Today is Passion Sunday, when we turn our minds yet again to the Passion of Jesus, which we believe brought redemption and eternal life to us, and to everyone who is willing to believe and trust in him and follow his way of sacrificial love. Our readings today explain how that redemption is achieved.
It is not achieved because of some sort of heavenly bargain between God and Jesus, in which God says “O.K. son, you suffer horribly and give up your life, and I’ll forgive everyone else all their sins and let them into heaven”. That, rather crudely, is the interpretation of Jesus’ Passion which is given the technical name of the ‘Penal Substitution Theory of the Atonement’. This says that God is a God of justice and demands that someone has to pay in blood for all the sins and rebellion of humanity, and Jesus did that for us.
The Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John, got into a lot of hot water a few years ago by explaining, in a talk on Radio 4, just why this explanation of the atonement was so repulsive. He said (and I agree with him) “It made God sound like a psychopath. If any human being behaved like this, we’d say he was a monster. It just doesn’t make sense to talk of a nice Jesus down here placating the wrath of a nasty, angry father God in heaven. Jesus is what God is: he is the one who shows us God’s nature. And the most basic truth about God’s nature is that he is love, not wrath and punishment”.
Our readings point us to a different understanding of the Atonement – one which enables us to read the word a different way – as ‘At – One – Ment’.
The Old Testament reading shows us the prophet Jeremiah speaking God’s message of a new beginning after the destruction of Judah and Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Instead of a relationship based on laws and compulsion and penalties, the renewed covenant will be characterised by intimacy, forgiveness and faithfulness. The initiative in this relationship comes from God; he will forgive and forget everything that his people have done wrong. The intimacy will come because no longer will they keep the covenant because society forces them to: the law of God will be written on their hearts. It is important not to misunderstand this. It is not saying they will keep the law because they love God; for the ancient Hebrews, the heart was not a metaphor for the emotions, it was a metaphor for the will. So, to say God’s law would be written on their hearts was to say their wills would be one with God’s. God’s law would be known by them , not because anyone had taught them, but because they were wholly and completely open to God.
And that total oneness with God, that total obedience and submission to God’s will, no matter what the personal cost, that complete dedication of everything to the glory of God is what we see in the life and death of Jesus. The Gentiles who came said, “Sir, we want to see Jesus,” and when he was lifted up on the cross, all people, both Jews and Gentiles were able to see Jesus as the one whose life and teaching and pain and passion proclaimed and glorified the God whose name is Compassion and Love.
Sometimes John’s Gospel can be quite difficult to understand and interpret, and this passage is no exception. I find it helps to remember that John was not writing a historical account of Jesus’ life, or an accurate record of his words. Rather he was writing a theological, mystical and philosophical reflection on what the life and death of Jesus had come to mean to him, after many years of meditation. So, he compares Jesus’ death and resurrection to the wheat seed falling into the ground. In one sense the seed is destroyed in the ground; but in another its death produces abundant new life. This comparison says that Jesus’ human body is destroyed by death; but death also frees him from the restrictions of the body, which limit him to one place, one time and one culture, so that he is available as the way to oneness with God for all people in all places and all time. As Brian Wren’s Easter hymn proclaims it: “Christ is alive! No longer bound to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing, here and now, and touching every place and time.”
There is also the passage about those who love this life will lose it, but those who hate their life in this world will keep it for ever. Are we meant to hate life, when it has been given to us by God? No, that is not what this means. The contrast is being made between those whose whole life is devoted to worldly pleasures, who will lose everything in the end; and those who pay less attention to such things, who sit light to the pleasures of this world, who can separate themselves from worldly pursuits and give more attention to the things of the spirit. It is they who are being promised eternal life.
And there is the puzzling assertion that “Now is the judgement of this world and the ruler of this world is being driven out.” How does judgement fit with a God of love? How can we believe that Satan has been driven out when there is so much evil and tragedy in the world? The judgement this speaks of is not on individuals, as it is so often portrayed, but on the evil forces that bring darkness to people. Jesus’ death inaugurates the victory over Satan, but that victory still has to be claimed by Christians as they follow Jesus’ way in their lives and struggle in his name against the forces of darkness.
As we Christians do that, we will find that obedience to God, oneness with God, and glorifying God may bring us our own experience of passion. We will live through that passion, though, with the knowledge that God in Christ has been through such an experience before us, and lives through it again beside us; and with the faith and trust that God’s gracious activity in Jesus has already secured redemption for us.
It’s not a comfortable or easy path. Just as putting a new physical heart into human beings requires painful surgery, so putting a new spiritual heart into us may require a painful process of letting go of our old life and ways of thinking and the slow growth of new ones. Just as the seed cannot produce fruit unless it dies and changes, so we cannot get to resurrection, to the new life that is within us, without walking the way of the cross.
Atonement is at the same time very complicated and very simple. The more I read the Scriptures, and think about the life and death of Jesus, and the more I am helped to understand what they teach by the writing of wise and spiritually gifted teachers like our Dean, the more often I am humbled by the realisation of how little we humans understand about the Divine Love who is at the depth of our being. And the more I am driven to accept that, as Paul said in his 1st letter to Corinth, the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of this world.
God doesn’t do what we expect a divine and omnipotent God to do. God doesn’t come down to earth with power to force people to do what is right. Rather, God becomes vulnerable and demonstrates through the lives of individuals how we can become one with the divine through suffering, through passion.
We see it in the story of Christ’s Passion, and we see it reflected again and again in the lives of other people who achieve redemption, perhaps through one act of sacrifice, even sometimes after a lifetime of self indulgence or agnosticism.
Today, in our readings, we are being led to understand the ‘New Covenant’ with God that was inaugurated through the life and death of Jesus the Christ. As we live through the seasons of Passiontide and Holy Week, may we not only understand it, but live it, and find a new way of life, a new relationship with God, the world and ourselves at Easter.