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Monday, 16 April 2012

Preaching at Easter

I listened to two sermons this past Easter. Both for different reasons left me disillusioned and as distant as ever from clerically structured religiosity. Both were from different theological strands within the Anglican church in the diocese of Canberra and Goulburn. I haven't got to write up my observations earlier, because for the rest of the weekend I was out listening to wonderful music at the National Folk Festival and being reminded once again of the importance of discipleship, communities of practice and handing on a tradition. All matters that are of foundational importance for the Christian movement. and for the week after I was teaching an intensive for distance education on Christianity and Australian Society.

Let's start with the sermon on Easter Friday. The setting was an extended reading of the passion narrative from the Gospel of John. The account of the meaning of the crucifixion in the sermon was set out in terms of the penal substitution account of the atonement. What we have in this account of the atonement is a God whose wrath is appeased by Jesus stepping in as the substitute to meet the punishment we deserved. The difficulty here is that we end up with a two-faced God. We have the God of wrath and we have Jesus who according to the Gospels reveals the character of God. Two quite different Gods.

What we have here in the sayings from the cross, notes Stanley Hauerwas in his mediations on these sayings, Cross-Shattered Christ, is a God who who refuses to save us by violence.
... God's love for us means he can only hate that which alienates his creatures from the love manifest in our creation. ... the Son of God has taken our place, become for us the abandonment our sin produces, so that we may live confident that the world has been redeemed by this cross.  
So redeemed, any account of the cross that suggests God must somehow satisfy an abstract theory of justice by sacrificing his Son on our behalf is clearly wrong ... there is no god who must be satisfied that we might be spared. We are spared because God refuses to have us lost. (pp.65-66)
 Simon Barrow unpacks this issue at greater length:
... how, we may ask, can wholeness, deliverance and healing possibly flow from a state execution resulting in the unjust, violent death of a good (if deeply subversive) person - one in whom his friends and followers felt they had met, not just a fine human being, but divine love at its most tangible and engaging? 
Some Christian theologies have sought to render the conundrum of the death of Christ through elaborate theories about the sacrifice of innocent blood to expiate or propitiate the righteous anger of a holy God who demands a 'price' for sin. Indeed this kind of explanation - though morally repugnant to very many (quite rightly, in my view) - is probably still the majority interpretation in most conservative Christian circles.
...  the problem with 'penal substitutionary atonement' theories is that they end up turning God into an abuser, they posit judicial murder as a divinely sanctioned method of redemption, and they propose an account of divine justice that is at complete odds with the unconditional love that Jesus exemplifies and exalts in his parable of the Prodigal Son (for example).
In fact judicially-patterned ideas of atonement (ways of effecting at-one-ment between imperfect human beings and the perfection of God) historically arose, in the era of St Anselm and others, in contexts where the forensic 'satisfaction of honour' was a strong cultural norm. It was this problem, rather than one intrinsic to nature of God, that they sought to resolve. 
Similarly, the New Testament language of 'blood satisfaction' around Christ is bound up with the need to resolve ancient religious patterns of sacrifice in terms of a fresh understanding arising from the community that encountered, and was profoundly changed by, Jesus of Nazareth. So the Epistle to the Hebrews, for example, pictures Jesus' death as sacrificial precisely in order to argue that in his 'one, perfect sacrifice' the entire sacrificial system of blood-for-honour has been abolished and applies no more. Forgiveness is no longer dependent on sacrificial offerings. 
The logic of this construal is that we should henceforth cease to interpret Christ in terms of patterns of sacrifice. On the contrary, we should recast our notions of sacrifice in terms of Christ - as self-giving and other-healing, not as an external burden requiring the suffering or death of another. 
That the wisdom of God requires us to reflect on a judicial murder at the very heart of our faith; that we are bound by baptism to Jesus the criminal (Mark Thiessen Nation); and that we are enjoined to "take up our cross" alongside the victims of wrongdoing, neglect and injustice in this world ... these are hardly matters of comfort or convenience. They are, personally and communally, extremely difficult. But they cannot be avoided - whether the challenge they present is one of intellectual wrestling in the face of scepticism, lifestance re-imagining in the face of a loss of hope, or verbal re-orientation in the face of loosely-worded piety. "What sense does it make to say "Christ died for us"? 
The second sermon on Easter Sunday morning was frustrating in a different way. The preacher did not attempt to address the Gospel reading, the account from Mark 16. This is a striking text in many ways yet the sermon did not address the strange disturbing quality of the text and its implications for our discipleship, indeed it hardly addressed the text at all.

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:1-8 ESV)
Note here that the women are the witnesses, those who were called to announce the good news, though it seemed strange and terrifying to them. The other significant issue is that the announcement of the resurrection is the call to discipleship, to return to Galilee to take up again the call to follow Jesus. As Ched Myers has observed this is really scary as the disciples knew what the result of following Jesus entailed, a confrontation with the "powers that be".
An invitation to follow Jesus- again. To resume the Way, the consequences of which we now know all to well. Suddenly from deep within us, form that unexplored space beneath our profoundest hopes and fears roars a tidal wave of ecstasy, and terror, all at once (16.8). We race out of that tombs if we had just seen a ghost. And so we have: In Jesus' empty tomb there is nothing but the ghost of our discipleship past and our discipleship future. (Who will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians, 412)
Mark's resurrection narrative is not calling us to look for a heavenly, spiritualising Jesus, but a Jesus who will meet us in the earthly path of discipleship, back in Galilee, in a specific geography, a specific social and economic location. The geography of Easter is not other worldly. To respond to the invitation to discipleship is to join Jesus where he already is, on the way, not in the comfort of our peaceful churches but amid the storms of life.

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