The Cross Was His Throne

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By Mauricio García Vega (Mauricio García Vega) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“This is the King of the Jews.”

That’s what the sign at the top of the cross read.  The irony was not lost on those who saw it, nor was it lost to history.  Kings were usually crowned while sitting on thrones, not hanging from crosses.  But this Jesus was a different kind of king.  For him, the cross was his throne.

In the ancient world, it would have been unthinkable for a cross to serve as a throne.  Crucifixion represented everything that was the opposite of kingship.  Kings were blessed but crucified people were cursed.  Kings were honored but crucified people were ridiculed.  Kings were dressed in flowing robes but crucified people were stripped naked.  Kings were beautiful but crucifixion was ugly.  Yet, in spite of this, unbelievably, the cross was his throne.

Crucifixion was not just any old punishment.  A criminal was not crucified for stealing bread or cheating on his taxes.  No, crucifixion was a special punishment reserved for a special kind of criminal.  The criminals crucified with Jesus were what we would now call terrorists.  They were insurrectionists, religious fanatics bent on a violent agenda to overthrow the Roman government.  If one wants to get a clear picture of just how radical it was for Jesus to forgive the sins of the criminal next to him, one should imagine that criminal as Osama bin Laden, because that’s who he most closely resembled.  It was rare for crucified people to be buried in that time because most of them were simply left there to rot: their bones picked clean by birds and eventually scattered across the landscape.  Their families were so ashamed that most would never again so much as speak the name of their crucified loved one.  Most crucified people were utterly lost to history, but not King Jesus.  No, for him, the cross was his throne.

When we look back at Jesus’ life as it is presented to us in the New Testament, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that this King of kings would reign from a cross, rather than a throne.  After all, how did he come into the world?  Did he come riding a white horse with banners unfurled and a terrible swift sword at his side?  Did he appear at Caesar’s palace in Rome saying, “Hey Caesar, I just want to let you know that your days are numbered!”?  Was he born into a wealthy family at the center of the halls of power?  No, he was born in a manger, in a stable, outside an overbooked motel, in a teeny little one-horse town, in a forgotten corner, in a troublesome province, in a distant part of the Roman Empire.  His parents were working-class peasants.  Our Christmas pageants and Nativity scenes have made the story of Jesus’ birth into a sweet, warm fairy tale, but the reality would have been quite different.  He was born in a barn.  Have you ever smelled a barn where animals are kept?  It doesn’t smell very good.  His mother placed him in a manger.  A manger is a place where pig slop went.  It probably wasn’t very sanitary either.  In today’s terms, Jesus’ mother would have given birth in a dumpster behind a Motel 6.  And the shepherds who visited him?  They weren’t very pretty either.  Shepherding was not considered an honorable profession in those days.  They would have been treated with the same indifference and contempt that truckers, janitors, garbage men, and McDonald’s drive-thru workers receive today.  So you see, from the very beginning of Jesus’ life, we can pick up hints that he would not be a king like other kings, so that we wouldn’t be surprised to discover in the end that the cross was his throne.

As he set out into his life’s work, Jesus continued to defy expectations for a respectable monarch.  He held court with tax collectors and sinners.  His royal advisors were fishermen, his treasurer was a thief, and his attendants were prostitutes.  They probably couldn’t have a royal cupbearer because the wine would have run out before the cup ever got to the king.  And they almost certainly didn’t have a court jester because, let’s face it: they were all court jesters in some way.  Based on the company he kept, it’s no surprise that the cross was his throne.

The upstanding citizens of the moral majority and the religious right in his day had nothing good to say about Jesus.  They were the self-proclaimed protectors of traditional family values and Jesus was the biggest threat to their agenda.  He called himself a rabbi, but they knew that no real rabbi would build such a rag-tag, permissive, tolerant, and inclusive community.  Jesus questioned their established theological dogmas.  He reinterpreted the Bible in ways that made them uncomfortable.  He seemed to have little respect for their traditions, so they had little respect for him.  Based on his relationship with the religious leaders of his day, we can see why the cross was his throne.

