Friday, April 6, 2012

“It’s Good Friday now, but Easter’s coming!”

Lenten Meditation  6 April 2012

            “We are all saved in spite of ourselves—and for one another.  It never was a worthiness contest.  If God is love and if grace is true, then what exactly is the cutoff point?  “When is God’s arm too short to save?”  (Isaiah 50:2)  Are there any who have achieved worthiness and do not need saving?  Name them, please.”  (Page 218)

Fra Angelico, Christ Resurrected and the Maries at the Tomb in Cell 8

            Good Friday.  I remember as a child of perhaps 9 or 10 asking my mother why, if Jesus was so brutally killed on this day, do we call it Good Friday and not Bad Friday.  Her response was, as the British say, spot on.  “We call this day good because with Jesus’ death we are freed from sin and death.”  My mother was not theologically trained, nor did she know the nuances of the variety of Atonement theories, but she was grounded in a life of Episcopal Church worship and living that life as a nurse, wife, mother, and friend.  She did the best she could to answer my questions, although sometimes she would reply, “You’ll just have to find out when you are older.”

One of my favorite collects in the Book of Common Prayer, written at the turn of the 20th Century by Bishop Charles Henry Brent, sometime Episcopal Bishop of the Philippines begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace:…”  (BCP page 101)  Please note that salvation is not limited to only those who agree with a particular theological position or those who have earned God’s love, or even those who need it most.  Jesus’ whole raison d’ĂȘtre, his complete purpose in taking on human nature, was to show us perfectly how God loves every one of us regardless of our station in life or the depth of our sinfulness.  He came to BE love, not just as an example, but in order for our lives to shine with that same love for those who God brings into our lives.  Bishop Brent’s prayer continues, “So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.  Amen.” 

As a young priest, I came to know as a colleague a fairly well known older priest named Curt Junker.  Father Curt was always wonderful to be around because he had a gift of making everyone he talked to feel like they were the most important person in the world.  He did have, at least for me, a difficult aspect, in that he was not a linear thinker.  I used to say that Curt “free associated” on the last word spoken, which meant that following his train of thought was next to impossible for me.  One mutual friend called him a “Trinitarian—able to talk in three circles at the same time.”  One conversation devolved to Curt’s raising the theological question of the “shelf-life” of Grace. His ramblings ultimately came back to posit that the shelf-life of Grace is eternal, because in eternity there is no linear time anyway.  Or to rephrase Father Rohr, when do God’s love and Grace expire?

The purpose of that story is to bring us back to a concept I discussed a couple of days ago of remembering, or more exactly re-membering as in putting back together, or in Greek anamnesis, bringing then into now.  There is a wonderful old Spiritual that is frequently sung on Good Friday, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  We are called to be present with Jesus, to say “Yes, I was there”  as he is mocked, humiliated, stripped, beaten, crowned with the crown of thorns, forced to carry his own cross, nailed, pierced, murdered, and laid in the tomb, all for our sake.  Yes, the Christ event occurred 2000 years ago, but it happens for us today.  The best way that we can recognize the true glory of Resurrection is to walk with Jesus the Via Doloroso, to go down to the darkness with Him and there discover the light.  Or as a wonderful preacher from the African American tradition said, “It’s Good Friday now, but Easter’s coming!”

I pray for you the joy of God’s wondrous love through the death and Resurrection of Jesus.  May you know the outstretched arms of Jesus’ loving embrace in order that you can reach out with His love to that part of this broken world that so desperately needs the Good News that only you can bring.

Halleluiah!  Christ is Risen!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

"My life is not about me."

