Thursday, April 5, 2012

The real Hurray of Easter.

This Easter you might hear a story. It’s a story that will go something like this;

God is so holy and just that God just can’t abide people who commit sin. These people have broken God’s laws and it would be a contradiction of God’s holiness to be in company with such people. It would be another contradiction of God’s justice not to punish these people. 

Unfortunately we are all so sinful in nature that we can’t help sinning. God therefore has to punish us. The upshot is that every single one of us is righteously due for a burning in hell. Generation after generation of humanity is deservedly hell bound with nothing to stop either God or us from this destructive relationship. This is an important part of the story; all the children in Africa, all the Inuit, your family, the neighbour you never met and everyone else is hell bound. And it’s fair enough too, just a consequence of God being just.

But God is also loving. God loves us but they have to punish us because they are just. It’s a bind. Who’d be God? Heck, who’d be us?

God’s way out is to send their son to be a sacrifice on our behalf. This works just like an old fashioned burnt offering where you kill an unblemished lamb when you do wrong and God is appeased. However those lambs only worked until your next stuff up. God’s son is such a perfect lamb that they work for ever. God’s son is like a super-sacrifice. This is extra handy since the temple where the old sacrifices were meant to occur is destroyed now.

So hurray! The hell bound train has been derailed. God is appeased and all is well. End of story. Well, not quite.

You see the hell bound train idea shows you’re still thinking too small. Everyone is sliding into hell – the whole planet (other planets too if there’s life there perhaps). God still can’t just stop that destruction without being unjust, so it’s more of one single train line out of the fire that’s been created.

Now don’t you want to know what you need to do to get on that train? Aren’t you interested? Of course you are. If you had to give everything you owned and give it to the poor you’d do that. If you had to make a sacrifice of your own life you’d do that too. But you don’t actually (regardless of what some say). You just have to believe that Jesus was that perfect lamb and possibly get baptized and you can get on the train straight away!


Now the problem with this story is that while it’s awfully interesting you might believe it’s Christianity. You’d be right in that it’s “a” Christianity (it’s sometimes called reformed Christianity) but it’s not the only one and there’s lots of ways it blatantly ignores what Christian scriptures record.

Jesus never wrote any scriptures himself and about half the Christian scriptures that we have today are letters from one writer. Because the early church expected Jesus to return within a lifetime this wasn’t a church that believed it had to write down any message for us two thousand years later. Still, studying these scriptures alongside a historical study of the time are the best chance we have of recreating who Jesus was and what he taught.

Here’s what the scriptures tell us:

  1. Jesus portrays God (his father) as our father too. He invites intimacy with God. He encourages us to go to God with our imperfections. He does all this before his death enters the picture. His death is not required for this to happen. The best example of this is the story of the Prodigal Son. (Am I the loudest non-theist advocate for reading this parable or what?)

  1. Jesus demonstrated God to his disciples. That seems to be a fairly early understanding. There was no price to pay first before Jesus sits and eats and visits the most judged “sinners” of his time. No body has to be sacrificed for Jesus to lunch with Zacchaeus. If God is one and Jesus is the son of God then Jesus’ life would be our best indication of what God is like. Jesus isn’t holy, distant and bound to condemn.
Jesus needs to be understood as the radical subversion of temple sacrifice rather than its fulfillment. Temple sacrifices to appease God only worked if the sacrifice was from your own flock. The only way to insert the son of God into the Temple model of sacrifice is if either God is atoning for his sins (which is a fascinating theology right there but also a big stretch) or Jesus is from our flock. The latter would be consistent with Jewish expectations of a human messiah and Jesus’ title of the Son of Man. Even reformed Christians don’t deny Jesus’ humanity, though they deemphasize it a lot.

But there’s still something missing. Basically humanity didn’t lose anything – not in the same way that one tribe lost one unblemished ram when they made one a sacrifice. We didn’t lose anything as individuals or tribes relative to each other. That is the purpose of temple sacrifice; to offset the benefits of sinning by costing our re-inclusion into the community. Jesus makes no sense at all inside this model. Inside this model only his parents would be able to say they had atoned.

Let’s also remember that we (metaphorically) consume the sacrifice instead of God. We are supposed to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. That’s not a temple sacrifice by any stretch of the meaning. You don’t get to temple sacrifice a lamb and take home lamb chops! If Jesus is a sacrificial lamb it is much more the kind that gets sacrificed to have a welcome home feast for your and mine return.

Salvation from starvation?

What Jesus is actually saying about temple sacrifice with his life and death is that God does not require payment. God is able to hold you and cherish you and be with you in your imperfection. God runs to you in your imperfection. God longs for you to call them Father whenever you want. If any debt needs paying it is your anxiety not God’s rapacious justice that demands it. Letting go off that anxiety allows you to see God clearly.

I think part of the confusion centres on the word “salvation.” I used to think this word meant “saving” as in Jesus saving me from my fate in the big burning world of hell. Maybe reformed Christianity made the same mistake? Certainly many would feel that without a destiny of punishment for all there is no salvation. But salvation doesn’t mean saving.

Salvation actually comes from the greek term for “healing” – it shares the same root as “salve.” Hence salvation makes no sense without a current condition to heal. A divine punishment yet to happen is not something you get healed from. God is not required to be the judge who applies the fire in order for the Son who stays their hand to make sense. Salvation is God healing us from the burns we already have.

What Jesus and the early Christians thought that healing looked like is itself worthy of several blog posts. What did Jesus call sickness and what did he consider health? A very big part of it is to forgive others as we have been forgiven without a requirement for payment or penalty.

If you can do that this Easter you’ll have my hurray, whatever you believe. You will be bringing some salvation into the world, healing yourself and others. Just like Jesus, the great salve not the temple sacrifice.


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