Tuesday of Holy Week
A homily preached by Margaret Houston at St. George's Church, Campden Hill, on Tuesday 31st March, 2015.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
In using this metaphor, Jesus clearly implies that his death is transformative. Jesus’ resurrection is not simply a restoration of the status quo – cheery, brightly coloured children’s books that tell us how happy the disciples were to have their friend back completely miss the point, and reduce the salvation of the world to a simple case of a personal deus ex machine for a few peasants in an unfashionable end of the Roman Empire. To those who have suffered real loss, bereavement, or oppression in their lives, the fact that some people in Ancient Israel lost their friend and then got him back is unlikely to be of much comfort.
So this brings us to one of the questions at the heart of the Christian faith. What was Jesus’ death and resurrection for? How did it work?
There’s one theory that’s risen to prominence, with a great deal of help from the American Fundamentalist movement, over the last century or so, which is that of substitutionary atonement. First put forward by Saint Anselm, and expanded on by Calvin, this idea puts forward that humanity was disobedient to God’s will, and therefore God needed to punish them. Jesus intervened and said “take me and punish me instead.” God’s righteous anger was appeased, and humanity was saved. Jesus’ love for humanity is shown by his willingness to intercede on their behalf with a vengeful God bent on their destruction.
I’m willing to bet that if you ask the proverbial Man Or Woman On The Street, this is the idea they’ll be most familiar with. It has become the dominant narrative of Christianity.
But it’s not the only one. And, more than that, it creates at least as many problems than it solves. If God is one, how can the Father who is so bent on humanity’s destruction be the same God as the Son who intervenes on their behalf, who stretches out his arms in sacrificial love upon the crossThis dichotomy between the Father and Son seems more suited to the family dramas of Greek pantheism than to Christianity. And more than that, it is completely inconsistent with a God who would, time and time again, reach out to his faithless people with power and love, a God who would fight on the side of the slaves in Egypt and lead them through the Red Sea, who would send them prophets and Kings and teachers to show them the way, who would not abandon them to the Egyptians, the Babylonians, or their own self-destruction and greed, a God who would become incarnate as a helpless baby, born to a teenaged mother in an occupied country.
There are two other main theories of how the atonement works, of how it is that God being crucified can reconcile us to God and each other, restore hope, and bring new life – that grain of wheat dying and bearing much fruit.
The first, and oldest, is the moral influence theory. This idea casts Jesus as a moral leader, whose every word and action inspires his followers to positive moral change – up to and including his self-giving sacrifice. And this theory is good as far as it goes. “Greater love hath no man, that he lies down his life for his friends.” The willingness of Christians to risk their own lives for the liberation of others was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement – they looked to Jesus’ actions for moral influence, and were able to liberate a power that attack dogs, fire hoses, and prison couldn’t defeat. By turning the other cheek, you don’t just retain the moral high ground, you actually gain access to some kind of deeper power that violence can’t stop. When you stop trying to save your own life, there is no power on earth that can stop you. As Jesus says later in today’s Gospel, “those who love their life lose it.”
But the limit to this theory is that it still leaves the central question unanswered – how does that self-sacrifice liberate us?
And that’s where the other theory comes in. The theory of Christus Victor. For this theory, we must bring back our old friend Satan, or evil, or death, or the forces of darkness, or however you want to imagine it. I’m not asking you to believe in the horns and the red tail and cloven hoofs, but it’s hard to deny that our experience of humanity includes what Francis Spufford calls “The Human Propensity To Mess Things Up” and what classical Christianity calls Sin. And that it is something outside God, something made possible by free will and the fallen world, but not approved of or wanted by God. And that it has a stranglehold on us. On us as individuals, in our broken relationships and selfishness. On us as a society, in our inability to care for the weakest among us, our creation of structures that deny the humanity and dignity of so many of God’s beloved children. So often, a quick glance at any newspaper or television report makes us despair for the state of the world, makes us wonder if there is any hope.
And this is the battle Jesus fought – not against God, but against Sin. Sin held the world in chains, as the White Witch held Narnia in an endless winter. And Sin claimed us as its own – we belong so entirely to our own Propensity To Mess Things Up that we were drowning in it, unable to find our own way out.
And so Jesus told Sin, “take me instead.” And Sin, or Satan, thought they’d won. And as The White Witch laid Aslan on the Stone Table, she thought that Narnia was hers forever.
But because Jesus was God, he was able to destroy death from the inside. To go undercover – the General disguised as a Foot Soldier – and break the whole thing apart from the inside. To break open the stranglehold that Sin and Death held on us, and show us the way out.
As John Chrysostom wrote, “hell laid hold of a mortal body, and found that it had seized God. It laid hold of earth, but confronted heaven. It seized what it saw, but crumbled before what it had not seen. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
We can’t know for certain how it works. It’s bigger and more amazing than any of us can comprehend. But substitutionary atonement seems a cruel and legalistic idea, irreconcilable with a God who is willing to fall to earth and die, so that he may bear much fruit. And it inspires at best gratitude that Jesus was willing to be our whipping boy – while moral influence and Christus Victor suggest not just a personal “thank you” to Jesus, but the hope that all sin, all brokenness, all oppression, may be overturned by sacrificial, life-giving death. As Paul writes in today’s Epistle, “the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” Christ on the cross is stronger than sin. Thanks be to God. Amen.