in The Tennessean for picking up food at a local Publix to be delivered to a local food bank.  After reading the article, I decided to reach out and schedule a time to catch up with Lee.  You see, Lee was on the Installation Commission for my service as Associate Pastor at Harpeth Presbyterian Church almost nine years ago, and he has made an effort to keep up with me ever since.  He is a faithful attender of Presbytery meetings, and pops up at just about any presbytery-wide service event.  He will also attend church at various churches around Nashville, just to check in with friends he has made throughout the presbytery.  Simply put, Lee is is the ideal Presbyter.

During our conversation yesterday, we lifted up various congregations in our presbytery who are going through transitions, commented on ministers who are coming and going, and shared our common vision for a church that is more concerned with the discipleship walk of those who attend our communities of faith than how with how many are on the rolls.  We shared personal struggles and joys and agreed to hold one another in prayer.  And then, as the time came to leave the trendy local coffee shop, full of hipsters typing away on their MacBooks or reading on their iPads, Lee reached out for my hand and offered to pray over our time together.  What a blessing.

I walked away from that hour and a half or so feeling re-invigorated for the church-at-large, and particularly for our connectional form of being church as Presbyterians.  Our entire conversation had revolved around people, God's work in the world, and how we might participate in God's kingdom building.  So, for all my recent frustrations, today I remain thankful for the ways that God works generally through the connectional church that is The Presbyterian Church USA, and specifically through the loving, nurturing, God-centered, fellowship of a Presbyterian Ruling Elder named Lee Cannon.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Atonement Series Four: Solidarity...It's a Thing

Solidarity...It's a thing
Preached at UKIRK Nashville
Tuesday, April 8th, 2014
Colossians 1:13-23 & 1 John 4:7-16

Summarize definition of sin
A result of seeking freedom from relationality, thus we sever our relationships with
The world
Fearful avoidance of fulfilling human potential

Just as we are, our theological foremothers and forefathers were shaped by the world around them, and thus they read scripture through the lenses of their particular contexts.  Sacrificial, Financial, and Legal images to explain God's action in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ made sense for particular times and places, and we must give thanks for the ways those images have helped us to understand atonement.

Tonight we will wrap up our series on Atonement, and next week we'll explore how we are called to embody our faith, especially in light of John's gospel's story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet.

For tonight, though, I want us to zero in on this passage from Colossians, particularly verses 19-20:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

For all the theories we've been exploring, engagement with verses like these, or the first chapter of John's gospel, have been mostly absent.  While there were voices throughout Christian history that highlighted the incarnation of God in Jesus as crucial to any argument about God's activity (primarily in the Eastern Orthodox tradition), I would argue that most of our talk about Jesus being Immanuel, or God-with-us, was centered around Christmas and Jesus' ability to perform miracles.  Historically, when it came to making sense of Jesus' suffering at the hands of Roman rulers and his eventual crucifixion on the cross, most western theologians engaged in what I like to call "shell-game theology" to protect God from truly experiencing that suffering or from experiencing death in any way.  Jesus' cry from the cross, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" became evidence of God's presence fleeing for the hills when things got really hard.  After all, God couldn't possibly suffer or be found in the weakened, whipped, dying body of Jesus Christ, right?  Plus, somebody had to make the resurrection happen, so there you go.  In so many of our classic theories of atonement, God is involved, but not necessarily invested in a deeply personal way.

As a way of transitioning from classical theories of atonement to some of the more contemporary views, I'd like to explore The Last Scapegoat theory, which is credited to Rene Girard in the late 20th century.

In his exploration of scripture and theology, Girard realized that much of classic atonement theory goes back to Leviticus 16, which lays out the regulations for making sacrifices of atonement on the altar in the temple.  Throughout the year, priests would assist people in making their sin offerings, and then on the day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, a great sacrifice would be made to atone for all of Israel's sin.  Hear now Leviticus 16:6-10.

Leviticus 16:6-10
Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.

That word Azazel is traditionally translated as Scapegoat. The purpose of this ritual was to place all the sin of Israel on these two goats, one of which would be sacrificed on the altar, the other which would be sent into the wilderness to wander, and probably die as well.  In this system, the goat carries all the guilt, while the community is declared innocent or righteous.

Girard, and other anthropologists/sociologists, point out that while we don't necessarily sacrifice goats on an altar anymore, we do love the practice of scapegoating.  We love to place all our sin, or all the blame, onto individuals, or groups of people and then find ways to punish them, destroy them, or otherwise send them into the wilderness, where they will likely meet an untimely end.  We do this so as to rid ourselves of guilt and declare ourselves innocent.

