Atonement and abundance

growth!

Atonement is the work of Christ on earth. Atonement is the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ. Atonement is reparation for wrong or injury, for sin.

I believe the primary work of Christ on earth was to bring good news to the poor and set the captives free. To take humankind out of the narrow, limited, fear-filled lives of sin into abundant freedom and wild joy.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

I believe that reparation for sin is reconciliation with God, with life, with our truest selves, and I believe that reconciliation with God is the ultimate experience of love—the opposite of fear.

“Do not worry about your life.” “Do not be afraid.”

The hardest part of this project for my Atonement class has been, for me, choosing an issue to be my focus. We were given a laundry list of possibilities (“Divorce Rate, Muslim/Christian/Jew, Racial Profiling, Abortion, Death Penalty, Reparation for African American Slavery, Same Sex Marriage, Occupy Movement, Sexual Misconduct in Roman Catholic Church, etc.”), all of which have plenty of potential. I even have positions on most of them, but nothing jumped out at me as an area of passion that I could pursue and consider for an entire semester.

Well, there’s only a week or two left for this project, so it’s do-or-die time. And…I still don’t have a nice, neat issue. What I do want to consider with you (over the next few days, you know, since we’re short on time) is fear.

Specifically, because I can’t cover the whole grand concept of “fear” in the next week, I want to talk about a couple of manifestations of fear—one public and one private.

I want to talk about the culture of fear that has laid the foundation for the, er, giant mess that is the 2016 election season,

AND

I want to talk about the fear that leads us as individuals to live lives from a position of scarcity rather than abundance.

Now that’s a lot to talk about. I’m not totally sure yet how I’m going to pull it all together. But I think everything I’ve brought up in this post is interrelated, and I think an insight about one part of the puzzle can shed light on another. I also don’t have the answers. I’m writing my way into this.

So I need your help. I need to know what you think. I need to know your questions, what resonates with you, what you think is wrong. Tell me in comments. Tell me on Facebook. Tell me in person. Email, message, text, or tweet me. Let’s start a conversation!

Words from Jesus

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“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

“Do not worry about your life.”

“Do not be afraid.”

These words of Jesus still speak powerfully today. They speak to our culture and they speak to our souls. But what do they have to do with atonement? Stay tuned—I’m going to try to answer that.

In the meantime, I would love to hear from some other voices. How are these words from Jesus speaking to you today?

God in Good Friday

I don’t typically blog sermons, mainly because sermons and blog posts are a different kind of writing. I also figured that in any case I missed the window to post a Good Friday sermon, since we’re back to alleluias. But when I heard the news of the bomb blast in Pakistan on Easter, I realized the sermon was still fitting. There are Good Friday moments and Easter moments in every day.

I’m also behind on writing blog posts (not to mention everything else), what with last week being holy week and all. So, then, find below my thoughts on Good Friday.

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Everybody knows Easter. Easter is color and light and joy. Easter is spring and new birth and new growth. Easter is Easter bonnets and new clothes and a big dinner. Easter is trumpets and songs of joy and that word we haven’t been saying all Lent. Easter is fun. Everybody knows Easter.

So where does that leave Good Friday? I mean, when you know you’re just days away from celebration, who wants to take the time to go down into the depths of suffering, abandonment, disillusionment, and death? That doesn’t sound like very much fun at all. There’s a reason Easter and not Good Friday has become a secular holiday.

It’s a mistake, though, to jump too quickly to Easter without pausing here in the dark, because in addition to being an integral part of the Christian narrative, the story of Good Friday has a lot to say to us today.

Imagine being the disciples, or others close to Jesus, on the day of the crucifixion. I mean, not everything had been a piece of cake with Jesus. He asked questions and challenged authorities and got into some trouble, and life wasn’t always comfortable for his followers. But even so, they had Jesus with them. Jesus took care of them. They knew they were part of something important.

On Good Friday, Jesus’ followers lose this assurance. The trial must have felt like a dream at first. Sure, Jesus had been saying some strange things about being betrayed and going to his father, but how could it really be happening? And what about the moment of his death; what then? These men and women had dedicated their lives to following someone who had just been executed. Where were all the things they’d hoped for, that they’d hoped Jesus would bring about?

