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Sunday, July 21, 2019
Scripture: Ephesians 2:4-10
“I Wonder…” Summer Sermon Series
Rev. Dr. Riley Jensen
As a youngster, growing up and trying to figure out my place in the universe, I was one of those kids who wondered about God early and often. I tell folks that I am a Presbyterian because the small Presbyterian Church in my neighborhood was down the alley and half block to the left making it easy for my Mom to send my brother, sister, and me out the door on Sunday morning to Sunday School. Location, location, location! While my folks weren’t particularly religious beyond thinking that church was a good thing, the Queen Anne United Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington was responsible for my spiritual formation from a very young age.
The God that I heard talked about was remote and judgmental and very demanding. I wanted to please him but was never quite sure that I was on the right track. It was at a Bible camp in junior high that I first heard about “accepting Jesus as my personal Savior.” I didn’t need to be convinced. I just needed the formula and I was on board. Now, as my faith has matured, I have come to understand that people come to know God in a variety of ways that cannot be reduced to one formula.
Recently I read about a conversation between George H. W. Bush and Billy Graham that both surprised and pleased me. President Bush said to Graham, “You talk a lot about being born again. My mother is one of the most godly people I know, and she says that she has never been born again.” To which Graham graciously responded: “in my case, I needed to be born again, but your mother obviously doesn’t need to be.”
It’s true that we all come to God in different ways. Not all of us have a dramatic conversion experience. I didn’t even though I tried several times until I was finally able to rest in my baptism believing that God has claimed me and loved me even before my ability to respond, that it is not about what I do but what God has done for me in Christ, and not only for me but for the world. It took me a while on my spiritual journey before I fully realized that God is not a Christian – that “God so loved the world!” But that’s another sermon because this morning I want to think with you about how God saves us, what theologians call the Atonement: basically what God has done for us through Jesus that connects us to God forever.
The baseline message of the Gospel that many of us first heard was wrapped neatly in those poetic words of John 3:16 which we heard in a very personal and direct way. The message that came through was that God so loved ME (hear individual, personal, unique, special ME) so much that God sent Jesus to die for my sins. It’s right there in the Bible and it is a message of unconditional, transforming, redemptive love. Somehow my sins have gotten in the way of being all that God has created me to be, but then came Jesus like a knight in shining armor.
So far so good, but then under the stars around that Bible Camp campfire, I was invited to picture a courtroom. God was the stern, uncompromising judge on the bench. And there I was, before the judge, on trial for all my sins with the death penalty and an eternity in Hell looming in the background. I had no defense. I was a sinner and the “wages of sin is death”. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Jesus appears, pushes me aside and says to the judge: “No, take me. Take my life instead.” What a relief and what a sense of gratitude: A savior has come and suffered in my place that I might go free.
In theology, this is known as the Substitutionary theory of Atonement, and it is the one with which many of us have grown up. No one told us that it is actually one among many. No one told us that it didn’t come into common acceptance until a thousand years ago when Anselm of Canterbury offered his persuasive interpretation. And, of course, we never thought to question the violence of a God who would require the death of his own son. So, many of us have been raised to believe in the contradictory idea of a God of love who required violence for salvation, never questioning the inconsistency of it all.
It took me longer than I care to admit before I began questioning the logic and meaning of such an approach. Now, it is true that in seminary, we did learn about a variety of theories of the Atonement, and I was paying attention because I got an A in those classes. But somehow, I did what many of us do: I divorced the academic from the personal. There is no way that a professor, lecturing dryly behind a lectern can compete with the fire of faith which had first been lit around that campfire. And so the programing stuck.
While Christians are good at pulling out proof texts to support whatever opinion they want, a thirty thousand foot view of the over-riding biblical message is: “It’s all about love, stupid!” If it is true that the very essence of the universe radiates from the overflowing love of the Triune God, then the Cross needs to have another meaning than satisfying the arbitrary demands of justice of an uncompromising deity.
Theology has been defined as “faith in search of understanding” as opposed to acceptance without thinking. Therefore, doubt or wonder is an important ingredient in such an approach to believing. That exclamation of the Apostle Paul’s never wears thin for me, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Those of us who have a few years under our belts know that it is a journey, and so, life lessons can bring us new perspectives and new approaches.
As a young person hearing about how much God loved me that God sent Jesus to die for my sins, I never thought to question what I now view as the strange idea that before God could love us; God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for our sin-drenched humanity. With that view, salvation depends upon a problem to be solved instead of a divine proclamation about the core nature of reality. As if God could need payment, and even a very violent transaction, to be able to love and accept his children.
One of my modern mentors is Fr. Richard Rohr, and I know a number of you have a similar appreciation for his writings and spiritual guidance. On this topic, he helps me with this incisive piece of insight: “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.”
My mistake and, often ours, I think, is that we are so anthropocentric — just a big word that means we have a hard time believing that we are not the center of the universe, that it is all about us. Yes, sin is a reality because it involves missing the mark of living the lives of love God has intended for us. But God’s act of bridging that gap and bringing our lives back into harmony with who we have been created to be was to send Jesus to show us what love looks like up close and personal. The Cross then is not an act of violent sacrifice to satisfy some cosmic sense of justice, but rather the result of what happens when unconditional love is lived out in the flesh. Of course there is sacrifice, there is suffering,but there is also new life.
You see, Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. Our natural inclination is that life is a zero sum game. There have to be winners and losers. Some are going to heaven; some are going to hell. But Jesus came as a game changer to change our minds about this kind of God who looks more like a cosmic accountant. What we need to get through our heads or at least what I have changed my mind about, as I have wondered about this, is that God didn’t kill Jesus for my sins. Rather Jesus suffering and death was an expression of the love of God which shows us that while suffering and death can sometimes be a consequence of love, they never defeat it. Or as the scripture says, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
This understanding of the Atonement helps us to focus more on Jesus’ life than his death. For centuries Christians have seen Jesus’ death as the very purpose of his life. In fact, Jesus came to show us how to live the life that God wants all of us to live, but loving like Jesus loved always carries a cost. Certainly his death did not take him by surprise. For he knew that if he kept doing what he was doing, he risked execution because in fact, he was a radical subversive, undermining the prevalent religious norms with a law of love. And he challenged the authority of the empire claiming allegiance to a deity higher than Caesar. Even today this is not a prescription for a person who expects a long life.
In changing our minds about God, Jesus taught us a new economy of grace. Jesus came to replace all those petty acts of penance that make us feel that we can do something to improve our standing with the Almighty, and to introduce us to the God of Grace who loves us no matter what. When I used to hang out with new member classes in my various churches, I would regularly remind them that they were joining a church where Grace was the connecting theme of all that we do. And I would personalize it by letting them know that I was raised by a father who thought he was going to hell because he wasn’t good enough to be a Christian. Thankfully, the day came when he changed his mind about that kind of God. But he also taught me that we have a lot of work to do in the church in helping people understand that Grace is more than just a blue-eyed blond.
You see, in the words of Richard Rohr: “God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good.” And because God is good, “It is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God!” And so what does this call us to do? Certainly not to rest in our salvation but to love the world as Jesus showed us. This way of life will involve sacrifice and suffering, but also the fulfillment of being the kind of people God has created us to be.
I know it’s a lot to wonder about, but keep wondering because how God saves us involves how we live and die, and what will be our eternal destiny. Thanks be to the God who saves us by grace, not because we are good but because God is good. Amen!