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Today is the first Sunday of Lent in the church calendar — the 40 days that lead up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, when churches mark Jesus’ death on the cross and then his resurrection. It’s a yearly rhythm to return to this pivotal part of Jesus’ story that supposedly more so than any other moment in history shows us what God is truly like.
There’s a challenge to this, though, that I feel. I wonder if you do?
In the grind of modern life, Jesus’ death on the cross or Jesus’ resurrection can just feel a bit too abstract or existential or removed from everyday life to be all that helpful. Like, that sounds great and really important in theory, but I just feel overwhelmed by all the money and work and relationships stresses right in front of me.
This is one of the great things a faith community like ours, Brown Line Vineyard, can offer us: a reprieve from the grind of modern life — a chance to free up some space so we can do the not-so-automatic but really rewarding work of focusing ourselves on matters bigger than just ourselves and our cares, on other people and their cares… and a chance to let those other people and those bigger matters affect us.
If we don’t find space like that regularly, we lose perspective and can become consumed by our worries and cares, and we can slowly without realizing it end up living very small lives.
So we want to spend our Sundays during Lent this year at Brown Line Vineyard trying to take the opportunity that the season presents, by each week looking at a different way that, particularly, this big matter of ::“Jesus’ death on the Cross”:: might affect us, change us, grow us, and even end up positively impacting our daily lives in surprising ways.
The Challenge in talking about The Cross
But, when it comes to considering Jesus’ death on the cross, “getting our heads out of the grind to think bigger” is far from the only challenge.
I wonder if living in America you’ve encountered the same message about Jesus’ death on the cross that I have?
I mentioned this in a talk back in the summer. It goes something like this:
- God loves us.
- But we are sinners. So God is also extremely angry with us and wants to punish us.
- Really, the punishment we deserve is death.
- But if we make a worthy enough sacrifice to appease God’s anger, and satisfy his wrath, he’ll settle for that, and he (graciously) won’t kill us.
- But we humans just can’t seem to make a worthy enough sacrifice on our own. God just can’t seem to help but want to kill us.
- So God reluctantly says, “Fine! When you want something done right, I guess you gotta do it yourself…”
- So he sends his son Jesus to be the worthy-enough sacrifice, satisfies his anger by killing Jesus, and now, because punishment was dealt out, he doesn’t feel the need to kill us anymore.
- Also, remember, God loves us.
Yeah… very confusing.
So I didn’t grow up a spiritual person who was told to read the Bible or told that I had to accept Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins. So when I first encountered this, it felt totally out of left field.
Like, I had become a spiritual person because I felt like Jesus met me unexplainably and powerfully in a time of need, after I lost my mom to cancer.
That made sense to me as a reason to choose to follow God — because he showed his love and care for me. But what exactly is the argument here? That we should follow God because he’s not angry anymore? He was, but it’s great now because he killed his son so we’re all good! Don’t you want to follow God?
More than the logic seeming suspect, though, something did not sit right with me about this whole bit of “punishment and violence being necessary to accomplish God’s plan”. That felt really morally off. Like: What?! I thought morality was everything to Christians… I guess it’s just morality about sex.
Also, nothing else from the life of Jesus seemed so scarily angry or preoccupied with repayment and retribution. Wasn’t Jesus the one who taught his followers to “turn the other cheek”? That’s the opposite of repayment and retribution.
All to say, I cannot believe that this is all there is to this yearly rhythm of Lent — a confusingly violent God is supposed to change and inspire us and pull us out of the grind of daily life into a bigger story? It just doesn’t for me.
We might hope that reading the Bible can shine light on this and give us a bigger picture of what Jesus’ death on the cross really has for us… but many of the references to this in the Bible can seem to confirm that God is angry and does require punishment and violence to accomplish his plan. ::SLIDE::
1 Timothy 2: 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people.
Romans 3: 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood.
1 John 2: My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
1 Peter 2: 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
Romans 5: 10 While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son…
Yikes. That all does feel like God is angry and requires punishment.
So do I just have to learn to be okay with that about God if I’m a person of faith? Or is there more to Jesus’ death on the cross?
::This is the reason I’m excited to speak this morning: Yes, I think there is so much more here, in terms of how Jesus’ death on the Cross can change and inspire me and you and anyone.::
But I think we need to come to the Cross from a different starting point.
I want to show us a video that I showed last summer as well that will give us a very different starting point, and then I want to go back to Jesus on the cross from that new starting point and see what happens…
::The Scapegoat Mechanism::
Insights from this different starting point
Very interesting stuff, huh?
Here’s what I want to take from this: let’s take as our different starting point for coming to Jesus on the Cross this guy ::Girard’s theory on desire, rivalry, and how violence and scapegoating typically happen throughout human history::
If he’s right, that THAT is the humanity that God enters into through Jesus, then it shows something extremely important about what’s happening when Jesus goes to the Cross to die:
::~We are the ones demanding blood, NOT God.~::
- We humans project our demand for punishment, death, and scapegoating on to God,
- Not because God requires that, but because we require that, because of our cycles of rivalry and violence, and our mechanism of scapegoating —
- God didn’t come up with crucifixion (execution by hanging someone on a cross) — People did. That was the way perceived revolutionaries or threats to the status quo (like Jesus) were executed in the 1st century Roman Empire.
The different starting point we have here is: ::~We humans are the violent ones, NOT God.~::
Do you see how distinctly different that is from the starting point of the message about Jesus’ death on the Cross that is most familiar today? — Where the foundational block is “God requires punishment and violence to be dealt out because of our sin” — This flips that.
