Bring Your Own Sermon (BYOS) Summer Series
• The whole thing about sacrifice in the Bible. Animals sacrificed in the Old Testament & Jesus sacrificed. I don’t see why God just can’t forgive without a sacrifice.
• If Jesus was not born of a virgin (that being a myth) then he is not God’s begotten son, and could not be expected to die for the sins of the world. Furthermore, if God said he didn’t require sacrifice but justice, and he saved Abraham’s son at the last minute, he would never require Jesus to be a human sacrifice. In fact, a God who requires any human sacrifice is repugnant to most of us. So how are we to see Jesus’ death on the cross? Not as propitiation for my sin? I’d like to hear some discussion of this.
1 Corinthians 1:20-31
Where does that leave the expert? Where does that leave the scholar? Where does that leave the pundit of this age? Has not God shown the world’s wisdom to be foolish? Since in the larger scheme of God’s wisdom the world did not come to acknowledge God through its own wisdom, God decided to save those who embrace God’s world-transforming news through the “nonsense” that we preach. At a time when Jews expect a miracle and Greeks seek enlightenment, we speak about God’s Anointed crucified! This is an offense to Jews, nonsense to the nations; but to those who have heard God’s call, both Jews and Greeks, the Anointed represents God’s power and God’s wisdom; because the folly of God is wiser than humans are and the weakness of God is stronger than humans are.
Consider your own situations when you were called, my friends. Not many of you were considered wise in the eyes of the world, not many of you were people of power and influence, not many of you were descendants of the nobility; but God has chosen people the world regards as fools to expose the pretensions of those who think they know it all, and God has chosen people the world regards as weak to expose the pretensions of those who are in power. God has chosen people who have no status in the world and even those who are held in contempt, people who count for nothing, in order to bring to nothing those who are thought to be really something, so that no human beings might befall of themselves in the presence of God. It is God’s doing that you belong to the people of the Anointed Jesus. God has made him our wisdom and the source of our goodness and integrity and liberation. So, as scripture says, “If you have to take pride in something, take pride in what God has done.”
Mark Lewis Taylor
The executed Jesus of Nazareth is not in himself some executed God, as readers might first think from this book’s title. No, the God who is executed, suffering imperial, state-sanctioned crucifixion, is presented in this book as a whole life force, a greater power, if you will, that is made up of three dynamics that were crucial to Jesus’ way of the cross: (1) being politically adversarial to religiously backed imperial power, (2) performing creative and dramatic instances of resistance to imperial power, and (3) organizing movements that can continue resistance and flourish even after imperial executioners do their worst. The executed God is a force of life that is greater than all imperial powers and thus can foment the resistance and hope that all suffering peoples need.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.
In her book, Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America, Barbara Ehrenreich recounts an episode of visiting a tent revival. She watches the preacher ranting on about the death of Jesus and the blood of Jesus and how Jesus died for sins and the importance of believing in him to avoid hell and go to heaven. It is default revivalist Christianity. The audience is mostly made of the working poor. Ehrenreich offers this summary critique:
“But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.”
She is describing what I call default Christianity. It is based on substitutionary atonement or the satisfaction theory of atonement. When I lived in Tennessee a fun game was to read the church signboards. They were everywhere. During the summer you would find something like:
“Think it is hot now? Hell’s hotter.”
Some would have arithmetic lessons:
“1 cross plus 3 nails equals 4-giveness.”
This theology was and is everywhere. The plot goes like this:
Adam and Eve sinned in the garden. Not only did they sin, but their sinfulness was passed on to all their descendants. The human seed is tarnished. Every human is affected by this original sin. God the righteous judge is offended. The punishment for this sin is everlasting death or hell. God can’t simply forgive the sin even if he wants to anymore than a compassionate judge can forgive a criminal. The sinner has to pay. But the sinner cannot pay. The debt is too great. Only God has the ability to pay it, but humans must pay it. So God sends a God-Man, born of a virgin so as not tainted by the damaged seed of humanity to suffer and die in place of humans. By believing in Jesus, Christ crucified, people are justified through faith and thus saved from hell.
What many don’t know is that this theory was invented in the middle ages by a guy named Anselm. Because it is so pervasive and dominant it has been read back into the texts of the Bible.
To be sure there are many metaphors and phrases in the biblical texts that seem to echo or foreshadow this theory but it is because of that theory that we read the texts in that way. For example Christ Crucified, as Barbara Ehrenreich used it, can be a shorthand for the entire scenario.
This scenario makes less and less sense to many, as we can see by the questions presented this morning. One of the reasons, if not the central reason, creationists assert that the biblical account of creation is scientifically accurate is because they need to preserve Adam and Eve as real people. If Adam and Eve are a myth, then original sin is a myth, and thus no need for Jesus the God-Man to die for non-existent sin.
This theory is logically non-sensical. It takes five minutes of thought to expose it. And yet it is still pervasive. Why is that? Human beings have fragile egos. We have a tendency to think of ourselves as bad and shameful. We think we need forgiveness. We feel a temporary relief when we feel forgiven. It didn’t take long for religious systems to be set up to satisfy that longing. That is why people continue to flock to tent revivals and faith healers and other charlatans. These characters are magicians who pretend to offer salvation for our consciences and forgiveness for our sins.
Here’s the game. You don’t need it. There is nothing inherently wrong with you. We are the descendants of survivors. Millions of years of evolution have shaped who we are. Now a little therapy might help. Having our awareness raised would be good too.
And it would do us good to try to make things right with those we have hurt. But there is no shortcut for that. There is no ‘make it right with Jesus so I don’t have to make it right with my neighbor.’ Consistent with the stories of Jesus is that he put human relationships first before the religious apparatus.
