September 05, 2023
• Rev. Mindie Moore
Stumped Week 3: Did Jesus Have to Die?
One of my most vivid memories as a child in church was a Good Friday service when I was probably 6 or 7 years old. And real talk, I thought this service was overall really boring and I was kind of scared of my pastor because he always wore this big black robe and frowned a lot. But THIS Good Friday was different. Because in this service, there was special music.
And I just want to paint this picture for you- it was the 90s, and church special music in a tiny little conservative Lutheran church was about as extra and not great as you might be imagining that it was. It was this man in our church and he had a GUITAR, which was VERY edgy for that worshiping community, and he sang this song about “Watch the Lamb” which was basically all about watch Jesus die. And me, at 6 or 7 years old...I am sobbing. I’m talking full on weeping at this song. It may have been a missed opportunity for some children’s church in another location. So on the way home, I asked my dad, “why did this song make me so sad?”
And I remember him saying something to the effect that I was sad because it was my guilt. Jesus died for me and I was experiencing the weight of his death.
So that was my first conscious experience of talking about atonement. And I don’t know what yours was, I don’t know if this is a subject you think about a lot. But today we’re looking at the question, (SLIDE) “Did Jesus Have to Die?”
And this is a really important question for us to wrestle with and explore. Because I would say, even if you don’t have many conversations like the one I just told about or if you don’t give much of your brain space to this topic, you probably actually encounter atonement theories way more you than you think. I mean, have you ever heard any of these phrases: (SLIDE)
Jesus paid the price
Jesus saved us
Nothing but the blood.
Jesus took our punishment
Jesus died for our sins.
I think a lot of us are encountering this question and consuming information without even realizing it. It’s in prayers we pray, songs we sing, it’s all over the place. I would even say that most of us are carrying around beliefs ABOUT this topic that are shaping our faith in ways we don’t even understand. And so we’ve got to unpack this one together. Because what you think about this question- what you think about IF Jesus had to die, WHY Jesus had to die, WHAT his death did or didn’t do? (SLIDE) What you believe about those things...has an incredibly significant impact on the way you view and relate to God and your faith experience as a whole.
What you believe about those things impacts how you think God interacts with people. What you believe about those things impacts how you think God relates to you. What you believe
about those things influences if you think God is kind and loving...or if you think God is scary and mad.
And there are a lot of people, maybe you’re one of them, that fall into that second category. In fact, when I was writing my ordination papers last year, I had to talk about one of the biggest issues in the church and this was one of them. The sheer amount of people I encounter who really and truly believe that God is mad at them. The amount of shame and fear that religion has caused people because of this belief. It’s absolutely tragic to me. And it’s not an idea that just creates itself out of thin air. So much of the root of how we view God comes from what we think about why Jesus died.
So we’re gonna think about it together today. And we’re going to unpack this in a few different ways- we're going to do an absolute crash course in atonement theories and then we’re going to look at what Jesus’ death might practically mean for us and our faith. And when I say crash course on atonement, I know you all did not think you signed up for that today. It is Labor Day Weekend. What are we even doing?!
But I NEED to give you a glimpse of these theories because we need the language. I want to empower you to interrogate what you’ve been told to believe and ask questions so you can really know what you think and why.
So there’s a little handout in your bulletin, it is super simple for note taking or looking things up later and I want to encourage you to keep learning about this after this sermon is over.
And we’re gonna start with a fun one. It’s called (SLIDE) Christus Victor theory, but we could call it super hero atonement.
And it is a very ancient atonement theory that kind of got a rebrand in modern times. And it comes out of this idea of Jesus acting as a ransom- that God had to pay some kind of price to Satan to free humanity from evil. And out of that, it kind of evolved into this idea that Jesus not only functions as a ransom, but kind of a twist- Jesus shuts that whole thing down. Jesus is victorious, Satan is put in his place, evil has no more power in this world because of what Jesus did.
So that sounds very exciting, it could make a great movie, and you might notice that this theory doesn’t really have any kind of angry God motif or any of that. I mean, we'll get there, don’t worry. But it’s not in this one. And heads up, all of these theories have some kind of issue to them. And the issue with Christus Victor is that a lot of people really object to the idea that God and evil are on a level playing field. So that’s Christus Victor.
