Friday, March 30, 2007

At Onement

The "why" of Jesus' death on the Cross is very frequently answered with a theory about atonement, and specifically, substitutionary atonement. Those are big theological words for the simple idea that humankind sinned mightily and had not made things right with God, but Jesus took all that sin upon himself and made things right with God. Because he was God and sinless, his sacrifice was immense enough to be enough for all of us. "Jesus paid the price" is the song and story. It's not the only reason based in Scripture, but it is a powerful one, made clear in Isaiah (before Christ) and the letter of Paul to the Hebrews (after Christ), and supported by references to Jesus as the lamb (that is, the best creature to sacrifice on the ancient altars).

I've never been a big fan of this theory. I have lots of reasons, some of them pure gut reactions to Jesus' having paid my debt. But it always comes down to this: substitutionary atonement lets us too far off the hook. From Deuteronomy onward, God makes it quite clear that though physical sacrifices are good, they're not the point. And they are not enough. God demands our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. God asserts God's ownership of everything. God requires justice, mercy, and humility toward others and toward God's creation. No priest can made those sacrifices on our behalf, because those sacrifices are of our entire being, and no priest has that to give.

Even the Eternal High Priest. It's not like a monetary debt, where a friend can pay for another friend, because there is no single coin of the realm. Jesus does not own our heart, soul, mind and strength to give unless we have given them to Him (which then means no substitution is present, if Jesus is God). God demands each one of us, singularly and wholly.

When I gaze at the Cross, and at the Covenant in blood and flesh that preceded it, I am reminded that the meaning of atonement is, literally, at-one-ment. To be at one with. Communion. Our word "reconciliation" is close, but lacks metaphysical precision. When we pay our debts, we are at one with our debtor. When we give our whole selves to God, as Jesus could not help but do, we are at one with God.

The Cross reminds us that at-one-ment with God will bring pain. It will bring death and vulnerability. To be open to God and to let in the pain (and joy!) of the world is hard. The road to God leads through the Cross, certainly, but also through crosses of our own and the crosses of the world.
Loving reconciliation with God and with the creation -- true shalom -- is risky business. It will mean loss. To be at one with God is to be at odds with that which is not-God. But the joy of it, the wholeness of it, the eternity of it, is what we gain.

Resurrection is the gain.


Tim said...

A most thoughtful reflection, Elane. I like what C. S. Lewis says about the cross: "The central Christian belief is that Christ's death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work."

That's what I believe, that it does work, that we are reconciled to God through the cross, that we are made one with God through the cross, by being joined with Christ in his death ... and resurrection.

We do choose to "take up our own crosses." We are asked (invited!) to give up all we think we have, in order to receive all we can have. But what we find is not that we do not transform ourselves, but simply choose to be what we already are in Christ and because of Christ.

We do belong to God; we are made one in Christ and with each other. We simply have to see it and embrace it ... and live it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tim: I'm always glad for Lewis' basic sanity.

I do believe there is actual transformation -- we are not already Christ -- but that it is usually subtle and slow, like skin cells regenerating or "my" molecules being replaced by some from Taiwan. If I am attentive, and prayefully aim toward communion, I will be changed.

It is the source of my hope for the world.