Finally, we come to the end of his life, the moment his followers had been waiting for, when all that he had been building toward came to its fulfillment.  He rode triumphantly into town on a donkey’s back in a staged fulfillment of a prophecy from the book of Zechariah.  He barged into the temple, flipping over tables, and sent the moneychangers packing.  He said he was about to clean up this town and make his Father’s house into a house of prayer for all nations once again.  His followers were understandably stoked at this new development.  They realized that this was the moment when the King of kings and Lord of lords, the long-awaited Messiah, would ascend his throne and establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.  But what they didn’t realize is that the cross was his throne.

On the day of his crucifixion, his royal robes were stained with his own blood, his crown was made of thorns, and the cross was his throne.

Above his head hung that awful, ironic sign, “This is the king of the Jews.”  From the outside, the whole scene seems like a horrible, macabre parody of kingship.  But here’s the thing: he really was a king.  For Christians, he is the King of kings.  In spite of (or perhaps because of) his unconventional life and ignominious death, Jesus has gone on to touch and inspire more people than any other single person in history.  For those of us who are his followers, who pledge our allegiance to his kingdom of heaven on earth, Jesus is our paradigm: his life provides us with the lens through which we interpret our lives.  As we make our way out into the world, we go as Christ’s ambassadors.  The way in which we represent him to the world should be consistent with the way he himself walked through the world.  And remember: the cross was his throne.

The king who reigns from the cross is fundamentally different from the king who reigns from a throne.  The kings of this world, the powers that be, force their will on others through bullets, bombs, bucks, and ballots.  Let me show you what I mean: when you dive around town, do you try to keep pretty close to the speed limit?  Do you do it because you love America?  Probably not.  Most of us drive the speed limit because we don’t want to get a ticket.  That’s the power of fear.  Private companies get you to buy their products by appealing to your sense of greed, lust, or vanity.  They promise you a better, longer, happier life, but they don’t really care about you.  They just want your money and they will tell you anything you want to hear in order to get it.  That’s advertising.  That’s the power of manipulation.  But Jesus is different.  He doesn’t depend on the power of fear or manipulation as his weapons because the cross is his throne.

Jesus rules the world from within through the power of love.  Love is amazing.  People will do things for the sake of love that they could never be forced into by law or the barrel of a gun.  Love gets new parents out of bed in the middle of the night for 3am feedings.  Love leads partners and spouses to sacrifice time, money, and energy for the sake of the relationship.  Love led Rev. Frank Schafer, a Methodist minister, to put his ordination credentials on the line when he officiated at his son’s wedding to another man, a crime for which he was tried and convicted by the United Methodist Church, just this past week.  Love led Mother Teresa to the streets of Calcutta to care for orphans.  Love led Rosa Parks to defy a racist law on a bus one evening in 1955.  Love led Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Oscar Romero to speak out against injustice at the cost of their own lives.  Love led King Jesus to the cross, and the cross was his throne.

The people all around Jesus at Calvary kept shouting, “Save yourself!  Save yourself!” but Jesus chose to save others instead.  Jesus could have ordered his followers to rise up and kill, but Jesus chose to die instead.  That’s the power of love.  It was love, not nails, that kept Jesus on the cross.  And that’s why the cross, which once signified shame and death, has become for us the symbol of faith, hope, and undying love.  From the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ reigns in our hearts by the power of love and so it is that the cross is his throne.

The Old Rugged Cross: Rene Girard and the Resurrection of Substitutionary Atonement

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St. Martin’s Cross, Iona Abbey. Image by Colin Smith. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

 

Friends and commentators from all over the theological spectrum have mentioned that I don’t seem to have given susbstitutionary atonement theory its due in my post from earlier this week, The Wrath of God and the Presbyterian Hymnal.

