Emerging Christian Story – Lenten Sermon #6 – March 28, 2012
Pastor Monte Stevens  –  North Riverdale Lutheran Church  –  Dayton, Ohio

“Let’s Talk About Jesus’ Death”

This is the last in our Lenten series exploring the Emerging Christian Story.  First, let me thank you for being present and listening with an open mind and heart.  I know how much time and effort I have put into writing these sermons – and you have put in time and effort digesting them.

Part of the struggle each week is how to share a vast amount of thought and biblical scholarship in the 20 or so minutes we have together.  The other part of the struggle has been how to do that in a way that is enticing, for you, the listener, so that you stay engaged.  I’m sure at points along the way I have failed in my best intentions and I thank you for being active listeners and open to learning some new language and concepts, even if in the end, you may not agree.

The Emerging Christian story is a new way to look at the “old old” story.  That means that the Emerging Christian story has stood in contrast to the Predominant Cultural Christian Story in some regards.  At points I have challenged that Predominant Cultural Christian Story and offered alternative ways of looking at biblical text and theological ideas.  Tonight I will do the same – looking at the Death of Jesus.

The Predominant Cultural Christian Story has a way of looking at the death of Jesus, which is most often captured in a phrase similar to this: “It was God’s plan to send Jesus to earth to die for our sins, in our place.  His blood was needed to atone for us and our sin.”

In this interpretation, Jesus is the substitute who satisfied God’s wrath by undergoing the punishment we all deserve.  This is an interpretation that is found in much of our devotional literature and is easily found in our hymns and parts of our liturgy.  This interpretation is meaningful to many Christians around the world, and if you find meaning in this interpretation of the death of Jesus, then I’m OK with that.

Personally, I have found it troublesome on various levels and it is not all that believable to me; nor does it feel spiritually alive to me.  And more than that, I don’t find it being very biblical, although some of its language like “sacrifice” and “for us” can be found in the Bible.

As we have talked over the last several weeks about our concept of God being too small and our concept of Jesus being too small, and the general framework of a Heaven and Hell theology being too small.  I find this interpretation of Jesus’ death also too small.

This interpretation of Jesus’ death is known by several names:  Substitutionary Atonement; Doctrine of the Blood Atonement, Substitutionary Sacrifice, and sometimes just Satisfaction.  We will come back to this interpretation in just a few moments because I want to share with you why it is troubling for me and many others.

But first let’s step back and look at the death of Jesus in a broader perspective.

One of the amazing and unique aspects of Christianity is that it is the only religion whose central figure is executed.  Other world religions like Judaism, Islam, Buddhism contain stories about the death of their founders, but those stories don’t form the basis of what it means to be Jewish, Muslim, or Buddhist.

The death of Jesus has, from the beginning, been central to its message.  Each Gospel gives an interpretation of Jesus’ death and what that death means.  Paul the earliest writer in the New Testament interprets Jesus death.  The heart of Paul’s preaching and message was, “Christ crucified.”

If you write a book on Jesus you have to answer these questions: What is the death of Jesus about?  Why did it happen? What did it mean?  What does it mean today?

What we often do is think that there is one interpretation of Jesus’ death.  We sort of combine all the gospel narratives together into one gospel as if they tell just one story.  This is called harmonizing the gospels.

There is a danger in doing this because each gospel writer tells the good news in their own way and interprets Jesus’ life and death in similar, yet different ways.  For the integrity of the authors, and the gospels they have presented, we need to read and treat the gospels separately and hear the voice and story of that author.

So I would say there are at least five interpretations of Jesus death in the New Testament:  that of Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.  We do not have time tonight to go into each gospel separately and each interpretation of Jesus’ death, but they are different.  When speaking of the death of Jesus, the gospel writers were interpreting a historical event and giving it meaning.

The death of Jesus was shocking to any and every Jew following Jesus.  For those following Jesus and understanding him to be the messiah, there was no concept then … of a messiah who would be crucified.  The most popular understanding of the messiah in 30 AD, was someone that God would appoint – that’s what messiah/Christ  means: God’s chosen one or God’s appointed one – someone to overthrow the Roman occupiers and place that messiah on the ancient throne of David.

Most saw the messiah as being a political messiah.  Some thought that there would be two messiahs, one political and one religious.  The messiah was to come into Jerusalem and take control and throw out the rulers of the empire and re-establish the throne of David.

There was not a concept of a messiah that would come to save the world from their sins or be a sacrifice for the sins of the people.  And it was beyond anyone’s imagination that a messiah would end up being crucified.  What kind of messiah gets crucified?

