Text: Romans 3.22b-31According to the Apostle Paul, you and I are made right in God’s eyes not by our keeping of God’s law or commandments, but by our faith in God’s gracious gift of righteousness which, we are told, comes to us by way of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. In this event, we are told, God reconciles us to himself, for the death of Jesus is not just any death. It is a sacrifice of atonement that puts aside the sin that estranges us from God so that we might be reconciled to God once more. Therefore, says Paul, there can be no room for boasting in the Christian community. Who we are and what we have is a gift, pure and simple. No one can brag about how much they’ve achieved, because the power to be right in God’s eyes is a power that comes not from the human person, but from the free sacrifice of God’s own son for our sake.
Surely we moderns would have a few questions to ask about all this, however. If God is willing to forgive our sins, no matter how good or bad we’ve been, why doesn’t God just get on and do that without any fuss? Why is it necessary to have all this complicated business about sacrificing Jesus on the cross? Wouldn’t it have been easier for God to say ‘I’m o.k., you’re o.k.’ and leave it at that? And wouldn’t Jesus himself have been significantly better off?
Well, a number of theories have been put forward to explain why Jesus had to die, some of them better than others. The one that has been most influential in our own Reformed tradition was championed by Jean Calvin and is often known as the theory of ‘penal substitution’. Here God is likened to a Lawmaker and Judge who, having made the laws that define sin and goodness, is now compelled to enforce that law for the sake of consistency, even if the consequences are catastrophic. For if the penalty of sin is death, then all are destined to suffer the punishment of death, for all have sinned. Now, that can be put in a more nuanced way, of course. One could argue that death is not a penalty that God imposes so much as the interior meaning of sin itself—i.e. that sin is the beginning of death in the midst of life, because it is a straying from God as the source of life—which I think is right. Yet the logical result, in the end, is still the same. That everyone who sins dies, and that God, having made a universe in which it works like that, is still ultimately responsible for the fact. What Calvin argued for, as a way of salvation for us all, was the death of the righteous man Jesus, in the place of the rest of humanity, who are sinners. Jesus is punished instead of us. Jesus dies in our place, so that we don’t have to be punished at all.
There is something deep in the human psyche that knows jolly well that sin cannot be entirely done away with apart from an act of the will, a deeply moral choice to turn away from one’s past and live differently. We all know that moral truth, deep down. From that perspective, then, a God who lets us off the hook apart from that moral striving would be an immoral God. Note that Paul himself, at the end of the passage we read just now, does not exempt Christians from keeping the law of God. Finally, then, the biggest problem with the penal substitution theory of atonement is that it is all so objective, and impersonal. It’s like ‘O, so Jesus suffered the punishment for my sin? Right. And all this happened two-thousand years ago? Right. Well. That’s great, I guess, but why don’t I feel forgiven?’ To summarise: we all know, deep down, that an objective transaction between Jesus and his Father a long time ago is of no real help for us right now, in this world, at this time, in the midst of the broken lives we are dealing with.
So, if Jesus didn’t die to take God’s punishment for my sins, what possible purpose can there be in his death? And, more importantly, what relevance (if any) has that death for us today, here in the midst of our struggles with sins both personal and corporate? Well, strangely enough, some of the answers can be found in the passage we just read. For what Paul says about the death of Jesus is this: that it is his sacrificial death that effects an atonement or a reconciliation between God and ourselves. Sacrificial. That word is the key. Let me dwell on that for a moment.
Now, any botanist or zoologist will tell you that in order for some kinds of lives to continue, other lives have to come to an end - in order for human beings to stay alive, for example, plants and animals have to lose their lives. This pattern is repeated a hundred times over in the biosphere of which we are merely a part. Now, this simple biological fact has been dramatised since ancient times by means of various rituals of sacrifice. For the Jewish people, a system of ritual animal and vegetable sacrifices served to remind them that their lives were made possible because of death. What the Jews added to this basic anthropological understanding, though, was a theology—a story about what this might mean for God. God, they believed, had made a personal sacrifice even in creating the world. For the existence of the world spoke of a God who had chosen to limit or sacrifice God’s influence and power so that another reality or power, a cosmos, could come into being—a cosmos inhabited by beings who were genuinely free to exercise an independent will and power over and against the will and power of God. Theologically, one could then say that life itself, especially human life, can only be because God chose, and continues to choose, to sacrifice something of God’s sovereignty out of a desire to form a relationship or covenant with a cosmos and humanity that are in no way simply puppets, playthings of divine power. What this Jewish theology means, of course, is that God can no longer be thought as a monarch or tyrant who always gets his way. On the contrary, this God is one who freely chooses to be vulnerable, vulnerable to all that we human beings would do. God sacrifices God’s power and will that we human beings might be capable centres of will and power as well. We do not, of course, use our freedom and power particularly well. By and large, we have used our will and power to turn away from God, making the world according to our own independent vision.