Now, we all know how the story ends—like I said, everybody knows Easter. But Jesus’ followers didn’t know. For them, there was only death. Only chaos. Only uncertainty about the future, about their purpose, about what in their life was true and what was not.

It is important to remember this, because while we are a people of the resurrection, we are also a people of the cross. We are living in Easter, but we are also living in Good Friday—or perhaps, rather, in the space between these two days. We are not without hope. We don’t want to have Good Friday without Easter Sunday. But at the same time, we can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday.

This may seem like a bad thing, but it’s a very real thing in our world. We live with our share of fear, confusion, and disillusionment.

We’ve seen a lot of Good Friday recently. We see Good Friday in acts of terror, like the bombings in Brussels on Tuesday. If you’ve watched the news or read a paper this week, you’ve probably seen images of violent destruction, seen chaos, heard screams and cries of terror. Coverage of the attack has dominated news coverage this week. But Brussels is by no means an isolated event. In fact, there have been 71 terror incidents so far this month, resulting in over 400 deaths. Four of these incidents involved over 20 dead. And that’s just March.

We’ve seen Good Friday closer to home, too. The political dialogue as we approach the next presidential election might be humorous if it wasn’t so ugly, mean spirited, and sometimes downright scary. We talk about building actual walls to keep people out, about policing groups of people based on their religion or ethnicity. We see Good Friday in institutionalized racism and in the needless deaths of people of color.

We see Good Friday in the faces of refugees who don’t know where (or whether) they will find another place to call home, and in the stories coming out of Flint, Michigan. We see Good Friday in reports on how climate change is affecting our planet and its population. We see good Friday in hunger, in poverty.

We see Good Friday in our own lives and homes. We see it in the breakdown of relationships, and in relationships that harm instead of nurture. We see it in the death of loved ones, whether that death was expected or sudden. We see it in fertility issues and miscarriages. We see it in depression and mental illness. We see it in worry and anxiety, in the temptation to operate from a mentality of scarcity.

We all have times when we don’t feel very much like an Easter people. When we feel like the sky is coming down around our heads, like we are down at the bottom with no one to help us up. These are not pretty times, but they are as much a part of the Christian story as the times where everything seems to be falling into place, where God feels immediately present and our lives are filled with abundance.

We know how the story of Good Friday ends, but we don’t know right now how many of our own difficult stories end. In so many of these stories, we are still in the Good Friday portion of the narrative, still crying out “Lord, Have Mercy,” still saying with the psalmist, “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”

It would be easy to wrap things up and end the sermon on a high note. To say, yes, things can be bad, but don’t worry—Easter is coming! The arc of the Christian story is always pointing to resurrection; just hang in there a few more days and the joy and sunshine will be back.

It is true that the Christian story is one of death and new life. Jumping to Easter too soon, though, cheapens the Good Friday part of the story, so I don’t want to end with a Resurrection message today. I want to stay here, in the depths, in the place of doubt and fear and confusion. I want to stay in this moment where meaning and words and reason fall short. I want to stay with Jesus’ followers who didn’t know how the story would end, who didn’t know if there would be any meaning in Jesus’ death, who didn’t know if they should be foolish enough to hold on to hope.

I want to stay here because God is here, too. I want to stay here because today is a reminder that nothing is beyond God’s reach and experience—not suffering, not death, not doubt, not confusion, not despair. Today is a reminder that being a Christian is not some sort of inoculation against bad things happening. It is the antithesis of a prosperity gospel: on Good Friday everything is lost.

Jesus has been tortured and executed in the clutches of a flawed political system and mob mentality. His followers scatter. They are feeling heartbreak, betrayal, confusion, and doubt. They are not just trying to hold out for three days until a joyful resurrection. They are trying to hold out as long as they can: a day, an hour, ten more seconds.

But they are not outside of God’s reach—and neither are you. That is the Good News for today. Life is full of Good Friday moments and seasons—some longer than others; some harder than others. Being a Christian does not mean having a life that is free from these seasons of suffering and confusion. Being a Christian means that these seasons are part of the story. Being a Christian means having a God who has been down to the bottom, a God who will reach us even in the darkness.

