The Cross of Histories and Traditions

Matthew 26:26-29, Romans 5:6-11, Hebrews 9:18-22

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth United Church of Christ

Grand Rapids, Michigan

March 11, 2018


The hymn we just sang is likely familiar to you [ed. Ah, Holy Jesus], but it is not one that I have previously chosen for us to sing because of its theology. Note the date of the text, 1630. That will become relevant later in the sermon.

Our Christian Scriptures are clear about the centrality, not only of Jesus' resurrection, but of Jesus' death by crucifixion. The Scriptures are also clear that his death somehow brings about salvation. This article of faith can be quite confounding to many, especially when it is pinned to a particular theology of his death. You see, our forebears who constructed the New Testament were quite clear on why Jesus was crucified and that it involved salvation. What they were not at all clear about, at least to twenty-first century readers is, how.

This is the third in a series of four sermons about the meaning of the cross. We began with the political meaning of the cross as a means of execution of those who defied Rome. Last week, we looked at the Cross of Discipleship. Today, we will look at where we got one of the dominant understandings of the cross. Next week, we will try to pull it together and look at The Cross for Us. (It may be a long week for me!)

Many people have misplaced ideas, about what they are "supposed" to believe or what orthodox Christianity claims. These ideas then cause us to misunderstand certain language of Scripture. If I use the word, "sacrifice," or the phrase "he died for us," most people automatically, unconsciously go to the idea that He died in our place to appease God. I do NOT believe that is what the biblical language means.

I have used this analogy before: You sit at your computer and click the mouse over a few icons and within seconds you are surfing the web. You have done it hundreds of times. You know it works. But how many of you can tell me how it works. What is the mechanism-the electronics, programming, and networking? That is beyond most of us - or more to the point - we don't even think about it. Our young children, having grown up with it, think about how it happens even less. It just is; it is a given. Click the mouse and it works! So imagine people 1,000 or 2,000 years from now reading stories from our time with references to "clicking a mouse and the whole world opens up to you." They might think, "That mouse must have been some animal back then!" How rife for misinterpretation! And certainly they might wonder, "How did that work?"

I think that is the state we are in regarding the sacrificial system of our first century forebears. They were completely steeped in the sacramental system. It was the sea in which they swam. It was central to their religious life - their very life. Its language, then, was logical to be used to tell of this thing God was doing in Jesus.

What is critically important for us to understand is that the sacrificial/sacramental system of the Jews was about relationship with God, covenant. It was about the continual maintenance and renewal of the covenant. Blood was central to that system - the sharing, sprinkling, and spilling of blood. Initially, this was probably due to it being understood as the life force. Our first-century forebears did not need to think about "how" this system worked, it just did. We, being out of touch with their practices and meanings, often misinterpret their language and thus come up with incredible theologies.

Let's quickly review that sacramental/sacrificial system of Jesus' time. We have looked at this before, but it bears repeating. When we hear the language of "sacrifice," we immediately think of sacrificing an animal in place of a human to appease a god or to influence a god to favor us. (We think of substitution). This is the meaning of sacrifice in some ancient cultures, perhaps Mayan or Aztec. It may have been the meaning of ritual sacrifice in some of the cultures that surrounded our Hebrew forebears especially in ancient history. However, it is not the meaning of sacrifice, or the sacrificial system of Judaism. That misunderstanding, however, has come to define how many people interpret the language of sacrifice in the Scripture and it has influenced the translation of Scripture itself. Mark Mattison, in a work on the subject, pointed out that, "Many Christians read the words 'for us' and mentally add 'as our substitute.' But the Greek preposition is no clearer than the English and can as easily mean 'because of,' 'on account of," or 'for the good of.'" Eduard Schwieizer, one of the finest Gospel scholars, translates the line from Mark 10:45 not as Jesus gave "his life as a 'ransom' for many," but rather he gave his life to "redeem" many people." To redeem has the same meaning as "to save," "to liberate," "to set free."

Though there was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, where sacrifices for sin were made, and there were daily sacrifices in the Temple for sin, these were acts of repentance and devotion to the covenant with God. The Law of Moses never describes sacrifices as substitutes. Animal sacrifice was part of the covenant/relationship system. Blood was a sign and seal of a covenant. That is why at the Last Supper, the Matthew text today, Jesus says, "This is my blood of the Covenant poured out for many." Blood, in ceremonial use, was understood to seal the covenant. In ancient Israel, blood sprinkled on the people renewed the covenant signifying that they were cleansed and made new. This is rehearsed in the text from Hebrews this morning (That is what "washed in the blood" really means).

