Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reflections on the Passion – St. Luke 22:1-23:56

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Marc Chegal

WHY? - FOR YOU!
If you have ever watched one of the film versions of the life of Jesus you know that no matter how hard they may try to soften the violence done to Jesus it is impossible to be faithful to the account of the Passion without representing the violence.  The old Franco Zeffirelli film, “Jesus of Nazareth” (for example) tried to tone down the violence, while maintaining the intensity of the story. Other films, most notably Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and the new made for TV series “The Bible,” almost seem to glory in the violence that is then depicted in excruciating detail.  The fact is, that Jesus died a very violent death.  Crucifixion was a method of execution that the Romans had devised to drag out the violence and misery as long as possible in order to send a message; and that message was “Don’t mess with us!”

We Christians believe that this man, who died in such a terribly violence way, is none other than God incarnate (John 1:14).  Through Jesus, God enters fully into human life.  And through his life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection God reaches out in love and grace and acceptance and forgiveness to all of humanity – you and me included – through Jesus.  The ministry of Jesus is a ministry of God’s love incarnate.  So then why all of the violence?  Why did Jesus have to die?  Why did Jesus’ ministry have to end in this manner?  Why did this death have to be so incredibly horrific and painful and violent? Why was Jesus’ death so shameful and humiliating? Why?

Most of us are not strangers to this question.  We have all had moments in our lives of great loss and sorrow and pain and it is natural for us to ask the question – why?  It is for us an effort to make sense of what is otherwise senseless.  “Why did __________ (you fill in the blank) have to happen?” Even if we can’t come up with a definitive answer there is something comforting in the posing of the question. And the struggle can help us move towards healing and acceptance of the reality of whatever it is.

The New Testament however never really poses the question “why?” in reference to Jesus’ passion, consequently the New Testament never really answers the question. Jesus is constantly telling his disciples what is going to happen, but he never explains it.  This is one of those issues where the writers of the Gospels and Paul (in particular) just tell or refer to the story of what happened to Jesus, and then assume that everyone understands that Jesus’ Passion was somehow a part of God’s plan and that somehow Jesus’ suffering and death and subsequent resurrection are redemptive; in other words, that we are brought into a loving relationship with God through the sufferings, death and resurrection of Jesus.  But this leads us back to the initial question – Why!???

Many Christians are surprised to learn that this question is never answered in the New Testament.  But later theologians and church leaders, especially in the early church were quite disturbed by this question and came up with a number of theories that are all lumped together under the heading “The Theology of Atonement.”  The word “Atonement” itself can be defined literally as “at-one-ment” – the theology of how God makes us one with Him in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  There are 5 popular theories - all of them from post-biblical theologians and all of them providing (I believe) a glimpse of the truth, but none of them can be considered the definitive final answer.  Here is a list of these theories:

1.         Perhaps the most popular (that you find is used as the theological basis for Mel Gibson’s movie) is what is called “Substitutionary Atonement” or “Satisfaction Theory.”  This theory was developed by St. Anselm in the 11th century and sees Christ’s death as a substitution for our own.
2.         Another popular theory that is related to “Satisfaction theory” is by an evangelical theologian named J.I. Packer and his theory is called “Penal Substitution.” In a nutshell this theory is as follows: “Jesus is sent to earth, lives a sinless life, and then dies upon a Roman cross where God pours out the fullness of wrath upon the Son. Wrath satisfied, God is now able to love sinners, and Christ is raised from the dead. Humanity is reunited with God, and all one has to do is accept the sacrifice that Christ has made on his or her behalf.”1. One can find this theory is a lot of popular Christian music in particular.
3.         The early 2nd century Bishop of Alexandria, Origin developed what is known as “Ransom theory:” which holds that Christ satisfies God’s requirement for holiness and thus Christ pays the penalty for sin making it possible for us to draw near to and be accepted by a perfect and holy God.
4.         Peter Abeland (12th century) sees the Passion of Christ as a moral example in what is sometimes called the “Moral Influence Theory.” “In this theory, Jesus is not a sacrificial lamb or a ransom payment. He is the primary example of a Godly life and death.”1.
5.         Finally, from Gustav Aulén in 1931 we have the theory called “Christus Victor” which holds that the meaning of the Passion is found in Christ’s victory over death and the devil.  Central to “Christus Victor” is “the image of the diminished and naked Christ, who, far from representing the judgmental God of fear, experiences the depth of human alienation and condemnation himself. In this we see not the necessity of God to change something within God’s self, but bear witness to the depth of the divine love that will do anything within its power to break the powers that hold humanity enthralled. God wins by losing, lives in dying, and creates a new justice by suffering the worst of the unjust system of dominance.”1.

None of these theories can claim to provide the final word on the atonement.  Each contains some truth, each raise a number of difficult questions and all of them cannot stand up completely to biblical scrutiny.  In other words, while some may be helpful and instructive, none of these theories can finally answer the question “why.”  And we are left where we started: without an explanation from Jesus, but a lot of later theories.  However, Jesus does answer another question, perhaps an even more important question.  We read in Paul that on the “night in which he was betrayed, our Lord…” took bread and wine blessed it and gave it to his disciples saying take and eat, take and drink … given “for you!”

“Did you hear that? Those last two words? “For you.” For those disciples, including, as the Evangelist records, Judas who betrays him, Peter who denies him, and the rest who desert him. And if for these, then also for us! And knowing this, I believe, makes all the difference.
So while Jesus doesn’t answer the question “why?” he does answer – and answer definitively – the deeper question of “for whom?” That is, though Jesus may not explain the full meaning of his death, he leaves no doubt as to its significance for you and for me, as above and beyond all our confusion and questions, we hear in these two words the shocking, unimaginable, and utterly unexpected promise that everything Christ suffers – all the humiliation and shame, all the defeat and agony – he suffers for us, that we might have life and light and hope in his name!”2.

An audio recording of the sermon - delivered 3/24/13 - is available here: Wartburg Parish Media Page

Footnotes:
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1. Aaron Carr from the blog “Church of the Malcontent.” - http://churchofthemalcontent.wordpress.com/
2. Dr. David Lose, “A More Important Question.” - http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=677

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