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.

1 comment:

  1. Of necessity, all descriptions of God must be symbolic. That is, the reality - the extant thing - that points, directs, and connects us to God is not God itself. The concept of substitutionary sacrifice is one such extant thing. It was part of the Judaic tradition that every Jew could understand because of the parallel to their own animal sacrifices to propitiate God. It is still recognizable to contemporary society. While our sense of justice might recoil at the notion of one person taking the punishment for another's crimes, we do recognize the social form.

    As with all extant things, they can lose their meaning - their symbology. For example, the symbology of Mary as the inerrant Mother of God, has completely lost its meaning to the protestant denominations in Christian religious practice. Forgive me if i speak heresy, but perhaps substitutionary sacrifice is another such symbol that hinders more than it helps some of us in our walk with and toward God.

    In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis touches on this concept in his own gentle way. He offers a few chapters in the latter parts of this book with the caveat that the reader should consider them only if he finds them helpful in his quest for a relationship with God and man; otherwise, he should ignore them. With Professor Lewis' admonition in mind, I offer the following symbology. Yashua ben Nazareth was the first human to pass hrough the mortal realm without sin in thought, word, or deed. From the time he was old enough to exercise self will, he never violated God's will. His internal moral compass was so finely tuned to the whisperings of God's Holy Spirit, his desire to seek and know God's will was so strong, that he would knowingly confront and accept complete social condenmation, torture of the cruelest kind, and consort with the lost souls in the deepest parts of Sheol in order to obey. He did this even though he had doubts about what being the Messaiah ment; he did this even though he had doubts about whether he had in fact succeeded; he did this even though he had doubts about whether his suffering here and now was worth what lay beyond Sheol.

    Now, imagine that our existence beyond death - if existence is even an applicable concept - is predicated on the nature of our relationships with God and our fellow humans while we are alive. Surely, the Messaiah, the Annointed One, the Christ, the First Born of the Ressurected, the One who sits at God's right hand, the Logos would be Yashua ben Nazareth.

    Next, imagine that our existence beyond death is not individually corporeal, but somehow collectively evolved. Our ressurected "bodies" comprise something more than matter and energy and are connected in some dimension beyond space and time. Furthermore, imagine that our connection to God is through our connection to the Christ. In such a vision, Yashua ben Nazareth was not engaging in hubris when he said, "No one comes to the Father except by me." However childish it might have sounded, Peter, James and John were not engaging in idle banter when they asked the question, "Who will sit at Christ's right hand?" However much I might not like it personally, in such a vision I must consider where I do and will stand in my relationship to the Christ.

    Finally, I must also ask the question, "How can I, a sinful and unholy man, approach a holy God under any circumstance?" Revelations of God are comprised of awe and trembling. As with Isaiah, in God's presence we cry , "I am undone!" Something - or someone - must make us clean. If the Christ is my connection to God and is not blemished by sin, then how can I approach him? The simple answer is that my sins must be forgiven by the Christ.

    In this scenario, Christ's forgiveness of my sins is a direct action on his part - not a consequence of his crucifiction. His crucifiction was part of his becoming the Christ. I still recoil at the notion of crucifiction as a requirement by God for Yashua ben Nazareth to become the Christ. But I also cannot see a better test of a person's virtue and dedication to me than to lay down his life for me in the most horrible way imaginable. Instead of substitutionary sacrifice, Yashua ben Nazareth made a voluntary sacrifice to prove to me that he was who he said he was and that he was - and is - worthy of my worship.