The example that most immediately comes to mind is the cover story for The Atlantic Monthly magazine last month which focused on the hundreds of lawsuits filed each year against fraternities because of poor safety conditions in their houses, especially cases where people fall out of the houses through open windows or off of dangerous balconies.  The long and short of it is that when risk management procedures are set in motion, the national or general fraternity swoops in, does a ton of interviewing, and just when the young man in question needs the insurance and protection of the organization, he is usually denied such protection because of any number of infractions.  The individual is kicked out, left to pay their own medical bills, and very often loses cases in court, because the fraternities have so much money to throw at the problem.  The young person who falls over a railing that isn't up to code, or rolls out of a window with no screen is found to be guilty and thus the community can continue operations as usual.  That, my friends, is an example of scapegoating theology.
Rene Girard, who is an anthropologist and literary critic, in addition to being a theologian offers this way of re-thinking the practice of scapegoating:

But something happens that begins in the Old Testament.  There are many stories that reverse this scapegoat process.  In the story of Cain and Abel, the story of Joseph, the book of Job, and many of the Psalms, the persecuting community is pictured as guilty and the victim is innocent.  But Christ, the son of God, is the ultimate scapegoat -- precisely because he is the son of God and since he is innocent, he exposes all the myths of scapegoating and shows that the victims were innocent and the communities guilty.

The Last Scapegoat theory, as Girard presents it, serves as a bridge of sorts to many conversations in which contemporary theologians return to an emphasis on the Christ event as God's act of ultimate solidarity with humankind.

Tonight, and hopefully after tonight as well, I want us to join the conversation of many folks in the contemporary church who adopt the perspective of our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters in which God is fully present in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Instead of relegating such language to Christmas hymns alone or moving too quickly to "son of God" language, I'd like for us to seriously consider how our theology might change if all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in the person of Jesus Christ.

Pleased to dwell.
Not dwelling out of obligation to some deep laws of time.
Not dwelling, like a little bit, except when things were difficult.
Not dwelling in only one part of Jesus, as in only his mind or his soul.
Not dwelling only when it was convenient or during the good times.
All the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Jesus Christ.

If the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Jesus Christ, then I believe God was out to experience as much of the human experience as possible, including all physicality that comes with human existence, even the rough stuff, and especially the brutal suffering at the hands of the Roman authorities.

If we take seriously God's fullness dwelling in Jesus Christ, then even The Last Scapegoat gets a tweak, as Tony Jones writes in A Better Atonement,

God becomes the one who is rejected and expelled.  That is, the scapegoat is not one of us who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity.  Instead, the deity enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for future scapegoats or sacrifices.

It's my view that The Last Scapegoat is a wonderful corrective to Penal Substitutionary Atonement or Satisfaction theory.  In the classical views, Jesus is sacrificed at the altar of the cross in order to pay the penalty of the people, whereas in The Last Scapegoat, God is fully present on the cross, suffering all the indignity and the physical pain of that torturous form of state-sanctioned murder.  God no longer looks down judging whether the sacrifice has been enough, but rather takes on the punishment in God's very self.  And, as Girard points out, by taking on the cross, God reveals the ugliness of such brutality, and thus calls us to re-examine our cultural, society, communal brokenness.  The cross is no longer simply about individuals finding some sort of individual pass into God's good graces or heaven, but about convicting communities of the ways we fail to value the image of God in every human being.

As we join our Orthodox brothers and sisters in taking seriously God's full indwelling of Jesus Christ, we witness God drawing near to humanity in complete and total solidarity.  God no longer looks on from a distance, but is intimately connected to the human experience.  One commentator wrote that Jesus Christ is the intersection of Immanence and Transcendence.  The fullness of God is present in the immanent human being named Jesus, just as the fullness of Jesus is present in the transcendent God of the universe.

I think it's worth noting that God chose to become incarnate in Jesus Christ at a difficult time in history for the Jewish people.  God chose to draw near in a child born in a stable in Bethlehem at a time when a crazy tyrant would have all Jewish children of a certain age exterminated.  God chose to become incarnate in Jesus Christ when the Jewish people were subject to the occupying force of Rome.  God chose to become a person on the margins who had to work hard just to make ends meet.  God chose to become human when speaking the truth to power landed you on the wrong side of the principalities and powers, religious and otherwise.  The intersection of immanence and transcendence didn't take place in a middle class white guy from the suburbs, as some of our classical images of Jesus might imply.