The Moral Influence Theory of Atonement

Today’s post is brought to you thanks to Nancy Hennessey, a delightful lady who I’m glad to call a friend and who is going to be a fantastic priest very soon. She has her own blog for the class, exploring the Atonement in the context of the US Criminal Justice System. It sounds super interesting and I’m excited to read. Posting her paper was an actual class assignment, but I’m glad for it, because I think she speaks succinctly and smartly to the Moral Influence Theory of Atonement. Without further ado, then, here is Nancy’s exploration:

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The Moral Influence Theory recognizes that Christ’s death on the cross was a loving sacrifice and revealed the supreme love that God had for humankind. Rembrandt’s famous painting of the homecoming of the Prodigal Son reflects the moral influence theory of the steadfast love of a father (God) towards his son (humanity) who comes home seeking forgiveness and repentance. (Luke 15:11-32)

Unlike other theories that connect Jesus’ death to the salvation of our sins, the moral influence theory understands the sacrifice Jesus made with his death on the cross as the compelling reason for us to change our sinful ways, to be and live more as Jesus. In other words, to demonstrate the same compassion and love for our fellow human being as Jesus showed for the marginalized, the poor, and the meek. As early as the writings of Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215) he recognized Jesus’ death as the enduring love that God had for us by bringing Jesus into our human world as a living example of an exemplary life. Moral influence theory is more subjective than the other theories, particularly the satisfaction theory brought forth by Anselm.

The moral influence theory was written about by many of the patristic writers including Augustine (354 – 430) who expressed the belief in Jesus’ presence on earth reflected God’s love for humanity. As with other patristic theologians, this theory was “but one element in the Christian understanding of the cross.” (p. 331, McGrath)

It was Peter Abelard (1079 -1142), known as a superior theologian, philosopher, and scholar of his time, which was primarily credited for the development of this theory. He wrote, “the purpose and cause of the incarnation was that Christ might illuminate the world by his wisdom, and excite it to love of himself.” (pg. 332, McGrath) But it has been noted that similar to Augustine, this was not Abelard’s only theological premise for atonement. Perhaps his colorful and romantic personal life of his younger years was what people were most interested in, resulting in giving him exclusive credit for this theory of atonement. J

Unlike the ransom theory, the moral theory is not a payment to Satan, or the restoration of God’s honor as in the satisfaction theory. Instead, God’s expansive love is what is important, not compensation or victory. The responsibility of the atonement is on the Christian who desires a fuller life in Christ and is being led by the example of the life and death of Jesus. His sacrifice for us should draw from us the desire to live out a life that Jesus’ pure life showed us.

It is important to note that the death of Jesus on the cross was not his sole purpose as a penalty or victory – as believed in the other theories. Instead his death is seen as a result of his actions and is within a larger context of his life, death, and resurrection.

In closing, here is a hymn written by Peter Abelard on the atonement. It may shine a additional light into his thoughts and beliefs of the moral influence theory of atonement.

Alone thou goest forth, O Lord, in sacrifice to die;
Is this thy sorrow naught to us who pass unheeding by?
Our sins, not thine, thou bearest, Lord; make us thy sorrow feel,
Till through our pity and our shame love answers love’s appeal.
This is earth’s darkest hour, but thou dost light and life restore;
Then let all praise be given thee who livest evermore.
Grant us with thee to suffer pain that, as we share this hour,
Thy cross may bring us to thy joy and resurrection power.

So…Atonement is what, exactly?

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I’ve got a pretty odd…okay, varied…group of people who look at this blog. Some of you have been hearing the word “atonement” since before you could spell it. Some of you have more theological education than I do and could be teaching me (some of you are teaching me). Some of you have heard of atonement, and could maybe attempt a definition, but wouldn’t stake your life on it.

