Alison on Re-Imagining Substitutionary Atonement

if you have a theory of atonement – something grasped – you have something that people can “get right”, and then be on the inside of the good guys. “We’re the people who are covered by the blood; we’re the ones who are okay, the ones who are good; and then there are those others who aren’t.” In other words, rather than undergoing atonement, we’re people who grasp onto the idea of the atonement. But the whole purpose of the Christian understanding is that we shouldn’t identify too soon with the good guys. On the contrary, we are people who are constantly undergoing “I AM” – that is to say, God – coming towards us [as] one who is offering forgiveness from the victim [Jesus Christ crucified]. And we are learning how to look at each other as people who are saying, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.” Which means that we are the “other” in this package; that we are the “other” who are being turned into a “we”, in the degree to which we find our similarity with our brother and sister on either side of us; rather than: we are the people who, because we’ve grasped the theory have become part of “I AM”, and therefore the “other” is some “them”. If you are undergoing atonement it means that you are constantly in the process of being approached by someone who is forgiving you. That, it seems to me, is the challenge for us in terms of imagination when it comes to imagining and re-imagining atonement.

…it’s because we are undergoing being forgiven that we can forgive; and we need to forgive in order to continue undergoing being forgiven. But remember: it’s because we are approached by our victim, that we start to be undone. Or in Paul’s language: “even though you were dead in your sins he has made you alive together in Christ.” Someone was approaching you even when you didn’t realize there was a problem, so that you begin to discover, “Oh! So that’s what I’ve been involved in.”

…What Jesus was doing was opening up the Creator’s vision, which knows not death, so that we can live as though death were not. In other words, we’re being given a bigger heart. That is what being forgiven is all about. It’s not, “I need to sort out this moral problem you have.” It’s, “Unless I come towards you, and enable you [to] undergo a breaking of heart, you’re going to live in too small a universe, you’re not going to enjoy yourselves and be free. How the hell do I get through to you! Well, the only way is by coming amongst you as your victim. That’s the only place in which you can be undone. That’s the place you’re so frightened of being that you’ll do anything to get away from it. So if I can occupy that space, and return to you and say, “Yes, you did this thing to me. But don’t worry! I’m not here to accuse you. I’m here to play with you! To make a bigger space for you. And for you to do it with me.” And of course the way he acted this out before his death was setting up the last supper, in which he would give himself to us so that we would become him.

…We can imagine retaliation, we can imagine protection; but we find it awfully difficult to imagine someone we despised, and were awfully glad not to be like – whom we would rather cast out so as to keep ourselves going – we find it awfully difficult to imagine that person generously irrupting into our midst so as to set us free to enable something quite new to open for us. But that’s what atonement is about; and that is what we are asked to live liturgically as Christians.

excerpts from “Some Thoughts on the Atonement” by James Alison.

Marriage: A Gift of Grace

[Just to clear up any confusion: I wrote this sermon for a preaching class I’m in this week. I wrote it with my sister-in-law Hannah and her fiance Nate in mind. While I won’t have the honor of delivering this at their wedding (however, I do have the honor of being a groomsmen!), I hope it encourages them and all of us who are striving to faithfully love each other in all our various relationships.]

Weddings are big occasions. While they can be wonderful celebrations of love, friendship, and family, they can also be a lot of work. Of course, I’m a man, so I actually have little idea of all that has to happen, except for one thing: gift registries. I don’t know who invented this tradition, but we’re officially NOT friends. Of course I enjoy receiving gifts – who doesn’t – but going to all those stores and signing up for plates, and silverware, and bed sheets is just not my thing. But, as couples often do, my wife Cassie and I made a compromise when it came to making our gift registries: I would come along and help but only if I got to be in charge of the little barcode-scanner gun. I had a great time at Sears – you know those little scanners kind of sound like lasers?! I was actually a little excited when we left Sears and went to Bed, Bath, Beyond, but then it all fell apart. What happened? Apparently, BBY thinks that couples need an employee to follow them around the store so they can ask us a 1000 times if we’ve thought about nice it would be to have our own pasta maker, or sweet tea kettle, or some other vaguely useful kitchen appliance.  Oh, and this employee got to hold the barcode scanner – not me; that was a deal breaker. (Nate, I hear you had a similar experience?) After it was all said and done, we ended up with a lot of very nice gifts that we really needed and appreciated very much. Weddings are full of gifts aren’t they? Registries, parties, showers. Amidst all the shreds of torn wrapping paper, the sparkling ribbons, and the big pretty bows, we should be careful not to forget that one, essential gift that we can’t put on our registry: marriage. Hannah and Nate, your marriage is the best gift you’ll receive today.