In claiming God's solidarity with humankind in the person of Jesus Christ, we gain concrete insight into how God seeks to restore those broken relationships we've been discussing during this Lenten season.  God is not paying a ransom.  God is the ransom.  God doesn't send a first lieutenant to defeat the powers of evil.  God shows up...fully.  God isn't sitting on a throne somewhere in the heavens fuming and plotting dark revenge on sinful human beings.  God enters into the fray to more fully understand this brokenness and sin that seem to pervade human existence.  When a penalty is to be paid, God pays it.  When a scapegoat is needed for human beings to fulfill their desire for violence, God receives that violence willingly.  The lenten Friday morning prayer makes reference to Hebrews 12 in saying, "Jesus, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross,"

When we read about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the lens of Solidarity, we see a God who desperately wants us to be reconciled with God, others, the world, and ourselves.  If God is fully present in Jesus Christ, and I truly believe that is true, our theories of atonement are expanded and we see that God's presence with us is about so much more than a change in our status as righteous, or the guarantee of our eternal insurance policy. In the gospels, we see Jesus:

bring good news to the poor.
proclaim release to the captives
grant recovery of sight to the blind,
let the oppressed go free,
and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

God's incarnation in Jesus Christ and ongoing abiding presence in the Holy Spirit proclaim once and for all that  God is in complete and total solidarity with humankind, that as we have been reconciled to God, we are called to be reconciled to one another, and that the image of God inside of us has been restored and will be restored from any brokenness we might encounter.

In summary of the belief that God is fully present in the person of Jesus Christ, I share these words from Andrew T. Lincoln's reflections in The New Interpreter's Bible

"The effect of such a belief should be to make redeemed humans more fully human.  It should enable them to appreciate the creation and to work to transform the structures of this world rather than to produce a private piety or spirituality that attempts to cut itself off from the body, ignores the natural environment, and disdains culture.  If reconciliation of all things in Christ is at the center of God's purposes, then the pursuit of peace and acts of reconciliation by Christians serve those purposes."

May it be so.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Atonement Series Three: Rethinking PSA

Rethinking PSA
Preached at UKIRK Nashville
March 25, 2014
Romans 3:19-31

There it is.  Verses 25-26 cast a long shadow on the history of Christian theology related to justification and atonement.

“whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.  He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.”

This week we will engage with the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA.  Some call it Satisfaction Theory, but for tonight, we’re just going to call it PSA.

In summary:
·      Anselm takes issue with Ransom Captive and Christus Victor for some of the same reasons we explored last week, but primarily because those theories elevate Satan or evil.
·      Anselm claims that we are not captives to Satan or evil, but rather to our own sin.
·      Sin, Anselm claimed, places us in debt to God.  God’s eternal laws of justice have been broken, and there’s no way we can possibly overcome that debt of obedience.  This leaves humanity eternally separated from God.
·      Just as the debt of sin began with Adam, so must the debt of sin sin be destroyed by a perfect God-man, Jesus.
·      God sends Jesus, who lives in perfect obedience, and who eventually must be sacrificed, Leviticus style, to atone for the sins of humanity.  You know Leviticus 16, right?
o   Leviticus 16:29-34: This shall be a statute to you for ever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord. It is a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall deny yourselves; it is a statute for ever. The priest who is anointed and consecrated as priest in his father’s place shall make atonement, wearing the linen vestments, the holy vestments. He shall make atonement for the sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the people of Israel once in the year for all their sins. And Moses did as the Lord had commanded him.
·      In his death on the cross, Jesus takes on the sins of the entire world, eliminates the need for the annual day of atonement, and thus pays the debt, reconciles our account with God, and satisfies God’s wrath and need for divine justice.

This theology of justification, PSA, becomes the predominant theology for the second thousand years of Christianity, and still holds a primary place in the hearts and minds of Christians all around the world.

Contemporary proponents/advocates for PSA include John Piper and Marc Driscoll, and they are almost militant in their defense of its truth and primacy.  Both of these men, and those who support them, emphasize the wrath of God and say that it is:
·      Eternal
·      Terrible
·      Deserved
·      Escapable

As you might imagine, it is escapable by simply acknowledging Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, thus only those who make such confessions of faith escape the eternal, terrible wrath of God.

In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell shares some statements from church websites that believe strongly in PSA

·      The unsaved will be separated forever from God in hell.
·      Those who don’t believe in Jesus will be sent to eternal punishment in hell.
·      The unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment.

