5th Sunday of Lent
April 6, 2014
When I was in Jr. High, I went to church camp with the same director every year. I loved the camp songs and the Bible studies and the water balloon fights Truth be told, I also kind of loved the camp director’s high-school-aged son. I loved staying in a cabin with my friends and watching silly skits at the talent show. And then, the culmination of the week: the final night’s campfire chapel service.
The director had his sermon down cold. Every year, the same emotion-wrought description of the crucifixion: the details of torture and agony; the tears streaming down his face as he said, “Every time you sin, you are pounding those nails deeper and deeper into Jesus’ palms;” the description of the spear going into Jesus’ side, the blood and water pouring out. Our director told us that, from a medical perspective, blood and water would separate if the heart was damaged–so Jesus literally died of a broken heart because of our sinful ways. Then, of course, came the altar call with teenagers crying and walking down the aisle. Our denominational newsletter always published a count of how many kids had been saved at camp every summer.
To be fair, my mom did express some concerns about subjecting me to that theology for a week every summer. Still, I loved camp and told her I could handle it.
And I could handle it, sort of. The truth is, though, that this story of the crucifixion is really easier to avoid than it is to handle. That’s why I wanted to do this Lenten series on the crucifixion: because my tendency is to avoid this violent, complex, disconcerting narrative, but we have to deal with it, because the crucifixion story is central to all four Gospel narratives. The cross is a central symbol in our visual spaces and our hymns and literature. If we want to have a fully developed understanding of our Christian faith, we have to acknowledge the cross, and we have to figure out–or at least think faithfully about–what the cross means.
It’s not just an intellectual exercise. How we view this story affects how we view God and each other. And how we view God and each other affects how we honor God and how we treat each other.
So this morning, we come to our fourth week looking at the story of the crucifixion. What I certainly didn’t know as I listened to those camp sermons is that John’s is the only Gospel that includes the the guards breaking the legs of the other crucifixion victims while leaving Jesus’ legs intact. It’s only in John that the blood and water flow out of Jesus’ pierced side. According to John, both of these actions serve to fulfill scripture. Brown points out that they also link Jesus to the Paschal lamb–the animal sacrificed for the Jewish celebration of Passover.
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, John the Baptist calls Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” It’s the only Gospel in which Jesus is referred to in this way. John’s version of the crucifixion also suggests this designation for Jesus. For one thing, the timing in John is different from the timing in the other Gospels.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples on Thursday–the night he is arrested. In John, that Last Supper is not a Passover meal, but just a meal. In John, Jesus is crucified the day before Passover; the day–even the hour–when the Passover lamb was to be slaughtered. Also in John, when Jesus complains that he is thirsty, they put the vinegar-soaked sponge on a stalk of hyssop–which really makes no practical sense. Symbolically, though, hyssop was used to sprinkle the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of Jewish homes. Then John tells us Jesus’ legs were not broken–because the sacrificial animal must be whole. And then the cleansing blood/water comes pouring from Jesus’ side.
Indeed, John goes to great lengths to present Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” And I find myself wondering: What does that mean?
In the 11th Century, Anselm articulated an understanding of the crucifixion known as “substitutionary atonement.” The idea is that human sin requires punishment by God, and Jesus stood in as our substitute. Basically, we all deserve damnation, but Jesus died in our place so that we will be able to go to heaven instead of hell when we die. Of course, that’s a rough, simplified version, but it’s the basic understanding of the crucifixion in Western Christianity still today. It’s the idea behind the impassioned sermons at my Jr. High summer camp, and any number of sermons you could hear in any number of churches this morning, and a myriad of Christian hymns and writings.
But I wonder, is that what the writer of John’s Gospel means by calling Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”? Does the author intend to imply that Jesus takes away our sins by suffering punishment in our place? By paying a price that we cannot pay ourselves to reconcile us to God?
This view of of the crucifixion is called into question by an increasing number of theologians. This past week I attended a discussion with Mennonite theologian J. Denny Weaver, who talked about how to preach the cross and the problems with this substitutionary understanding.
One critique, that has emerged primarily from feminist and womanist theologians, is that the traditional reading of the crucifixion amounts to “divine child abuse.” In the Gospels, Jesus frequently refers to God as “Abba”–Father, Daddy. And in this dominant view of the crucifixion, it is God, the Father, who requires Jesus to die. God willfully subjects his son to torture and death in order to fulfill some kind of holiness requirement that God has for the world.
J. Denny Weaver said that he believes the “divine child abuse” accusation is accurate. There are all kinds of problems with a god who would require the torture and death of his child.
So my friend Joshua Paul Smith, who has preached here before, asked him, “What about understanding Jesus’ identity not primarily as the Son of God, but as Godself? Then the cross is not divine child abuse, but a willing submission, a sacrifice God makes on our behalf.”