In his novel Hannah Coulter, one of my favorite authors Wendell Berry speaks of marriage beautifully through the words of the main character who is most appropriately named Hannah. She describes her marriage with a metaphor – a “room of love”; a place “where giving and taking are the same, and you live a little while entirely in a gift.” Now, since there are kids around, I don’t think we need to go into all the details of what happens in the “room of love.” At any rate, I think Hannah helps us understand how marriage works as a gift: it’s a place “where giving and taking are the same,” where what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine, where we’re simply together and free to offer ourselves and receive the other in love. Sounds like grace to me. Marriage is a gift because, in marriage, we open ourselves to grace.

What makes this possible? Our lives are opened to grace in marriage because marriage is a covenant – a solemn promise which requires the commitment of all we are for another. But marriage is a covenant that points beyond itself to another, greater covenant – God’s promise of love and justice towards us and all creation through a particular people, which was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are here today, Nate and Hannah, to consecrate your lives in covenant with one another. A covenant founded on the promise of our God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” The marriage covenant you make today is a gift of grace because it binds you together with the God who exists as communion of perfect love, who is supremely good and eternally faithful – a God whose promises never fail.

Of course, this promise is simply too big for you to keep on your own. You’re not standing here today because you’ve sat down with each other and come to some understanding about how each day of your lives will unfold in order to maximize each other’s happiness. Let’s face it: you have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into up here! Thankfully, you’re not alone. Your promise to each other is made within a community bound together in the covenant of baptism. In a moment you’ll exchange rings. These rings deeply symbolize your personal commitment to one another, but they are also a very public announcement of your marriage. Your married life should reflect this dual purpose of your rings: intimately personal yet lived publicly within the grace of a community of fellow believers. As members of community, the gracious gift of your marriage is transformed into a gift of love and hospitality for others. They say it’s better to give than to receive; how will you share the gift of your marriage with others?

Marriage is a gift of grace, founded in the gracious covenant of God, to be shared with each other and with your community for a lifetime. However, every time we open ourselves to receive grace, we simultaneously expose ourselves to the wound of grace denied. The very people we love the most, the ones we commit our lives to, are the ones who hurt us the most. We are all wounded people who wound others in return. There is no avoiding this truth. Hannah, Nate: you will hurt each other and being married only makes the pain worse. Will you shut yourselves off? Will you fight back in anger, in fear? Will you accuse and point fingers? Will you keep score? You’ll be tempted to do all of these things and more. None will do any good. Unfortunately, marriage leaves you with only one option: forgiveness. The grace-gift we share in marriage is sustained by our acts of forgiveness.

Henri Nouwen says it best: “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly.” God has created us with limits. We don’t know everything, we don’t see or hear everything, and we can’t be in two places at once. We’re also created uniquely with different needs, wants, struggles, hopes, and joys. On top of that, we’re always changing and growing. These realities make it hard to love each other well and we often do it poorly. After all, we’re not God.  Forgiveness, then, in the words of Nouwen, is about continually being willing “to forgive [each other] for not being God – for not fulfilling all [your] needs.” Forgiveness is not easy; it’s nearly impossible. Again, we come back to grace: we love and forgive because God has first loved and forgiven us. Nothing is impossible for God. Learn to forgive each other, just go ahead and plan on it.

Nate, Hannah: live freely in grace. Embrace the gift of your covenant. Love each other as God has loved you. What an awesome day of celebration this is! What a display of grace! What a gift! Praise God from whom all blessings flow! May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and always. Amen.

