September 05, 2023
• Rev. Dr. Jevon Caldwell-Gross
Ok let me say this, there are some weird things about the Christian faith. It’s not weird to us, but think about if you were new to the faith and heard people talk about eating Christ body and drinking his blood. What if you heard songs talking about being washed in the blood, cleansed by the blood of Jesus, power in the blood, saved by the blood, bought with the blood, or there is a fountain filled with blood.. This imagery reminds of home church on the corner of Dexter Avenue in Detroit MI, where we sang songs like “Nothing but the blood.” Right from the start, the song asked the question everyone wanted to know, What can wash away my sins, NOTHING BUT THE BLOOD OF Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. No we didn’t stop there. We sang songs like, Jesus Paid it all, the Old rugged cross, When I survey the Wonderous Cross, I know it was the blood, or Oh, The Blood of Jesus. And all it took was the first few chords of Kirk Franklin’s song now Behold the lamb that would make people stand to their feet.
Let’s be honest, every faith community has a certain relationship with the cross. But the imagery itself is quite gory. It’s violent. What kind of God would send his son to die? It lends one to ask the question, Did Christ have to die? The question invites us to dig deeper into our own beliefs about atonement. (Slide) When we atone for something our goal is to make amends or reconcile. Atonement asks the question, What needs to happen in order for humanity to be at one with God. (slide)
When was the last time, you took a moment to think about your own theory of atonement? Most people don’t, but how we interpret Christ’s activity on the cross builds the foundations we have on forgiveness, love, and even how we view our legal system. For instance, is sin a breaking of a rule or is it the damaging of a relationship. Do people need to be punished or help healing because they have damaged a relationship? There are these small nuisances that impact how we view ourselves and how we view the world. Because at the heart of it, again, is us trying to figure out what needs to happen so that humanity can be at one with God. Did Jesus have to die for this to happen?
This is is just my opinion but so many people are searching for something that save them. We can’t articulate what we need saving from or what it will do, we just know we are searching for something….
That’s why over the years, there have been several theories that have been developed to try to explain the mystery behind the cross. Christians have used different
metaphors and given different explanations of atonement to express how atonement
Let’s take a minute to go over a few of the theories and places.
Penal substitution. (Slide) This imagery of atonement is founded on the idea that our
actions have consequences and they deserve punishment. (I’m sure you ran into into
this before). The guilty must be punished. Somebody has to die the time. The system
of Justice has to be appeased. So what does Jesus do? Jesus willingly takes our place
and acts as a substitute to take the punishment that we rightfully deserved. Think of
the Lion, the witch and the wardrobe (slide) when the White Witch named Edmund
a traitor and his actions punishable by death. However, King King Aslan who is not
guilty of the crime or infraction but willingly steps in to take his punishment. Penal
Moral Influence or Moral example: (slide) This theory rests on the idea that we have
tarnished or corrupted the image of God that was originally created within us. It has
rendered us unable to to fully reflect the love of God before others and caused harm
to each other and the world. But…The work of atonement is not just what happens
on the cross, but encompasses the entirety of Jesus’ life; his teachings, his actions, his
suffering, his death, his resurrection. This theory is a bit different because it
reminds us that the goal of following Jesus is not based just on eternal salvation but
how we live today, how we love, how we act, and how we serve. Jesus sets the
example of how we should live.
Ransom Imagery: (slide) When you think of the word ransom, what comes to
mind? Ransom notes..You think of an attempt to get some kind of reward for
releasing something or someone being held captive. The idea here is that sin holds us
captive. We are imprisoned by our decisions. Who hasn’t at times felt like there was
something or someone in your life you just could shake. You tried, but couldn’t beat
it. You prayed about it, but it’s kept a hold on you. You felt like Paul when he said,
“when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God's law with
all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This
power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. ” This sin has such a hold on
us that we can’t live into the freedom offered to us by God. So Jesus saves us or sets us
free from what imprisons us by giving his life as a ransom. We don’t have the moral
account to pay it off. Christs death guarantees our release so that the chains that bind
us, no longer has any power.
Satisfaction Theory: (slide) This idea is built around the thinking that Christs death
functioned as a gift to God on behalf of humanity to restore the order of Justice that
was subverted by sin. Sin corrupts Gods reputation. Gods offended honor and dignity
could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Christus Victor: This theory highlights humanities inability to save itself. We are left
in a perpetual state of being and feeling defeated. Defeat by sin. Defeated by
death. It’s like the Greek fable where the man is punished for all of eternity by trying
to push an enormous boulder up a hill and everytime he gets really close, the weight
pushes him back down and he has to start all over again. It’s a perpetual state of
feeling like you can never win. However, we can be victorious in Jesus. It’s built on
the belief that because Christ was victorious or sin and death, then so can we.