Lenten Meditation  5 April 2012

“Each time we eat and drink, we agree to die with him, in him, for him and because of him.  The eating says to our very body that henceforth our lives are not our own, and ‘my life is not about me!’”  (Page 216)

The Last Supper by Juan de Juanes (1523 - 1579)

            Lent is just about finished; there is still the last meal for the condemned and then the execution.  We know the outcome, we have read the book and seen the movie; we have walked this path before, some of us too many times to want to count the times we have gone to Golgotha.  We have been changed every time we have looked into the face of the one who accepts the horrors of a brutal death in order to absorb the evil that tries to consume us.  But for today we need to remain with Jesus and his disciples, including the one who will not just betray Jesus, but us as well.  For today we must be willing to enter the upper room and sit at table with our Lord, allow him to bring us to a deeper understanding of his work in our own lives, and discover more intense transformation in our lives.

            As we recline around the low table with Jesus, we watch intently as together we rehearse the ages-old story of release from slavery, of God’s mercy for us as the angel of death passes over our homes to strike the first-born of every generation, both human and animal, in the homes of the Egyptians.  We watch as Jesus does what he has done so many times in our presence at meals: he takes, blesses, breaks and gives.  We saw this on the hillside when there were the thousands to feed with merely five barley loaves and two small fish.  As we have walked with him toward Jerusalem in the past weeks he has done the same at most of our meals, but this time it is different.  Tonight he changes us as he says, “This bread is my body…this wine is my blood.”  Some of us are horrified at the thought of eating human flesh and drinking human blood—cannibalism—which is absolutely prohibited by the Law.  But Jesus has instructed—no commanded—us that when we do this he is present in our midst, that he himself is nourishing our souls for the work we have yet to do.

            The liturgical Churches that follow the Triduum Sacrum, the “holy three days” with our reliving the Last Supper in the upper room, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Way of the Cross, and finally the explosion of light with the Resurrection have the opportunity not just to think about and “remember” in our minds those events.  We have the occasion to understand at an experiential level what all this has to do with me.  Being a follower of Christ, being a Christian, is not just about “me and Jesus” in a sweet embrace that brings me salvation. Being a Christian means being willing to take up the Cross and follow Jesus wherever He leads me, to absorb the evil with which I am confronted rather than reacting with violence, to have my life transformed, day by day, as I grow into the full stature of Christ.  Being a Christian means dying to self in Him, with Him, and for Him in order to live in Him, with Him and for Him.

            As I write this essay this morning, I am intensely aware of impending death.  The joy of being at table with Jesus is muted by the cloud of immanent dying.  I know the story too well to be naively joyous.  Not only is it Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Triduum Sacrum, this day I will be with a friend from youth whose wife is like family as the medical team disconnects life support systems which have been keeping David’s body in a semi-functional condition for the last several days.  David will die today as his lungs and virtually all of his other organs have ceased to function.  We will release him into the arms of a loving Savior, in whom David has rededicated his life in recent months.  We will be given the gift of the presence among us of our Lord Himself as we mourn the loss in this life of our brother, husband and friend.  We will be able to witness to one another the love of God because we know, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.”

            As Father Rohr says, we learn through living into our Christian vocation that “my life is not about me!”  As we continue to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, as we are able little by little to let down our defenses to our Lord, as we discover God’s love in some new way and through some unexpected person, as we mature not just in years but in depth of dedication, as we give up the need to control, as we are fed again and again at the Lord’s Table, we discover that our lives are richer than we ever could have asked for or imagined.

            May you discover this day your life in Jesus in some new, more deeply transformed way.  And may you be nourished from the abundance of God’s richness in order to meet with confidence the way you have been called to carry the Cross.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

In remembrance of me

Lenten Meditation 4 April 2012

            Speaking of Holy Communion Father Rohr says, “He gave us something that he did not say we needed to “think about” or “agree upon,” “look at” or even “worship,” but he just said ‘Do this!’  It was an action, an audiovisual aid, a sacred ritual for a community, built on Jewish roots, that would summarize his whole lasting message for the world.”  (Page 215)

Leonardo Da Vinci – “The Last Supper”.

            Perhaps the most powerful and important legacy given to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of the 20th and 21st centuries by a group of Oxford scholars of the 19th century is the recovery of the Eucharist as central to the Sunday worship of the community of faith.  Prior to the late 16th Century ascendancy of the Puritan movement in England, the “Lord’s Board” or Holy Communion was the normal worship of the Lord’s Day.  By the middle of the 17th Century, laws regulated the percentage of a parish which was required to be present for Eucharistic worship.  (In England, a parish is a geographical area and consists of all those who live within the boundaries of the parish; by contrast, in the US a parish is a voluntary association of individuals whose membership is entered in the parish register.)  For at least one Sunday prior to celebrating Holy Communion, the Vicar would be required to read the Exhortation and announce to the congregation his intention to offer Holy Communion on the subsequent Sunday.  If the requisite number of members of the parish were not present, the Vicar would begin Morning Prayer and omit Communion.  To violate the law invited imprisonment or being defrocked.  In the first quarter of the 18th Century, the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, were teased and lightly ridiculed by their fellow students for their “methodical” celebrations of the Sacraments.  It is interesting that Methodism devolved almost entirely to prayer services with only infrequent Communion services.  Toward the middle of the 19th Century, several instructors at Oxford began to re-examine the Church of England pattern in light of their study of Scripture and the tradition and theology of the Early Church, and they began to write tracts in favor of a more “high Church” understanding of worship, communal aspects of the Gospel (outreach), and community life.  Out of the Oxford Movement came a recovery of the importance of the sacramental life as well as ministry to the poorest of the poor who lived in slums, teaching of the faith from what we now call an Anglo-Catholic perspective, and monastic orders for men and women.

            On the evening Jesus gathered with his disciples either to celebrate the first day of Passover (as recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke) or to eat a meal which has Passover overtones (John) we have the long tradition of the Jewish “remembering” of the escape from Egypt which leads to freedom from tyranny and oppression.  Even today, as modern Jews celebrate Passover, the four questions, traditionally asked by the youngest male child, begin, “Why is this night so different from all others?”  For 3500 years families and communities re-call the events and re-live them “today.”  It is not a “once upon a time” tale, nor is the remembering of what happened to our ancestors long, long ago.  They are participants in the events of God’s protection in which they are being led out of slavery.  The Haggadah, the ritual of the Passover meal, is spoken in the present tense which intensifies the participation in the singularly focal event of all Jewish theology and experience.  There is a Greek word for this re-calling which we use for our Eucharistic understanding as well:  the word is anamnesis which means to re-member, to put together, to bring to the present, to experience now what once occurred then.

            Jesus took this very Jewish experience of being present in the central “God Event” for Jews and expanded it for his disciples.  When he said “Do this for the remembrance of me” he was giving the 12 and all who have come after them a way to be present with Jesus in the upper room as he says “This is my body…this is my blood.”  The anamnesis brings Jesus present to us in a way that is both spiritual and physical; we are given “outward and visible signs” of bread and wine through which we can appropriate at a very physical level the Presence of our Lord Jesus, not just a spiritual thought that we can either accept or ignore as we feel at any given moment. 

            Unfortunately since the 16th Century, Western Christianity has argued and fought over how Jesus becomes present to us in the Eucharist.  Roman Catholic doctrine utilizes Aristotle’s philosophical basis in the term transubstantiation, the language of the Scholastics of the 12th and 13th Centuries, to describe the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Some Lutherans quibbled with the older term and rephrased it as consubstantiation. Other of the 16th Century Reformers rejected both of those understandings and posited that Holy Communion is simply a memorial of an event which occurred in the life of Jesus.  [For a more thorough definition of any of the terms used in describing the Real Presence, I suggest exploring Google.]  Anglican doctrine formed in the late16th Century in the Articles of Religion, Article XXVIII, says, “…the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.”  Exactly how this occurs is not specifically defined, although the doctrine of Transubstantiation is “repugnant to the plain words of Scripture…”  My preference is simply to say that in the bread and the wine we are able to receive Christ’s Body and Blood which is available to us, unexplainable but absolutely real.  As a Rabbi friend from long ago would say, “It’s a mystery.”

