Atonement Homily

The assignment: Drawing from the doctrine of atonement expounded by Anselm, Aquinas, and Dr Margaret Turek’s Atonement, you are to give a homily on this subject to adult parishioners.

JMJ

GOD HATES SIN. It’s perhaps an uncomfortable claim for we are aware that we sin although, perhaps, we tapdance around that awareness so as not to disturb ourselves much. Because God loves his creation and because sin has marred the beauty God gave us he has destroyed the power of sin to destroy us. This is the doctrine of atonement.

That word, atonement, may make us as uncomfortable as a discussion of sin. This discomfort may be related to the same tapdance of avoidance though: only if we are sinners do we need atonement. Pope Benedict has suggested that we trivialize sin and thus downplay our own need for redemption – and so we also trivialize the action of Christ on the Cross.  (Atonement, 13.)  

Today, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart opens up our meditation on Atonement as an act of love. Let’s take a look at the alternative prayer offered by Liturgy of the Hours for Morning Prayer (Vol 3, p. 639)

Father, we honor the heart of your Son
broken by man’s cruelty
yet symbol of love’s triumph,
pledge of all that man is called to be.
Teach us to see Christ in the lives we touch,
to offer him living worship
by love-filled service 
to our brothers and sisters. Amen.

We’ll move through bit by bit. 

The heart of your son, broken by cruelty

The cruelty mentioned in the prayer is our rejection of God. That rejection is sin in its totality. There may be individual sinful actions, but sin is a rejection of God and the love and dignity he offers us (Atonement, 51, 89ff). We are made for God and we only find our full happiness in him. Sin is any attempt to find or root our being elsewhere. Sin wounds us and our neighbor, but all sin is, primarily, a rejection of God. Any step away from that fullness – our proper end – is sin because we step away from God himself. (See also, Catechism  ¶1849, ¶1850). Sin is real. This rejection of love is the cruelty spoken of.

God allows us to experience the results, the natural consequences of our sin (Atonement, 52). We suffer a loss of God, of a proper relationship with others and the world, and – eventually – we suffer death. Even these consequences wound God who wants so much more for us. 

St Anslem starts us on this journey, asking “Why God Became Man?” Seeking to explore answers to Jewish and Muslim critics in his day (late 11c). In our rejection of infinite love, we incur (and continue to incur) an ongoing infinite debt that corrupts even our attempts to repay it. Anselm teaches that it required a human person to pay our a human debt, else humanity would have been beholden to whoever paid for us. Yet it needed to be God who did so because it was an infinite debt and only an infinite God could have paid it. So, uniting God and Man in himself, God the Son dies on the Cross to pay the debt of all humanity. In this action, he purchased us for himself and we are beholden only to God – as it should be. We can most clearly see the wounding of God’s heart on the Cross, and yet we can see something else as well. We need to see deeper into this action than just “purchase”: for in the act of atonement on the Cross, indeed the entire Incarnation, God the Holy Trinity has done something unexpected (Atonement, 130)

The Church sees love’s triumph in the Crucifixion. Even on the Cross – where we “did something to God”, it was a death by his own initiation, his own handing-over as the Eucharistic prayers say.  God’s sovereign action is always the initiator (Atonement, 29): even our own actions are not mere reactions to God’s love but an act of his grace engendering in us a response. God is love. All that he does is because of the love that he is. Even his hatred of sin – his passionate hatred of the distance we ourselves have placed between us and him – is his love in action. Like a human lover, this puts God in a vulnerable position, at risk of being hurt by our rejection. But, unlike a human lover, God keeps pushing forward in love despite being wounded (Atonement, 35). Remember that Jesus is God the Son. He is showing us the love of the Father in this action on the Cross. What we see in Jesus’s love for us is his filial imaging of the Father’s love for us. Like Father, like Son!  As the Father allows us to wound and slay the Son, the Heart of God breaks in the depth of his love for us. And his hatred for sin manifests as we slay his Son, the engendered response to his love rises in us, becoming the restoration of our relationship with him.  (Atonement, 106)

On the cross, Jesus was made to be “sin for us” ​​(2 Corinthians 5:21) and by allowing the perfectly pure Son to experience the natural consequences for our sins God restored us to him. This is the masterstroke against sin, for by the cross those consequences of rejection, pain, and even death become the pathway of the Father’s love to us. (Atonement, 129, footnote 97) As Jesus surrendered perfectly to God’s will, even the worst parts of our world of violence and sin become ways in which God can (and does) reach us. The Eastern Church says Christ has “trampled down death by death.” That’s why the Sacred Heart, wounded by cruelty, is the symbol of love’s triumph.