In that post, I leaned heavily on presenting substitutionary atonement as “cosmic child abuse” (an excellent turn of phrase I’m borrowing from Sarah Sanderson-Doughty).  I wrote:

…penal substitution sets up a scenario where Jesus saves humanity from the rage (not the wrath) of an out-of-control, abusive parent.  When all is said and done, the church gathers around a crucifix and hears, “This is your fault.  Look at what you made God do.  You are so bad and dirty that God had to torture and kill this beautiful, innocent person so that he wouldn’t do the same thing to you.  Therefore, you’d better shape up and be thankful or else God will change his mind and torture you for all eternity.  And don’t forget: this is Good News and God loves you.”  If any human parent did that, he or she would be rightly incarcerated, even if the innocent victim was willing.  If that’s what Christianity is, then you can count me out.

Sadly, this (admittedly extreme) depiction accurately portrays substitutionary atonement as it was presented to me by fundamentalist pastors and teachers I encountered in high school and college. 

However, I realize that thoughtful evangelicals and catholics will cringe at my presentation, since they accept the theory, but not in its “cosmic child abuse” form.  For them, it represents the epitome of love and sacrifice.  I remember seeing an art project made by a teenager that showed one person pushing another out of the path of an oncoming car with John 15:13 written across the top: “Greater love hath no man (sic) than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  For them, substitutionary atonement is precisely the opposite of child abuse: it is the ultimate standard of loving sacrifice, established by Jesus himself, to which every parent, spouse, and friend should aspire.

I understand and respect this angle, but I suspect that many of these more informed and compassionate evangelicals and catholics may not realize what is being propagated in their name.  The heresy of “cosmic child abuse” is alive and well in traditional, orthodox congregations and parishes the world over.  Curious outsiders and wounded insiders are being exposed to violent, hateful theology and end up rejecting Christianity at large based on this misrepresentation.  That’s why I think it is incumbent upon liberals, evangelicals, and catholics alike to think well about what their atonement theology does mean to them and then speak up (loud and often) to counterbalance the voices of violence and hate that dominate public media in Jesus’ name.

With that in mind, I thought I might revisit the subject of substitutionary atonement today and present what I think are some of the more positive contributions it might make to the Christian theological project, writ large.  Sections of this article have been lifted and adapted from my reply to a comment on the previous post.

Many of the New Testament passages dealing with substitutionary atonement center around interpreting the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion through the lens of sacrificial worship in Second Temple Judaism. The use of such a schema made total sense as an apologetic strategy in that time and place (much like Anselm’s strategy made sense in feudal Britain).

Jesus, of course, is presented as the priest and the sacrifice that supersede the Temple cult. The temple authorities claimed exclusive access to God through their rituals and institution. The early Christians, on the other hand, used this priest/sacrifice imagery to legitimate their own Christocentric practice while demonstrating its continuity with traditional Judaism. The language of temple, priest, and sacrifice would have helped the gospel make sense to a first century Jewish mind. Obviously, the strategy worked: Christians and Pharisees were the only forms of Judaism to survive the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. This interpretive schema gave Christians the framework they needed to survive without a standing Temple.

The Pharisees, for their part, had the Torah, the synagogue, and the family home as centers for their faith-practice. They went on to complete the Talmuds and form the basis for modern rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. The Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots all pretty much died out as movements by the end of the second century.

Substitutionary atonement, understood within the cultural context of Second Temple Judaism, makes total sense as a first century apologetic strategy. It’s actually rather brilliant and obviously effective, given the lasting impact it’s had on the development of Christian atonement theory. The scholastic Anselm further developed the idea susbstitutionary atonement in the 11th century as part of his own brilliant and timely apologetic effort.

My only problem with it is when it is used as the primary or only legitimate atonement theory in our day. Such a narrow focus ignores the multiple other models for salvation presented by scripture and tradition. I fear that a one-sided emphasis on individual guilt and forgiveness through substitutionary atonement is unnecessarily handcuffing our evangelistic efforts by ignoring the many ways in which the gospel might be interpreted, preached, understood, and received by people today.

In addition to priest and purifying sacrifice, Christ can also be embraced as a physician for the sick, a liberator for the oppressed, a light in the darkness, food and drink for hungry souls, or a friend for the lonely. My hope is that Christians today might let these many images take root in our imaginations so that we might be inspired to become more faithful and effective witnesses of Christ in word and deed.

