“Sinner signifies not moral inferiority so much as people who do not know who they are and whose they are, people who have no connection to their inherent dignity and importance.” (The Naked Now, Richard Rohr p. 21)
In Ephesians chapter four it’s written,
“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption…be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (NRSV)
God. Humanity. Sin. Forgiveness. What really is sin? And what really is the nature of God’s relationship to us?
We have predominately equated sin with moral failure. And a lot of us have grown up thinking we are so bad, such sinners that God is angry with us—so angry that God had to make atonement for us through the blood of God’s son. And we must do whatever we can to pay back this debt and appease the anger by either doing all the right things or believing all the “right” things—a terrible, fearful, burdened way to live.
And what is “atonement theory” all about anyway? The average lay person’s understanding is that God’s son, Jesus, had to make amends for the sin of humanity before God could forgive and accept us. But this notion conflicts with I have experienced of God.
I realize for some I’m walking on a thin line here edging toward being accused of heresy. But there are prominent Christian thinkers and theologians who echo the same audacity—like Joel Green http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_B._Green
Miroslav Volf http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miroslav_Volf and N.T. Wright http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nt_wright. Atonement theories (i.e. ransom, substitution, satisfaction, recapitulation, etc. as a religious explanation for how humanity can be reconciled to God, are widely accepted as orthodoxy. But can we make room to wonder at the mysterious crucifixion and to ask questions about its purpose? The ego resists this. The ego likes neatly packaged answers to life and religion’s most profound questions. But the contemplative mind dares to hold paradoxes and uncertainties with tenderness and determination to find truth.
If you dare, take a moment and consider the notion that God is so angry with us (“hates” us according to one dominant evangelical teacher today) that the only way God could attempt to accept us was to purpose the Son of God to die a cruel, heinous death. A morbid thought indeed. What mother or father would choose the grotesque murder of one of their children so they could accept the others? This explanation of the crucifixion is inconsistent with the very laws of nature—mothers and fathers love their children unconditionally and there’s virtually nothing a child can do to lose the love of their parent.
If God created the world and put this kind of law of nature at work in the world, why would God respond to creation, God’s “children,” in an antithetical way? Could there be a different explanation for the crucifixion of Jesus? I’m not alone in imagining there could be. And could sin be more about refusing our identity as children of God and the divine dignity that comes with that heritage than about moral mistakes and failures?
According to St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, we are to be imitators of God as beloved children—we are to imitate God. Well if God looks at “sinners” with such disgust and hatred, then to imitate God would be to do the same. But Paul doesn’t seem to be saying this. The rest of that verse reads, “live in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
This sounds more like Jesus, knowing his essence was that of love, met the religious fear and violence of his day with remarkable opposite energy. Not that God willed Jesus to be crucified, but that Jesus, non-violently responded to people’s spiritual blindness and egoic wickedness with forgiveness and love.
Why would Jesus do that? Does his very non-violent act of responding with compassion to a fierce, defensive, controlling religious system communicate a more comprehensive message than our dualistic minds can grasp? Is Jesus’ “fragrant offering” and “sacrifice” something that happens when the violent order is confronted with non-violence—even mercy?
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” And challenged his friends to “follow him.” His life, suffering, death and resurrection is “the way” we must imitate to live as children of God. Kind of a tall order. It’s easier to respond by inflicting pain on that which or on who causes us pain. But Jesus teaches us a different way. When we awaken to this mysterious and earth-shattering consciousness, we cannot help but be “kind to one another, tender-hearted, [and] forgiving…” But awakening to the mystery of Jesus as “the way, truth and life” is more than knowledge about it.
Awakening is like being reborn. And it happens only once we have metaphorically died.
So what does the crucifixion have to do with me? Everything. Life has dealt me certain kinds of sufferings. I have been the victim of the failure, betrayal and mistreatment of others—certainly not to the degree of Jesus and not to the degree of a number of my friends on the margins of society. But regardless of “degree,” suffering is a part of the human story. None of us are immune to it.
When we acknowledge the suffering inflicted on us by this crazy world we meet a fork in the road. One way looks pretty easy-going. It’s broad. Looks fairly easy to navigate, but it leads to internal emotional torment, bitterness and often the perpetuation of violence.
The other path looks less inviting. It’s pretty narrow and lonely and even kind of dark in places with some pretty huge hills to traverse. But when we choose this way, we find “the way is made by walking.” By walking it, something happens to us—not necessarily to the one who uncovered the pain within us by their violence or mistreatment—but to us. Following Jesus’ way changes us. We learn more about who we are. We realize how unloved, unlovely, unwanted, unworthy we feel. And we come to experience a little more of how much we are loved, lovely, wanted and worthy.
By embracing our suffering, we die and unless something dies it cannot bring forth life (“unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies it cannot bear fruit”). Once we go through this arduous death, our capacity for love increases.
The mystery is that it’s the wounds of our life that have the power to increase love. This is what the crucifixion means to me. I wish I only had to experience it once. But it seems the human story is about dying over and over and over again.
Unfortunately, for me the process of dying and being reborn usually takes much longer than the three days that Jesus was in the tomb. I don’t let go so easily. I think life is about that too—learning how to let go. The crucifixion of Jesus teaches me how to embrace my wounds and let go, ushering in a new order that makes the world just a little bit better—that makes me just a little more loving.
1. Jurgen Moltmann’s explanation of the cross as the revelation of God in The Crucified God http://tinyurl.com/6lo2tv7 ); Jon Sobrino’s exploration of the cross as solidarity with the dispossessed in Cristology at the Crossroads http://tinyurl.com/88cklul
2. The dualistic mind is fixed on polarities, either/or thinking. It is ego-driven and is unable to embrace mystery and paradox. For a thorough explanation on the dualistic and non-dualist mind visit http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/24168.htm
for further exploration: