Sunday, 5 April 2015

Easter Vigil- Atonement as Victory over Evil

Easter Vigil- atonement as Victory over evil- directed to Evil[1]

For the last couple days we have been exploring the Atonement. At the very center of our faith stands a cross. What does the cross mean? What happened on the cross? ‘Atonement’ has been the word used to describe what happened. The word “atonement” means to bring two things into unity. We are told that what happened on the cross brought what was divided (God and humanity), into unity.
There are a variety of ways to understand the Atonement. I also want to remind you of what C. S. Lewis has said about the atonement- That understanding how it works is less important than understanding that it works. He says it is like nutrition. People were eating food and drinking long before there were any theories of how the body broke down food to nourish cells.  When you are hungry it is enough to eat, and it works.  Jesus’ work on the cross is like this. We don’t have to dedicate ourselves to one particular theory about how this works. What we are assured of in Scripture and the experience of the Church is that it does work.
That being said, the many ways of understanding the Atonement fall into three basic categories. They answer the question “where was the work of Christ on the cross directed?” Was it directed to human beings? Was it directed to God? Or was it directed to Evil?
On Thursday we considered the view that Jesus’ actions on the cross were directed towards humanity, which resulted in healing humanity, providing an example for them to follow, and expressing God’s amazing and unending love that draws alienated humanity back to Himself.
There are two other basic ways to view Atonement. On Friday we considered the cross as directed to God. Viewed this way the actions of Jesus can be seen as the actions of a representative or a substitute for humanity that stands before a profoundly mysterious and holy God that is unable to have the corruption of sin in His presence. Jesus pays a debt we owe God, or receives a punishment we deserve as a part of offending a very holy justice.
Overview-  Today we will consider the third way to view the atonement, which is directed towards the Evil powers.  In this view the work of Christ on the cross is about going to battle on our behalf to destroy the powers of Evil and rescue humanity that has been captured and oppressed. This is the view of the atonement that dominated the church for the first 1000 years. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus God defeated the devil.
Throughout the Bible we read about an unseen world that is populated by unseen beings and that have an influence on the people of the earth. They influence even entire nations. God is at war with His enemies in the unseen spiritual realm, but it has visible consequences and an effect on human beings. These evil powers oppose God and threaten the destroy His creation.
Imagine it like the Exodus story. God’s people are enslaved in Egypt. God begins a battle to rescue his people. The plagues have even sometimes been understood as a battle and victory of God over the gods of Egypt. So, each plague is evidence of victory over an Egyptian god. Some make it a bit more physical and see God as battling the systemic evil of slavery and oppression of the poor and powerless by the rich and powerful. This Exodus model is an example of what God is always doing regarding human beings. Since the time the first couple ate the forbidden fruit, human beings have unknowingly given themselves as slaves to an Evil power.  In this model of the atonement Jesus fights against and triumphs over the evil powers of the world under which humanity suffers and is in bondage.
In our Baptismal vows we “renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God” and we also “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”.   These are the powers of the unseen world and also the social and systemic powers that hold people in corrupt and oppressive situations. We also “renounce all sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God”. So we recognize that not only is this power out there in the world, but is also is a power within us. These are the powers Jesus confronts.
Systemic evil-  Jesus’ ministry can be seen as warfare with these powers, and his weapon was primarily the profound self-sacrificial love of God. Jesus confronted systemic evil by breaking religious and cultural taboos to show love to those on the margins of society. He spent time with tax-collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. He fed and healed people even when it broke the Sabbath rules. He treated Samaritans and Gentiles with compassion. He touched lepers and others considered unclean. Jesus treated women with remarkable dignity and respect considering his culture.  He showed mercy to those the culture thought deserved no mercy. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was about using the power of God’s kingdom to overcome the oppressive, destructive, and cruel kingdom of darkness.     
Demonic evil-   When we read through the gospels we read that many times Jesus confronts and releases people from the oppression of demonic powers. There were spiritual entities that possessed people and drove them out of their communities and caused sicknesses (Luke 13:10-16), and caused them to harm themselves or others. In the Book of Acts (10:38) Peter describes Jesus’ ministry this way, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him”. And we read in John’s first letter (3:8) that, “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil”.
During Jesus’ day there was a belief among many that the earth was held hostage by evil forces, and this situation could only be fixed by God invading the earth in a powerful and dramatic way.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus suggests that Satan is the “ruler of the world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11)[2]. Obviously, Jesus believed that God was the ultimate ruler of the universe, but it seemed that Satan was believed to have gained a significant amount of control over the systems and peoples of the world. The central thing Jesus was doing was to drive out the “ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31) as he “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4) because before he saved us we “were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world” (Gal 4:3). 