And from this different starting point, when we come to Jesus’ death on the Cross, what we discover is:
::~Jesus isn’t a sacrifice to save us from God’s violence. Jesus is God sacrificing himself to save us from our own violence~::
- Physical violence of course, but more than that: violence in all its forms — what in religious settings we might refer to as sin
- All of the things we do to make ourselves feel okay, acceptable, at peace, but that, in the process, blame or scapegoat others.
- It is “those people are the reason for our problems,” which has faced every people group all over the world again and again throughout history (and continues to do so today, as we all no doubt can see)
- But I also love how the video points out that this is not just at a society-at-large level — we engage in rivalry and exclusion and scapegoating in small ways in our classrooms, our families, our friend groups, online
So all those passages about Jesus’ death on the Cross we read are speaking truth about Jesus dying to save us from our sins, but in a sort-of inverse of the way they do in the “God-requires-punishment” version of what’s happening.
Jesus is the “ransom for us all” NOT because God needed to be paid off to put aside his violence, BUT because we needed to be paid off to put aside our violence,
* and God is so incredibly loving that, even though he sees the madness in our violent mechanism, he willingly walks into it, becoming the scapegoat, so the weak or marginalized or defenseless don’t have to be, so no one else has to die at human hands.
Jesus’ “blood” is “the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world” NOT in that his blood satisfies God so God is no longer angry, BUT in that his blood exposes the sham that is this broken human mechanism of scapegoating that we think can preserve peace or order or goodness.
He “bore our sins in his own body” NOT because God needed someone to “really feel it” before he could set aside his desire to punish us, BUT because humans literally killed Jesus — human violence was literally borne by Jesus’ body.
We are “reconciled to God through the death of Jesus” and “no longer God’s enemies” because in willingly sacrificing himself Jesus shows us how to become like God, rather than just reinforce human violence (which is the opposite of God)
* By choosing self-sacrifice, not others-sacrifice
::Fr. Richard Rohr puts it this way::
“Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us. It did not need changing. Jesus came to change our minds about God.”
Bringing it home
Wow! When I first was brought to ::Jesus on the Cross:: from this starting point, everything seemed to click for me.
This is something worth setting aside 40 days every year to realign with, to try to be shaped by.
Because I need to be jostled out of my small world and life.
Like, I go through so many days exerting a ton of energy on some thing for my job managing the operations of this church that really feels important at the time and so I’m tired afterward and I justify being only half-present with my wife and kids, but then I get to the end of day and I’m like, man… It was so not important enough to spend all that time finding just the right image for that social media post… Why did that feel so important?
Does anyone else ever get to the end of the day and ask that? Why did that thing feel so important? It was so not important.
I need to be pulled up to a more bird’s eye view of my life and how my life fits in the grand scheme of all lives, and of all lives in history, so I can see what is larger-than-me.
So the grind of modern life doesn’t blind me from seeing the reality of rivalry and violence and scapegoating in all its societal and interpersonal forms around me, and in me —
* So that, even in the midst of a busy day, I still have the presence of mind to notice the way my white skin privileges me as I go about my business, to see the ways people of color are regularly scapegoated in ways that I never have had to experience… and to recognize that I’m a part of that scapegoating of people of color, because I’m a part of this culture… and to be affected by that… to let that have an impact on the choices I make. * I need to be pulled up out of the grind so that, when I’m fed up with an ongoing conflict between two of my extended family members that I keep getting dragged into, I still have a soft enough heart to see the hurts behind their blame-shifting and scapegoating of each other, so that I can enter into that space with them with understanding and compassion, and not just feel exasperated and annoyed for “yet another thing on my plate”.
The opportunity Lent presents us with is to let yourself, for 40 days, be affected by and changed by the God who is full of understanding and compassion, who chooses solidarity with scapegoats not solidarity with the powerful. Honestly, just thinking about that makes me feel more tender, makes me feel less… I don’t know… suspicious?… I’m not sure if that’s the right word, but like (this maybe sounds hokey) it makes me want to be kind to everyone, even if that means someone might take advantage of me.
Because, you know what, if I’m taken advantage of, I’m not alone. Jesus was taken advantage of too. He actually knew it was coming, and he still willingly stepped into it, and he found the purpose of his life even so.
And that heartens me. Maybe that can be my story no matter what too.
When I have even a single thread of connection going to this bigger birds-eye-view of my life, the grind just gets to me less. I have less days that end with me asking “why did I spend so much time on that unimportant thing?”
And, also, if I can stop myself to pay attention to it long enough, I can feel in my spirit this sense that I am part of a mission so much bigger than myself: the Kingdom of God, to use Jesus’ phrase: to bring an end to broken, scapegoating, status-quo-reinforcing human cycles, and bring about instead something more compassionate, more empathetic, more inclusive, more equitable, more just.
So I would love to pray for us.
For one thing, if this feels compelling to you like it does to me, I want to pray for God to speak to you about that and give you a sense of feeling pulled into it, like I’m describing.
But, also, I’d like to pray for anyone who feels this morning like you might need a little more help than just “a new starting point to think about” in order to peel off the layers of hurt that a strangely-violent and retribution-demanding view of God has done to you. It is a particular passion of mine helping people who have been sold a view of God that is harmful to develop a view of God that is like Jesus.
Would you stand with me?
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