Sunday, February 24, 2013

Making sense of the atonement: Getting out of the hole

Today's sermon is based on the lectionary readings: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18Psalm 2Philippians 3:17-4:1 and Luke 13:31-35 . Here is the sermon:

Benvento di Giovanni, 1491, depicting
Jesus opening the gates of Hell
and crusing the devil under foot
National Gallery of Art
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I want to tell you a story, a parable, really.*

I like to tell this story now and then, and so some of you may have heard it. Please bear with me as I tell it again:

Once there was a man, and he was walking down a street. He fell into a hole, and he could not get out. It was deep and dark in the hole, and he waited and waited for help.

Eventually, he looked up and he saw a cop. “Officer, officer, help me get out the hole!”

The cop said, sorry, I am on my way to an emergency,” and he wrote something on a piece of paper and threw it in the hole

“Call 911, they’ll get you out of the hole.

But the guy in the hole had no phone.

A few minutes later, he looked up and saw a priest: “Pastor, pastor, please, help me get out of the hole!”

But the priest said, “Sorry, I have a pastoral emergency at the hospital.”

So the priest wrote something on a piece of paper and threw it in the hole.

“Here’s a prayer; you can pray to get out of the hole.”

But the man couldn’t read what was on the paper, and he was now really down.

Then he looked up and saw someone else standing at the top. The man was a friend he’d known for a long time.

“Hey, friend, help me get out the hole.”

The friend looked down, and thought for a moment. And then the friend jumped into the hole.

The first man was stunned. “Great, now we’re both stuck in the hole.”

“Yes,” the friend replied, “but I’ve been in the hole before and I know the way out.”

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In the gospel lesson today, Jesus begins his final journey to Jerusalem, the city where the only rule is the rule of violence and power, the city that kills the prophets, that kills dreams of mercy and justice. Jesus knows full well that he will be killed.

Why did Jesus go?

Today we approach a difficult, unpopular topic: the concept of the “atonement” – the idea that somehow Jesus dying on the Cross saves us from our sin.

Candidly, most explanations of atonement I’ve ever heard get lost in a deep hole. What is supposed to be a theology of hope gets smothered in the morbid concept of Jesus dying to pay ransom to a bloodthirsty God.

This idea of sacrificial atonement by Jesus comes primarily from one letter in the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews, whose author is unknown (and most certainly is not the apostle Paul).

The letter writer makes the argument that Jesus is the final substitute for all the animals that are sacrificed in the Jerusalem Temple. You get a hint of this today in Genesis with the description of cutting animals in two as a way to thank God in worship.

The argument goes that the animal sacrifices can now stop because Jesus has done the job of appeasing God. That may have made sense to people accustomed to killing animals as part of their worship, but I don’t think it makes much sense to us.

So is there another way of looking at this, another way of making sense of why Jesus goes to go to Jerusalem and the Cross?

The Apostle Paul comes to an answer that might surprise you if you cut away all of the religiosity and institutional varnish of the centuries.

For Paul, the Cross is about Jesus being divine enough to suffer the pain and humiliation of being human. It is about Jesus jumping in the hole and showing us the way out.

Jesus goes to the Cross to show the rule of power and violence won’t ultimately win. He goes to the very depths of Hell to free people from death, and show the way out to healing and new life – to Easter.

No one is beyond hope, no night is too dark, no hole too deep, for the light of Christ.

Heaven intends to include everyone.

But there is a challenge in this for each of us. We proclaim that we are the body of Christ, and that the Risen Christ dwells in us.

That ultimately means we, too, are called to go into the forgotten holes of this earth, and be as Christ to each other.

We, too, are the face of Christ to people who are poor, wounded and feeling abandoned.

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

I’ve seen this happen only a few feet away from this pulpit, and not so very long ago.

A couple of years ago, we were hosting PACEM, an organization whereby churches take turns giving shelter to homeless people during the winter months.

That particular year, our church hosted a group of homeless women for two weeks, beginning on Christmas night. I volunteered to be the overnight host on Christmas night.

One of the jobs of being the overnight host, besides sleeping on an air mattress, is to get up early to make coffee.

I’m an early riser, so being up at 5:30 am was no big deal, but I must admit feeling a little sorry for myself that I hadn’t been home in my own bed on Christmas.

Just then one of our guests came in. I gave her a cup of coffee, and she wanted to talk.

She told me she had been paroled from prison only a few days earlier, and she hadn’t seen her grown son in many years. He was in the military, and he had called her on Christmas night.

She said the call from her son was the greatest Christmas present she had ever received, and she had hardly slept all night she was so thrilled.

Then she told me how she had fallen into a deep dark hole in her life.

She told me how perfect strangers, including some people right here in this church, had become the face of Christ to her in a few short hours.

And then I knew something else: She had become the face of Christ to me by sharing her story. We both got a glimpse of heaven that Christmas night, and how God intends Heaven begin here on earth with each of us.

Jesus does not promise us a comfortable bed or an easy way of life. We do not belong to a sanctified social club. The church cannot be just for insiders.

There are times when we are called to jump in the hole and be as Christ to one another, and times when someone will jump in the hole and be as Christ to us.

Jesus challenges us to take up our Cross daily, and take the hard path in our homes and in our classrooms, in our work and in the world. That is what it means to be his follower.

But know this too:

Jesus points us toward the dawn. He opens the gates of hell, and frees all who are in it. The grave is empty when Jesus leaves. And we are with him when he goes. AMEN

* I first heard the parable of the man falling in a hole on an episode of The West Wing, “Noel.” December 20, 2000.
By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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