We continue our study from the teachings of the Apostle John, understood in Celtic Christianity, and what they have to say to us about living in the Way of Christ. Today we turn our attention to the Church’s teaching on the meaning of the cross and the crucifixion of Jesus.
Countless numbers of people, especially in the Western world, have found the church’s traditional teaching about the cross either perplexing or offensive, especially the suggestion that Jesus’ death is a type of payment for sin. Who exactly is it who is requiring payment?
We give and receive crosses – for our homes, as jewelry and other items – with a sense that the cross is a precious part of our tradition … but sometimes with a sense of uncertainty of what exactly to do with it. What exactly it means. It can be all too easy to get turned around in theological understandings about the cross.
In the Celtic Christian tradition, the cross and Christ have deep significance. We only need to read their prayers and poems, look at their artwork or see the tall standing-crosses scattered across the countryside to see this.
However, one of the things not present in their spirituality is agreement with the teaching of substitutionary atonement. Substitutionary atonement teaches that Jesus died as a substitute for you and me; Jesus died as the payment for, as the penalty for our sins. … This understanding is not found in the teaching of the Apostle John. Yet it is this teaching that has dominated the last 800 years of Christianity.
Substitutionary atonement is actually linked to the teaching on original sin, and is based on two primary assumptions. First, that God requires payment in order to change God’s tune from judgment to forgiveness. And second, that we are so sinful, you and I, that we cannot make a payment worthy enough to change God’s mind. Therefore, a substitute is made – one which God provides for us; Jesus Christ, the perfect sacrifice.
I think, for many of us, this idea that God had to be paid in order to forgive us does not mesh with our experiences of forgiveness. [Imagine with me a moment someone who loves you unconditionally. Picture an experience of being forgiven. … Does your God love your more than that?] So the forgiveness that we’ve experienced in our life and faith doesn’t relate to this idea of needing payment. Through Jesus’ ministry, we have understood, instead, that forgiveness is free.
I believe, for most of us, our experience of God’s forgiveness is pure gift. We may feel at times that we need to do something to ‘earn’ God’s forgiveness – yet, even then, we understand that God doesn’t ask of us anything in order to forgive.
Forgiveness is free. We can offer it and we can receive it only as pure gift. Yet it can cost us so very much to offer – for we can participate in it only to the extent that we open ourselves to one another. When we forgive, we offer ourselves to the belief that love is more important than hate; that each person at their essential core is doing the best they know how, even when that ‘best’ is hard and painful. … Forgiveness may be costly, but forgiveness is not about payment. Ever.
The problem for us is that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement ultimately tells us that, if God demands payment for forgiveness, then judgment is what rests at the heart of God. Judgment demands payment before love can be offered. Even though we are told God provides the fee for us in Jesus – we still walk away seeing that God’s default mode is judgment, not love.
Richard Rohr says it this way: Through the life and ministry of Jesus, we understand that Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God. Jesus taught us that God’s justice is about restoration, not about retribution. … In Jesus, God moved people beyond the counting, weighing and punishing model – which our ego prefers – into a world of God’s mercy and love.
Jesus replaced notions of human and animal sacrifice (which were common in most ancient religions), with an economy of grace and love. Jesus replaced the wrong notion that offerings of sacrifice were payment to God for forgiveness, with the understanding that these offerings were blessings of thankfulness to God for God’s goodness and grace. … Jesus taught us God’s focus was not on sin. Rather, Love is the beginning, Love is the way itself, and Love is the final consummation. God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing we do will either increase or decrease God’s love. (Rohr)
So, what might we say about the cross and Jesus’ crucifixion?
The teachings of the Apostle John show us: Jesus offered the ultimate in selfgiving. He knew well the cost of loving his nation and his religious tradition the way he did – loving them enough to weep over the falseness of the city he loved; loving them enough to seek to cleanse the injustices of the temple at its core. And he suffered at the hands of a corrupt religious leadership and an inhumane empire that would not tolerate the challenging implication of the law of love. The cross is not a payment to God; a purchasing of God’s love on our behalf. … The cross is a manifestation of love. Jesus is the one who gives himself, who offers himself for the birthing of new life.
And John teaches: it is the resurrection of Jesus that is God’s comment on the crucifixion. God’s resurrection of Jesus affirms that God acts for love in all ways and at all times. It says: our hope is in God for life that begins today.
If our understanding of the cross is payment for God’s forgiveness, then we may find ourselves living our lives hoping to pay God for forgiveness, seeking to earn God’s love, continually striving for perfection in order to prove ourselves worthy.
However, if through the cross we come to see that love is the Way itself, then we begin to see what it means to open our hearts to one another. We begin to see what it means to abide in God’s love for one another. Love is the Way itself.
And we hear more deeply and can act more courageously with the Apostle John, who says: “We know love by the way Jesus laid down his life – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
Let us not love in word or speech. Let us love in truth and action. Amen.
* Gratitude is expressed to John Philip Newell (especially Christ of the Celts), John O’Donohue, Brendan O’Malley, Simon Reed and Michael Mitton who were the inspiration for much of this sermon series.