And so, the prayer says the heart of Christ is the pledge of all that man is called to be. We are called in the Son of God to contemplate the Father. We are called to share the love of God. But there is more. Our heart must become like his: ours must be broken, too. 

We are called, in the closing words of the prayer, to see Christ in the lives we touch, to offer him living worship by love-filled service to our brothers and sisters. We are called to serve others, and to risk in that action the same rejection that he risks; our hearts will also be broken by cruelty as we call others to the divine plan of love. (Atonement, 222 ff) 

Participating in the infinity of God’s action, we become humans paying human debt fully. Our pain, our suffering, in Christ, becomes part of the ongoing action of Atonement. Speaking at Fatima, Pope Benedict said, “entrust to him every setback and pain that you face so that they become – according to his design – a means of redemption for the whole world. You will be redeemers with the Redeemer, just as you are sons in the Son.” 

Atone-over

JMJ

IN THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH’s Book of Common Prayer (1979), as the priest breaks the consecrated bread, is sung the Fraction Anthem. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.” John the Baptist, of course, refers to Christ as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). And the New Testament is filled with references to Christ as an atoning sacrifice. (eg John 3:16, Romans 3:24, Hebrews 9:12-16, Revelation 5:9.)

But here’s where my meditations on this hit a snag: the Lamb offered every year at Passover was not offered as a sin offering. The main sin offering was, of course, Yom Kippur, and certainly Good Friday was in the Passover Season. Also the Yom Kippur offering is two goats. Not Lambs. The Passover offering does not fit the pattern of any of the other sacrifices of Leviticus. It was given by God to the people of Israel while they were still in Egypt, before the Temple or Tabernacle system was even discussed.

So it seems that there is a huge significance for this evident change in the Christian reading of the sacrificial system’s symbolism. This theological move forms the hinge by which we connect with the Jewish people. Why is our reading of Passover the way it is? Mind you these are only ruminations: I’m not really going anywhere and I have a lot more questions than answers.

As I noted this reading (of atonement as part of the Messiah’s mission) is present already in the earliest texts of Paul and the Gospels. So it’s not an aberration.

I’m not the historian that can delve into 2nd Temple Judaism. A cursory investigation on the internet shows a lot of Christian sources rather than Jewish ones. It seems the question of Why Passover and not Yom Kippur is a common one. There is a comment from Abraham ibn Ezra, writing in the 10th Century, understanding Passover as an atonement for those “in the house”. (Cited here.) That same page also has an extensive citation from Rashi which seems to hold that image as one of atonement, however I don’t think it jives totally? Both of these comments are in the 10th Century, though. Is there any earlier information? Shrug. This is a meditation, not a history paper.

Nu? Typology, maybe?

If Egypt is taken as a sign of “the world” or “sin” or as a synecdoche for all Gentiles, then Passover is a sign of leaving the worldly order (Mammon) for the Heavenly Kingdom.

If we understand sin as a bunch of rules we’ve broken, demerits, as it were, then we need a sin offering (like Yom Kippur) but if we understand sin as a breaking of the Marriage Covenant between God and his people then we need to redo the covenant, not just undo a few demerits. Passover is before the Sinai covenant and so it’s a good symbol to use for a do-over or a Mulligan.