So, not only will the “unsaved” be separated from God, but they will be punished and be conscious of that punishment, to which Rob Bell writes, “in case we were concerned they might down an Ambien or two when God wasn’t looking.”

I tell you what.  If I’m trying to figure out what I believe about God, I’m sure as shootin’ not going to walk in the door of those churches.

And yet, up until very recently, the churches in our country that have been on the rise, have espoused some version of PSA as the only way to make sense of the cross of Jesus Christ.  In the not so distant past, folks seeking ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA and the denominations that preceded her had to stand up and profess strict allegiance to PSA.  If you go home tonight and Google PSA and click on the video tab, you’ll find some interesting videos of Mark Driscoll and a guy named Todd Friel who lay it out in some pretty strong ways.  They are clearly convinced and convicted that to question PSA is to question the very foundations of Christianity, and possibly to invalidate any salvation you might have previously achieved.

Before we dive headlong into some analysis of our scripture for tonight and the issues with PSA, let’s at least take a look at how it addresses the fourfold brokenness we’re using as a definition for sin.

As a refresher, Scot McKnight, in his book entitled A Community of Atonement defines sin as brokenness in how we relate to:
·      God
·      Our fellow human beings
·      The world around us
·      Ourselves

PSA speaks definitively about mending the broken relationship between humanity and God, although it attaches certain strings.

At some level, PSA speaks to God’s redemption of all things through the cross of Jesus Christ, but not necessarily our relationship with our world.

It does speak to the elimination of sin from our lives, which might allow us to be more fully ourselves.

However, PSA, like all our previous theories, does nothing to really address the brokenness between human beings.  It claims to settle the account with God, but it says nothing about societal sin, and it doesn’t really say anything about the world around us.  In fact, it might promote a certain escapism whereby the injustices of this world don’t matter all that much.

This is the point in the evening that if this were a youth group lesson, we would pull out our Presbyterian hymnals (in this case the blue ones, because we haven’t bought the new ones yet) and look for hymns that promote PSA.  I imagine there would be a ton of them.

For now, I’d like to share the lyrics from a song that seems to be pretty popular in certain circles.  I say that, because I think I’ve sung it every time I’ve been a Belmont chapel service or at what might be considered a neo-evangelical community of faith.  The title of the hymn is How Deep the Father’s Love For Us, and I’m going to put the lyrics up for us to explore, and as we do so, I’ll offer some critiques of PSA.

How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

Would it have killed them to use the word “maker” instead of Father?
One might argue that these opening lyrics set up a subordinate relationship between the 1st and 2nd persons of the trinity.
While I don’t love the wretch language, I do appreciate PSA’s emphasis on our inability to earn God’s love or favor.
Some feminist theologians have asked, “What kind of Parent is God if God sacrifices God’s child?  Are we to worship a divine child abuser?

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Umm…seriously?  The Father turns his face away? 
·      First of all, if God is incarnate in Jesus Christ, it’s not as if God isn’t experiencing the excruciating suffering of the cross.
·      Second, if this is the plan for God’s eternal wrath and justice to be fulfilled, God doesn’t need to be looking away. 
·      Chosen one sounds a little too much like the Matrix or something, and borders on adoptionism, a heresy that says Jesus wasn’t really God-with-us, but was adopted as God’s chosen one based on his faithfulness to serve as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.
·      Many sons?  I mean, seriously?  This is a fairly contemporary hymn.  What about the ladies?

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

·      This verse isn’t the worst.  It does hearken back to Isaiah and Leviticus, and some of what we read from Romans today.  It takes seriously the weight of sin that Jesus carried with him to the cross.
·      I do wonder, though, about universalizing the scoffing.  It seems to imply that sin is a cookie cutter kind of thing.  Maybe I’m not so much a scoffer of Christ as I am an aggressive, angry, oppressive person to my fellow human beings.  Or, maybe I scoff at myself and undervalue the image of God inside me.

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

·      There it is.  That implication that the same God who created everything that is, must follow some sort of script for appeasing God’s own wrath and justice. 
·      The sin didn’t hold Jesus Christ on the cross.  God’s love and compassion for a broken humanity did! 
·      Our sin does not motivate God or bind God’s hands.  God acts in self-giving love to mend our brokenness and to eliminate sin’s dominion over human beings.
·      Is it really Jesus’ dying breath that has brought us life, or is it the resurrection.  I would argue that the Bible points to resurrection as the assurance of new life.