The first followers of Jesus saw him as the messiah but they had to answer a very difficult question: What did it mean for their messiah to die?

Before we go further let’s remind ourselves just what crucifixion was in the Roman world.  Crucifixions were not rare.  The Roman Empire used this form of execution often.  Crucifixion was not just capital punishment, but a very definite type of capital punishment reserved for a special type of victim like: runaway slaves, or rebel insurgents who subverted Roman law and order and thereby disturbed the “Peace of Rome” –  the Pax Romana.  Crucifixion was reserved for those that challenged Roman authority and tried, in their opinion, to stir up trouble against Rome.

If you were going to lead a revolt against Rome – if you got caught – you would be crucified.  And crucifixion was very public because it was meant to be a public warning, a deterrent.  The warning was: if you challenge Rome, this is what will happen to you.  We will nail you to a cross and let the birds and wild dogs pick at you.

In Mark’s gospel Pilate (Rome’s representative) had an inscription put above Jesus.  The inscription reads, “The King of the Jews.”  From Mark’s point of view, the inscription is ironic.  Pilate intended it as derision and most likely saw it as mocking, not only Jesus, but his followers, as if to say, “This person, whom Rome has the power to execute, is your king?  Some king!”

In Mark’s gospel he says that Jesus was crucified between two “bandits.”  The Greek word translated “bandits” is commonly used for guerilla fighters against Rome.  Their presence in Mark’s story reminds us that crucifixion was used specifically for people who systematically refused to accept Roman imperial authority.  Ordinary criminals might be executed, but were not crucified.  Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome between two other rebels against Rome.

So how was Jesus a political rebel against Rome?  Were those charges true?

In Mark’s gospel –  and for our purposes tonight –  I am trying to just stay within Mark’s gospel and use his interpretation of Jesus’ death.  In Mark’s gospel what were the first words, the first announcement from Jesus?  I mentioned this last week in the “Good News” sermon.  “The good news was about God’s Kingdom that was at hand.”  Jesus said in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

To the Roman ear “kingdom” is political language, and as we learned last week, in this kingdom, the good news is for everyone, but especially for the poor and the powerless, the least, the last, and the lost and that they are all just as important as the powerful, the elite, and the rulers of Rome.

No one set up a kingdom when Rome was in charge.  Kingdom language was subversive language.

As long as Jesus was out in the small villages of Galilee and the surrounding small towns where there was little Roman presence he could probably get away with kingdom language.  But where was Jesus crucified? … In Jerusalem –  during Passover – when extra legions of Roman Soldiers were brought in to keep the peace and put down any revolutionaries.

Did Jesus come to Jerusalem quietly according to Mark’s Gospel?  No, Jesus entered the city with a parade and he was atop the float –  actually a donkey.  If you come this Sunday we will talk more about what this parade really was.  It was more like a protest demonstration.  What we call Palm Sunday was Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and he was already stirring up the crowd.

Then on Monday he goes to the Temple and clashes with the religious authorities as he upsets the tables around the Temple.  The religious authorities have been looking for a way to get rid of Jesus for some time and now they work with the Romans.

Do you remember the character, in Mark’s gospel, at the end of the crucifixion?

After Jesus has died on the cross the Roman centurion exclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son (Mark 15:30).  He is the first human in Mark’s gospel to call Jesus God’s Son.  He was not saying God’s Son as in the second person of the Trinity.  There was no concept of the Trinity then, especially for a Roman.

God’s Son was Roman imperial language.  In the Roman world, who was called God’s Son?  The emperor was “Son of God.”  It was even on Roman coins.  According to their theology, the emperor was Lord, Savior, and the one who brought “peace on earth.”

But here in Mark’s gospel a Roman official affirms that this man, Jesus, executed by the empire, is the Son of God.  That was a radical affirmation.  It meant that he was saying, Jesus is the true ruler and the Roman emperor is not!  If the emperor would have heard that comment, the centurion would be next to be crucified.

Who is the true king?  In which kingdom will the centurion now live?  I suppose it depends on which empire which kingdom you think is the best kingdom to live your life in: the kingdom of Rome – which represents a system of domination where peace comes through violence –  and justice, with all having enough, is not a concern.  Where sacrificial love is not valued.

Or do you want to live in the Kingdom of God which Jesus preached about and lived his life according to its values?

“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  Remember what the definition of the Kingdom of God is.  The kingdom of God is what the world would look like if God were on the throne and the rulers of this world were not.

Jesus, a Galilean peasant, was brutally executed, killed, because of his politics, because of his passion for God’s justice, because of his teachings about what life could and should be like in God’s kingdom.  Not only didn’t Rome like his revolutionary ideas, the Jewish authorities in the Temple were also protecting their turf.

