Yesterday morning before Children’s Chapel, anticipating the weeks ahead, a lay leader for the service asked, “How do we talk to young children about the crucifixion? What do we tell them?” This morning, while driving back from a kennel in Maryland I passed a church sign that simply read: “Jesus died for your sins.” When I was a kid that’s pretty much what I was taught in Sunday School – not so much that Jesus was crucified but that he “died” and that the reason that he died was so that (my) sins could be forgiven. In the church we call this Atonement. Atonement is a theoretical assertion about how God deals with the primary problem of sin and understands Jesus as a satisfaction or sacrifice making amends for those of us who err like lost sheep. God was offended and somebody had to apologize on our behalf. The older I get the less sense I can make out of atonement theory.
While I like to think of myself as pretty handy with it, Scripture doesn’t help much here. The notion of sacrifice is prevalent, appearing in one form or another at least 314 times in the Old and New Testaments of the bible. There was a lot of sacrificing going on in those bible days. Jesus himself, in all the accounts of the Last Supper, alludes to an understanding of the sharing of the bread and the cup as the ratification of a covenant that was about to be sealed in his blood. This hardly seems like he understood what was about to happen as symbolic or theoretical.
The hour is coming (which is not to say that it doesn’t come regularly for churchgoers who engage in weekly celebrations of the Holy Eucharist) when many of us in the church will have to ponder what John M. Buchanan recently wrote about as the unlikely claim he’s struggled with all his life: that this brutal event has ultimate transcendent significance, that God is in it… I have found myself moving away from the notion that God intended, planned or choreographed the crucifixion and away from the related idea that Jesus had to die a sacrificial lamb to satisfy an offended and angry deity. Buchanan goes on to say something that many of us who struggle with traditional theories of atonement find solace in – that the most radical thing anyone ever said about the ultimate mystery (the crucifixion) is that God loves us so much as to be with us in our suffering, to take into God’s own self our most profound experience, to be at one with us.
As Good Friday approaches each of us in the church will be called to struggle with the bible’s assertion that Jesus understood his impending death as a sacrifice for our sin. In the midst of that struggle may we also open ourselves to the possibility that Jesus’ body and blood, poured out for many, are the way God finds a way into hearts like ours and that God has promised, come what may, to stay with us to the bitter end and, after that, to a new beginning.
p.s. You can find John M. Buchanan’s biweekly reflections in the Editor’s Desk section of The Christian Century Magazine.