Liberation Theology. Context determines how we view interpret Christs acts of
atonement. For many communities, [the suffering] of Jesus becomes a point of
connection. Because if we are being true to the narrative, Christ didn’t just die, no
Christ was murdered by people in power. His teachings of liberation threatened Rome
and the religious leaders of his day. He stood with the oppressed and even died
between them. The cross then becomes a symbol of empowerment for many
communities as a reminder of the liberation that Christ offers not just after we die,
but in the here and now. Jesus doesn’t just free us from the spiritual effects of sin, but
also from economic, political, and cultural captivity. The cross becomes a reminder
that God cares and stands with the oppressed.
Remember when George Floyd was murdered there was a prominent preacher that
labeled him as the modern day Sampson. He got so much backlash because people
were responding in their grief and the reality that black and brown people shouldn’t
have to die for the redemption of America. Because that work was already
done. There are times when our approach to atonement lends us to glorify violence
as necessary means to and end. The innocent is sometimes used as pawns for our own
redemption. Or we become the people that make determinations on who deserves to
die and under what conditions.
You can see in Paul’s letter to the church in Romans how difficult it is to rest just on
one theory. Listen to some of the key phrases Paul uses. “Christ died for ungodly
people, we have been made righteous his blood, we will be saved from Gods wrath
through him, saved by his life, now we have a restored relationship.” You can look
through it the Bible and find evidence on just about each theory of atonement. Each
of these theories are in complete on their own but together they add to a
comprehensive understanding of Christs work on the cross.
So did Christ have to die? Is there an imaginary justice system that demanded
retribution? Was their a debt of sin that needed to be paid. Who knows?! That is the
mystery of faith. That is the mystery of the cross. Even if Jesus didn’t have to, he did!
He died on the cross! And because he did, Paul’s words give us few things we can
hold on to today regarding Jesus’ work of atonement.
You are loved without conditions.(slide)
Jesus could have come to show us many things. Jesus could have come to show us
how powerful God is. If the story stopped just at the miracles of Jesus we would get a
different picture. Our worship and adoration would come from a different
place. Jesus’ presence could have been a reminder of how God reigns, heals, delivers,
cures, provides, or exercises demons. But that’s not what Paul alludes to. The
presence and acts of Jesus Christ came to give humanity a glimpse of God love. And
just in case we start listening to the inner dialogue that lists all of the reasons why we
aren’t loveable,.. because that’s what the inner voice does.. brings up things in our
past. Does the roll call of our mistakes. Reminds of the worst days we’ve ever
had. Reminds us of the worst decisions we’ve ever made. Paul reminds us that God’s
act of love on the cross was not in response to our perfection, but while we sinners.
While we stuck. While we were sick. While we were trying ti figure things out… I
said this before and I’ll say it again. There is nothing you can do stop God from loving
you. Nothing! This is one relationship you can’t mess up! God has already made a
decision that we are worthy of deep unconditional love.
Living with gratitude and without regret and guilt (slide).
Im these verses, Paul doesn’t just focus on Gods judgement or Gods wrath. But the
overwhelming tone is Gods loving act. And this doesn’t give us a license to live with
consequences but encourages us to respond with a sense of gratitude for the work that
God had done.
I took my kids to summer camp this past summer and there was one camp that I
vowed they were never going back. I admit I didn’t read the fine print, but it was a
Christian camp and they did Bible study to start the day. Well one of kids came home
and was asking be about anti christ, the lake of fire, the day of judgment, and the
world soon ending. You can imagine how traumatic this was for a young child so I
called the camp to clarify some information. The director was really understanding
because admitted that he wasn’t teaching that day, but it was the HS students and the
kids had questions. But what dawned on me was three times during the conversation.
He made it a point to tell me that he was not afraid to talk about judgement. Three
times! I had to remind him that we don’t serve God out of fear. We don’t worship
God out of fear that we will be punished. Because if this is all I know, if this is my
focus, we end up living with regret and guilt for all of the ways that we fall short.
And so many people have difficult time receiving Gods love because the only things
they ever heard is wrath and judgment. Love outweighs the judgement. Grace. Love.
Mercy. But God has already answered the problem of shame and guilt. In fact, the
work of atonement is a reminder that we or someone else you know is never too far
gone to be redeemed.
Living sacrificially without holding back. (Slide)
We may not know why, but he did. He laid it all out. He laid his life on the
altar. Sacrificial loves becomes the hallmark of Christs life and ministry. How do we
respond to the fact that Christ died?
One of seminary professors put it like this….In fact, he changed the way I look at
communion. Totally changed it. He helped us give language to idea that Jesus Christ
was Gods love made real. (It’s what we believe). Jesus was God love becoming real.
But the story doesn’t stop there because Jesus gives us the challenge of being the body
of Christ in the world. So what does it look like for the church for us to be the living
embodiment of Christ love. He challenged our know it all minds and said church is
less about when we gather as opposed to what we do when we gather. If we are
literally the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, then our lives are to be a mirrored
reflection of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Only then can it be
incarnational. It’s only when the church is willingly to live sacrificially and lay down
its life on the altars of its own preferences can it be the body of Christ.
So maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about when he turned to his disciples and said
do THIS in remembersbce of me. Not just the eating of the meal, but as often as you
may down your lives for each, as often as you live sacrifically do this in
rememberance of me. Do this as you remember what I did for you.