Likewise, Paul says that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).[3] These powers are related to and influence a variety of social structures. Jesus’ ministry was about battling this opposing empire. Jesus is taking back the world from the hands of Evil, and restoring human beings to their originally designed state- as stewards of the Earth. 
Salvation in the New Testament is often described in terms of freedom from the devil’s oppression. As we read in the letter to the Colossians “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them… .”  (Col 2:15). So Jesus’ work is often understood as defeating the powers of evil.
Power of sin- We can also be influenced by the oppressive power of Sin. Jesus has said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:34). So it is almost like being an addict. We might have some level of free will at some point, but the more and more we participate with the power of Sin the more and more we become enslaved to it. Like a heroin addict, the first few times you use it might be a free will choice, but over time it is a kind of slavery and very little free will is involved. Writing to the Romans about the crucifixion Paul says that the actions of Jesus were “so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin”… and “now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom 6:6, 22)[4]. So Paul sees that there is a power of Sin that exists that is beyond the individual’s free choices, but that actually seems to enslave and have power over a person, which is why we often find it so difficult to get out of habitual patterns of sin.[5] This power of Sin makes it impossible to really follow the law perfectly, or to even want to follow the law. That power in us is what convinces us that sin is actually a lot of fun.   
Overview-  The ministry of Jesus is about releasing us from these powers. From the unseen demonic powers, from the systemic evil of cultures that oppresses people, and from the power of Sin that lives within us. In this view of the atonement, what we see in the gospels is Jesus rescuing people from the kingdom of darkness and bringing them into the kingdom of God.  These kingdoms are sometimes described in the New Testament as two separate ‘powers’, or two different ‘laws’ that have the ability to drive our behavior.[6] Jesus saves us from the power of Evil, and the inevitable destruction that is coming to the kingdom of darkness and sin. Being freed from that evil empire we are freed from the inability to live in right relationship with God, and we become free to participate in all the joy and abundance that comes with life in the eternal kingdom of God.        
You might be wondering what the cross has to do with this. It is can be described in a few different ways, but the best way is probably described by C.S. Lewis in the “Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”. In case you don’t know the story, four children find themselves in the magical land of Narnia that has been frozen in an everlasting winter and is ruled by an evil witch. Aslan, who represents Jesus, arrives in Narnia and suddenly the snows begin to melt. After many many years, Spring is coming. According to prophecy, the four children were to be the kings and queens of Narnia. The witch, however, wants to kill the children so she can remain the ruler of Narnia and keep it in its everlasting winter. One of the children is tricked by the witch, Edmund, who betrays his brothers and sisters, and is taken captive by the witch. The army of Aslan succeeds in recuing Edmund, but the witch comes to Aslan calling for justice. The Old Magic, the Law, says that all traitors belong to the witch. The Law is not to be broken if justice is to exist. The witch uses the Law to lay claim to Edmund, knowing that Aslan’s integrity will not violent the law. … To everyone’s shock, Aslan offers himself in place of Edmund. … The witch is ecstatic. The Lion is shaved and mocked and eventually killed on the table of the Old Magic. Aslan is dead and the hope of Narnia has died with him. … But this is not the end of the story. To everyone’s surprise, especially the witch’s, Aslan is resurrected from the dead. There is an even older and deeper magic that says that if an innocent person gives their life for one who is guilty that it will break the power of the old magic. Aslan goes to the witch’s castle and releases all her prisoners and then meets her on the battlefield and is victorious over her, freeing the land of Narnia from her power. He then places the four children in their place as the kings and queens of Narnia- as stewards over the land.  
We, like Edmund, by our sin have placed ourselves under the power of evil, which means a life subject to sin, fear, and death. But, God will not leave us enslaved to evil and comes to us as Jesus. Jesus offers himself to these powers in exchange for humanity. But they don’t realize the deeper magic at work. They think they can destroy him. But power of the sinless and divine Christ bursts from the clutches of evil and death. His humanity was the tempting bait that drew the evil power to destroy him, but his holy divinity and his self-sacrificial love was the hook that snagged the devil and defeated him. The devil’s plan backfired.[7] When Christ snuck behind enemy lines he rescued humanity from the clutches of death and took Death itself captive so that it is no longer the slave of evil. Having entered the kingdom of God we are under a new constitution, and we have a new power working in us calling us to act out of the kind of self-sacrificial love we see in Christ. In this way God’s army expands and transforms the word with the power of His. The Sermon on the Mount, that calls us to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, is what it looks like to be warriors in this battle. AMEN.    

[2] Lk 4:5-6; 1 Jn 5:19; 2 Cor 4:4
[3] see also 2 Cor 10:3-5
[4] he says “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” Romans 6:12-13, 18,
[5] Rom 3:9; 6:6-12; 7:7-20, 23, 25
[6] Rom 7:14-25; 8:2
[7] Jn 13:27; 1 Cor 2:6-8

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