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

·      Ah, there’s the resurrection.
·      No boasting.  That’s straight out of Romans 3, and yet I think it misses the point a little bit.  In the context of Romans 3, Paul is probably not thinking about our western American tendency toward legalism, but more about his fellow Jews boasting about their status as the chosen people of God.
·      I would say that in our context, there are plenty of church folk who need to hear a little something about not boasting…maybe not even boasting about how right they are about PSA.

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

·      And, we’re back to Ransom Captive and Christus Victor, and we already parsed those last week.

One of these days, I’m going to write my own hymn lyrics to that tune, because it’s one that gets in your head, and I’d love for different lyrics to be in my head.

In order to really explore this passage of scripture, and to more fully understand justification from Paul’s perspective, we have to take a serious look at the word “faith” and the way it’s used here. 

Verses 21-22, in the NRSV, reads:
But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

The NIV, and many other translations, make it sound as if righteousness is granted to people who believe in Jesus Christ, thus Marc Driscoll’s claim that God’s wrath is escapable.  If you just believe that you’re an awful sinner, unworthy of God’s love and that  Jesus got in the way on the cross, satisfied God’s seething wrath, and then pleaded your case, you’ll find yourself in heaven for eternity.

The problem with that translation, and all the subsequent interpretations, is that the Greek isn’t quite that clear, and many scholars think it should probably be translated much more like the Common English Bible, which reads:
But now God’s righteousness has been revealed apart from the Law, which is confirmed by the Law and the Prophets.  God’s righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him.

So maybe it isn’t necessarily about us having enough faith, or the right kind of faith, but more about Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s plan of salvation.

Somehow the hard-core PSA evangelists skip right over the following verses that read:
For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. 

As I read this passage and ones similar to it later in Romans or from Galatians, I read a strong proclamation of God’s choice to eliminate sin as a determining factor in God’s relationship with humankind.

These are not words of a court of justice, but words of covenantal theology.  As one author writes,
On the cross Jesus accomplished what God has always intended the covenant to achieve.

Not only does the cross rescue sinful humanity from its sin, but it also ushers in a worldwide family of forgiven sinners.  To quote Galatians 3:28
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Or, the end of tonight’s passage:
Or is God the God of Jews only?  Is he not the God of Gentiles also?  Yes, of Gentiles alos, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.

I think it is quite possible that all this language about faith goes back to Jesus’ faithfulness and thus God’s faithfulness.

In his chapter on “atonement” Shirley Guthrie offers what I find to be helpful correctives to PSA, and these correctives will begin to shape our conversation for the rest of the semester.

In summary:
·      Jesus came to express God’s mind and will, not to somehow change it through a grand gesture of self sacrifice.
·      If there is a ransom to be paid, it is paid by God, not purchased from God.
·      If we do speak about God’s wrath, let us do so in the context of God being deeply hurt by the consequences of human brokenness.  God wants what is best for us as human beings…God wants us to achieve our highest potential as human beings bearing the image of God.  When we fall short, this grieves God and causes pain within God’s very self. 
·      If there is a sacrifice to be made on behalf of that “wrath” or “grief”, it is because we need it, not God.  God makes the sacrifice in the person of Jesus Christ because that is how God chooses to satisfy justice and to overthrow sin.

Indeed, the maker’s love for us is deep and wide, and God is willing to go to any length, even suffering death within God’s self, to achieve that which we can not achieve for ourselves.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Atonement Series Two: Ransom Captive and Christus Victor

A Better Atonement: Ransom Captive & Christus Victor
Preached at UKIRK Nashville, March 18, 2014
1 Timothy 2:5-6, 1 Peter 1:17-21, 1 Corinthians 15:17-26

Tonight we begin our look at various Atonement Theories, and as we begin, I’d like to share some words from Rob Bell’s book Love Wins that I also shared in this week’s devotional:

What happened on the cross is like…
·     A defendant going free,
·     A relationship being reconciled,
·     A battle being won,
·     A redeeming of something/a people that was lost,
·     A final sacrifice being offered, so that no one ever has to offer another one again,
·     An enemy being loved.

I’d also like for us to keep the words Shirley Guthrie wrote in his wonderful book Christian Doctrine:

[the early followers of Jesus] used various images or analogies already at their disposal from everyday life.  If we are to understand their significance, we need to remember two things about them.

First, the images do not describe a “theory of atonement” or “plan of salvation” that explains what God must do and what must happen to Jesus if God wants to save the world.  The first Christians had been forced to give up all their theories and plans, because God did not act according to their calculations and expectations.  They used these images not to explain what God must do in order to save us but to interpret what God actually did do.