Another clue about Egypt can be found if we loop back to the Fraction Anthem from the 1979 Prayerbook. It comes from a short passage in Paul:

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

1 Corinthians 5: 6-13 (RSVCE)

Paul makes a parallel with the Jewish tradition of “liturgical spring cleaning”. A Jewish family removes all leaven from their house before Passover, sweeping all the corners, wiping down all the shelves. Very pious folks – of a certain standing – even have an entirely different dishes to use, even entirely different kitchens! Paul uses the leaven to signify sin, lists a bunch of sins that he’d like to remove from the Corinthian congregation and warns them that even a little yeast will (eventually) cause the entire bread to rise – not just some of it, but all of it. Taking leavening as a symbol for evil (as it is in the OT), the Apostle urges Christians to leave behind them their lives of sin and to not even associate with those who won’t. (The word rendered “immorality” in the RSVCE refers to sexual immorality. It’s actually the Greek word pornos and it’s related to prostitution. See 1 Corinthians 5:11.) We’re leaving all this behind us in Egypt. We’re not going to let it contaminate our new loaf.

How is this at all an Atonement though? Queue up an offhanded comment from the most recent episode of Bible Project podcast. Look at Exodus:

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:12-13 (RSVCE)

I will smite all the 1st born. So even an Israelite would have been included without the Blood. God was allowing the substitution of an innocent life (the lamb) for the life of the First Born. Even more, in the substitution, the whole family was eating the flesh of the First Born.

Typology indeed.

This is not the case in Yom Kippur where the two goats are used: one is sent out of the camp and the other is burned up on the altar and its blood is sprinkled around in the Holy of Holies. Jesus is not that offering: his offering is consumed not by God’s flames but by his family – that is us. His life is substituted for ours. Hebrews says that God did not desire sin offerings, but rather the Body of the Messiah. Through the Body and Blood of Jesus it says, we are able to enter the Holy of Holies. We could read Hebrews 10 to indicate the Yom Kippur sacrifice (where the goat’s blood is sprinkled everywhere) or we can read it as the Passover Sacrifice, where – because God now has flesh and blood – we can enter the Holy of Holies through the veil of his flesh.

The veil of the temple is torn, not because a new priest has entered the Holy Place and torn it, but because the real veil – Jesus’s Flesh – is pierced, revealing the wounded heart of God to all of us to enter into his love.

And Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us to move us out of the Egypt of our Sins to the waters of Baptism and then a lifelong journey to the Holy Land. We’ll stop at Sinai at Pentecost to have the Law Written on our Hearts, and as we wonder through the desert of this world we will (occasionally) wonder why we left Egypt at all. God will give us our Daily Bread.

And then we cross Jordan Dry-shod.

Into Glory.

Lord of the Sabbath

JMJ

The assignment: Your essay will address two questions: Who is Jesus of Nazareth? What insights are gleaned from his words and deeds: his baptism, his temptations in the wilderness, his Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, his “I AM” sayings, etc.? What can we understand about Christian discipleship in light of the person and mission of Jesus?

OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST himself declared what he was, what he had been, how he was carrying out his Father’s will, what obligations he demanded of men.” (Tertullian, On the Prescription of Heretics, Office of Readings, Feast of Sts Philip & James, Liturgy of the Hours, Vol 3, p.1811). Where does Jesus tell us who he is? How can this help form Christians today?

Finding the answers requires listening to Jesus in his context. We will look briefly at our Lord’s teaching on keeping/breaking the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8) walking with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to understand our Lord’s meaning more deeply, using Chapter Four of the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1 (hereinafter, JoN). This chapter is a dialogue with another author’s work, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (1993), by Rabbi Jacob Neusner. Benedict explores the Rabbi’s reactions as Jesus is questioned by Pharisees about his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. The Rabbi provides Jewish ears and a Jewish voice. 

In the understanding of Rabbinic Judaism, doing any sort of work on the Sabbath is a violation of the Torah. How the disciples keep Sabbath is important in all the Gospels. Pope Benedict notes on page 106 “Jesus’ statement that ‘the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath’ (Mk 2:27) is cited as evidence, the idea being that it represents an anthropocentric view of reality, from which a ‘liberal’ interpretation of the commandments supposedly follows naturally. It was, in fact, the Sabbath disputes that became the basis for the image of the liberal Jesus.” The liberal Jesus tosses out (or ignores) the commandments. “Jesus’ liberal understanding of the Law makes for a less burdensome life than ‘Jewish legalism.’” (JoN p. 109)

Jesus replies that priests work in the Temple on the Sabbath without actually breaking the law, adding “[S]omething greater than the Temple is here.” (Matthew 12:6 – RSVCE).  He says, “The Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (v. 8) This is not a case of the “liberal” Jesus freeing us from all Moses’ laws. Benedict finds, along with Neusner, there is a different focus here, a revelation of who Jesus is.