Now, the next theory, is slightly less epic, but is still important. This one is called (SLIDE) Satisfaction theory. This one was developed by a guy named Anselm and essentially says that Christ’s death satisfies the debt that a sinful humanity owes God.
Super different take than Christus Victor and super reflective of the time that Anselm lived in. He was living in the medieval
feudal system- which I’m sure was just a blast, and if you don’t remember back to world history what that was like, basically, people were in debt all the time. So that idea of having to pay something back, the idea of having to preserve the Lord’s honor through that payment, that made a ton of sense to people. It might sound weird to us now, but this would have been an everyday framework for the people Anselm was talking to back then.
But with this theory, we do enter mean, scary, distant God. And a big criticism of this theory is the fact that it seems to really downplay God’s ability to show mercy and love.
And so our third theory is a pretty direct challenge to this one- it's by a man named Abelard and it’s called (SLIDE) Moral Influence theory. And in this one, Abelard is like- look. Anselm’s out here trying to paint this image of this disappointed and offended God that we have to have Jesus win back and satisfy, but that’s not right. He says that what happened with Jesus on the cross, that happened to show God’s extravagant love for us...and that demonstration of love was so powerful, that it completely changes the way we relate to God.
Now, I’ll be honest, I think that there are pieces of this theory that are fantastic because it really takes the whole angry God motif and gets rid of it. The issue with this theory is that he doesn’t really answer WHY the cross? It doesn’t really lean into the fact that the cross alone can be pretty hard to come to terms with.
So those are three of the older, maybe more traditional atonement theories. But I've got two more to tell you about. And one is much more contemporary theory comes from Rene Girard, who was an anthropologist and a professor at Stanford. He developed a theory called (SLIDE) Scapegoat theory. And it’s super different. This one says- you're focused on the completely wong thing. It says Jesus’ death is not at all about God being angry or that God needs something from Jesus to connect with us. This says, actually this is about people. And people have been doing this thing called scapegoating since the beginning of time where we take our our need for violence on people who do not deserve it. And Girard argues that God puts an end to that through Jesus. That Jesus’ death interrupts our cycles of violence and fundamentally changes the way we relate to God and to each other. Because of what Jesus does, we are free to choose to live differently, free from death and violence in a way that looks more like God intends.
It’s a little polarizing. Some people LOVE this because it really tries to resolve angry God and some people really do not appreciate that it turns the mirror back on people.
So my friends, there are four atonement theories for you today (SLIDE: The More You Know)
And I’ve saved one. Maybe you know where we’re going an what we’re about to talk about. But I saved one because before we talk about, I want you to understand just how diverse this conversation has been throughout history. I want you to
understand that there are so many questions to be asked and scripture to be wrestled with. I want you to understand that because here’s what I know. I know that for many of you, not all, but for many, you’ve been told that there is ONE way to answer this week’s question. And whether or not you know what that one way is called, you’ve been steeping in this theology for a long time. So I want unpack this one last theory with you, and this one is called (SLIDE) Penal Substitutionary Atonement.
Now this one came onto the scene during the time of the Protestant Reformation, people like Luther and Calvin were really here for this one. And just like so many of these others, it makes perfect sense for that time and it tracks with the framework of the criminal law and justice system. Someone commits a crime, there has to be a punishment, that punishment makes amends for the thing that was done wrong. And in this theory, God is the punisher, we are the ones who need punished because we’re sinful, but thankfully, for us, Jesus gets in between us and God to take the punishment on himself.
I quoted Rob Bell last week, but I’m going to bring him back again today, because in his book “Love Wins” he says that this basically makes the argument that Jesus comes to save us from God. Jesus saves us...from God.
Do you see the domino effect of this belief? I told you we’d come back to that wrath of God language, and friends, we have
arrived. This is where you get the idea that God is really angry and if it wasn’t for Jesus stepping in we’d all be in a lot of trouble.
This is where you get a lot of people who either feel an incredible amount of guilt and shame when it comes to how they think God relates to them...or...the idea that God could be like THAT, it’s so troubling that they just give up on the whole thing.
And the thing I want MOST, even more than you knowing your atonement theories, the thing I want most...is I don’t want us to give up on the whole thing. This is a really hard question and a really complicated conversation. But let’s not give up because it’s hard. Let’s not give up because it’s mysterious. In fact, I want bring us back to the Scripture we read today to just affirm how challenging this is to try and figure out.
