Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
I sometimes find myself in this weird liminal space, sort of an out of time moment, where I am confronted with the decision – do I make things worse or do I make things better? This moment inevitably happens in a relationship with someone I am close to, at a time when I am rushed or tired or hungry or all of the above. And there I stand having the potential to foul things up, to make things worse, to lash out, and get mad, and blow up all over the place – or not too. We all have that potential.
When I exercise my potential to foul things up I always feel worse and so do those who are around me. And when the dust settles I’m like, “why did I do that? I’m such an idiot. I’m 47 years old and I still make that mistake.” And then I go say, “I’m sorry.” I do that because I am a Christian and Jesus died for my sins. I’ll say more about that in a minute because it doesn’t sound very Episcopalian.
This year I’m making a resolution to try to live out my “I’m sorry” without the qualifier “but.” In truth, in the past I have tied many an “I’m sorry,” to a “but if only. I’m sorry, but if only….” Maybe you know what I’m talking about. It is not much of an apology if a “but” is attached and it is an exhausting way to live, there is no real resolution.
That is why Jesus came: to relieve us of this exhaustion once and for all and to give us resolution, at least with regards to our relationship with God. John the Baptist anticipates the sacrifice Jesus makes to end this cycle of sin when he says, “There he is, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Today I’m going to talk about sacrifice, atonement, the cross, and what it means to fouls things up and to say, “I’m sorry.”
Atonement is a word that can evoke gory images of a hateful God killing his own son on the cross in a cosmic bloodletting to save our souls. That is weird, that is gross, and that is not what I believe, nor do I think it is good or accurate theology. Let me explain in two points. The first thing to hold in your mind, is that Jesus, while for the benefit of Trinitarian identity is the Son of God, is by full measure God as well. Jesus is not a lesser being, or the first being, Jesus is God. This matters if we want to make sense of what happed on the cross. God does not put anyone on the cross, but God’s self. God is on the cross. That might be a mind bend, but we’ll have to just let that be a mind bend this morning. Second, Jesus on the cross turns inside out and then stops fully and completely any and all blood sacrifice. The sacrificial system ends with Jesus.
Rob Bell, in his book Velvet Elvis, helps me with the details of how Jesus smashes the sacrificial system. Now I am going to take a few minutes to explain how Jesus enters into and then explodes the system of blood sacrifice in ancient Israel. Picture this: each year 210,000 men would pile on to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In silence they would stand there after days of fasting and praying and considering their sins, they had come for atonement. It was called Yom Kippur. They stood utterly still as the High Priest dressed in a manner unlike anything they had ever seen walked through their midst and into the sanctuary and then the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, where he made a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the Jewish people and return them to right relationship with God. The High Priest would take two goats with him. One he sacrificed on the altar, the other he brought back out. And there, in front of all of the people, starved, raw, exhausted, dying for relief, the High Priest would lay his hands on the head of the goat and in a most solemn prayer transfer the sins of the people onto the head of the goat. This goat becomes the scapegoat. The scapegoat was then led out into the desert, way, way out into the wilderness and set free to take away the sins of the people.
Now no reasonable Jew wanted this job of taking the goat away. You can imagine why. What if the goat got loose or lost or stolen? Talk about pressure. Tradition had it that a Gentile led the goat away. To show that this was the goat of the atonement a red cord was tied around its horns. The cord symbolized the blood and judgment and punishment that God washed clean from the people. This ritual was meant to bring relief to the people as it set them back in right relationship with God. The word for scapegoat is azazel. It is a word that carries with it the idea of “taking away.” Which brings us back to our Gospel and John’s words, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Fast forward to chapter 19 of the Gospel of John, Jesus stands in front of Pontius Pilate. The people say he must be killed. The soldiers beat him and put a crown of thrones on his head. The thorns dig in creating a ribbon of blood. He is brought before the crowd, and, they shout “crucify him,” and they shout azazel, “take him away.” (Jn 19:15) And so Jesus was led away by Gentiles, Roman soldiers, out of the city, marked by the red ribbon of blood that encircled his head, “The lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.”
When John the Baptist spoke these words it was to an exhausted people, a people who lived under the shadow of Roman occupation, and they blamed themselves. They believed it was because they sinned against God that God allowed them to be ruled over by Rome. The logic went that if we were in right relationship with God, God would banish Rome from their midst. It was their fault, their atonement failed. So when the exhausted followers of John heard him say, “There he is, the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” They were thinking the sin of Rome and they followed Jesus to be their Messiah, their Savior.
But as we students of Jesus know, things in God’s divine economy work differently than the world might imagine. So let me continue the story to see how Jesus disassembles the sacrificial system. In the Jewish Mishnah, which is a commentary on the Torah, there is a tale that claims that each year after the Gentile released the goat he would return with the red cord and the cord would be hung over a gate in the Temple. Slowly during the year the cord would change from red to white. This happened year in and year out for generations until, the tale continues, 40 years before the destruction of the Temple, the cord remained red. Maybe they changed dyes? But some simple math puts the date of 40 years before the Temple was torn down in 70AD, to a date near the crucifixion of Jesus. Which brings us back to my original thesis; Jesus put to an end to blood sacrifice and returned us to a permanent right relationship with God.
Jesus stepped into the story of Israel and smashed the need for atonement from the inside out and then rewrote the ending. The scapegoat comes back and sits down. That is the resurrection, God returning. As it says in the Book of Hebrews, Jesus is the reflection of the glory of God, the exact imprint of God…. When he made purification for our sins, he came back and sat down, with us.”(Heb 1:3, para) What Jesus did by way of the cross and resurrection was change the perpetual cycle of atonement into a permanent state of at/one/ment with God. From atonement to at/one/ment; same spelling, different meaning all together.
Jesus reordered creation returning it back to the right rhythms of the kingdom of God. He made the familiar different and new, in the most demanding, yet simple way. The Eucharist stands as a monument honoring this transformation. It is a sacrifice, and has all of the hallmarks of the sacrificial ritual, but it is different and new, in the most demanding, yet simple way. It is not a sacrifice of blood; it is a sacrifice of thanksgiving. The action of eating bread and wine has been transformed into a reflection of our permanent unity with the God.
But if this at/one/ment means what it says, then being a follower of Jesus means saying I’m sorry. If God is willing to love us and forgive us permanently and perpetually, then our best response to this love is to do the same thing with our neighbor. That is what I meant when I said I say “I’m sorry” because I’m a Christian and Jesus died for my sins. The church is designed to help us with this. The church is symbolically organized around the idea of at/one/ment with God and with our neighbor.
Here is how it works. Today we will confess our sins. Then we will be absolved through our eternal relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord no blood required. Then we turn and make peace, which is a corporate way of saying I’m sorry to my neighbor. And from then on in the service there is no place where we must kneel. We have been lifted by the resurrection. In fact, best theological practices indicate that when we come to the communion rail for the bread and wine, we remain standing. The atonement is over! We are at one with God! Jesus put an end to all sacrificial theology.
Does this mean we no longer have the potential to foul things up? No. What it means is that we are loved by a merciful, gracious God. And in thanksgiving we go back and say, “I’m sorry, no buts about it,” because God forgives us no buts about it. That is the point of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We still possess the ability to foul things up, but the goat is gone.
Jesus puts an end to sacrificial atonement by changing it to at/one/ment with God. And in this way God is with us, even, and especially, in those liminal moments when we have the choice to either make things better or make things worse.