            As believers gather to celebrate Jesus’ presence among us, we are nurtured and fed on Heavenly food.  We are strengthened to be the Body of Christ and to live out our calling, as St. Teresa of Avila says, to be the hands and feet and lips of Jesus to bring blessing and Christ’s healing touch to our broken world.  Spirituality without action is hollow; action without spiritual preparation is merely good work. 

            As we continue to walk through Holy Week, may we remember the words of Richard of Chichester whose day we celebrated yesterday, “to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

Monday, April 2, 2012

Grounded in love and freedom

Lenten Meditation 2 April 2012

            “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity; Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.  This grounds Christianity in love and freedom from the very beginning; it creates a very coherent and utterly attractive religion, which draws people toward lives of inner depth, prayer, reconciliation, healing and even universal “at-one-ment,” instead of mere sacrificial atonement.   Nothing “changed” on Calvary, but everything was revealed so we could change.”  (Page 200)

The Crucifixion , by Vouet, 1622, Genoa
            I have posited before that we human beings have a deep seated need—one might say we are hardwired—to require sacrifice, particularly someone else’s sacrifice, in order for the world to have meaning.  We glorify self-sacrifice in combat situations where a soldier (or sailor or Marine) gives his life to save his comrades. (I am fully aware of the women who are serving in our armed forces, many of whom are as deserving of awards for valor as their male counterparts.) The majority of Medals of Honor are awarded posthumously, and we all, those with military backgrounds and civilians alike, stand in awe of the heroism required.  Our country’s history is replete with military strife, from Bunker Hill to Afghanistan; we celebrate the red stripes on our flag to honor the blood shed to carry freedom to our own generation and hopefully for generations to come. 

            Without denigrating any of the sacrifice of everyone who has ever put on a military uniform to protect our freedoms, whether serving in a combat situation or not, I am not willing to make Christianity the equivalent of American patriotism, with Jesus as General Patton (or insert your favorite military leader) who brings salvation by force and violence.  Not one time in any of the Gospels do I see Jesus either commend violence for others or exercise it himself, with the possible exception of the “cleansing of the Temple,” and even there the force of the whip is directed primarily toward the animals to get them out of the Court of the Gentiles.  (John 2:14-16)  Even as he is being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus condemns the violence against the servant of the high priest (Luke 22:51; John 18:11) and against the soldiers and the Temple leadership armed with “swords and clubs” who had come to arrest Jesus.

            From the beginning of Genesis through the final chapter of the Revelation to John, we are given an image of God as a lover of all of God’s creation.  In the initial story of creation, Genesis 1:1-2:4a, we hear that God is delighted with the evolving world as God creates it.  Even in the second creation account, Genesis 2:4b-3:24, which includes the forming of First Man (Ish, later called Adam by God), the removal of the rib to form First Woman (Ishshah later named Eve by Adam), the introduction of the Serpent, temptation and sin and the consequences for that sin, we continue to see God who cares so much about his creatures that he clothes them and provides a means of sustenance for them.  Even the first reported act of violence—Abel murdered by Cain—is not met with violence against the perpetrator by God; Cain is sent away and marked as protection against further violence.  Again and again, God calls humanity into relationship with God, but repeatedly we fail to accept the gracious invitations.  In fact, on occasion we human beings slay the bearers of God’s invitation to reconciliation, the prophets.  The final move to bring us into the deepening relationship that God so longs for is the coming of the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, who offers Himself “to reveal the lie and the absurdity of the very notion of sacrificial religion itself.”  (Page 201)  Remember, “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…” (John 3-16-17) 