Second, it is no accident that in the New Testament several images are used to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ death.

So, knowing that we need a variety of images to get anywhere close to understanding what God was up to in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and even in the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, let’s dive in.

Tonight we’ll look at two theories of the atonement that dominated the first millennium of Christianity.  The first is centered on a financial image and is called Ransom Captive.  To give you a visual representation for this, we’ll watch a scene from the movie The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe.  Right before the scene we’re about to watch, the White Witch, who currently rules the magical land of Narnia, has pronounced the Edmund Pevensie must die for his “sin” of betraying his siblings.  She and Aslan have a secret meeting in a tent, and Aslan walks out of the tent to pronounce that the sentence of death for Edmund has been commuted.  That’s where we pick up.

We viewed the scene from The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe in which Aslan is sacrificed on the table.

Effectively, this scene is a perfect display of the Ransom Captive theory.  In this theory, Adam and Eve, with their disobedience in the garden, gave away all hope for freedom for the human race to Satan, and thus, Satan has had power and dominion over humanity and the entire world, and this explains all the brokenness of human history.  But, in a moment of true sacrifice, God makes a deal with Satan and offers God’s only son, Jesus, as a ransom for the captive human race.  When Jesus dies on the cross, the ransom is paid, and humanity is now free.

Clearly, we might take some issue with this theory for a variety of reasons.
·     To whom is the ransom paid?
o  If to Satan, this surely elevates Satan to a level of power and authority he might no previously had
o  If it is to God, what does it say about God?  Is God our enemy in need of appeasement?
o  What do we do with incarnational theology of God being present to humanity in Jesus Christ?
·     What’s the point of the resurrection?  If everything’s been paid in full with the crucifixion, why bother with a resurrection?

To return to our definition of sin as brokenness in four areas, Ransom Captive might mend the brokenness between us and God, maybe, and it might achieve a change in our status as captives, but it doesn’t really address our broken relationships with our fellow human beings, or with the world around us.

To be sure, this theory has its proponents, and it does speak to the reality of human beings being trapped in cycles of sin and brokenness, and it points to Jesus as one willing to sacrifice himself on our behalf to free us from those cycles, but we have to be careful about pushing this analogy too far.

The second theory we’ll explore tonight is centered around a Military Image, and again, we’ll look to Narnia for a visual representation.


The stone table is cracked, the witch has been fooled, Aslan is alive and roaring!  The scene in between the two we’re watching depicts the armies of good and evil facing off and eventually engaging one another in a great battle, and this is the context for Christus Victor.

In this model, there is a war going on between the forces of good and evil, and at some point, it seems as if evil has the upper hand.  Jesus is sent to do battle with the forces of evil and is eventually destroyed on the cross, granting the ultimate victory to evil…only evil has been fooled…On Easter morning, Jesus is resurrected, having conquered death from the inside out.  Good triumphs over evil, all the victims and captives of this cosmic battle have been freed, Jesus is the ultimate Victor in the ultimate battle between good and evil.

This strain of theology finds its way into much of our language about Jesus being “Lord of Heaven and Earth” or into hymns like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

In today’s world, this is a tough image to wrap our heads around.  Very few, if any of us, really believe in a battle between God and the devil, and if we do, we sure aren’t willing to grant that the devil is able to get the upper hand.

We also might wonder why God had to play the trickster to conquer death.  And, was the presence of Immanuel just a strategic battle ploy?

And, what are these ancient rules that God has to play by?  Deep magic from the beginning of time?  That seems to limit God’s freedom in concerning ways.

To give Christus Victor its due, it does take the resurrection seriously.  It highlights the reality of evil in the world and offers a vision in which God conquers evil through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. 

I think the main issue with these two theories, or images of atonement is that they are basically transactional and impersonal.  God either pays a ransom, or fights a battle on our behalf (even if that battle leads to an experience of death within God’s self), but in the end, human beings are simply prizes to be won in a great battle between satan/the devil/evil.

In viewing the cross through this transactional lens, there are really not repercussions for humanity other than our change in status.  Neither image calls us to a different life as a result of God’s actions.  If anything, it might be possible to get caught up what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “Cheap Grace” whereby we say something like, “Well, my sins have been taken care of, so I can live however I want.” 

I think these images are also troublesome in a world that is already full of warfare and violence.  Is war imagery really what we need to be lifting up in our communities of faith?  Do we really want to make faith about waging war?  It doesn’t take too long to get to a place of triumphalism, or of perpetrating various levels of emotional, spiritual, and maybe even physical violence on those whom we label as “evil.”

