Deacon Sheila M. Scott
I have to admit, I struggled for many years with the church’s teaching that Jesus was sent by God solely to die for our sins, to pay our debt to God the Father. I could not understand why God needed the blood sacrifice of his own Son before he could forgive his own creation. Then, some 15 years ago I heard a sermon addressing the “substitutionary atonement theory”, and I breathed a sigh of relief, it was only a theory.
This theory, proposed by Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century, states that before God could love us, God needed and demanded Jesus to be a blood sacrifice to atone for our sin-drenched humanity. Fr. Richard Rohr states that this theory has been called “the most unfortunately successful piece of theology ever written”.
The thirty years of Jesus’ life, his three years of ministry of teaching and healing mostly ignored, for the last three days of his life, his death on the cross and his resurrection.
By limiting Jesus to simply being the Savior who pays for our sins and buys us the ticket to heaven after death, his revolutionary and subversive teaching, example, his love for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, his lifelong stand for non-violence, for inclusion, his steadfast obedience to God could be set aside.
This worked well for the church hierarchy for hundreds of years, kept the poor focused on afterlife, while the ruling elite could go on amassing fortunes unchecked.
This theory “domesticated” Jesus into a “churchy icon”, who could be worshiped; instead of imitated; allowing Christians to be transformed by him. No wonder to this day, we hear so called Christians spew hatred, advocate for exclusion and violence in the name of Jesus. They have not filtered the Scriptures through Jesus’ lens. Cheap religion invariably gives us a high level justification for torture, genocide, killing, oppressing, and enslaving others.
For the Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus, who lived in the late 13th and early 14th century, the incarnation of God and the redemption of the world could never be a mere mop-up exercise in response to human sinfulness, but a proactive work of God from the beginning. In other words, Jesus was not a plan B for God.
Most of us Christians were taught to associate the Incarnation only with Jesus’ birth 2000 years ago. That was a specific human incarnation of God, but matter and spirit have always been one, since God decided to manifest God’s self in the first act of creation. The Christian word for full reality is Incarnation.
Scotus changed the old notion of retributive justice: Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity, it did not need changing. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.
We all need to know that God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. Nothing humans can do will ever decrease or increase God’s eternal eagerness to love us.
Jesus comes among us as a helpless baby, a refugee for a time in a foreign country, a carpenter, an itinerant preacher, who ends up accused, tortured and crucified with criminals, and buried in an unmarked grave. The message of Jesus was subversive. He was a revolutionary, who lived and died in complete obedience to God.
Father Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and monk says we Christians say that we are “saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus” but seem to understand this as some kind of heavenly transaction on his part, instead of an earthly transformation on his and our part. We need to deeply trust and allow both our own dying and our own resurrections, just as Jesus did. This is the full pattern of transformation. That is how Jesus “saves” us from meaninglessness, cynicism, hatred, and violence – which is indeed death.
According to Ilia Delio, Franciscan theologian the incarnational bias is evident today in our globalized culture. I quote: “the problem of immigrants, welfare recipients, incarcerated, mentally ill….disabled, and all who are marginalized by mainstream society, is a problem of the incarnation. When we reject our relatedness to the poor, the weak, the simple, and the unlovable we define the family of creation over and against God. In place of God we decide who is worthy of our attention and who can be rejected” (1).
Because of our deep fears, we spend time, attention, and money on preserving our boundaries of privacy and increasing our knowledge and power. We seal ourselves off from the undesired other, the stranger, and in doing so, we seal ourselves off from God. By rejecting God in the neighbor, we reject the love that can heal us.
Delio states, until we come to accept created reality with all its limits and pains as the living presence of God, Christianity has nothing to offer the world.
When we lose the priority of God’s love in the weak, fragile humanity, we lose the Christ, the foundation on which we stand as Christians. Compassion continues the Incarnation by allowing the Word of God to take root within us, to be enfleshed in us.
The Incarnation is not finished; it is not yet complete for it is to be completed in us.
On this Good Friday, as we commemorate the passion of Jesus, let each one of us examine our understanding who Jesus is for US, you and me, and weather we allow him to transform our entire lives in everything we do and say. Who is Jesus for YOU, and how does he manifest himself in your life?
- Reference for sermon: Richard Rohr’s daily Meditations (2015-2016).