Rene Girard is one writer whose work presents, in my opinion, some rich possibilities for understanding the crucifixion of Jesus as a substitutionary sacrifice.  A Roman Catholic scholar of mythology, Girard identifies patterns of mimetic violence at work in the development of religions and societies.

From birth, human beings are presented with models that we are meant to imitate.  This happens on a primal level with one’s parents and siblings.  As societies grow, our caches of models will grow as well.  Post-industrial consumer capitalism in the Information Age presents us with a greater supply of models than any other culture in the history of the planet.

As imitators of models, we compete with one another.  Over time, our competition grows fierce.  The “war of all against all” (thank you, Hobbes) threatens to unravel the fabric of society and return us to primal chaos.

At this point, according to Girard, a scapegoat is chosen: someone at whom the rest of society can redirect the energy of their internal conflict and self-hatred.  The scapegoat is made to bear the blame for this conflict and is summarily sacrificed.

In the wake of the sacrifice, the mimetic conflict is temporarily relieved and the community enjoys a period of relative peace and stability.  Previously blamed for the violence, the scapegoat is now credited as the source of the temporary peace and is deified as a god.  Girard’s theory is that this is how the deities of classical mythology received their identities.  The cycle of violence then resets and repeats itself.

Applying his theory of mimetic violence to his own Roman Catholic theology, Girard presents Jesus as the willing scapegoat.  Jesus deliberately enters into the cycle of mimetic violence with the intention of stopping it.  He is aware of what is involved in that process and embraces the role of scapegoat.

According to this reading of the atonement, Jesus is still “sacrificed for our sins” but the wrath he is appeasing is not the wrath of God, but the rage of sinful, selfish humans.  He substitutes himself in the place of all other scapegoats who endure the unjust violence of society.

In the resurrection, God intervenes to vindicate the scapegoat, unmasking and disarming the patterns of mimetic violence.  Christians, as followers of Jesus the willing and vindicated scapegoat, are called to side with all future scapegoats and end the cycles of violence and exclusion, even if it means being crucified ourselves.

Rene Girard’s theory presents us with a way of unserstanding susbtitutionary atonement that can redeem it as a viable apologetic strategy in this consumer capitalist society, just as Anselm of Canterbury and the New Testament authors used it in their respective eras.

In this Girardian sense, I am able to reclaim substitutionary atonement and “cling to the old rugged cross”.  I see in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection the end of all hate and violence.  I look forward to a time when all humanity will “exchange [the old rugged cross] one day for a crown” as cycles of mimetic violence come to an end.

Befriending the Cross

Michael Servetus (1511-1553)
Michael Servetus (1511-1553)

Hidden in the annals of Christian history are stories we’d rather not tell.

The Church of Christ has not always done well at emulating the life and love of its Lord and Savior.  As a matter of fact, we’ve been downright evil for much of the time.  One need only mention the Crusades or the Salem Witch Trials to get an idea of what I’m talking about.  One such example comes from the very roots of our own Presbyterian tradition:

Back in the 1500s, when John Calvin was preaching in the Swiss city of Geneva, a guy named Michael Servetus blew into town.  He was on the run from the Catholic Church after being arrested for heresy and then breaking out of prison.  Servetus was a Unitarian, meaning that he did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity: the belief in one God, consisting of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The fugitive Servetus made a bad choice in putting Geneva on his travel itinerary.  John Calvin, whose opinions had a powerful influence on city politics, had no more love for Servetus than the Catholic authorities had.  Calvin himself had previously written to a friend, “If [Servetus] comes here… I will never permit him to depart alive.”  And Calvin made good on his threat.  As soon as someone recognized Servetus attending worship at Calvin’s church, he was arrested, tried, and burned at the stake for heresy.  Michael Servetus’ last recorded words were, “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me.”

This is part of the dark side of Presbyterian history.  John Calvin is still remembered as the founder of the Reformed Tradition, of which the Presbyterian Church is a part.  In 1903, Calvin’s spiritual heirs in the city of Geneva erected a monument to the memory of Michael Servetus on the spot where he was burned.  The inscription on that monument condemns Calvin’s error and acknowledges that the true spirit of the Reformation can only exist where liberty of conscience is allowed to flourish.