            “The cross is about how to fight and not become a casualty yourself.  The cross is about being the victory instead of just winning a victory.  It is a way of winning that tries to bring along your opponents with you. … What the mystery of the cross teaches us is how to stand against hate without becoming hate, how to oppose evil without becoming evil ourselves.” (Page 203)  Even though much of the popular theology in our culture, some of the hymn texts in the Hymnal 1982, and even some of our liturgical language which is the product of Anselm’s theology of substitution and payment to God for sin to redeem us, I believe the Scriptures give us another theological option.  Violence begets violence; Jesus absorbs the violence of this world and refuses to pay it back “in kind.”  He becomes the “suffering servant” of Isaiah who accepts the humiliation, brutality, and death and helps us to see a religion not of “redemptive violence” but of ”redemptive suffering,” as Father Rohr describes.  Easily, Jesus the Son of God could have called down Archangel Michael and the Angelic Army to destroy his enemies, but he takes into Himself the anger and hatred of the ages and defeats them with His love for all creation.  The totality of His life and death becomes for us an icon, a pattern, the “way, the truth, and the life” to walk in His footsteps.

            I do not believe that Jesus’ Passion and Death are debt payment to Satan or to God; rather Jesus accepts willingly the path of the Cross to transform our human need from having violence direct our lives to revealing God’s love for us in a way that we could not otherwise understand.  The sublime act of Jesus changes who we are in relationship to God.  Through the Way of the Cross we can begin to understand that the relationship that binds together the Persons of the Trinity is one of equality and love, without dominance being brought to bear by any one against the others.  God had spent human history telling God’s people about relationship, but we would not—even could not—listen because the truth was too good to be true.  And we all know that if something is too good to be true, then it isn’t true, or at least that is what we have been told most of our lives.  The only way for God to get beyond our disbelief is to become “one of us”, human but without the sin that besets each of us, and take our anger and hatred and absorb them in order to offer transformation for all who will accept His invitation to become as Jesus to those we meet.

            We who have been “born from above” or “born again” (John 3) begin our new life as vital parts of Jesus’ living body (I Corinthians 12) in order to carry on the work of the Christ where God calls us to be.  Like Jesus, we are to reflect the relationship of the beloved we have with God in order to draw others into healing and wholeness, expressing God’s love, not God’s domineering power, offering God’s welcome as the prodigious parent to the wastrel child without conditions.  This is what being “little Christ”—Christian—is all about.  This is the transformation God offers to everyone, but it is my responsibility and yours to “proclaim by word and example” the Good News that we have been given freely.  We cannot do anything to make God love us, or even love us more, because God’s love precedes everything.  We show others the love that God has shown us in so far as we are willing to allow our selves, our souls and bodies, be transformed into the likeness of Christ Jesus.

            Through the rest of this week, meditate on the myriad ways in which God has offered God’s love to you.  Ponder how you might show that same love to your family, to your companions at work or at play, to the stranger you meet, to yourself.  Pray for the courage and strength to become good news in difficult moments and to transform those moments as Jesus would transform them.  And then go forth in the name of God.

Friday, March 30, 2012

How is God loving you?

Lenten Meditation  30 March 2012

            “The Incarnation of God, in Jesus, gives us the living ‘icon of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15) who is the template for all else (1:16), who reconciles all things to himself (1:17), who is the headmaster in a cosmic body that follows after him (1:18).”  (Page 198)

Peter Abelard 1079 -1142. James E. Kiefer
            Peter Abelard, one of the early proponents of the Scholastic Method of dialectic, is best known for his treatise Sic et Non, translated “Yes and No” or “Yea and Nay”.  Sometimes touted as the founder of the University of Paris, Abelard contended throughout his life with Church authorities because of his approach to theological inquiry.  Although never condemned by papal writ, his writings were discredited in his native France by councils convened by archbishops in France and by his intellectual opponents, primarily Bernard of Clairvaux.  Abelard is also linked eternally with Heloise, his lover from youth, about whom he wrote in great detail.  Their love story is classic tragedy, with each retiring to the life of a religious order, Abelard to a variety of monasteries and Heloise to the convent of the Paraclete.

