~ John 14:4-11/Luke 15:11-32 ~
It’s hard to hear fresh words about Jesus. We’ve been talking about Jesus for two thousand years after all. His name is used in both blessings and curses. Art featuring Jesus is everywhere. He has his own line of jewelry. Christmas and Easter take up huge chunks of the calendar. We cannot escape Jesus. He is everywhere. Which means that really Jesus is nowhere.
We sometimes forget that when Jesus first emerged from obscurity he was not a credentialed messiah. He was probably just another unknown seeker – a bit more earnest than most, drawn by some inner yearning to the Jordan River, where he talked John into baptizing him. But then he disappeared again into the wilderness for who knows why – probably gone for good.
But he wasn’t. After a while he returned, bringing with him a new sense of urgency. He had a ‘message’, a ‘word’, sometimes called ‘the gospel’ or ‘the good news of God’. He seemed to wander around with no discernable purpose. Yet, people were drawn to him; there was something compelling about this Jesus – an air of authority, some said.
A bedraggled group of friends shuffle along behind him. Curious crowds run out to meet him. The sick and lame clamor for his attention. He speaks to people, or simply touches them; some testify to being healed. Jesus asks them to please not talk about it but they cannot not tell their stories. He cannot resist those in the crowd who are suffering. His reputation as a healer spreads far and wide.
He’s got an urgent message – that’s clear. But it’s hard to figure out. Often, he answers questions with antidotes, puzzles or more questions. He teaches infinite forgiveness, but also stories of judgment and hell. Even his closest friends consider him an enigma. His befuddled followers trail behind him often discussing amongst themselves his latest impossible to understand teaching. Sometimes he gets angry and shows it. He weeps in public. He spits on eyes, kneels in the dust, walks on water.
He is not always tactful or pleasant. He can be difficult and argumentative. He’s not afraid to offend important people. When he breaks the rules, it does it in the presence of the people it will most disturb. Sometimes he goes out of his way to shock.
A peace-loving man, he says he comes to bring a sword. In the end, it is a Roman sword that draws his blood. He stands mute before his accusers. He goes to the slaughter like a lamb. As he hangs there he asks God to forgive his killers, even though they haven’t asked for forgiveness. Then he asks God, with whom he claims the deepest intimacy, why God has abandoned him.
Does this rather strange man look like someone we’d want to call “God”? And yet there he is talking to his disciples suggesting such, as our reading from John 14 tells us. To those befuddled disciples he says it quite clearly: “If you know me, you will know God also. From now on you do know God and have seen God.” Not getting it, they press further: “Master, show us God, and we will be satisfied.” His patience wearing a bit thin, Jesus replies, “whoever has seen me has seen God…believe me that I am in God and God is in me…”
And yet this man does not look like who we usually think God to be. He certainly does not look like the God we talked about last week. This is not the Creator God, Sovereign of the Universe, Most Holy Supreme Judge – is it?
More to the point, he especially does not seem like the vindictive God our traditional theology teaches. That would be the God of “penal substitutionary atonement.” The idea goes back to St. Anselm in the ten hundreds who developed the “satisfaction theory of atonement” and, frankly, most Christian traditions, Catholic and Protestant, bought into it. Today, it is still considered an essential doctrine in Evangelical theology.
It goes something like this: The main character is The Father. In the supporting role is The Son. We humans are the extras. Imagine this back and forth:
Preacher: “You are a sinner, destined for hell.”
You: “How can I escape this fate?”
Preacher: “Be believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior.”
You: “But exactly how does believing in Jesus save me?”
Preacher: “Because he’s the one who died on the cross for your sins.”
You: Why can’t my sins be forgiven without somebody dying for them?”
Preacher: Because your sins are so serious that God cannot forgive you unless somebody pays a penalty for them – and payment can only be made by killing someone.
And if that makes sense to you then you are a good candidate for being redeemed. Just say the prayer and you’re good to go. There are code words and phrases that sum up the idea, such as “Christ died for your sins,” or “Jesus paid it all,” or “the blood of Christ,” or simply, “the cross.”
A respected Evangelical scholar of a previous generation, John R. W. Stott, put it this way: “… Christians believe that in and through Christ crucified, God substituted himself for us and bore our sins, dying in our place the death we deserved to die, in order that we might be restored to [God’s] favor and adopted into ‘God’s’ family.”
But, you might say, why can’t God just forgive us without requiring the cross? Stott goes on: “Why? Because our sins are so serious, and the majesty of God is so pure, that death is the [only] fitting penalty.”