When Jesus Responds to Opposition, We Should Listen

Tracing Jesus’ Response to Opposition in the Gospel of Luke

As the story of Jesus unfolds in the Gospel of Luke, opposition becomes a recurring theme. Jesus faces a diversity of conflict from a wide array of characters: his family, his disciples, the Pharisees and religious elite, demonic spirits, and the crowds. In each of these cases of opposition, Jesus responds in a certain way. Some conflicts provoke the telling of a parable and others need only Jesus’ correction. In others, Jesus adds a rebuke along with his correction and sometimes he simply rebukes. Then, in moments where his life is threatened the most, Jesus seems to have no response at all. These categories of Jesus’ response to the opposition he faces in the Gospel of Luke will now be explored in further detail.

Parable

Luke records six instances of opposition towards Jesus that provoke the telling of a parable. In each instance, the opposition finds its source in either the Law of Moses or rabbinic tradition. First, Jesus is confronted over the behavior of his disciples who eat and drink instead of fasting and praying like the disciples of the Pharisees and John the Baptist. Jesus uses the parable of the new cloth and new wine to explain his disciples’ behavior.[1] The parable of the debtors[2] and the parable triad of the lost sheep, coin, and son[3] are told in response to the Pharisees’ and scribes’ complaints about Jesus associating with sinners, which conflicted with their understanding of purity and holy living. In the parable of the Good Samaritan,[4] Jesus is responding to the lawyer’s test of his scriptural knowledge and his specific definition of “neighbor.” A very interesting situation unfolds when Jesus responds to Pharisaical ridicule by telling the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.[5] In this parable, he chides the Pharisees for their failure to recognize him as the Messiah even with their great knowledge of the scriptures. Finally, the chief priests and scribes question the source of Jesus’ authority as he is teaching in the temple since he acts as if he were above the Law of Moses and those who are charged to enforce it. In telling the parable of the wicked tenants,[6] Jesus reveals the wickedness of the chief priests and the scribes and his own superior status as the son of the vineyard owner. In each of these conflicts, Jesus tells a parable in order to reshape and broaden the understanding of the Law accepted by his opposition.

Correction

On at least twelve occasions, Jesus offers correction to those who have either misunderstood his mission or are confused about the nature of the Kingdom he proclaims. The misunderstanding of his mission begins in Jesus’ adolescence as he reminds his mother at the temple that he must be “in his Father’s house.”[7] Just as his ministry launches, Jesus must tell the crowds who want to keep him for themselves that he must proclaim the gospel to the other cities as well.[8] Simon Peter experiences his first correction when he commands Jesus to depart from him. Jesus must explain to Simon that he has come to make him a fisher of men.[9] A major source of misunderstanding arises from Jesus’ interaction with various kinds of sinners. The gospel records three episodes where Jesus explains his mission towards sinners: calling them to repentance,[10] forgiving their sins,[11] and seeking out even the very worst of them – to offer his salvation.[12]

Jesus also felt compelled to correct those who were confused about the nature of his Kingdom. He patiently explains to the Pharisees that his disciples cannot fast and pray like their disciples because the wedding guests do not fast while the bridegroom is present.[13] John the Baptist even appears confused about whether Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus has only to point to the many signs of kingdom being performed in their presence to answer the questions of John’s disciples.[14] Those closest to Jesus also have the wrong idea about his kingdom. As the twelve disciples argue amongst themselves about who will be greatest, Jesus teaches that the least among them will be the greatest in his Kingdom.[15]

Correction and Rebuke

Some experiences of opposition caused Jesus to both rebuke and correct those who were confronting him. This rebuke came in the form of a question from Jesus or as an act of healing. Two types of situations resulted in this combination of rebuke and correction: when Jesus’ identity is at stake and when the spirit, or identity, of the Law is being compromised. Jesus first responds this way when the scribes and Pharisees call him a blasphemer and question his identity as one who can forgive sins when he forgives the sins of the paralytic man.[16] The Pharisees’ are rebuked and corrected by Jesus again when fail to recognize him as “the lord of the Sabbath.”[17] Some in crowds also questioned Jesus’ identity by either claiming that he was from Beelzebul or by demanding other signs from him. Jesus rebukes their claims and teaches them about his power over Beelzebul.[18] When the crowds began to increase, Jesus once again rebuked and corrected them for demanding signs to prove his identity.[19] Jesus’ Messianic identity is especially challenged when the chief priests and scribes question his authority both in the temple[20] and before the Sanhedrin.[21] Finally, Jesus has to rebuke and correct the disciples when they mistake him for a ghost upon his appearance to them after his resurrection.[22] In all these instances, Jesus’ true identity is being questioned and he responds with rebuke and correction.

When the spirit, or identity, of the Law is being compromised, Jesus also responds with rebuke and correction. The first example comes as Jesus “works” in order to heal the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath as the scribes and Pharisees look on in disgust.[23] A similar situation occurs when Jesus heals a crippled woman, also on the Sabbath. When the leader of the synagogue ordered those who were seeking healing to come back another day, Jesus responded with a strong rebuke and correction that put “all his opponents… to shame.”[24] The clearest example of opposition that provokes this kind of response occurs when Jesus is invited to dine with the Pharisees. When one of them was “amazed to see that [Jesus] did not wash his before dinner,” Jesus unloads a litany of woes against the Pharisees, lawyers, and scribes because they “neglect justice and the love of God” even while claiming to follow the Law.[25]

Rebuke

In experiences where Jesus confronts demons, those who do not believe, or those misuse power, his response is simply rebuke. When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he quotes scripture as a rebuke to each of his temptations.[26] Luke records three instances where Jesus is said to have rebuked demons: the man with the unclean spirit in Capernaum,[27] the Gerasene demoniac,[28] and the boy with the evil spirit.[29] Jesus also rebukes Peter, James, and John, along with Jairus and his wife, when they laugh and do not believe that Jairus’ daughter is alive.[30] Peter is once again rebuked when he refuses to believe Jesus’ prediction of his denial.[31] In addition, Jesus pronounces a forceful rebuke of the unrepentant and unbelieving cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida.[32] The misuse of power also provokes a strong rebuke from Jesus. James and John are the first recipients of this rebuke when they ask to call down fire as punishment on Samaritan villages.[33] An unnamed person in the garden who cuts off the ear of one of the officials coming to arrest Jesus is also strongly rebuked for using violence.[34]

Silence

In the moments of opposition fueled by anger or fear, where Jesus’ life is most threatened, he has no response at all. When the angry and jealous crowd at Nazareth led Jesus to the edge of a cliff to throw him off, he simply “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”[35] As the chief priests and scribes plot to kill Jesus, he ignores them and keeps on teaching.[36] Even as he witnesses Peter’s denial,[37] stands unjustly accused before Pilate[38] and Herod[39], and bears the vile hatred of the crowds shouting “Crucify!”[40] – Jesus has no response. He has no response when the soldiers mock and beat him[41]; when they cast lots for his clothing[42]; when the leaders scoff[43]; when the criminal ridicules.[44] Then, in the moment when opposition towards Jesus culminates in his brutal execution, he breaks his silence: “Father, forgive them.”[45]

Personal Reflections

The Power of Parable

In a culture both inside and outside and the church that is permeated with seemingly irresolvable conflict, I find Jesus’ varied responses to opposition in the Gospel of Luke to be very informative. As I consider all the current debate within the church over fine points of doctrine, ecclesial structures, and the ever-vigilant guarding of the boundaries of salvation, I am deeply encouraged by the way Jesus used parables to break through the old understandings of Law and tradition that were opposed to the new work of his Kingdom. Through his parables, Jesus told a new story that was firmly rooted in the old but too big to be contained by it. As I reflect on the hostility I see in the church, I wonder if we have lost the ability, or the willingness, to tell new stories. It seems that we would rather impose our will on those who disagree with us instead of winning their hearts and capturing their imaginations with the stories we tell.

Forgiveness and Grace at the Core

Jesus’ silence during the times of greatest opposition is even more challenging to me. It is hard to imagine the intensity of conviction that empowered him to suffer through the torments of crucifixion. The depth of his love for me and for the world takes on a new meaning as I consider how I struggle to renounce my own rights and privileges. I can hardly bear to be unfairly blamed for trivial problems, yet Jesus endured the pain and shame of the cross as a completely innocent man. Then, when he did speak, he asks for forgiveness. It seems that the core of Jesus’ response to the opposition he faced was an unrelenting and steadfast desire to forgive. As Christians today face various threats – both real and imagined – we would be wise to desire forgiveness and grace above our personal success.


