Here is my sermon from yesterday. You can find the scripture readings here. I realize I opened a bit of a can of worms with all those atonement theologies (it was very hard to summarize!) so I'll post another blog post unpacking that a little more for those who are interested.
Sermon for March 27 2011 by the Rev. Kate Ekrem
If you’ve been reading the Redeemer blog, you know that last Sunday I got to have dinner with the youth group and we played “stump the priest.” And they did! Well, at least it’s easier than Crainium, but they asked some tough questions. But the one question I think I really did not give a good answer to was, what does it mean that Jesus saves us? We say he died for our sins, but how did his dying fix the problem of human sin?
A great question for Lent as all of our scripture passages this season lead us to ask, how can we be reconciled to God and each other? And our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans hits it head on, but maybe without making it a whole lot more clear. Paul writes: “ But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. ... For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
Christ died for us. We are saved by his life. Like talk about sin, I sometimes think this kind of talk is a barrier to people today. It’s been misinterpreted so much and we ourselves have swallowed those misinterpretations, so that we all I’m sure have friends and neighbors who think Christianity is irrelevant, psychologically dangerous, or downright wrong when we say someone else’s death saves our life. But the truth is there are a lot of different ways to understand this, and part of the reason I had trouble answering the youth group is that even our official theologians give us no one answer. Instead we have a lot of competing theologies, some of which are more helpful than others. At the risk of oversimplifying, I just want to give you three examples of how you might unpack what Paul is saying, three different atonement theologies.
The most recent, coming out of the reformation, and the one that trips us up the most, I think, is the sacrificial theory. At its worst and most bleak, this is sometimes understood as, we sinned, we broke the law, and when you break the law you have to pay. We can’t possibly pay God back for all the mistakes we’ve made, so Jesus paid for us, he was the only one who could possibly make it up to God, he went to jail, so to speak, on our behalf. If this is not really floating your boat, you’re not alone. I’m not sure I can believe in a God who needs to be repaid or needs to punish somebody in this way. On the other hand, one thing this theory does try to make clear is that whatever is needed to reconcile us to God, God has provided, God provides the sacrifice. There's nothing else we need to do, nothing that separates us from God. That essential part of this theory is worth hanging on to.
So, moving on to a much older theory, in fact the one that was the most popular for the first 1,000 years or so of Christianity, the idea of the defeat of the powers. This theory is that we are captives of Satan, slaves to the evil powers of the world, whether those are the powers of our own individual sin or of corporate sin like oppressive governments or oppressive systems like racism. And Jesus defeats Satan, defeats these powers, and makes us free.
Lastly, there is an equally old idea that has probably been the predominant theology of modern Christianity, that Jesus shows us the way, the way through death to new life. That his non-violent resistance to the structures of human sin and oppression shows up how broken human society is and also sets us an example of how to be on God’s side standing against that brokenness. An important part of this theory is that it wasn’t God who demanded Jesus’s death on a cross, as in the sacrificial theory, but human beings grasping for power and control. And by imitating the pouring out of power, the self-giving Jesus did for us on the cross, we can be part of God’s reconciliation in the world and in our lives.
So, that might be a nice academic answer the youth group’s penetrating question, but so what. Right? So what, what does this have to do with me? Early Christians of course didn’t worry about these categories, they just said, well I feel saved. And early Christian writers used all of these theories and more all mixed up together. Reconciliation doesn’t really matter unless we know how it works in our own life. And today we do have the story of how it worked in one person’s life, this person whose name we don’t know, the Samaritan woman at the well. Did you know this is the longest story in the entire New Testament? More words are given to this encounter than to anything else. The Samaritan woman is certainly someone who needs reconciliation.
