What Happens This Day?

April 19, 2014

A friend and I spent four Sundays in Lent talking about the cross and what it means with folks from our church. Our goal in the class was modest, to let people know that the church has never held to only one way of understanding the cross. In fact some scholars say that there are as many as ten theories of atonement. We wanted to explore some of the great variety of images and language the church has used over the centuries.

How we talk about the cross is influenced by our social and historical times. For example Anselm’s satisfaction theory comes out of the medieval view of the world. It talks about God and humans using the model of feudal lords and serfs. Since we don’t live in medieval Europe and use its concepts of honor and shame, Anselm’s theory may not be particularly helpful for some of us.

How we talk about the cross is also influenced by our personal histories. As someone not raised in the church, language about being washing in the blood of the lamb was not particularly helpful to me. It didn’t make the cross more understandable. In fact it had the opposite effect. But if that language and that image are helpful to you, by all means continue to keep that language. The idea is not to restrict but rather to expand our language our images and our understanding of the cross.

Each generation has the responsibility to think seriously and carefully about the cross. Each generation has to consider which images and ideas and metaphors are helpful in our time and which ones are not. Let me be clear, I am not saying that what Christ did on the cross changes. That does not change. I am saying the ways we speak of this event may change. All language, anything we say about God is insufficient. Anything we say about the cross is less than the reality of the cross. Our language falls short and so we must think and re think the language we use.

Here is what John Calvin wrote:

If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it by satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement, we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean.    (Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, Gal 2:21 )

And from the PCUSA Confession of 1967:

God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways. It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the power of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for man. They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work.

As we ponder Jesus’ death on the cross this day consider the language and images we use, may they be cosmic and personal, spiritual and political, paradox and clarity. And may your Good Friday and Easter Sunday be full of mystery, gift and grace.


Words on the word and The Word

April 6, 2014

Christians like to talk a lot about the word. We encourage each other to “get into the word”. We can talk exhaustively about biblical this or that. As a new Christian hearing people talk about the word of God meaning the Bible made sense. The Bible is full of words. But then I read the Gospel of John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word Was God. He was in the beginning with God. …And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

(John 1).

All this talk about “word” can be confusing and sometimes we confuse ourselves.  What or who is this word Christians like to talk about? I was confused until I read the PC(USA) Book of Order. ( Yes, that’s right.  The Book of Order. We have some trouble coming up with interesting titles, but it is more interesting than you might think. Click on the link and you can get a free download! ) Anyway, as I was reading I came across a sentence which said the Bible is the written Word which points us to Jesus the Living Word.*  That sentence helped me make some sense about these ideas.

The Bible is important, no doubt about it. But more important is our encounter with the Living Word. That encounter comes through worship, sacraments, prayer, community and by reading the word. Realizing the Bible as the word which points us to Jesus helps keep us from reducing the Bible to rules and doctrine- mere words. It is not a rule book. It is a signpost. It is a map which gives us the lay of the land. It is the big story of God in which we find our smaller stories. The written word helps us know who God and Jesus are, and who we are.

The phrase “Bible believing Christian” rubs me the wrong way for several reasons. The main reason is that I don’t believe in the Bible. In a certain sense I don’t believe the Bible. I do believe Jesus. I do believe in Jesus. The Bible helps me to do that. The written word  points me, orients me to the living Word.

Sometimes as Christians we claim something is true because the Bible says so. That is not a particularly compelling argument for me. Because Jesus says so, now that is compelling. The Living Word calls us to a particular way of living as humans. The written word tells us some important things about how we live as followers of the Living Word.

The written word is important. But the living Word is paramount. It is the living Word who comes to us, lives among us, and calls us to follow him. We follow him into the future and not back into the biblical past.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word Was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it….And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. …From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.  (John 1:1-16 selected verses)


*The language is a little different in the latest edition of the BOO but the idea is the same.



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