The other image that we tend to misinterpret is that of Jesus as "The Lamb of God." This is associated with Jesus and his death primarily in the Gospel of John. It is no accident that the crucifixion happens at the time of the Passover. Remember, the Passover is the Jew's celebration of liberation from bondage to Egypt and subsequently it is a sign of God keeping the covenant with the Israelites. God hears the cries of the people and acts to liberate them. Though the language of sacrifice is used, there is no hint of substitution, and the Paschal Lamb is not sacrificed on behalf of sin. The lamb and other sacrifices are eaten as an act of communion with God, not to appease God.

Jesus as the Paschal Lamb is a profound symbol of God's love for the people remembering the captivity of the people, and setting them free to a new way. When John's Gospel arranges the timing of Jesus' crucifixion as the time the Pascal Lamb is killed, he is saying in the clearest possible way that Jesus is the new Passover, the Liberation of the people. "Salvation," as you may remember means "liberation."

The Christian Scriptures also make it very clear that Jesus is the final sacrifice, thus, the whole Temple sacrificial system is done away with. You see, in that day, only in the Temple could such sacrifices be done. The Temple, for Jesus and his followers, represented the whole ruling elite that, along with Rome, were part of the oppression of the people. The Temple was the sole arbiter of one's access to God. So, in the first century context, for followers of Jesus, saying that Jesus (not the Temple) is the sacrifice for sin (the blood that renews the covenant) is a statement of astounding liberation! It subverts, once and for all, the Temple's monopoly on God and who is worthy to come before the Lord. Matthew makes the same statement. When Jesus breathed his last, the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. That is, the curtain that separated the inner sanctum - the symbolic dwelling place of God - from the people is torn asunder.

You can see, that only from a misunderstanding of the sacramental system of first- century Judaism, we can get to a theory of the cross that says Jesus died (in its crudest form) in our place to appease an angry God. But how did that get to be the nearly universal understanding (or misunderstanding) of the meaning of the cross? Onto the stage comes Bishop Anslem 1,100 years after Jesus.

Ever since Augustine, 400 years after Jesus, "the doctrine of sin was elaborated into a doctrine of universal or 'original' sin that was correlated with the idea of eternal punishment as the proper effect of divine justice." (Jennings) (Original sin is not "original" to the Bible, it is original to Augustine.) This came to full flower (or was it thorn?) in John Calvin! Anselm in the twelfth century actually believed in God's benevolence. The problem for him was that God's will to save is blocked by an idea of divine justice that simply cannot overlook sin as damage to the honor of God. His reasoning goes that given the one offended is the God of all things, an infinite sacrifice is required. A mere mortal whose life is finite certainly cannot repay an infinite debt. Only one who is himself divine can pay the price, restore the honor of God, and thus right the scales of justice. This made sense in that feudal system with its idealized notions of Chivalry and honor. (Of course, it also served the lords and the church to keep the people in line.)

What this led to, in conjunction with the dire living situation of the people from the middle ages to the Reformation, is an increasing emphasis on the wrath of God, linked to human sin. We see it all the way up to the fiery preachers in the eighteenth century like Jonathan Edwards - "Sinners in the hands of an angry God." (We saw it in that seventeenth-century hymn we sang.) We see it in many churches and TV evangelists in our day. With all this noise and repetition over the ages, it began to seem self-evident that they are right - that the aim of the atonement was to appease an angry God, so "for us" meant "in our place." These ideas, then, get read back into how we interpret words in the Bible like "ransom," or "sacrifice" to mean substitution. It also affects translation.

In the Romans passage read this morning, our translation says "we will be saved from the wrath of God," implying divine punishment. However, in the Greek, it is not the "wrath of God." It is simply "the wrath" - quite likely meaning social upheaval. In fact, the "wrath of God" makes no sense there, because Paul is talking not about God being angry at the people, but the people removing themselves from God.

You see, that is what Anselm and those of that ilk get wrong. The Christian Scriptures do not talk about an angry God. God does not need to be appeased. Humanity is alienated from God, not the other way around.

Paul and the Gospel writers understand that the problem is NOT God needing to be appeased, but that the people need to be drawn back to God. God is more willing to receive us than we are to seek God. That is Jesus' point in the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is Paul's point in many places including Romans 5:8, "But God proves God's love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." What is done in the Christ event is NOT to turn God around; it is to turn us around. What is done in the cross is to show solidarity with the people, to show us the way of faithfulness, and the incomparable love of God that will not leave us desolate.

I pray that we can get beyond the language and system in which this profound truth is communicated in the first century in order to get to the experience of Jesus' followers. That experience resulted in the profound claim that the very One of God lived and died for the love of humanity and the enterprise of building the just and peaceable realm.

Praise and thanks be to God. Amen