For the first time since 1945, Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincided this year. A creative person dreamt up some novel Valentine’s Day cards especially for the occasion. One read, “Violets are blue, roses are red, Lent is beginning, no chocolates for you.” Another read, “Won’t you be my Valentine, you miserable offender.” And a third read, “Remember you are dust, but awfully lovable dust.”
This week I listened to a domestic abuse survivor recount her life-changing visit to the state prison’s mental health unit. The visit’s coordinator instructed the women, both visitors and prisoners, to arrange their chairs in two facing rows, close enough to hold hands. Then they were to pray for one another.
The prayer changed both the woman who told the story and the prisoner with whom she prayed. For the woman telling the story, the depth of the other woman’s anguish – an alcoholic mother, physical abuse from every male in her family who was supposed to protect her, and years in prison – birthed an ongoing commitment to prison ministry. She is a Christian who lives Jesus’ exhortation to visit those in prison.
After seventeen years, release eventually came for the prisoner. She left prison with only the clothes on her back, no money, and nowhere to go. Not knowing what else to do, she called the woman with whom she had prayed and who had stayed in touch. This woman provided the new releasee with some much-needed hygiene items and enough cash for a couple of meals and rent for a room. Five years after her release, the former prisoner continues to struggle, but believes that only through God’s grace has she maintained her sanity, stayed free, earned a college degree, and gained a new career and family.
That story reverberated in my thoughts as I considered today’s epistle reading: Christ suffered for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. Christians generally interpret Christ's suffering using one of three paradigms or models:
· God is perfect. Perfection of any kind, especially divine perfection cannot include imperfection because the imperfection would pollute the perfect.
· Humans are imperfect, whether because of original sin or the universality of our failure to obey, completely and always, God’s perfect law.
· Therefore, forgiveness requires atonement for sin, that is, someone or something must pay the penalty for our sin or offer a sacrifice to wipe away the sin that blocks our relationship with God;
· The only possible sacrifice able to wipe the slate clean or to pay fully sin’s debt (the theological terms are propitiation and expiation) is that which itself is perfect and without sin, the unblemished lamb of God, Jesus.
The second and third paradigms build on that basic framework of God’s perfection and human sin or brokenness. The second paradigm replaces atonement with redemption (humans are captives to sin; Jesus is the only one who can set us free). The third utilizes the language of reconciliation (putting our relationship with God right, which is only possible as God sees an imperfect human through the lens of the perfect Christ).
In seminary, I found these paradigms problematic, although I could not then explain my objections. Admittedly, the New Testament seems to offer prima facie support for all three paradigms, sparking Christian theological debate that sometimes erupted into violence. Each paradigm has been transformative for persons whom I know, helping an individual accept God’s grace and live more abundantly. Nevertheless, the three paradigms leave me feeling uncomfortable.
By the time I began my doctoral work a dozen years after seminary, I could finally articulate my fundamental objection to those three paradigms. The paradigms implicitly depict God as a child abuser. God established the rules. God knew humans would sin. And God decided God’s forgiveness required a perfect sacrifice to wipe away or pay the debt of sin, or that redemption or reconciliation was achievable only through the crucifixion of God’s beloved son. In short, God knew from the beginning that Jesus’ crucifixion was an inevitable necessity.
Other objections to the traditional paradigms include the models’
(1) Dubious reliance on a jurisprudential framework to describe God’s dynamic, creative, and uninterruptible relationship with humans, i.e., why posit that God thinks and acts as a divine version of Santa Claus keeping score of who is naughty and who is nice;
(2) Reliance upon a Greco-Roman understanding of perfection that excludes not only imperfection but also the possibility of future growth or change;
(3) Adoption of a sacrificial understanding of atonement that mirrors some first-century cults, which may have then been contextually and culturally helpful but an understanding that is necessarily timeless or definitive.
(4) Presuming that belief in Jesus is the only path to salvation, a presumption increasingly challenged in our twenty-first century globalized world. Twentieth century Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner proposed the concept of the cosmic Christ, whose death was efficacious for all Godly people, regardless of when and where they live(d). He memorably dubs these Godly individuals anonymous Christians. Anglican theologians have widely rejected Rahner’s proposal because it paternalistically devalues other religions and the integrity of non-Christians’ faith journeys. Similarly, a continuing difficulty for Christian theologians has been how to affirm the salvation of Jews (e.g., Noah, Moses, and the prophets) while continuing to assert one of the traditional paradigms for understanding Jesus’ death on the cross.
Another paradigm for understanding Jesus’ death on the cross has persistently lingered on the margins of Christianity, a paradigm my seminary but not doctoral professors derided as an insufficient understanding of Jesus’ death. In this paradigm God is not a child abuser, celestial judge, Greco-Roman philosopher, or exclusionary lover. Instead, God loves us and all creation with the infinite, unconditional love Jesus manifested in life and death. God’s love is so limitless that neither death, nor principalities, nor powers, nor even sin can separate us from God. I see Peter employing this paradigm in today’s epistle reading and I heard it in the story of the women who prayed for each other. In Jesus, God extends God’s arms to embrace us with God’s infinite, unconditional love.
Hopefully, none of us is an axe murderer or sinner of similar magnitude. Our burdens of guilt are real but more frequently attributable to self or to other people than to our sin. Consequently, the three traditional paradigms have lost much of their power. In a world of preventable tragedies, most recently the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, we desperately need the good news of a crucified God whose open arms announce God’s readiness to embrace us in healing, life-giving, unconditional love. This image of God in Jesus suffering with us, lovingly drawing us into a life-giving and sustaining embrace, makes sense to me in our badly broken world.
May you have a holy Lent in which to journey more deeply into the mystery of God’s infinite, unconditional love. And may rainbows be for us, as for Noah, a sign of God’s abiding and loving presence in our midst. Amen.
(Sermon preached the First Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018, in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI)