Sunday, March 8, 2009

Substitutionary Sacrifice isn't what it used to be

Readings: Second Sunday in Lent, Year B

God, for no particular reason that we can fathom, singles out Abraham and promises him that he and his wife will have a son whose descendants will become many nations. Our Psalm sings of the great Day of the LORD, when the LORD shall rule over all the nations. The New Testament Reading covers many topics in one short passage: Faith, Law and Gospel, and substitutionary sacrifice. Finally, in our Gospel reading Jesus foretells his Crucifixion, and is Transfigured in front of some of his disciples. Hours worth of material here. But relax, we're going to take a shortcut.

For the Day of the LORD is obviously not yet, Abraham has given rise to three great world religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in that historical order, and substitutionary sacrifice has been called into question. And this is our sticking point. There is no denying that all the authors of the New Testament believed that Jesus Christ was offered as a sacrifice for our sins, going all the way back to Adam, the first man, who disobeyed God, and caused the entire Universe to fall into its present state.

Well, we know that's not true in the physical sense. Our physical selves evolved from the primordial slime into our present form as populations of living things responded over many generations to suffering and death. That is to say, human beings did not bring suffering and death into the world. Human beings were brought into the world by suffering and death. Suffering and death are prior to human beings. Regardless of what the New Testament writers and their communities believed, it is no longer reasonable to believe that Jesus had to atone for the Sin of Adam and Eve.

So, in the words of the old radio show, The Lone Ranger, who was that masked man? Why did Jesus endure death by Crucifixion, and then rise from death in a new, perfected form? If not for the Sin of Adam, how about your own sin? Oh, surely, you can't be all that bad. Surely you don't need such an outrageous act on the part of God!

On the other hand, even if the Fall of Man is not true as a physical history, it isn't bad at all as a primitive psychology. The Hell of it is that we behave pretty much as Genesis says we do. We all live our lives pretty much without reference or deference to God. And the Universe is constructed to let us do it. The rain falls on the just and the unjust.

And we wouldn't have it any other way. We like our freedom from God. No, we love it. We are like addicts with respect to it. We need to be our own selves, running our own lives, our own world. Except for those who are like spiritual suicides, who want nothing more than to escape the selves that God gave them by giving those selves back to God as damaged goods, as a hand of cards they don't want to play out. If the relationship with God is Buber's I-Thou, then some of us want to abandon I, and others want to escape from Thou.

In other words, the Sin of Adam did not take place in history. It takes place in the way we live our lives every day. The results have been spectacular, particularly in what we have done to each other: the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, the Holocaust, centuries of persecution of Jews before the Holocaust, the wars of religion before Europeans decided to fight over politics and Lebensraum, just to mention a few of the atrocities committed by Christians. Non-Christians can be as bad or worse, but this is church, so let's just stick to our own business for the present.

But even when we are not being spectacularly bad, there is this, if I may quote Scooper:

In response to hardship and Death, we often disregard others and look out only for ourselves. But, since we are evolved to be a social species, we know that it is wrong for us to do so. We know that we must do good for ourselves and our society, and that sometimes, we must sacrifice our personal desires and interests for some higher good. We know that this is what God's Justice has written on our hearts, yet we disobey, and we lie to ourselves about it. And we attack those who threaten to expose our lies — like Socrates, the Prophets, and Jesus. (Or anyone who challenges our way of seeing the world and ourselves.)

We don't want to be confronted with our lies. Which means we can't accept our true selves, and we don't believe anyone else can, either, unless we pay the price, unless we earn acceptablity by self-sacrifice to a higher cause. Yet we need to accept our true selves, in order to be able to tolerate God, in whose presence we confront the truth about everything. The price is beyond our ability to pay, for in the presence of God, we have nothing to offer but tainted goods — the selves that even we cannot accept. So God pays the price for us. God came into the world as one of us, to endure abandonment by God, and to be killed by us.

That is the price of admission for people like us into God's Presence — Paradise. It is a shock, a horror, and a scandal. And since we don't want to be confronted by the inference that we are that bad, we deny it, and attack (at least verbally) those who proclaim it.

Substitutionary sacrifice isn't for Adam. It's for you.

Leia Mais…

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Give it Up this Season

Readings: First Sunday in Lent

In our readings we go from God's covenant to Noah and all living creatures that survived the Great Flood, to the Jesus being baptized by John. The images are of a purification by water: first as a punishment/trial and then as a cleansing immersion. The first letter of Peter comments on both. There is much to talk about in these short texts, but I want to focus on the tradition of Lent itself.

Lent commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan. Not coincidentally, the Hebrew Bible tells of the Great Flood occurring some thousand year earlier, during which it rained 40 days and 40 nights while Noah rescued his family and various creatures by taking them into the ark he had built at the LORD's bidding. Lent has become a 40 day period to commemorate Jesus' ordeal, and as a way of preparing to honor the sorrowful mysteries of Holy Week, which includes remembering Jesus' death by crucifixion on Good Friday.

Lent is a period of "pre-mourning." It used to be a period of actual fasting, at least by forgoing red meat. Now many Christians "fast" by abstaining from something, or giving something up, for Lent. A person might give up eating chocolate during Lent, or driving, for examples. We could abstain from things we like to eat, or to drink, or to do.

But those are essentially our amusements or innocent enjoyments. What about our Sins? What about identifying some way you habitually sin, and refraining from that for the 40 days of Lent?

In case you need a reminder, the four basic Sins are that we are estranged from God, the world, each other, and ourselves. We exhibit these estrangements in Capital Sins like Pride, Avarice, Envy, Anger, Lust, Gluttony and Sloth. We can oppose these Capital Sins in ourselves by practicing Capital Virtues like Humility, Liberality, Fraternity, Meekness, Chastity, Temperance, and Diligence.

If these words are too big for you, then look them up. If you're too lazy to do that, then just think about the ways in which you're an asshole. Then, try not to be such an asshole until Easter.

May God forgive you for the times you fail, may God bless you for those times you realize that you failed, and may God make his face to particularly shine on you for those times when you succeed. Amen.

Leia Mais…