If I’m going to be throwing around atonement for the next several weeks, I should probably try to get us all on the same page. The thing is, that’s not quite as straightforward as it sounds. Atonement tries to answer the question, “What was the purpose of Christ on Earth?” And as you can probably guess, there are about as many answers to that question as there are people trying to answer it

Soon I’m going to post my classmate’s run-down on one of the theories of Atonement, the Moral Influence Theory, but first wanted to give you all a quick overview of some of the major theories out there. Here goes:

Ransom Theory (aka Christus Victor)

The Ransom Theory basically holds that original sin (Adam & Eve) placed humankind under subjugation to Satan, and that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to Satan. In this scenario, Christ’s death was God’s victory over the powers of evil and death—hence the “Christus Victor” designation, a name drawn from Gustaf Aulén’s 1931 revisitation of Atonement theories. Ransom Theory was the dominant theology of atonement for the first millennium of Christianity, until Anshelm’s Satisfaction Theory emerged in the 11th century. This view is often associated with the Eastern Orthodox Church today.

Satisfaction Theory

Anshelm thought it was absurd for the devil to be on par with God in such a way that a ransom could be made, so he rejected the Ransom Theory for giving too much power and agency to Satan. However, he maintained, humans did sin, and could only be reconciled to God (make satisfaction) by an act of God. Anshelm’s solution? The Incarnation. God became human to satisfy the outcome of our sin. This is the view espoused by the Catholic Church today.

Moral Influence Theory

Peter Abelard thought it was bad theology and cruel to demand blood sacrifice, and felt there should be no precondition for God’s forgiveness—God can do anything God wants, so why should God have to become incarnate and/or go to the cross to save us? In addition to this question, Abelard notes that Jesus was already forgiving people before he went to the cross. The conclusion: that the main purpose of Christ is love, and when we are not practicing love, we fall into negative ways of being. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this view tends to be popular among liberal Protestants. (This is the theory we’ll explore in a bit more depth in the next post.)

Penal Substitution Theory

This is a legacy of the Reformation, and (probably unsurprisingly) is the theory I was brought up with. The Reformers saw a need for law and order in a turbulent society, and as such theorized that Christ brought order our of anarchy. Penal substitution is a very legal understanding that there must be some sort of retribution for the chaos (sin) caused by humans, and the inflexibility of God’s law in this view supported the Reformed tenet of salvation by faith alone. In the perspective of Penal Subsitutionary Atonement, Jesus takes the guilty verdict on himself to spare creation so that we God’s people might learn to be not guilty and to practice something beyond chaos and disorder.

*Tangent: I have one marginally famous ancestor: Hugo de Groot, aka Grotius. His legacy is mostly in international law, and while I knew he did some work in theology (thanks, Wikipedia), I didn’t expect to encounter him in seminary—but it turns out his governmental theory of atonement is actually more than just a footnote in the history of atonement theologies. Neat!

These are some of the major theories of atonement. They’re not the only theories (though many other theories of atonement fall under or are connected to one or more of these). I would also argue that they are not mutually exclusive, though it may seem difficult to hold them together. The complexity, while frustrating, is the result of a complex and living act, and as such is actually a good thing (though my life would be easier if it was a bit more straightforward).

That’s a LOT of information, and a pretty head-heavy post. I promise this will get more interesting, but a little background is going to make further exploration more interesting. I also don’t claim to have gotten everything right, so feel free to call me out if something seems off here, or if I glossed over your favorite view of the Atonement.

That aside, I’d like to hear what you think. Do one or more of these perspectives resonate with you? Do any trouble you or leave a bad taste in your mouth? What do you think was the purpose of Christ on earth?

I’m Baaaaack…with a series on Atonement

It started innocently enough. In addition to the core courses I was already set to take to round out my middler year of seminary, I thought “The Theology of Atonement” sounded like an interesting, if challenging, addition. The promise that “each student will implement a practical project that accentuates the relevance of atonement still in the 21st century” sealed the deal: I could do work that is relevant and practical! Total win!

When I learned this project would have a social media component, I was intrigued and a little excited. Social media? I can do that. And hey, what a good excuse to revive my blog-writing practice—never mind that my last post was almost three years ago. I’ll be a blogger again!

But then came the time to “select a particular theology of atonement and apply it to a conflict in need of reconciliation, satisfaction and redemption,” and so far I’m finding myself stuck. While I like the idea, and how it is spot-on in addressing one of the Five Marks of Mission (“To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation”), there’s not one issue that jumps out at me.

Add to that the fact that while I admire those who can speak prophetically in the sphere of politics and society, I feel much more authentically myself working through quiet conversation, listening, and stories shared.