It’s too little, too late for Servetus, but the gesture acknowledges that we’ve at least made a little progress in half a millennium.

In so many of these cases of heresy trials and stake burnings, there is an oft-repeated label that has been misappropriated from the New Testament and applied to the opponents of established orthodoxy.  That label is: “Enemies of the cross of Christ”.

You might have noticed that very phrase appearing in this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Paul wrote, “[M]any live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”

And just who are these “enemies”?  Paul is not clear on that.  At various points in church history, this term has been applied to Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Unitarians, and basically anyone else who’s theological views differ from the person applying the label at the time.  “Enemies of the cross of Christ” is a derogatory epithet used to identify others as “outsiders” and “heretics”.  Most of the time, it has been applied to emphasize doctrinal differences between religious groups.

I believe that such use of this phrase does violence to its original meaning in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  You see, in that letter, Paul never suggests that one’s religious affiliation or theological orientation are determinant of one’s status as an enemy of the cross of Christ.  For Paul, the truth goes much deeper than that: so deep, I would say, that the essence of this message can be found in the spiritual teachings of every mystic and every sage in every culture, every place, and every period of history.  Paul’s message of the cross is the story of people graduating from their small, self-centered lives to the larger, reality-centered Life.  Some have called it conversion, some salvation, some liberation, and some enlightenment.  For Paul, as for most Christians, the central symbol for this process of transformation is the cross of Christ.

The cross is the single most recognizable Christian symbol in the world.  Historically speaking, it was of course the instrument of torture and execution on which Jesus was killed.  Symbolically speaking, Christians have attached multiple levels of meaning to its significance.  Starting about a thousand years ago, a full millennium after Jesus was born, a British writer named Anselm of Canterbury came up with the idea that theologians now call “substitutionary atonement”.  You might not have heard that phrase before, but you probably have heard some preacher on the radio or television saying, “Jesus died for your sins.”  Substitutionary atonement is currently the most commonly known and accepted interpretation of the significance of the Jesus’ crucifixion, but the idea is only about half as old as Christianity itself.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul presents an entirely different understanding of the cross.  For Paul, the crucifixion event cannot be understood apart from the story of Christ’s resurrection.  According to Paul, these two events form a unified whole.  Neither one makes any sense without the other.

The crucifixion and resurrection, taken together, form the central image of the Christian spiritual journey.  In the process of transitioning from a self-centered to a reality-centered life, every Christian must undergo a kind of death and resurrection.  As Paul himself wrote elsewhere, in his letter to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”  Earlier in his letter to the Philippians, he writes in a similar vein:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In this early Christian hymn, Paul lays out the path of self-emptying, the path of the cross, which leads to resurrection and exaltation by God.  And this, he says, is not only the journey of Jesus himself, but also of every Christian who claims to bear his name.  Paul begins his hymn with the exhortation: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”.

A Christian then, in Paul’s eyes, is one who walks the path of the cross, who dies to the old, self-centered life and rises to the new, reality-centered Life.  One could say that a Christian is a “friend of the cross of Christ”.

By contrast, those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” are those who refuse to walk this path of metaphorical crucifixion and resurrection.  The Buddha might call them “unenlightened”.  Muhammad might call them “infidels”.  Harry Potter would probably call them “muggles”.

What can we learn about these “enemies of the cross of Christ”?  Well, since this status has more to do with one’s way of life than with one’s religious affiliation, I think we can say that they might belong to any tradition or no tradition at all.  We’re just as likely to find them in pews as in bars.

Here’s what Paul has to say about them: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly”.  This is an interesting way of putting it.  When Paul says, “their god is the belly” he obviously doesn’t mean their physical abdomens.  The belly is where one’s food goes after it is consumed.  The belly, in this sense, is the seat of desire.  The people who refuse to let go of their small, self-centered lives are worshiping their own desires and addictions.  What they want/need is most important to them.