            Abelard’s contribution to the understanding of Atonement theology was not to propose a thorough going theory of how Jesus’ death somehow satisfied the need for payment for sin. Rather he challenged the earlier understanding that Satan was owed the purchase price for all humanity, as well as the newer, Medieval concept that God was the one to whom the debt was owed.  If Satan truly held humanity captive then God was not in charge; if God was in charge and required a blood sacrifice for payment for sin then God is not free to forgive.

            Part of our problem, even into the 21st century, is that we want to create God in our own image.  We look at justice from our own perspective and declare that there must be quid pro quo (we would say tit for tat) exaction to bring the scales of justice into balance, and we posit that God must have the same justice needs.  The Old Testament concept of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life is deeply embedded in our psyche.  Interestingly enough, in reading Jewish scholars’ comments on the eye-for-eye passages, I discovered that for the most part, precise eye for eye payment was rarely carried out; normally the consequence was payment for the worth of an eye, a tooth, a life.  The difficulty is that if I poke out your eye, even accidentally, and my eye is poked out by your brother, then your brother has transgressed against me and my son gets to poke out his eye, and so on.  Or as Gandhi is reputed to have said, “An eye for an eye, and pretty soon the whole world is blind.”

            My difficulty with most of what I hear proclaimed concerning Jesus’ sacrifice has to do with what is called “substitutionary atonement” theology.  That argument presupposes that justice or salvation is only possible when the scales of justice are in balance.  When I sin, a price must be paid to buy me out of the bondage in which sin has imprisoned me.  Unfortunately, I was born into sin (Original Sin), and I have no ability to pay the ransom or purchase price to release me from that captivity.  Someone else must pay the price, but all other human beings, me included, are trapped in sin as well, and none has the means to pay even for my sin, let alone their own.  Except one—Jesus, the sinless one.  He takes my sin and the sins of the whole world and bears them to the Cross, substituting Himself for me in His brutal Passion and Death on Calvary, paying either Satan (early Church) or God (medieval to modern) the ransom for my soul.  However, in order for me to come under the list of those ransomed, I must pray a prayer of acceptance of Jesus’ redeeming work.  I must declare my own depravity and complete unworthiness through sin and then accept the loosing of my bonds by a loving Savior.

“The trouble is that we emphasized paying a cosmic debt more than communicating a credible love, which is the utterly central issue.  The Cross became more an image of a Divine transaction than an image of human transformation.

            “We ended up with a God who appears—at least unconsciously—to be vindictive, violent and petty, not at all free, subject to supposed laws of offended justice—and a Son who is mainly sent to solve a problem instead of revealing the heart of God. … sin becomes the very motive for redemption instead of love, and the very central act of the redemption of the world appears to be based on an act of violence!”  (Page 199)

            Rohr goes on to say, “Divine love is not determined by the worthiness of the object but by the goodness of the subject.”

            As we move toward Holy Week, beginning on Palm Sunday with the reading of the Passion according to St. Mark, I hope you will look with new eyes on the story of God’s love in the saving work of Jesus, not just on the Cross, but in all His life, His death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again in the Holy Spirit.  If it will help review John 3:16-17 which says, “16)  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to the end that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. 17) Indeed, God did not send the Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  (NRSV)

            Tomorrow let’s look at the love of God as the motivating factor for reconciliation between humanity and God and between individuals and groups.  Love only grows when it is given away; like the manna in the wilderness, love shrivels and rots when hoarded.  How is God loving you today?