This project is going to be a challenge, but I’d like you to join me. I might fail, but I might not. Regardless, I hope we can have some conversation about Atonement and how it works in our world today.

Brokenness and beauty

Today is my last day of nannying. It’s sort of hard to believe. After five months, I’m pretty used to spending 9-ish hours every weekday in someone else’s house with someone else’s kids, kids I’ve now befriended. I won’t miss changing diapers or dealing with tantrums or cleaning up crazy messes, and I won’t miss my 6:40 alarm or never getting home before 6pm, but I will miss this quirky and lovable family. (Not too badly; I’m still getting birthday party invitations, babysitting jobs, and emergency nanny calls…)

Since I’ve had a busy week (after all, I am still nannying full-time at the moment), I’m reposting something from last year. I wrote it in the aftermath of another period of natural disaster, and it’s been on my mind as I’ve seen pictures and heard stories from Oklahoma.

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Breaking the glass (originally posted March 5, 2012)

Stained glass at San Diego Maritime Museum; image available in public domain

My part of the country has been in the news as early-March tornadoes tore across the southern Midwest. I live north of all the storm damage, but parts of southern Indiana—in my diocese—are reeling from the destruction of the storm, and our interim rector is from the Diocese of Kentucky, which is also dealing with storm damage. These storms left trails of death and destruction across states. (For readers interested in helping with disaster relief efforts, there’s some information on the Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis’s Facebook page, and the American Red Cross is active in relief efforts).

Facing news like this is always difficult for me. I can drop food or clothing at a donation site, or send a check to ERD. God knows I pray. When it comes down to it, though, I’m faced with a distinct inability to do anything that will make much of a difference. Even if I emptied the measly contents of my checking account, even if I packed up and drove to Henryville to find some way to help, people still lost belongings, homes, and loved ones. I can’t change that. And there will be another disaster to reckon with next month, next week, tomorrow.

Don’t worry: I’m not going to try to tackle the problem of evil in a single blog post. I’ll save that for another day. Lent, though, is a fitting time to think about death, pain, and the bad things that happen. What does it mean to be a Christian in a world where bad things happen?

It’s difficult to be with people in pain, as my priest reminded in her homily yesterday morning. It’s difficult because sometimes things are not okay. Sometimes bad things happen to really great people and there is no silver lining, escape hatch, or happy ending. Sometimes everything shatters, and we have to believe—“hoping against hope” in the word of yesterday’s Romans reading—that God will be there to pick up the pieces, and to put them together into something even more beautiful.

Where I sit in the choir—on the Epistle side, in the chancel (how’s that for fancy Episcopalian vocab?)—when I’m looking straight ahead I’m not looking at the altar, but at the organ, the pulpit, and the West-facing windows. My church building is old, and has some really beautiful stained glass. The jeweled rainbow of glass pieces—cobalt, violet, gold, scarlet—fit together to create light-catching pictures—St. Cecilia with her organ, the Spirit-as-dove descending, flowers and hands and intricate patterns.

Sometimes, things come together at just the right moment. As I sat listening to that homily and letting my gaze wash over the familiar patterns of glass pieces, I thought—the glass has to be broken.

Stained glass, in its un-windowed form, comes in panes like any other glass. It has to be cut—broken—to be leaded into a patterned window like those that dapple my church with rainbow-colored sunlight. In other words, all those magnificent windows are really just shattered glass, masterfully arranged.

Panes of colored glass may seem nice enough as they are (in fact, the “stained glass” in my childhood church consists of nothing more than large squares and rectangles of pastel-tinted glass), but when they’re broken into pieces and soldered together they’re transformed into works of art. This is a violent process—cutting and soldering. The artist, too, experiences the violence. Glass doesn’t cut neatly; it splinters into shards that cut and pierce and burrow into unprotected hands. Lead, the traditional metal for soldering, is poisonous. The creation of stained glass is messy, painful work, but the results are stunning.

There are no platitudes to give those who lost everything in last week’s tornadoes—or to anyone else reeling from loss or disappointment—and it’s hard to imagine anything beautiful rising out of the ruins, out of the ashes. With Abraham, though, I will try to hope against hope for something like stained glass.

Will you join me?