Friday, 19 May 2017

at one ment- Good Friday

‘Atonement’ has been the word used to describe what happened on the cross. 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?

First, the view that Jesus’ actions on the cross were directed towards humanity. Throughout the Bible Sin is described as a kind of sickness. In the Old Testament we read that over and over again the people wander off the path set for them. As they walk away from the safety of God’s path they encounter all kinds of suffering and corruption. The work of Jesus on the cross 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. The actions of Christ heals the relationship between human beings and God, by healing the sin that separates us. The lifeblood of the God-Man has been offered to heal our sin sick souls. And the cross is a beacon of love- showing us the profound lengths God is willing to go in order to show His love for us, and by the power of his resurrection, He empowers us to imitate his never ending and inexhaustible love. By drawing us to himself, the great Physician, we are drawn into a relationship of ongoing healing.

I heard a true story recently that might help to illustrate this. There was a pastor whose son had "gone off the rails". He was doing drugs. He was constantly in trouble with the law. And very estranged from his family. He was now living in a crack house in a shady part of town. One night, at around 3am, this pastor and his wife were awoken by the telephone. The person on the other end of the phone told them their son was in prison in the police station and they should come get him. They let out a sigh and the pastor got on his coat. He drove down to the station, but when he inquired they said they didn't have his son, nor did they call him. He told them that both he and his wife heard the call and could they please check with the other stations. The person behind the desk checked and said, "I'm sorry but we don't have him anywhere in our system". 
Confused, the man decided to drive to the house his son had been living on just to make sure he's okay. He drove up to the dilapidated house, garbage everywhere, the lawn not cared for. He opened the door and looked inside. He stepped over sleeping bodies and bottles until he found his son sleeping on the couch. He leaned over and kissed him on the head, thankful that he was okay and not in a jail cell.      

Six months later he gets a call from his son, who asks him to go out for lunch. He meets with him and he had gotten his life together. he had a job. He wasn't using. He found a place to live. He started attending church. He asked his dad, "don't you want to know what happened?" The father listened with a thankful heart. "I wasn't asleep when you kissed me". 

There was something about the father coming into the darkness to show his love that inspires us to chase after his love- it transforms us.  

We can also see the cross as directed towards 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. 

This is the basic idea: Humanity’s sin is basically the failure to give God what He deserves. It is the responsibility of humanity to give God what is owed Him, as well as the necessary back payment for what we have robbed him of. As a good judge, God’s justice demands this restoration. For God to overlook this would make God a bad judge without a sense of justice. The problem is that humanity us unable to repay this debt. Even if we stopped sinning entirely we would only be giving God what we owe Him already. The debt could not be paid down. And we continue to sin continuing to build a greater debt to God each time we deny God what we owe Him, which is our complete and utter love and service. God is left with two options- punish humanity as they deserve, or accept payment on their behalf. The tricky bit is that only a human being can make the payment because it is humanity that owes the debt. No human is able to make this kind of payment on behalf of humanity. The solution is found in Jesus Christ, who is both God and human. As a human being he belongs to humanity who needs to make payment. As God, he has resources to make the payment.

This one can be a bit hard for us to stomach because the idea of the bloody sacrifice of a life is very strange to us, but I want to also remind us that it is most likely because of the influence of Christianity that we feel this way. Throughout most of human history sacrifice has been a regular part of human life in cultures all over the world. The teaching of Christianity was that Christ was the last sacrifice needed and so in Christianity sacrifice stopped. That gives us the privilege to feel strange about sacrifice.

The third way to view the atonement is as 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 and the power that enslave humanity. Jesus goes to battle on our behalf. He confronts the supernatural invisible evils- the Devil, demons, and evil spirits. He confronts the evil powers of this world that manifest in the form of corrupt social structures and economic systems that take advantage of people and create injustice and cruelty, and marginalize people to the outskirts of society saying there is no place for them. And Jesus also confronts the Power of Sin that enslaves us and makes us something like addicts, slowly taking away our free will to choose the good, or to even want to choose good. 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. 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.

We, 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. They think they can destroy him. But the 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. When Christ snuck behind enemy lines he rescued humanity from the clutches of death. Having entered the kingdom of God 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 world with the power of His love.

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