Here’s how the famous evangelist, Billy Graham, described God’s profound dilemma:
The holiness of God is the message of the entire Old Testament… God [is] the One with eyes too pure to behold evil… It is his holiness by which God desires to be remembered… God hates sin… Sin is vile and detestable in the sight of God… The sinner and God are at opposite poles of the moral universe…
Why can’t God just forgive without a penalty? Well, it would make God go against his very nature.
He would not have been holy; neither would he have been just. He was forced to keep his word. God’s justice was a stake. Man had to die spiritually and physically… He had to pay for his own sin…
Where is the solution to such a profound problem, you might ask? How can a sinner be justified?
The only solution to the problem was for an innocent party voluntarily to give his blood, an act which would be followed by death as a substitution before God for the death that was every man’s dues. Where was such an individual?… There was only one possibility? God’s own Son… [he] would have to come to earth, live as a man, be despised and rejected of men… He would have to bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. Then he would have to be smitten of God and separated from God… Then, in a dark moment, God would have to lay on him the iniquity of us all…
Billy, then, drives home the sale:
Hallelujah! That is exactly what happened!… He came to have his blood extracted… The blood was extracted! God demanded death, either for the sinner or a substitute! Christ was the substitute!
Stott called this “holy love.” “Holy love,” said Stott, “is a love that ‘yearns for sinners’ and yet cannot risk doing anything to ‘condone their sin’.” How can God express God’s love without compromising God’s holiness? At the cross God’s holy love was ‘satisfied’.
However, as we encounter Jesus in the gospels it’s hard to find anything like this ‘holy love’ Stott and his cohorts found to be so essential. Jesus forgives sins freely. God, apparently, cannot. Jesus doesn’t worry that forgiving sins means condoning sins. Jesus doesn’t treat forgiveness as if it is a “problem.” When Jesus forgives sins, he simply says: “Your sins are forgiven.”
Let’s consider our second reading from Luke 15 – the familiar Parable of the Prodigal Son. Now Jesus told this story in order to challenge the social and religious exclusivism of the Pharisees and scribes. But it also touches on our understanding of what it might mean to be genuinely “saved.” In the interest of time, I’m not going to read the entire scripture text. Maybe just a summary.
A son deserts his father with departing words that, for people in Jesus’ time, mean he wishes his father were dead. When the son finds himself hungry, lost and alone, he returns, hoping his father will accept him as a servant. His father sees him from afar, and a wave of compassion washes over him. He runs to his son, embraces him, kisses him. He calls for a celebration because, as he says, “this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” No concern that he is condoning the son’s behavior. Not a whisper of the exacting demands of “holy love.”
Rebecca Adams and Robin Collins in a 1996 article have re-written this story to show how Jesus might have told it if he was trying to show the “holy love” view of God’s redemptive plan. Here’s how it might go.
In desperation, the prodigal son returns home, armed with a little speech that begs his father to welcome him not as a son but as a hired servant. As he rounds the far bend, the father sees his son, and waits, with his arms crossed, for him to arrive.
The son falls to his knees and launches into his speech, but his father stops him. He says to his son: “I cannot simply forgive you for what you have done, not even so much as to make you one of my hired men. In your wild living, you have broken my law, insulted my majesty, and offended my holiness. Simply to forgive you would be to trivialize sin; it would make a laughingstock of my sense of justice and overturn the moral order of the entire universe.”
Alas, the father insists that the son must pay the ultimate penalty; he must die.
The son says, “But father, isn’t this penalty a bit extreme?”
The father replies: “My wrath burns hot against you, and it must be satisfied.”
The son pleads, “But father, please…”
“No,” the father says, “the price must be paid.” He looks in the direction of the elder brother, whose heart suffers for his little brother.
Then the elder brother says: “I will offer my life if you will forgive this son and welcome him back into your love. With your permission, I will hand myself over to my enemies, in the neighboring city, who will kill me. Will you accept my death as a sacrifice?”
The father agrees. The older son goes off to his death. The younger son feels grateful. Father and son live happily ever after.
There is lots of vindictiveness in our world today. We don’t need to encourage more of that by thinking of God in like manner. The theology of “penal substitutionary atonement,” despite having been around for a long time, is really just a philosophical construct that uses the bible to justify a wrathful, angry God. We must discard it. It is wrong and clearly not helpful.
Instead, I say we look to Jesus. I know that sometimes we chafe at the line from John where Jesus says he is the truth, the way and the life. But in this light, it is not a wrong way to think. Because when it comes down to it, Jesus does show the way – the way of love. And he didn’t limit it by adding the word ‘holy’. No, God’s love is unconditional. Tune in next week for our Music for the Soul “Feeling the Love” service when we reaffirm that “God is Love.” Amen.