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.