Tag: Atonement

“Jesus is the answer!” So proclaims numerous road signs, Facebook posts, and bumper stickers. For those posting such things, it is an expression of their faith, of their confidence in Jesus. It a touchstone of peace and happiness for them and perhaps also for many who see it–but not for everyone. To a great many others, this statement provokes rather a sense of bewilderment, and begs a follow up question: “If Jesus is the answer, then what is the question?”

This thought brings to my lips a smile as I recall the analogous situation in Douglas Adams’ humorous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a planet-sized super computer named “Deep Thought” was constructed and directed to come up with “the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything”. The program ran for millions of years, and finally returned an answer: “42”. Unfortunately neither the Deep Thought nor his designers knew what the ultimate question happened to be. The pan-dimensional beings seeking this answer were then forced to construct another planet-sized super computer to figure out the ultimate question.

Ash Wednesday is a Christian celebration that reminds us of the question for which Jesus is the answer. Or, more accurately, we are reminded of the problem for which Jesus is the solution; That is, the problem of death:

“Remember, o man, dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return.”

Thus intones the priest in many a ceremony as ashes are imposed upon the foreheads of penitent Christians, these words echoing God’s curse in Genesis 3, pronounced upon humankind as punishment for sin.

Death is literally the bane of our existence. It destroys all that we hold dear. Try as we might to banish it from our thoughts, death catches us all. We recoil from it as we simultaneously yearn for permanence and significance. The idea of the extinction of our consciousness into an eternal nothing is difficult for us to fully grasp, for “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

Death is universal. We all die, because of our sin. Death is universal because sin is universal.

Fortunately, Ash Wednesday is merely the prelude to Easter. Whereas Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, in essence saying, “Ye are dead”, Easter tells us: “Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

The good news of Christianity is that God has set eternity in our hearts for a reason. It isn’t a dreadful taunt, or a meaningless musing. Jesus, the Christ, has died our death, in order that we might live his life. “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

As the old Easter canticle proclaims:
“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.”
(This comes from 1 Corinthians 15)

Jesus’ resurrection from death foretells our own liberation from it, and not only in the future, in an eternity after physical death. We may be liberated from its shadow, and its dread, and its power over us even in this life.

In the light of this good news, St Paul exults in his first letter to the Corinthians: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

As John Donne, the 16th century poet we recently profiled, elaborated so eloquently:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

(Sonnet X)

Valentine’s Day brings the annual punctuation of Winter’s cold by the arrows of Cupid. We are put in mind of romance and love, as we wander the rows of pink and red cards, and navigate the bewildering assortments of chocolate and flowers. We may find ourselves reading delightful poems by Donne or Byron, or perhaps thinking of tragic love stories from ages past.

Since we are observing the holiday this year on a Sunday, this is a good time to recall the deepest and oldest, and perhaps most tragic love story of all time. This story eats Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” for breakfast. It is more intriguing than the pathos conjured by Tolkien’s “Lay of Beren and Luthien”. The story in view here, of course, is the tragic tale of God’s deep love for humanity, for his created beings whom he made in his image, and endowed with the gift of life. He has loved us despite our rebellion and waywardness. God has endeavored to woo us back. The shocking finale is that God wrote himself into our story, taking our humanity and all its joys and sorrows upon himself.

As in the words of an old Lutheran hymn (Adapted from Thomas A Kempis)

“Oh, love, how deep, how broad, how high,
Beyond all thought and fantasy,
That God, the son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortal’s sake!”

Sadly, that love often has gone unrequited. In the end, a soul that says, “leave me alone” gets its wish. In the title above, I invoked the idea of Hell, which I won’t try to fully define here. An important aspect of the definition is that the ultimate curse is the precise opposite of the ultimate blessing, as expressed in the famous “Aaronic benediction”. Instead of God’s presence, there is absence. Instead the light of God’s countenance shining upon his beloved, there is only darkness and loneliness.

Some might ask us how we square the idea of a loving God with a concept like Hell. I was recently listening to an old message by Tim Keller, of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and was struck by a statement, that we will never really understand the depth of God’s love for us without believing in Hell. What did it cost God to love us? Was it nothing? What did Jesus actually endure on our behalf?

It turns out that what really makes Jesus the “man of sorrows” arises from much more than the mere physical tortures inflicted upon him. It wasn’t just the weight of the cross that bore him down. Christian theology teaches that Jesus had to endure abandonment and forsakenness, the sudden disintegration of his relationship with the Heavenly Father. In other words, Hell.

I recall wasting a couple hours in 1997 watching “Event Horizon,” a science fiction horror film that is almost exactly like “2010” crossed with “Friday the 13th”. It begins creepily enough with a ghost spaceship returned after disappearing into a black hole, and a team of astronauts and scientists travel to investigate. From this promising start, the movie degenerates quickly into a fairly brainless gore fest. The spacecraft is orbiting what turns out to be a portal to Hell, and one of the characters gets possessed by a demonic entity. But there is an interesting point: At the end of the movie, one of the remaining crew members willingly enters the portal to Hell, in order to save the others.

That’s exactly what Jesus did. He took on Hell so that we might escape it. That’s a love that is astounding and unfathomable. However, if we try our best to understand it and embrace it–to take it into our hearts–it will be life transforming.

So, reflect on that, and happy Valentine’s Day.

In the aftermath of the tragic shooting in South Carolina, a shockingly racist hate crime, this bit piqued my interest:

What too many whites seem to demand from these families’ statements, however, isn’t really grace. As the journalist Jamelle Bouie pointed out, people like Santorum insist on what the German theologian and anti-Nazi freedom fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” — the “preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance” from those who have sinned. The forgiveness they want is so cheap that I can only call it “Wal-Mart grace”: low-priced but shoddy, destructive of real community and built on exploitation.

Source: LA Times editorial online at: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0625-baptist-charleston-forgiveness-20150625-story.html

The author goes on to suggest a theological error–that whites need to atone for their years of racism.  As if they could do so.  In fact, the heart of the gospel is this:  We cannot atone for our own sins.  Only Jesus can pay that price.

However, while we can’t atone for the past, we can choose a better future.  We go forward trying to live differently, and making what amends we can out of love and gratitude.  The word that the author should have chosen here is the word “repentance”.  This is the word that Bonhoeffer chose. For even as Jesus says “I forgive you”, he also says, “go, and sin no more.”  To do otherwise is indeed to cheapen that precious gift of grace.