[1] Luke 5:36-39 (NRSV)

[2] Luke 7:41-43

[3] Luke 15:3-32

[4] Luke 10:25-37

[5] Luke 16:19-31

[6] Luke 20:9-19

[7] Luke 2:48-50

[8] Luke 4:42-43

[9] Luke 5:8-10

[10] Luke 5:30-32

[11] Luke 7:44-48

[12] Luke 19:10

[13] Luke 5:33-35

[14] Luke 7:18-23

[15] Luke 9:46-48

[16] Luke 5:20-25

[17] Luke 6:2-5

[18] Luke 11:14-23

[19] Luke 11:29-32

[20] Luke 20:1-8

[21] Luke 22:66-71

[22] Luke 24:36-45

[23] Luke 6:6-11

[24] Luke 13:10-17

[25] Luke 11:37-53

[26] Luke 4:1-13

[27] Luke 4:33-35

[28] Luke 8:28-30

[29] Luke 9:42

[30] Luke 8:49-55

[31] Luke 22:31-34

[32] Luke 10:13-16

[33] Luke 9:51-56

[34] Luke 22:49-51

[35] Luke 4:28-30

[36] Luke 19:47-48

[37] Luke 22-54-62

[38] Luke 23:1-5

[39] Luke 23:7-11

[40] Luke 23:20-21

[41] Luke 22:63, 23:36

[42] Luke 23:34b

[43] Luke 23:35

[44] Luke 23:39

[45] Luke 23:34a

The Risk of Dialogue

In the first chapter of his book, A Beginner’s Guide to New Testament ExegesisRichard Erickson discusses the necessity of openness and commitment to the practice of faithful exegesis of Scripture. He says

Exegesis requires openness toward hearing the message of the Bible, the Bible to which we are passionately committed.

Exegesis, like every critical task, requires a certain amount of distance from the object being criticized. This distance gives us a vantage point for asking questions about the text that we could not see before. It’s like trying to criticize your “outfit” while standing 1cm away from a mirror – you can’t really see everything you need to see unless you back up. I think this is what Erickson is getting at when he says openness. There has to be space in our minds for something new to take root; open space.

The commitment part seems self-explanatory. We must remain committed to our belief that Scripture is in fact the Word of God and that it brings us life. Regular commitment won’t do – we need passionate commitment. As Erickson explains, the work of exegesis is tough and it takes time and lots of practice to develop. Our commitment to the Word – our desire to know the God whose Word it is – will propel us in this hard work.

What does this have to do with dialogue? Everything. Why? Because exegesis IS dialogue (well… half of it at least). It is about hearing the text rightly, as it was heard by those who first heard it. So, what is essential for exegesis is essential for dialogue as well.

Like exegesis, true dialogue – on any topic – requires an openness to the voice of another. Without this openness, you hear nothing but static. It also requires a passionate commitment to your own voice. Without this commitment, you have nothing to say.

In my view, followers of Christ – His Church – should be well-equipped for the art of dialogue. Why? Well, we say that we believe in things like forgiveness and hospitality and reconciliation. If we do, we should have no fear of dialogue with one another; no fear of sharing ourselves with another. We say that we base our lives – even our eternity – on the things we believe. If we do, we should have no lack of passionate commitment to those things. So, we should be equipped with the tools we need for dialogue, but how is that going?

I’m often discourage by the lack of dialogue in the Church as a whole. Of course, I have a very limited view and much, much, much, much, much is happening that I do not and will never know about. Still, if I had to grade the part of the Church I participate in on its dialogue skills, I’d give it a C-.

Why do we struggle with dialogue? I think Erickson hit the nail on the head. He writes about how we are sometimes afraid of jeopardizing our passionate commitment to Scripture (or to any topic of discussion) when we open ourselves to hearing other interpretations of it. He says:

For those who truly love the Bible and Bible’s Lord there is little risk of losing the passion by listening to what others think. These people love Scripture so much that they are willing to risk what they believe the biblical text says in order to discover more accurately what in fact it does say.

Are we willing to take the risk of dialogue? Do we hold our own beliefs and interpretations so dearly that we “hide them under a bushel”?  Are we willing to quiet our own passion in order to be hospitable to the voice of others? Do we even care what others think?