For them, the primary concern is “my food, my money, my country, my church.”  Everything is all about I, me, my.  There is no big picture or larger context in which they see their lives.  That which benefits them is universally good.  That which hinders them is universally bad.  In every story, these folks never fail to cast themselves as either the heroes or the victims.  They’re always on the side of right.  They have all the answers.  Anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic who deserves to be burned at the stake.  This is what self-centered worship looks like.  These folks are what Paul refers to as “enemies of the cross of Christ.”  There is no self-sacrifice for them.  There is no denial of desire for the greater good.  There is no responsibility beyond one’s responsibility to one’s own self.  Self-centered existence.

What is the end result of this way of life?  Paul says it quite clearly: “Their end is destruction”.  This self-centered way of thinking and living can only lead to pain and death.  This is not some mysterious, mystical idea.  Think about it: what kind of world would this be if neighbors never went out of their way to help each other?  What if friends and family never forgave each other?  What if no one answered the call of charity or the obligation of justice for those who suffer?  I don’t know about you, but that’s not a world I would want to live in.  That selfish mentality can only lead to destruction, as Paul warns us.

The way of the cross is the way of sacrifice.  Jesus could have called upon his mass of followers to rise up and fight if he so desired.  Instead, he chose to walk the path of nonviolence.  He chose to suffer pain, rather than cause it.  He chose to die, rather than kill to protect what was rightfully his.  In so doing, Jesus set himself apart from every other revolutionary movement leader of his time.  His selfless sacrifice did not go unnoticed or unremembered.  He left his followers with a symbol and an image that would change the way they look at the world.

Christ’s willing submission to crucifixion, according to Paul, is the basis for his sovereignty over all creation.  For his followers, it is the model we follow for living our lives in the world.  The end-result of crucifixion is not death, but resurrection.  “Humiliation”, according to Paul, is transformed into “glory”.  Followers of the way of Christ must befriend the cross because it is the only way into the “abundant life” that Jesus intended for us to have.

Paul’s warning about the “enemies of the cross of Christ” is not a wholesale condemnation of those who hold different theological views from Paul’s, or John Calvin’s, or mine.  Paul’s warning applies to all of us, no matter what religion we espouse.  With tears, Paul is pleading with us to realize that our little lives, ruled by our own selfish desires and preferences, lead only to destruction.

The flip side of Paul’s warning is that those who befriend the cross, who walk the path of self-sacrifice for the greater good, like Jesus did, are sure to receive resurrection, salvation, and enlightenment.  These are the true saints, the blessed ones who discover the meaning of life.  These are the real Christians: the friends of the cross of Christ.

May it be so for you, for me, and for all who seek the greater good, the life abundant, in the name (or the spirit) of Jesus Christ.

How Important is the Afterlife?

Ok class,

My classes will never be as cool as this guy's.

Time to sit up and pay attention.  I’m asking YOU a question today, so I want to see lots of answers and comments down below!

This is a question that my philosophy students at Utica College are pondering and discussing this week and I thought it would be fun to put it before you.

I was having lunch at a cafe yesterday when someone walked up and handed me a religious pamphlet that asked whether I knew for sure that I was going to heaven when die.  This is an interesting question.

It’s even more interesting that so many in the fundamentalist camp choose to start their evangelistic pitch with this question.  If one’s faith is based on fear for the ego’s survival in an unknown afterlife, then it doesn’t seem to be qualitatively different from the dog-eat-dog drive for survival in this world.

I’m not trying to disparage eternal hope for anyone, but during Holy Week, Christians celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus was willing to sacrifice himself.  His vision and ultimate concern was much larger than his drive for egoic survival.  He embraced death willingly and so became the primary model by which Christians measure their faith.

There is an extent to which I believe we Christians are called to do the same.  Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  Christians like to remind each other that Christ died for us, but there is also a very real sense in which we are called to die with Christ.  We are participants, not merely consumers, in the unfolding drama of eternity.