Thursday, March 29, 2012


Lenten Meditation  29 March 2012

            “Jesus is, in effect saying, “This is how evil is transformed into good.  I am going to take the worst thing and turn it into the best thing, so you will never be victimized, destroyed or helpless again!  I am giving you the victory over death!”  (Page 188)

The Resurrection of Christ (1611-12) by Rubens

            Atonement is probably the only theological concept which has its roots in the English language rather than Greek or Latin.  At-one-ment is the Middle English way of speaking about reconciliation or recovery of relationship; theologically this is a way of speaking of the reconciliation between God and humanity through the saving work of Christ, especially Christ on the Cross.

            Before the high Middle Ages, some theologians, including Irenaeus and Origin and Augustine, understood that the “sacrifice of Christ” was a necessary payment of debt for the sins of the world, not unlike modern theologians, but in payment to the Satan to buy humanity out of the control of evil.  In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the beginning of Scholasticism, several competing theological understandings arose.  St. Anselm posited that the debt or sacrifice was to be paid not to Satan but to God in satisfaction for the debt owed for sin.  Peter Abelard, on the other hand, argued that the only reason for the Incarnation, Passion and death of Christ was to show visibly the complete love of God for creation.  John Duns Scotus, a Franciscan, argued that the redemptive work was clearly shown in Jesus’ life death and resurrection, but raised the questions of the precise nature of redemption and challenged the metaphors of debt and payment price.

            To grossly compact history, Anselm, Abelard, Duns Scotus and others debated understandings of Atonement for centuries without a condemnation for any of these positions.  In the sixteenth century, with the rise of the reformation theologians, both Protestant and Roman Catholic theology accepted St Anselm’s position and rejected all other understandings of Atonement.

            Modern Christian theology has in some ways taken in its entirety the theology of Atonement of Anselm—the understanding that a debt must be paid, a blood sacrifice is essential in order for reconciliation to be effected between God and humanity.  Whether Anselm himself understood God to be an angry, blood-thirsty, distant deity, needing to be assuaged by the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, unfortunately this image of God has become the major icon of contemporary Christianity for non-believers.  Of course, those words are not used, but by inference it is not only possible but one is likely to arrive at such an understanding.  In fact, I have heard those who reject Christianity use the argument, “How can I believe in a God who requires the blood of his son to appease his anger?”  The incredibly popular movie of 2004, The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson, is a graphic depiction of the brutal death of Jesus with only a hint of Resurrection, portraying what has come to be called substitutionary Atonement, which grows completely out of Anselm’s theology.  The substitution is, of course, that Jesus paid the debt you have incurred by your sin, the debt putting you out of the reach of grace and the love of God.  The movie was presented as a way to draw people to Christ, but from conversations and experience all it did was appeal to the basest level of human desire to see gore and suffering, not unlike travelers who stop to gawk at a wreck on the highway.  The movie did not swell the ranks of seekers or church goers; it only made money for the producers and distributors of movies.

            Tomorrow I will look more in depth at the theology of Peter Abelard and how it, I believe, is much closer to the biblical understanding of God’s love which flows out of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  Certainly both understandings of atonement theology are accepted by Episcopalians and Anglicans.  My hope is that this conversation will open up a deeper insight into God’s grace, love, and mercy for all of us in order that we might be able to articulate why our faith is so dear to us.  In other words, I am hoping that those who read these essays have the words to “proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ” as our Baptismal Covenant challenges us.

(This essay relies on both Rohr’s book Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality and the Catholic Encyclopedia available on line.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Threat and fear versus love

Lenten Meditation  28 March 2012

            “Threat and fear is not transformation.”  (Page 173)

The Harrowing of Hell, Netherlandish,, Nasher Museum of Art

            When I arrived to register as a student at Nashotah House in August 1971, Sheila and I and our son Trey had obtained an apartment in nearby Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, as there was no housing available on campus for additional married students.  However, married students, both those who lived off campus and those who lived in the “flats,” were assigned a study room in the Cloister which had been originally designed for single students.  My study room was in a suite in “B House” on the back side facing the lake.  The suite was three rooms, two small bedrooms and a common room with toilet facilities adjacent to the suite.  When I arrived to arrange my room, I discovered that there were two other students with whom I would share the suite.  Because I arrived first I chose one of the bedrooms believing that the common room would be busier with comings and goings, and my supposition later proved to be correct. 