“That,” said Weaver, “is taking divine child abuse and replacing it with divine suicide. I don’t think that is much better.”
The problem, according to Weaver, is the very notion that God requires violence in any form. Weaver rejects the notion that God desires or requires any kind of suffering and death as a means of reconciling humanity to Godself. God is big enough to enact reconciliation without violence.
For a pacifist, his arguments make a lot of sense. If we believe God wills peace and justice, then we cannot understand the crucifixion–that incredibly violent and deeply unjust event–as being in line with the will of God.
So where does that leave us during Lent–or any time, really–living within the Jesus story that has, at its crux (literally), this story of violent death?
I know this is a lot of theology for a Sunday morning. I did ask Ryan if he thought this topic would be interesting or too theological. As we talked about it he said, “It is interesting to think about why this imagery of Jesus as the Passover lamb would have been so important to John.”
And I said, “That’s because you’re the historian. I’m the pastor and I think what is interesting is to consider how our understanding of the crucifixion shapes our lives now–how if affects our relationships with God and each other.”
“Well,” he said, “figuring out what John meant and why it was important to him can help us figure out what it could mean for us today.”
And of course he is right. So I’ve been wondering ever since: “What the heck was John thinking?”
This phrasing from John the Baptist, that Jesus is a lamb who “takes away the sin,” brings to mind the scapegoat–the animal upon which the sins of the community were placed. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the priest would symbolically put the sins of the community onto two goats. One was then sacrificed on the altar and the other was released into the wilderness, carrying the community’s sins away with it.
But in the crucifixion narrative, John does not position Jesus as the scapegoat–which several scholars point out. He clearly places Jesus in the role of the Paschal Lamb–the animal sacrificed the night before the Passover feast. This feast, of course, was to commemorate God freeing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. When the angel of death swept through Egypt killing all the first-born sons, it was the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts that kept death away from the Israelite families. It was the flesh of the lamb that was eaten at the Passover meal, nourishing the people for the long journey ahead.
“This is my body. This is my blood.”
Father Patrick Henry Reardon, an Orthodox pastor, writes that the Paschal Lamb represents “the embodiment of liberation from slavery.” It is connected not to symbolic forgiveness that leads to eternal life, but to actual, literal, this-world salvation from the angel of death; the Pascal lamb is not to some symbolic freedom from sin, like the scapegoat, but to freedom from physical slavery in Egypt.
When we see the crucifixion through John’s eyes, we see Jesus’ bleeding body as a sign of salvation and liberation in this world–not just the next. And we see that it is a salvation enacted within and on behalf of the community–the whole idea behind Passover is the saving of the community as a whole. It is not some private transaction that happens in an individual heart when we pray a special prayer offering to trade our sin for Jesus’ salvation.
For the writer of John, the crucifixion is definitely connected to salvation, but maybe not salvation in the way much of the contemporary Western Church has come to understand and proclaim it.
This more complete understanding of the symbolism John establishes here can serve as a corrective to an over-spiritualized, over-individualized, understanding of Christ’s saving work.
Understanding this connection John makes between Jesus and the Paschal lamb can lead us to an understanding of salvation that is more earthy and community-based than traditional understandings. But it still leaves open those questions about divine child abuse and divine suicide. Does God as Father require the slaughter of this Paschal Lamb to enact liberation for the people? Does Jesus as God provoke his own death because it is necessary for liberation?
It matters deeply whether or not we think violence is necessary for salvation. The idea of violence as redemptive fuels the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex; it justifies abuse and torture and war. As Christians who follow the Prince of Peace, we should be very concerned about the ways the central story of our faith gets used to affirm this connection between violence and salvation.
Now I’m not saying that the cross is not violent. Of course the crucifixion was terribly violent. But does the cross represent God’s violence?
J. Denny Weaver says that Jesus’ mission on earth was not to die for our sins. According to Weaver, Jesus mission was to make the reign of God visible. He argues that the cross was not a necessary part of God’s plan; the cross was the reaction of a sinful system to the presence of a holy God.
In other words, violence was not necessary for redemption and salvation.
I’ve struggled with these questions about the cross for a long time, and think I have moved beyond those Jr. High camp sermons. Now, when I see the cross, I do not see God’s violence. I do not see divine child abuse or divine suicide.
I see human sin–human tendency toward misunderstanding and fear and injustice and violence.
And I see Jesus hanging there, not because he is acting out some preordained divine salvation scheme that requires a blood sacrifice, but because he is committed to loving us fully.
Jesus’ death on the cross is not an enactment of divine violence, it is a sign of divine love. The crucifixion is central to our faith because it reveals God’s commitment to love us even in the face of our most violent and destructive tendencies; the cross shows God’s commitment to love us through our sin . . . all the way to the other side.