Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Justice - in the convergence zone

So I'm sitting in the potential juror room holding tank, and my activities include preparing the Sunday sermon, e-mails, and a little bit of general study. But there's a theme running through the days of this week, whether reading "Out of Africa" on the bus heading downtown, or considering the meaning of Christ's victory on the cross, or simply pondering as I watch the 'jury member' orientation promo: JUSTICE!

If you study theology, you know that there are several different interpretations of what is commonly called the doctrine of the 'atonement'. Books are written on the subject, so my distillation might not be enough - but there's a general sense of debate in some circles as to whether it's 'just' of God to a) demand the payment of DEATH for any and all sin. Such a flattening out of sin as the effect of both diminishing large sins and magnifying small ones. Any parent who punished their children equally for, say, refusing to drink their milk, and intentionally setting the house on fire, would have their sanity questioned. So goes the argument. b) there's the other question of whether it's really just at all for 'someone else' to pay the price. Again, if a son has committed an offense - say he's broken two windows in the house during a brawl - nobody would argue that something's gained by his sister suffering the penalty of punishment.

Yet these are the 'satisfaction' and 'governmental' notions of atonement and we who follow Christ stand, I believe, in the stream of historical orthodoxy by embracing them. Yet, please pause with me and consider how these ideas might sound to an outsider. You'll get some notion of how they sound when you ponder some tribe's religious traditions of sacrificing a virgin in the volcano to appease the wrath of the gods. We shrink back in horror at such 'terror', and yet perhaps should acknowledge that our own faith carries it's own challenging story. What do we do with it?

Here's what I do with it..

1. If you were to do a word search through the New Testament (New American Standard Bible, of course), looking for the word atonement, how many times do you think it would appear? Try none... zero... nil... nada. We're fussing about something that is part of an Old Covenant that's been done away with. Why do we do this?

2. The issue of satisfaction is in important one, but not in the way you might think. But rather than make it such a huge 'justice' deal, perhaps we'd do better to think of it this way: What if a great athlete bought up all the tickets for a game and invited people who couldn't pay? What if Yo-Yo Ma discovered a child prodigy cellist at a clinic, only to find out that the student was about to have his cello repossessed, and he responds by buying the little tyke a cello worth 15k? What of Babbet throws a feast? The real issue is a blend of satisfaction and generosity, and the good news is that GOD'S NOT MAD AT ANYONE ANYMORE, at least if the Bible is true. But that's not atonement (a word which means covering). Which brings us to the third point...

3. The best atonement, or payment for sin, could ever possibly do, would be to open the door to relationship. So, we get to go to the ball game. We get a cool new cello. We get a meal. But we remain, fundamentally unchanged. Ah but with Jesus, that's where the story changes dramatically. Behold the lamb of God who - not 'covers' the sins of the world, but 'takes away' the sins of the world. We're given, through an immense mystery beyond the scope of this tiny entry, an entirely new identity - made into new people - people with all the capabilities for righteousness, grace, peace, generosity, joy, hope, and love, that Christ Himself had and has!

So here people are, haggling over the meaning of a word that's used nowhere in the New Testament, all the while missing the major point, which is that Christ died and rose again to make us entirely new people - through whom an entirely new world would someday be created. Just? The question so drastically diminishes the story because it puts Jesus on par with the volcano lady who, for all her virtue and courage (real or imagined) could never impart life. And LIFE, after all, is what Jesus came to bring.


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