The details of this story that may be lost on us modern hearers would not have been lost on its original audience. Going to the well alone at high noon was not normal, women went to the well at dawn, and they went together in a group for safety. Here she is at the hottest part of the day, a time when she knew she’d be alone. This is like going to the grocery story at 3am. She is somehow alienated from the other women in town, perhaps something having to do with those 5 men in her past. She does not even have one friend to go to the well with her, not one person to see to her safety. This woman has had a tough life. The world has been hard on her. And, she’s got some attitude, when Jesus asks her for a drink, she answers back with some sarcasm, oh, you’re a Jew and you’re asking a Samaritan for a drink? But it seems like she learned that attitude in school of hard knocks. Learned how to defend herself.
And Jesus cuts right through all of that. His very first response to her is about her true need, her need for God. He pays no attention to her bluff and bluster and talks to her real self, as if she really matters. He ignores all the things that stand between them -- gender, race, religion, all the things she may or may not have done wrong in her life -- and talks directly to her. Probably no one has ever talked to her in her life like that. Has anyone ever talked to you like that? Or do you to talk to others in that way, as if context and history mean nothing and the person in front of you is all that matters?
He KNOWS her, understands her, he meets her where she is. He offers her ultimate things, life-changing things, things that make her current work (getting water from well) totally irrelevant. And he is totally himself with her, he reveals himself to her, telling her he is the messiah. And in this encounter of truth and honesty and acceptance and love, her life is changed. She is reconciled to herself and to God. In knowing that Jesus loves her and accepts her, she’s able to love and accept herself. We know this because of her actions, from sneaking to the well by herself, she runs back and tells all her neighbors, all those people who rejected her, the good news she has heard. Her reconciliation spills out like a fountain, a fountain of living water.
So what do we learn about reconciliation here? For one thing, it’s about each person being totally themselves, their full self. To hear someone say, I see you and accept you just as you are. Interesting that Jesus doesn’t try to change her or reform her by pointing out where she’s messed up. Jesus changes her by meeting her where she is, respecting her current identity. That’s what allows her to be transformed. Do we do this with others? Do we do it with ourselves? Can change happen unless we first forgive ourselves and are reconciled to who we are? As someone whose been struggling to lose 10 pounds for the last year and a half, I wonder about this a lot. Do we have to be reconciled to ourselves before we can change? What about our children and significant others? Can they change and grow in ways we hope for them before we accept them for who they are?
So, how does this kind of reconciliation connect with those theological theories I outlined before? Jesus certainly isn’t offering to be punished on her behalf, but he is making clear that nothing stands between her and God. God’s messiah is right there in front of her, there’s no sacrifice needed on her part, God has taken care of it. So that essence of the first theory could fit here. But he’s also broken down the barriers of the human system of racism and sexism that have oppressed her. So the second theory, the defeat of the powers, works, too. And also our third theory, he sets an example for her, setting aside his own power needs and treating her with compassion and love, so she can love herself and share that love with others. He shows her the way. Like the early Christians, we can bring a combination of theories to bear on understanding how reconciliation works in her life, and none of them, perhaps, really gives a full picture. But if we’re focused too much on what popular culture tells us about atonement, about how much she owes God and how Jesus’s death repays that, we miss what’s really going on here.
One preacher (Ralph Milton) has said of Paul’s explanations in Romans 5, that it reflects God’s yearning to be reconciled to us, and our own ache and longing to be close to God, even when we “invent elaborate and sometimes bizarre theologies to explain the unexplainable.” What happens between the Samaritan woman and Jesus is an unexplainable mystery in a way, some kind of chemistry or emotional connection that breaks through all her barriers. But the desire of God to love us, to be reconciled to us, to be in relationship with us, is what comes through this story of the woman at the well. She is saved. We are, too. Perhaps Paul it best when he says “God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” This is the reconciliation that the woman at the well knew. Jesus’s outpouring of himself on the cross does save us, in a million different ways, but perhaps most of all it’s God’s way of showing us God’s great desire to be reconciled to us, that God’s love goes all the way, it will never fail us. And that’s something that is not irrelevant, or dangerous, or wrong, and that our friends and neighbors might desperately need to hear.