Jesus throughout his ministry teaches and preaches the kingdom of God and pays the ultimate price for it.

One scholar has said, “We are accustomed to hearing the death of Jesus and the events leading up to it described as his ‘passion,’ and we assume this refers only to suffering.  But it is more accurate to say that his passion had to do with the revelation of God that consumed him.

Just watch Jesus throughout the gospels.  Justice was his passion.  Bringing healing was his passion.  Gathering up the least, the last and the lost and helping them stand up straight in a world that kept them bent down was his passion.”

I believe that Jesus died for me and for you, but not in a Substitutionary way.

As I said earlier the concept of Substitutionary Atonement isn’t even in the gospel of Mark.  While there is language of sacrifice found in the New Testament, this language was not fully developed into doctrine until 1097, by a man named Anselm.

The way St. Anselm interpreted Jesus’ death was that God’s retributive justice requires that the penalty for our sins be paid from the human side.  But we are all sinners and thus cannot make the payment because we are not perfect.  Only a perfect person can make the payment.  A person can’t be perfect unless also divine.  So God became human in Jesus in order to pay the price for our sins.

Another New Testament Scholar describes the problem with substitutionary atonement in this way, “By implying that Jesus had to die because of our sins and that this was part of God’s plan to ‘save’ us takes away the historical reasons why the Romans executed Jesus.  Second, this does not ring true with the God Jesus revealed.  Jesus did not reveal a punitive God.”

What concept of God do we get from a Substitutionary Atonement doctrine?  In this concept God is a lawgiver whose laws have been violated, and God must enforce the law by punishing us unless an adequate sacrifice is made.  In this concept of God, God requires blood and only the blood of a perfect human will do.  So Jesus dies and we are saved by his blood, if only we believe.

Think about what Jesus taught.  Did you ever hear Jesus teach this way?  This is a later doctrine of the church and not original to Jesus.

For me, what is more powerful and speaks to me more persuasively than Substitutionary Atonement is what I would call Participatory Atonement.  Atonement is a word best understood broken up.  At-One-Ment.

How do we become one with God?

If we are born in the image of God –  to be a blessing – as I believe we are (and was the topic of my first sermon in this series), then we live our lives by the same passions as Jesus did.

We pray and live, “Not my will, but your will.”  We let God’s will become our will through the actions of our lives.

Jesus preached and taught, through word and action, what life could and should be like in the Kingdom of God.  When you study what Jesus actually taught and understand his vision for the life in God’s Kingdom, you discover it is a radical vision that turns the world upside down and transforms lives and transforms the world in which we live.

I believe that Jesus shared and revealed God’s vision for the world.  That vision was summed up in the phrase Kingdom of God, and that vision was so radical that he paid the ultimate price for it.

But – and here is the good news – that vision leads to life and life abundant.  It leads to a life of meaning and purpose.

That vision tells us who we are and what God desires us to be and do in the world.  The vision contains and reveals God’s passions for the world – God’s dream for the world.  We are part of it, and we get to participate in bringing that world into existence as we love as Jesus loved, and serve as Jesus served.

As we live and serve following Jesus, we discover that we are living in accordance with God’s will and find ourselves aligned with God, and in moments “at one” with God.

At-one-ment.  One with God, through our participating in God’s kingdom work.

For me that is Participatory Atonement.   Will this require sacrifice?  You bet.

Did Jesus live his life “for me” and suffer for me, to show me the path of the kingdom … the path that leads to life?  You bet.

If you are looking for a way to live your life – for a path to follow – that is full of promise, possibility and passion, then follow Jesus.

When Jesus extended the invitation to folks to “pick up your cross and follow me” he was inviting them (you) to participate in a life of discipleship, to live out God’s dream for the world, to share in God’s passions for the world.  Life in God’s Kingdom is different than the life and ways of the Roman Empire or any other kingdom for that matter.

We in the church have not shared God’s Dream for the world very well.  We have made God’s dream too small.  If Jesus’ dream would have been too small he would not have been crucified.

I believe people are willing and desire to give their lives to something great.

The good news is that there is something great to give one’s life toward: God’s Kingdom – a kingdom of love and justice and peace, and so much more!

The church will grow when we share that grander vision of how God desires life to be lived.  When we, like Jesus, manifest and make real that vision and participate in the Life and Kingdom Jesus died for.

Jesus’ death is a death that leads to life; a death that triggers life.  But that is Easter.  That is another sermon in the Emerging Christian Story.