We are eavesdropping on a conversation between Jewish voices: Jesus was using Jewish words in Jewish ways and those words were being heard in Jewish ways as well. In this light, we should keep in mind something different about the Sabbath and observing it in the Jewish context. Jesus is not tossing out rules. Rabbi Neusner hears it this way:

God rested on the seventh day, as the creation account in Genesis tells us. Neusner rightly concludes that “on that day we . . . celebrate creation”. He then adds: “Not working on the Sabbath stands for more than nitpicking ritual. It is a way of imitating God”. The Sabbath is therefore not just a negative matter of not engaging in outward activities, but a positive matter of “resting”.

JoN, p 108

Further drawing out resting, Benedict reads the verses immediately preceding chapter 12. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 28-30). The Pope pulls the reader back a bit to see the full context of the story. We don’t often read the picking grains story together with the preceding verses, but the wider angle on giving rest and then a conversation about resting on the sabbath shows us that these verses are all part of the same story. Pope Benedict lets us see in the wider context that Jesus is not just saying, “Hey, you don’t need to follow these sabbath rules anymore.” 

Neusner agrees that Jesus is shifting the point of focus from the Temple. “[T]he holy place has shifted, now being formed by the circle made up of the master and his disciples” (JoN p 108). The Rabbi comes to the conclusion that Christ is putting himself in the place of the Torah and then asks, “Is your master God?” (JoN p. 110). 

Hearing this as a Jewish conversation wrapped in the wider context provided by earlier verses, we can see that Jesus is claiming in his person to grant Sabbath rest. He is “Lord of the Sabbath”. That is to say he is claiming to be God and by following him his Disciple obeys the law of the Torah in a more direct way. By resting in Jesus we are “Sabbath Resting” not only on the 7th day, but always. 

For a disciple, following Jesus is not a matter of ignoring the moral code, but rather expanding the code, making it personal. When the covenant was written on Sinai, God’s living fire burned the stone (Exodus 31:18), destroying what was not needed and revealing the laws that have been for all time.  In the New Covenant, the law is written on our hearts. Now God’s living fire carves it out on our hearts: destroying in our lives what is not needed and revealing what has been the law for all time. Our hearts become living stones of God’s Temple (1 Peter 2:5).

Pope Benedict cited this meditation from Rabbi Neusner on pages 104-5: by Jewish tradition, there are 613 commandments given on Sinai which have been condensed, in various steps, down to the greatest commandments regarding God and neighbor. The Rabbi says Jesus taught all this faithfully. But, he notes, Jesus did add something: “Himself.” To the Rabbi’s eyes, Jesus has added himself to the story, replacing the Temple and the Torah. He is claiming to be God openly which his audience of 1st Century Jews – and Jews today – can hear. For the disciple today Jesus has unveiled himself as the central part of the entire Biblical story. 


(992/1000)

The Face of God

JMJ

FIRST DAY IN CHRISTOLOGY CLASS was hard because too much thinking! Dr Turek teaches in a way that leaves you thinking for hours after it’s all over. I’m still digesting it today, Monday, but it seems less like “thinking too much” and more like we were praying. Contemplata aliis tradere, and all that: You get a blog post even without a paper due.

First walk through the stories about Jesus’ baptism. We started with the usual question, If Jesus was without sin why did he need to be baptized? “Usual question” in the sense that it’s the sort of question that’s so common it gets used as a homiletical device whenever the Baptism of Jesus comes up in the readings. (Note to self: do not do this.) It’s sort of a gotcha. “Well, you say Jesus is God so why dunk him at all?” In the course of our conversations, we unraveled the question slowly. When my friend Marvin made a comment about Jesus being God and the sky was opening up, it hit me like a bowling ball that Jesus is not baptized like us – we are baptized like him. God was dunked into the water so that we could be dunked into the water at all. Jesus had to be baptized as sinless: we’re the odd part, confessing our sins as we go in. The new thing is that our sins get washed away – not that he was sinless to begin with. We’re reading Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, Vol 1, and it comes home suddenly (as he teaches) that John’s Baptism was not sacramental: it didn’t forgive or wash away sins. It indicated repentance – a change of heart – but it didn’t confer grace. Jesus changes that.