Turning the death of Jesus into a supernatural forgiveness trick to appease God has led to all forms of chicanery and spiritual abuse. As Barabara Ehrenreich pointed out:
“…the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.”
The Jesus of history is far more interesting. So what about the death of Jesus? As was asked in the question for this sermon:
How are we to see Jesus’ death on the cross?
Jesus was executed. Not only was Jesus executed but thousands fell victim to Rome’s imperial bullying. Jesus didn’t die of old age. He didn’t get run over by a horse. He didn’t die of disease. He was executed in a public spectacle of humiliation. He was a criminal, a blasphemer, a brigand, a traitor, and a threat to Rome’s peace. From Rome’s perspective he needed to be done away with and made into an example.
What do you do when peasants get above their raisin’? You raise them up on a cross and let them die a slow, tortuous death at the gate of the city. That is what the death of Jesus means.
Here are some facts. This is from the Center for American Progress from 2012:
While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. The prison population grew by 700 percent from 1970 to 2005, a rate that is outpacing crime and population rates. The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.
How to explain this? White men must be less sinful. Perhaps because they have accepted Jesus into their hearts. Or maybe it is because first century Rome and 21st century America may not be so different. In fact Pax Romana and Pax Americana may be more similar than we like or hope to think.
Our systems of justice and our systems of economics are a matrix of racism and exploitation that automatically favor the privileged at the expense of the poor and people of color.
More facts from Amnesty USA. Again from 2012:
Over two-thirds of the countries of the world—141 have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice. In 2010 the overwhelming majority of all known executions took place in five countries—China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, and the United States.
Since 1977 the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (77%) have been executed for killing white victims even though African-Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.
What does the death of Jesus mean?
Meaning is in the eye of the beholder. It is up to us to make meaning and positive action out of it. I think we can be aided in that project by doing our best to see his death and the response to it in historical context. Then the second step is to ask how this symbol can be put into service of resistance, liberation, and justice today.
In its time, crucifixion was the method of spectacle and power the Roman Empire used to control populations. Like lynchings in the American South throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, these brutal and tortuous spectacles served primarily to send a message: “Do not move outside of expectations or you will pay.”
Jesus, like many others, was one of those victims. If so many were executed why do we remember Jesus and make meaning of his death? I don’t know the answer to that. Those early layers are lost to us. But you don’t have to leap to supernaturalism to answer it. Why Emmett Till? Why Medgar Evers? Many were killed like they were. Why Rosa Parks? Many didn’t give up a seat before her. There comes a time in which it is time and a figure coalesces a movement around her or him.
The name Jesus or Yeshua has a theological meaning. It means “God saves.” They needed a Jesus whether or not there was a Jesus. Whether Jesus started out as mythical or he was an historical figure mythologized, he was shaped into theology and mythology by several figures including Paul. A symbol was needed to inspire a movement to resist Rome’s brutality. Paul found Christ crucified, the messiah executed, as that symbol. Paul saw this message as liberating. He saw Christ crucified as God’s wisdom and power, more powerful than the power and wisdom of the nations and of this age. We should read “the nations and this age” as Rome’s power and wisdom. The Pax Romana.
The most powerful empire in the world, Rome, certainly is wise and powerful. Caesar the son of god has certainly earned that title. He has brought peace to Rome and quiet to the provinces. Much like our justice system brings peace to the suburbs and quiet to the cities and our military industry brings peace to the nation and quiet around the world.
The wisdom of this world as the late Thomas Berry wrote is progress. It was the wisdom of Pax Romana and Pax Americana. Berry wrote in The Great Work:
“Progress is being used as an excuse for imposing awesome destruction on the planet for the purpose of monetary profit.”
As he put it tersely:
“The ideal is to take the greatest possible amount of natural resources, process these resources, put them through the consumer economy as quickly as possible, then on to the waste heap. This we consider as progress—even though the immense accumulation of junk is overwhelming the landscape, saturating the skies, and filling the oceans.”
The Apostle Paul, ever the subversive, says no, the real movement toward peace, a just peace, is in the symbol of Rome’s victim, the crucified Christ, the crucified son of God, the executed God. If you want to see God it is not in the emperor who orders the execution it is in the executed tortured and dying. The question becomes quite clear and quite provocative: on whose side are you?
This executed God became a movement. The executed God is not Jesus. It is as Mark Lewis Taylor calls it “a whole life force…that is greater than all imperial powers and thus can foment the resistance and hope that all suffering peoples need.” We saw this executed God embodied in early communities in which there was according to Galatians 3:28, “no male or female, no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, but all one in Christ Jesus,” all one in the symbol of the executed one, whose vision is with them as they continue their resistance.
For decades, centuries, actually, there was an uneasy tension between followers of the way, the followers of Jesus, the crucified Christ, and the empire that crucified him. There were many theological attempts to ease that tension, such as put the blame on the execution of Jesus on the Jews or turn the execution and subsequent resurrection of Jesus into some kind of literal event that paves the way to heaven for the true believers and so forth and so on. Then as the Roman Empire becomes the Christian Roman Empire, the execution of Jesus is lost and the cross is romanticized and we wear it as jewelry around our necks and think of it as a symbol for forgiveness of sins because God willed it, engineered it even.
But that isn’t always the way it was nor is it the way it needs to be. Despite default Christianity, despite cooption of Jesus for the interests of the powerful, there has always been a movement for resistance that Christ crucified or the executed God, if you will, inspires.
Jesus, to the best that we can reconstruct him, was about this life on Earth. The scriptures on the whole, follow a thread of resistance to oppression and exploitation. To follow the executed God today is to follow the lead of those who are suffering most.
I do wear this cross around my neck. I wear it as a reminder of whose side I need to be on.
That is how I understand the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross.
What does it mean to you?