Just when we need it…HOLY WEEK!
Seriously, friends, many of us need a break – even a little break – from the conflicted world of religion. I often hear people say, “I don’t believe in ‘organized’ religion.” Well, they should try a religion when it is as fragmented as United Methodism right now. Disorganized religion doesn’t seem to be any improvement over the organized variety.
Hallelujah! It’s Holy Week…a powerful reminder just when we need it.
For the past month or so United Methodists have been contending with fresh waves of uncertainty about if and how our denominational home will hold together. Will we separate in peaceful and grace-filled ways, or be tangled in endless bureaucratic red tape of our own invention? Will our bishops bless and release congregations who democratically decide to leave the UM Church or will they throw as many roadblocks, exit fees, and administrative delays in the way as possible? Is this all heading to the ecclesiastical and civil courts for a no-holds-barred, publicly disastrous, obscenely costly battle pitting local churches against The Denomination?
Take a breath. Disengage.
Only for a few days…three days, to be exact. Thursday evening to Sunday morning; Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday.
This week, according to the way Christians format their calendars, is when we get to the bedrock of Christian conviction and Christian mission. The Apostle Paul summarizes the most basic assertions of the Christian gospel in this way:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…1 Corinthians 15:3-4 NIV
What happened back then and there…with Jesus in Jerusalem?
Crucifixion: Jesus suffered the most humiliating and painful form of public criminal execution at the hands of the Roman occupation government in collusion with the religious leaders of the day.
Burial: Jesus literally, actually, really, died.
Raised on the third day: Not resuscitated. Not recovered. Literally raised to resurrection life by God.
How do we know this is true?
These facts are not speculations, mystical visions, myths made up by some disappointed followers of Jesus who wanted to establish a “religion.” We know it is true because it is “according to the Scriptures” (v. 3 and 4) and it was confirmed by eyewitnesses (the women at the tomb, Peter, the Twelve, James, and then to “more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time” most of whom were still alive at the time the account was written…and hence able to either confirm or refute it.
This is the veracity of the historical account, but the personal account is the testimony of Christ-followers through the centuries who echo the experience of the Apostle Paul:
My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.Galatians 2:20 NLT
Hold it! What is this talk of sacrifice and sin and turning in my life for some kind of new life?
Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).
Jesus took my place. He took your place, too.
We cannot comprehend the deep mystery of how this happened like a cookbook recipe or a chemical formula, but it falls into a theological category generally called atonement; more specifically, it is substitutionary atonement. The theme of substitutionary atonement is woven through the Scriptures from beginning to end.
- The ram in the thicket instead of the sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac (Genesis 22:8-14)
- The blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts and lintels of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt as a sign to save them from death on the night of their freedom (Exodus 12)
- The scapegoat on the Day of Atonement / Yom Kippur taking the sins of the Israelites away (Leviticus 16:20-22)
- The despised and rejected Servant of God who would bear the sins of many (Isaiah 53)
- John the Baptist identifying Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, 36)
- The Apostle Paul declaring that “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Corinthians 5:7)
- The victorious lion-like lamb who, at the end of human/world history, is worthy of all praise, honor, and glory forever and ever (Revelation 5:6-14)
And these are just some of the Scriptural references that come to mind at the moment. Substitutionary atonement isn’t the only way to approach God’s initiative of atonement, but it is foundational throughout the Scriptures.
Okay, but what does this atonement through the death and resurrection of Jesus have to do with us here and now?
Orthodox/traditional/evangelical Christians, following both Scripture and the earliest creeds and confessions of the Christian movement, confess that we need a Savior. We are unable to rescue ourselves. Without a Redeemer we are lost – for now and forever. As the United Methodist Articles of Religion put it, we are not misled by bad example, but our human condition is “the corruption of the nature of every man, that is naturally engendered in the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.” (Article VII, UMC Book of Discipline, p. 67). The Apostle Paul, in describing humanity, wrote, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen.” (Romans 1:25).
If you’re familiar with C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and particularly The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, you know this story. Just like Aslan sacrifices his life to rescue the traitor Edmund, defeats the White Witch, and frees all Narnia, so Jesus sacrificed his life to rescue sinful humanity, defeat Satan and even death itself, and free all creation to be restored both to a relationship with God and reconciled relationships with one another. Like Edmund, in sinning we’ve both betrayed God and become victims of evil, but God loved us even when we were his enemies, so much so that he willingly died to rescue us. (The C.S. Lewis reference is adapted from a 2018 online article you can find here.)
My father was a surgeon. He told me that at its center surgery is an intentional, potentially deadly, wounding to deal with an illness that cannot be treated in any other way so that healing may occur.
That is why the cross is central to a Christian understanding of human nature, human need, the possibility of human redemption, and the relentless dynamic of Christian love and hope. You might encounter this Scripture this week: “By His wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
We need to be saved, rescued, ransomed, restored. The essence of the gospel is that there is a Savior. His name is Jesus. Holy Thursday confronts us again with the depths of our traitorous ways. Good Friday recalls the extreme measures God will take to rescue us. Easter Saturday leaves room for us to rummage through the biblical accounts of God’s redemptive narrative in Scripture – from Genesis to Revelation – so that we can shout our Hallelujahs when we recognize again that God has turned the tables on sin, the devil, and death. Jesus is alive! We can be changed. Hope, through Christ, is set loose in the world. In walking with Jesus through these three days we go from darkest night to most glorious day!
Our friends who prefer the Progressive Path have generally discarded anything to do with substitutionary atonement, except to ridicule and dismiss it along with the biblical underpinnings. It is, they say, unworthy of their understanding of God. They prefer an “atonement” based what is sometimes called the moral exemplar theory; that is, the example of Jesus shows us how we can be loving people, too. We just need to figure out “what would Jesus do” and then do it ourselves. But, of course. None of us wants to confront the tragic depth of our own sinfulness, the need of our own transformation, and the requirement that we repent of ourselves and our ways before we can not only receive the salvation God offers in Jesus Christ but even hope to be partners with Christ in the transformation of the world.
C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work. I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self but to kill it. No half- measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desire you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you myself; my own will shall become yours.Mere Christianity, p. 167
A colorful bracelet with W.W.J.D. on it is pretty weak. What would Jesus do? How about focusing in on what Jesus has already done? Hallelujah, what a Savior!