But that could not be if Jesus was not God.

And it’s Jesus being God that is the point of Christology and of our salvation.

The Prologue in John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18) opens with the claim that the Logos of God is with God and also is God. Dr Turek pointed out the “with” there is actually the Greek word πρός pros meaning “to, towards, with”. So when the word is πρός God, that means to God or better “towards God”. The Logos is constantly turned toward God, the Son eternally contemplating the Father. And the Father is continually pouring himself out to the Son. John 5:19 says, “Yes, indeed! I tell you that the Son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; whatever the Father does, the Son does too.” So what the Father does (self-emptying) the Son does as well, giving himself back to the Father.

The Prologue says it’s this Logos, this Son that has “become flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14) using another Greek word, σκηνόω skénoó, meaning to pitch a tent and echoing how God pitched a tent (the Tabernacle) in the middle of the tribes of Israel. (That’s the header image on this post.) This God now dwells with us however the Prologue and the New Testament take it further. Verse 14 says we beheld the “glory” of the Word “full of grace and truth”. And closes (v. 18) saying “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” That “in the bosom” will be important. Hold on to it.

Later Jesus prays for us all:

I pray not only for these, but also for those who will trust in me because of their word, that they may all be one. Just as you, Father, are united with me and I with you, I pray that they may be united with us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. The glory which you have given to me, I have given to them; so that they may be one, just as we are one — I united with them and you with me, so that they may be completely one, and the world thus realize that you sent me, and that you have loved them just as you have loved me.

John 17:20-23 (CJB)

Did you catch all that? It’s a bit dense, but Jesus wants us to be in him in his unity with the Father. As the Son is to the Father, we are to be also. The technical term is filiation or “son making”. We are made sons and daughters of the Father in Christ the Son. We are called to the same relationship, the same glory and the same unity. This is the unity of peace, the unity of love, the unity of humanity in God the Father is the real meaning of salvation. It’s what the Son brings to us. And, the more we are called to give it to others. We hand it on.

The Word, which gives life! He existed from the beginning. We have heard him, we have seen him with our eyes, we have contemplated him, we have touched him with our hands! The life appeared, and we have seen it. We are testifying to it and announcing it to you — eternal life! He was with the Father, and he appeared to us. What we have seen and heard, we are proclaiming to you; so that you too may have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Yeshua the Messiah. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

1 John 1:1-4 (CJB)

What the Apostles touched and Contemplated (that is, Jesus and his teaching) they pass on to us. We touch and contemplate it through them. We pass it on to others. Those others touch and contemplate Jesus through us when we pass him on. We mediate Jesus to them. The face of God, through us, draws people ever closer to an unmediated experience so that they, too, may become mediators of his action in the world.

How? John 13:25 says that, at the Last Supper, St John was “leaning against Yeshua’s chest”. Remember the son “in the bosom of the Father” so, also, we are in the bosom of the Son. Because we are united with Jesus in his contemplation of Abba, God the Father. What we see Abba do we do as well by the grace of our participation in Christ. We experience our salvation not as a moment in the past (Baptism?) but as a process and one that includes not only us but others. As God was in the midst of Israel, but Israel was a light to the Gentiles, so we are to the world. It’s not an added or optional part: it is the thing itself. My evangelism to you is part of your salvation, yes, but it is part of mine as well because it is the ongoing action of Christ on the Cross.

So Christology becomes soteriology: the Son’s relationship to the Father becomes our relationship to the Father. We say “Abba” not like step children, but as sons and daughters of God in Christ who is his only begotten Son. As Mass says, we live “through him, with him, and in him… in the unity of the Holy Spirit” and we offer all glory to God the Father. The Spirit of God, aspirated between the Son and the Father in their Love, is now aspirated between us and the Father as well. And through us further into the world.