            In my study room were a bed, a small book shelf, and a desk and chair; to say the room was full would be an understatement.  I immediately noticed a poster on the wall that had been left by a student who had previously used “my” room.  When I first saw the poster, I stood and stared at it for some time, and decided it had to remain.  The poster said:  “Because you have shouted someone into silence doesn’t mean you have converted them!”  I do not remember if there was an attribution or citation for the quotation, but I knew that that was to be my theme for theological study.  In the fall of the next year, one of my roommates and I decided to stay together but requested that we move to the “front” side B House, and we were granted our request.  As I made the move, taking my accumulated books and other student “stuff”, I took the poster and taped it to the wall in my new “digs” where it stayed for the next two years.  I left the poster for a successor student, never knowing where it had come from originally or whether he would either keep or dispose of it.  (Nashotah was almost totally male in those days.)

            Having grown up in Oklahoma, “the buckle of the Bible Belt,” (I know other parts of the Old South claim that attribution also) I was aware of the evangelistic methods of fear and threat.  I never understood why anyone would be drawn to a religion that constantly berated its members with threats of eternal condemnation for any minuscule misdeed.  The God of Love that I was hearing about at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Chickasha did not sound like the same wrathful, angry God that my friends who attended some of the other churches in town were telling me about from their faith perspective.  The Rev. Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” was alive and well and being preached in paraphrase weekly in the 1950s and 60s in Chickasha, Oklahoma.  

            What amazed me even more than an image of an angry God was the way in which my classmates professed this God but acted like the rest of us 99% of the time.  Dancing for many of my classmates was a dreadful sin with dire consequences; the jaws of Hell were gaping wide to devour sinners who danced or went parking or stayed out late.  But I believe almost everybody in my class was present for Friday night “sock hops” in the high school gym.  I had a long conversation with a friend from one of those churches that preached fear and threat, and I asked him about the incongruity of belief and action.  Neither he nor others with whom I has similar conversations could give me an answer except to say that this was a way to try to keep people “in line.”

            Years after I graduated from high school I began to speak of fear and threat evangelism as “spiritual fire insurance.”  Over the centuries, Christians took the images of Heaven and Hell, union with God and separation from God and gave them geographical locations.  The deliciousness of torment—for others, of course—reached its pinnacle in Dante’s Inferno.  Few read beyond Inferno to find Purgatorio truly cleansing and fewer to discover in Paradiso the culmination of Christian unity with God.  Some writers and preachers have even attempted to locate within earthly parameters the sites of both Heaven and Hell.  Christian Scripture describes hell using Gehenna, Jerusalem’s burning garbage dump, as its primary image.  Heaven is always “above” as would have been understood by our predecessors who thought of creation in a three tier universe.

            For me, the most unfortunate aspect of a theology of fear and threat is that the work of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is horribly skewed.  That perspective makes Jesus the appeaser of an angry God who desires – no, demands - human sacrifice.  The only difference between that understanding and that of a multitude of other ancient religions is that Jesus is the only sacrifice, whereas the others required periodical, sometimes frequent offerings of human blood, sometimes enemies, sometimes their own children.  The basic understanding, however, is the same: God’s ravenous anger must be fed with human blood.  It is little wonder that many in our post-Christian era have no interest for themselves in a God who demands human sacrifice, even the sacrifice of Jesus.

            Tomorrow and for the rest of the week, I am going to focus my essays on what is called Atonement theories, or what the Cross is all about.  If you want to read ahead, Chapter Nine of Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality is all about Atonement.  We Western Christians have a particular doctrine of Atonement which I believe feeds into the threat and fear theology.  How can that understanding be changed?  Tune in tomorrow; same time, same station.