In this perspective, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross should be seen, first of all, as a divine self-sacrifice. Not the killing of an innocent man to turn aside the wrath of an angry tyrant, but a potent and effective symbol of the way God was, and is, and always will be with the world. A God of costly love. A God who sacrifices God’s own will to create the possibility of relationship with his others, with you and me. For Jesus is not simply you and me. He is God, the divine Son who goes out from the Father to invite all to turn away from the terrible wastefulness of sin and be reconciled to God. Jesus is God’s invitation to turn, to repent, and to accept God’s ever-new invitation to be reconciled with God in making a world that is finally healed and whole, a world of peace or shalom. Jesus is God’s invitation to forgiveness which is, of course, nothing other than the making-new of a broken relationship.
But there is another aspect to the sacrifice of Jesus, and this is the bit of the story that Calvin and his followers have never, ever come to terms with. The sacrifice of Jesus, you see, is a symbol not only of God’s sacrifice for our sake, but also of humanity’s sacrifice for God’s sake. Let me repeat that. The cross of Jesus is a symbol not only of God’s sacrifice for our sake, but also of humanity’s sacrifice for God’s sake. Jesus, you see, is not only God. He is a human being who shares our nature in every way. He is one who has none of the privileges of his father: he does not see all, he does not understand all, he cannot do anything that he wishes to. Christ confronted his own future with nothing other than the resources that are given to everyone. In that, he was utterly and entirely human. Yet, and this is crucial, Christ is unique in the pantheon of human histories because he used his freedom, his will, and his personal resources, not to please himself alone, nor even to serve the collective will of his society and culture, but to do the will of his Father God. What Christ desired, more than anything else it seems, was to love and serve the one who loved and served him. In this perspective, the sacrifice of Christ is the sacrifice that any human being could make if they really and truly desired relationship with God: the putting away of all that keeps us from knowing and loving God, all those unhealthy addictions and allegiances, so that there is room in our lives for what God might will and desire. In that sense, Christ is what each of us might be if we truly loved and trusted God.
This, then, is how the death of Jesus saves us, right here and now, in the midst of the real world we must negotiate every day. It reminds us that God is no tyrant, but one who continually sacrifices God’s own life that we might be alive and free. It reminds us that God is continually inviting us to have done with evil and violence and turn, instead, towards a reconciled relationship with God, a reconciliation that makes for peace, justice and love in the world. But the death of Jesus reminds us, also, that there are no short-cuts to reconciliation with God. We, too, are called to make our sacrifice. For that is how it is with relationship. Each partner receives his or her life from the other, from the other’s willingness to be hospitable, to make space in their hearts for other’s desires and dreams. So let’s face the fact, squarely: in a world such as ours, making room for God’s dreams means, in the end, a very costly putting aside or sacrificing of many of our own dreams, those dreams bequeathed to us by family and society—the dream of a prosperity that doesn’t include people other than own family or tribe, for example. Without dying to idols such as these, says the gospel, without joining with Jesus in his deliberately counter-cultural lifestyle, there can be no salvation.
The grace offered us in Christ, you see, is not cheap grace but “costly” grace. I quote Bonhoeffer once more, of course. Yes, God has invited us to God’s banqueting-table. Yes, God has sacrificed God’s own self in order to make it possible for us to be reconciled with joy. Yes, God has shown us to the way in Christ. But no, we will never get there unless we struggle daily to make Christ’s way our own, to accept God’s grace in the shape of a daily discipleship that calls upon the power of Christ’s Spirit to resist the spirit of the world in which we live. That is how Christ saves us: by calling us to sacrifice ourselves, via a thoroughgoing participation in Jesus’ own sacrifice, so that in dying to this world and its sin, we might have done with such things, and share in the glorious future of the children of God.
St Paul's Catheral
Evensong, 7th Sunday after Pentecost