While these transactional images might emphasize the freedom from evil that God has won for us, they offer no guidance as to what we are freed for.  Or, to return to our definition of sin as “fearful avoidance of human potential” how do these images pull us toward a more complete, faithful, humanity where our relationships with God, others, the earth, and self are restored?  That will be the key question, I think, for all of these theories/images that we explore.

For this week, we I propose we thank that first Millenium of Christianity for giving us Ransom Captive and Christus Victor for these reasons:
·     They take seriously our inability to work ourselves out of brokenness
·     They offer images of a God who is willing to quite literally get skin in the game
·     They proclaim that death does not, in the end, have the final word.
·     In tandem with that, they proclaim that God brings about new life, even when it seems that all is lost.

So, may you hold onto hope, even in dark times.

May you truly believe that death does not have the final say in God’s creation.

May you experience the grace, mercy, transforming love, and holistic Shalom Peace that God enters the world to offer to all of humanity.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Atonement Series for Lent

During Lent this year, I worked up a sermon series on various atonement theories and how they are/are not helpful.  I figured I might as well put the sermon texts out here and let the calls of "Heresy!" begin.

If you'd like to hear the sermons, which inevitably include more than is in print, they can be found on online by searching for UKIRK Nashville in the iTunes store.

So, here's week one: 
Genesis 3:1-24 (read along with The Brick Testament)
Original Sin...Is It Really a Thing?

Throughout Lent, we’re going to explore the theological topic of “Atonement.”  To simplify such a theologically loaded word, many people like to say it’s is all about At-One-Ment between God and humanity.  Another question we might ask is, “What happened at the cross?”

My hope is that throughout this series, we might walk away with a broader, fuller, and deeper understanding of what scripture and centuries of Christian tradition have to say about how God addresses the problem of sin in the world.

Before we can get to “theories of the atonement,” I think it’s important to take a step back and talk about the word “sin.”  It’s a word that gets tossed around an awful lot in our communities of faith, and depending on the theological leanings of the faith community that raised you, it might have been emphasized a lot, a little, or really not at all.  And besides that, the definition of “sin” changes depending on one’s theological tradition.  So, tonight, we go all the way back to the beginning of scripture and take a look at an archetypal text about sin.  So, hear now, and see, with the help of the Brick Testament.  Genesis 2:25-3:24.


So, there it is.  The story of “the fall from grace.” The beginning of all sin that has been passed on to every human being in the history of the world.  Many people, if not most, would say that this is the story of “Original Sin.” 

Original sin is defined by the good people at the BBC as: a Christian doctrine that says that everyone is born sinful.  This means that they are born with a built-in urge to do bad things and to disobey God.  Original sin is not just this inherited spiritual disease or defect in human nature; it’s also the ‘condemnation’ that goes with that fault.

Sound familiar?  As Presbyterians, or reformed Christians, we might hear John Calvin’s voice in the background using the term Total Depravity, by which he meant that there is no part of our humanity that is not corrupted by sin.

Basically, in the traditional view, Adam and Eve’s transgression resulted in a loss of living forever and in their guilt being passed on to every human being…ever.  This “original sin” is used to explain the darker side of humanity and becomes the way to explain the presence of sin in the world.

Some of you are fidgeting a bit, I would imagine.  One of my former youth would always push me when it came to this topic, making the case for human beings being basically good, with good intentions, but that they just make bad choices.

So, which is it?  And what does the scripture actually say?

Does Genesis 3 clearly describe original sin?  If you go back and read it, you might notice that words like sin and fall are absent.  To be sure, there are consequences for disobeying God, and one of those is being cast out of the garden before Adam and Eve can get their hands on the fruit of the tree of life.  So, were they created to be immortal, or would that have happened upon eating from the fruit of the tree of life?  Depending on who you read, the answer varies. 

I stand before you and admit that over the past couple of years, I’ve come to seriously question the doctrines of original sin and total depravity.  Now, before you all start calling the presbytery or the denominational headquarters, let me tell you why.

As I hinted at above, I just don’t read Genesis the same way as Augustine and other folks who truly believe in the doctrine of original sin.  I just don’t hear God say, “You all messed up, and now all people in the history of the world will bear the guilt of your sin.” 

This falls into the category of setting aside the question of “Did it happen?” and instead asking the question, “Does it happen?”

Do I look around the world and see people who willfully disobey the commandments and guidelines that God has set in place for the welfare of humankind?  Yes!