I’m not going to read the whole thing again, but look at the highlighted words: (SLIDE)
6 While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. 7 It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. 8 But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us. 9 So, now that we have been made righteous by his blood, we can be even more certain that we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled,
how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? 11 And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God.
You know we read this and it’s like- ok...Is it God’s love? Is it the blood? Or maybe it’s restoring honor to God? Did he have to put the wrath in the mix?!
Do you SEE glimpses of all these different theories that we just talked about in just these few verses? It’s 5 verses- now put the whole New Testament in the mix along with theological study and cultural context and this topic gets WILD! It’s all over the place what people are trying to work out about why Jesus died.
And I just wonder, as I think about this big question and how hard it is to make sense of Jesus’ death on a cross, I just wonder if (SLIDE):
Maybe we are stumped because our framework can’t contain God’s work.
Our framework REALLY wants us to end up with a concrete, easy to package answer to this question. We want to know. Tell me why. It’s the reason that I think so many people have latched on to Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory. Because that framework of law and consequence still makes sense for us. And so we’re just trying to put this thing that had never happened and has have never happened since...we’re just trying to work out what in the world it meant and why.
But maybe the thing that God is inviting us to work out goes a little farther than just the framework of this question and how we might answer it. Maybe the thing that God is inviting us to consider is that whether or not it HAD to happen...it did...and we get to decide what impact that’s going to have on our lives and our faith.
And while there are a lot of things I don’t know, there are a couple of things that this event makes me feel really sure about.
I know is that because of Jesus, because of what Jesus went through, I know that (SLIDE) shame has no place in our story. Shame is the thing that gets in the way so often of our relationship with God and with each other and Jesus’ experience with the cross really should obliterate that. You want to talk about someone who experienced shame? You better talk about Jesus and his crucifixion. And if Jesus experienced THAT- then I have to be confident that there is absolutely NOTHING we carry that could be too shameful, too separating, to bring to our God.
And I know that our God loves us in a way that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. This love functions in a way that doesn’t look very much like any other love that we experience. Because in so many areas of our lives, we find ourselves really striving to earn and maintain love. We worry about it, we withhold it- love in our world is a really fragile thing.
But then you’ve got the way that God loves us. And you know, when I think about God’s love, I think about Frozen 2. (SLIDE) If you’ve seen Frozen 2, Anna and Kristof, they spend the whole movie pretty much apart. And she’s so worried that he doesn’t love her, that she hasn’t done enough, and that when they finally reunite, that’s going to be it. But then, at the end of the movie, she says to him, “I thought you left me,” and he replies, “My love is not fragile.”
AND THIS IS A DISNEY MOVIE!
I’m telling you, if God could talk to us while we’re wrestling with these big questions, while we’re trying to figure out atonement and forgiveness and all of this- I think God would look at us and say, (SLIDE) “My love is not fragile.” You might not understand it, and understanding is not a condition to receiving it. But this love is fierce and it is strong and it can’t fall to pieces and it can’t go away.
You know, I think Paul was trying to work out how to experience God’s love for himself and I just wonder if that’s why atonement comes up so much in his writing. Because you might know that Paul had a past. He had done a lot of things that were terrible. He had blood on his hands. He needed forgiveness. He needed to know that a new life in Christ was actually possible for someone like him. He needed to believe that despite all the things that should have been in the way, he needed to believe there was nothing standing between him and the love of God.
Our stories might be different than Paul’s, but I think we need to know that too. I think some of us need to heal from some of the things we’ve been told about ourselves and our world and why Jesus died. I don’t have a perfect, three sentence wrap up answer for you. I just don’t. But in all of the parts of this question that are confusing or even offensive about the death of Jesus, in all of it, I think that’s my biggest takeaway.
God’s love for us is fierce and persistent and without any kind of limit or barrier. And Jesus was this incredible, living, dying, resurrecting example of this love. And you and I? We get to embody this same love as we live out our faith.
As we transition into communion, that’s where I want to leave us today. What does it look like to embody this unexplainable love? Because we’re all called to do that. We’re all called to live in solidarity with the hurting, to care about the vulnerable, to live in ways that are bigger than just us.
Paul says that Christ is alive in each of us. And we celebrate that around this table today. We remember, that Jesus didn’t just die, but Jesus lived. HE lived wholeheartedly in community with his disciples. And when they shared this meal, Jesus said...(Transition into Communion liturgy).