Friedrich Schleiermacher said it like this in On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799):

Religion is the outcome neither of the fear of death, nor of the fear of God. It answers a deep need in man. It is neither a metaphysic, nor a morality, but above all and essentially an intuition and a feeling. … Dogmas are not, properly speaking, part of religion: rather it is that they are derived from it. Religion is the miracle of direct relationship with the infinite; and dogmas are the reflection of this miracle. Similarly belief in God, and in personal immortality, are not necessarily a part of religion; one can conceive of a religion without God, and it would be pure contemplation of the universe; the desire for personal immortality seems rather to show a lack of religion, since religion assumes a desire to lose oneself in the infinite, rather than to preserve one’s own finite self.

The question I am putting before you, superfriends and blogofans, is taken from chapter 9 of William Rowe’s Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction.

How important to religion is the belief in personal survival after death?  Do you think that religion must stand or fall with this belief?  Can you imagine a viable religion which accepts the view that death ends everything?  What would such a religion be like?  Explain.

Post your answer in the comments below!

My September 11th Sermon

Bulletin cover from this morning’s service. Presbyterian bulletin covers are not usually this cool.

I normally wait until after church to post my sermon, but I’m doing it early today, given it’s time-sensitive nature.  The recording will be up later.

My text is Matthew 18:21-35.

To be perfectly honest, I’ve been dreading this sermon all year, ever since I learned that today’s date would fall on a Sunday and I would have to get up into this pulpit and say something meaningful.  I wasn’t sure whether I should just ignore the day and preach the lectionary text from Matthew or cut whatever else we had planned for today and just focus on what I know is on everyone’s mind.  After agonizing over it all year, I can’t really think of any other way to begin except by coming right out and saying it:

Today’s date is the 11th of September.  And we’ve come together this morning to remember something important that happened.  Some of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when the news of this event first struck us speechless while others have simply grown up hearing about it.  It was a great injustice.  It was a horrifying spectacle that still leaves us in shock and awe.  For days afterward, people could do little else than huddle together behind closed doors and drawn curtains.  They held each other and sobbed, knowing that, whatever else they had hoped their future might be, it had now changed forever.  It was a watershed moment that defined who we are as people.  The very worst in the human race came face to face with the very best in the human race.  The events of that day brought us together as a community like nothing else ever could.  More than any other before or after it, this event taught us to admire and respect and love those individuals who lay down their lives and make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of others.  Because of that which we remember this morning, none of us will ever be the same ever again.

The event that I am describing here is not the attack on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93 that took place ten years ago today.  The event that I’m describing here is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Before I go on, I feel like I should pause and tell you that I’m not trying to be flippant or witty about the events of September 11, 2001.  Nor am I trying to disrespect the memory of a national tragedy by twisting it into an opportunity for religious proselytism.  What I’m trying to do is reflect on who we are as Christians and human beings on this particular day.  I want to take the smaller events of our personal stories and understand them in the larger context of God’s big Story.

The cross is one of the most universally recognizable symbols in the world.  Ask almost anyone, regardless of their religious affiliation, to name one Christian symbol and most people will probably mention the cross.  More than any other event in history, what happened on the cross shows us who we are as followers of the way of Christ.

On the night of his wrongful arrest, Jesus assured Peter that he had the power to call down legions of warrior angels to annihilate the world in his defense.  However, we know that Jesus didn’t do that.  Instead, Jesus looked down from the cross at his executioners and prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

Most of us who read that story with the benefit of two thousand years’ distance find this gesture admirable but also pitiful.  “It’s a generous sentiment,” we say, “but you can’t live that way.  It wouldn’t work!  People would walk all over you!”  We don’t believe there is any actual power in Jesus’ prayer, so we dismiss this noble gesture as a product of his divinity and proceed to hide behind a comfortable curtain of systematic theology in which we benefit from the effects of that forgiveness without ever actually having to experience it.

But Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook that easily.  Teaching about forgiveness in today’s gospel reading from Matthew 18, Jesus assures us that the only way to remain assured of God’s forgiveness is to give forgiveness away.  “Blessed are the merciful,” Jesus says, “for they will receive mercy.”