Have I joined someone in doing something I knew was a bad idea, or against the rules, been caught, and uttered the cry of every desperate person, “But-she?”  Absolutely.

I tell you what, those But-he and But-she kids are in every youth group and every classroom in the world.

It seems to me that we can look at the world around us and speak of fallibility and brokenness without using terms like total depravity and original sin. 

There is clearly something about humanity as it exists now, that falls short of God’s best plans for us.

Oh, but Alan, the Bible clearly presents a theology of original sin.  Right?  I mean, it does, doesn’t it?

Does it?

As we read the stories of the Hebrew Bible, we see a cyclical pattern that goes something like this:
·     God lays out expectations for faithful obedience
·     Individuals or groups of people fall short of those expectations
·     God sets forth consequences
·     People seek to make things right, either by turning back to God or offering sacrifices
·     And finally, God offers healing and forgiveness and relationship

In all of that, I’m not sure the Biblical record really points to some genetic defect passed along from Adam and Eve to all of humanity. 

This is not to dismiss the presence of sin in the world, but it is to say that I have serious doubts as to that sin being passed along in sperm and egg. 

In fact, I’ve come to believe that we probably need to take sin more seriously than we do, but not in the judgy, equating faithfulness with western moralistic values, be a good American kind of way.  I think we could stand to take the entire biblical record into account when we make pronouncements about what is sinful in the eyes of God.

For tonight, though, and for the sake of our series, I’d like to think a bit more broadly about the nature of sin and how it affects our humanity.  A few weeks ago, Decker asked me for a good definition of sin, and that question has been weighing on me, especially in light of this series.  Up until yesterday, I had a working definition from some theological textbook that was way too technical, but at church yesterday, Chris Adams quoted an article from that really spoke to me, and I want to share it with you.  So, here goes:

Biddle rather proposes that Genesis 3 is the story of the human condition that is complex and paradoxical in nature. Moreover, instead of viewing this text in terms of a “‘fall’ from original essential humanity,” one would be better served to view this text in terms of the human’s “failure to develop into the fullness of being human” (p 7).

The author goes on to say: Viewed in this way, sin may be understood as the fearful avoidance of human potential.

Wolfhart Pannenburg said that sin is, “the universal failure to achieve our human destiny.”

I like those definitions so much better than the many definitions of sin that sound kind of scary.  The fearful avoidance of human potential.  Sin is no longer a boogeyman in your soul, or in your genetic makeup, lurking to work evil in your life.  With this definition, sin becomes that fearful part of you that prevents you from achieving the full humanity that God has planned.

Scot McKnight in his book A Community Called Atonement, makes the case that we are made for relationship, just as God in God’s Trinitarian self is relational, and that we need four basic relationships to achieve full humanity:
·     Union with God
·     Communion with other human beings
·     Love of self
·     Care for the world

In other words, to pursue absolute freedom in all directions severs us from God, from others, from the world, and therefore the self, and that is really what constitutes sin, a brokenness in any and/or all of these relationships.

Throughout the rest of the semester, we’ll be exploring various theories of the atonement, and I’d like for us to decide, together, how they address the brokenness we experience in those four areas of our lives.  I hope we will find that we need many understandings of atonement in order to make sense of the ways God has accomplished wholeness and calls us toward full humanity.

One final note:
·     Yes, we are in the season of Lent, and we are on the journey to Jerusalem and the cross, and we aren’t there yet.
·     Yes, we have much to discuss with relation to sin and atonement.
·     Yes, I started our series with a story about Adam and Eve being cast out of the garden.

But, did you notice verse 21?

Verse 21 is one of those places in the Bible where I go to point to the motherly aspects of God, and let explain why.

My Mom, who is here this evening, is a master on the sewing machine.  When I was kid, she made me and my sister clothes to wear.  When I was marching with The Cavaliers, my Mom made me practice shorts out of fabric that could be washed out in the shower and would be dry by the next day so my laundry loads would be lighter.  When my luggage, and consequently 10 pairs of boxers, was stolen in Honduras, my Mother lovingly sewed me six new pair, and express mailed them, because she knew I was a broke seminary student.  So, verse 21 is one in which I see motherly love, not because God’s act is inherently male or female, but because I see my Mother doing just such a thing.

Genesis 3, verse 21: And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them.

Even as God has pronounced strong judgment on Adam and Eve, and even as God is casting them out of the garden, God takes the time to make clothes for this man and woman, because those fig leaves just wouldn’t do for God’s beloved children.  In my book, that loving moment of provision is the prequel to all the at-one-ment to come.