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?