The passage begins with a legitimate question from Peter about the reasonable limits of forgiveness.  He says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  Jesus’ response is ridiculous and shocking, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”  He then tells a cautionary tale about two people: one with an impossibly large debt and another with a trivial one.  The first debtor owes ten thousand talents to the creditor.  How much is that in today’s terms?  Well, a “talent” is a term of measurement.  The parable doesn’t tell us exactly what was being measured but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we’re talking about talents of gold.  Let’s use today’s gold price ($1,855.15 per ounce) times 16 ounces in a pound times 71 pounds in a talent times ten thousand talents, and we end up with a debt of $21,074,504,000.  That’s how much this first person owed.  That’s how much debt the creditor forgave!

The second debtor owed one hundred denarii.  A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wages for a laborer.  Let’s put that in today’s terms using New York state’s current minimum wage.  That’s $7.25 an hour times eight hours in a workday times one hundred days, and we get $5,800.  This person’s lending firm received a twenty-one billion dollar bailout yet foreclosed on a debt of less than six thousand dollars.  According to Jesus, those are some messed up priorities.

The unmerciful servant in this parable was a person who was adamantly unwilling to look at the smaller issue of the debt he was owed in relation to the massive debt he was forgiven.  He would not understand the smaller events of his personal story in the larger context of God’s Story.  Forgiven people have an obligation to spread their amnesty over as wide a field as possible.  Otherwise, they are only robbing themselves.  The paradoxical irony of heaven’s economy is that those who keep forgiveness for themselves will lose it while those who give it away will keep it forever.

But forgiveness is also a dangerous business.  It is demonstrably true that one cannot guarantee economic security or national defense on a consistent doctrine of forgiveness.  Just look at Jesus himself.  When he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” he did not speak from the comfort of heaven’s glorious throne.  No, he forced those words out as he hung from the cross, bleeding and dying.  Jesus was a failed revolutionary who was branded as a “terrorist” by those who were fighting to protect their own national security and traditional family values.  One can imagine the Centurions and the Pharisees laughing at Jesus when they heard him say this.  His position at the time would have served as incontrovertible proof that forgiveness “does not work” as a strategy.  A few may have admired him for it, but everyone still walked away shaking their heads after this forgiving Messiah finally fell silent.

But you and I know that’s not the end of the story.  That night, they laid his body in a tomb and rested on the Sabbath.  Then, on the first day of the week, early in the morning, a few brave women made their way to Jesus’ tomb and when they got there, they couldn’t believe their eyes!  The stone had been rolled away from the entrance, the soldiers had passed out from fright, and angel stood in the entrance and asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here.”

Why not?  “He is risen.”  Today is the day that everything changes.  Death itself has begun to work backwards.  The dead come alive.  The blind see.  The deaf hear.  The mute sing.  The lame dance.  The weak are strong.  The foolish are wise.  The first are now last and last are now first.  The whole world is turning upside down.  Or is it right side up?

We know for a fact that forgiveness does not work.  Yet we believe in the truth beyond the facts.  We believe it when the Bible says that “mercy triumphs over judgment” and “love covers a multitude of sins.”  We believe it because that failed revolutionary who died in disgrace with forgiveness on his lips is now hailed as the most influential person in human history.  His ridiculous message of forgiveness outlasted the culture that gave it birth and the Roman Empire that tried to suppress it.  That message of forgiveness has now reached the shores of every continent on this planet and continues to spread as people like you and I choose to take our smaller personal stories and understand them in the larger context of God’s big Story.  We take the small debts that we must forgive and hold them up next to the huge debt that has been forgiven us.

It is true that September 11, 2001 changed us.  It was a horrifying spectacle and a tragic injustice.  It brought us together as a community.  We saw the very worst and the very best of humanity in action on that day.  Our future will never be the same because of it.  But September 11 does not dictate who we are.  If we take the events of that one story and look at them in the context of God’s big Story, then we will be able to see that it is the cross of Jesus Christ, seen and understood in the light of his Resurrection, that shows us who we really are.  As we move from our smaller stories to God’s big Story, which is what we do each week here in church, we will find all the strength we need for healing and yes, even forgiveness.