- February 26, 2012
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Russ Dean, February 26, 2012
It is probably a common refrain in times of war. It almost makes you a little bit uneasy, though, so often it has been spoken in the last few years: “they did not die in vain.” Is the anxious need to so assure the American public a subtle hint that maybe we are not quite so sure of that? With the uncertain terms of the beginning of our current wars… the shifting justifications… the vagueness of the enemy… the difficulty in defining a proper and necessary ending… Did they die in vain?
We can understand the need of a Commander in Chief to be able to affirm – they did not. We can certainly sympathize with parents of fallen comrades, those whose own flesh and blood give life and limb for a cause. The loss is too great – and every life too intrinsically valuable – for any death to be deemed “for nothing.” Vain means “having no real value,” and surely we all want of our lives to be marked as of value. Surely we all want it to be said that we lived for something. Accomplished something. That we were something. Henry David Thoreau, in speaking of his famous venture into the woods at Walden Pond, said:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Thoreau did not want his life to be in vain. For nothing. And the first Christian – the Apostle Paul, whose interpretation of the Jesus event was essential to the religion that evolved from that event – Paul did not want Jesus to have died for nothing.
No one wants to live for nothing – but what does it really mean to die in vain? Or, put another way, how could death – any death, regardless whom you were or how you died – how could your death “have real value”? Isn’t value measured empirically? By what we do? What we accomplish? Something gained or earned or promoted or learned? While it is easy to understand our lives being attributed a value… it is much more difficult to assign such a value to the cessation of being – the end of our living.
You probably know the poem. Linda Ellis has now made a cottage industry from the success of the simple message of her rhyming lines. The poem begins and ends this way…
I read of a man who stood to speak
At the funeral of a friend
He referred to the dates on her tombstone
From the beginning to the end
He noted, that first came the date of her birth
And spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all
Was the dash between those years…
So, when your eulogy is being read
With your life’s actions to rehash
Would you be proud of the things they say
About how you spent your dash?
It’s about how you “live your dash,” right? What’s important isn’t the day we were born, or the day we die, what matters is all those days in between. It’s how we live. Linda Ellis is right to remind us of that, and it is that same “what matters is how you live” recognition that causes many thoughtful Christians to stumble over the words of the Apostles’ Creed, which seem to give no place at all to the “dash” of Jesus’ life.
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead…
Where’s the dash? Where’s the value of his life? His teaching? His healing? His example? His charismatic, grab-life-by-the-horns-and-hang-on-for-the-ride passion? It is perhaps a Christianity that seems not to esteem Jesus’ living with any actual value that sends many cynics running away from it as fast as they can. If his life was of no value, how can it speak to mine? That under-estimation, coupled with a bloody theology of Jesus’ death, are a double-whammy that make Christian faith completely irredeemable for many in a 21st century world. That theology makes God out to be a tyrant, demanding his pound of flesh for satisfaction. They make of Christian salvation some kind of fear-filled blood sport. We ought to understand why those who did not grow up in southern evangelical religion would wince, or maybe feel sick, to hear Christians singing, “are you washed in the blood, in the soul-cleansing blood of the lamb?”
I understand those concerns. I share those concerns. But the Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, says of the doctrine of the atonement that it is “the Christian religion itself; it is the main point; it is not something alongside of the center; it is the substance and the kernel, not the husk.” While sophisticated 21st century critical-thinking Christians may look with contempt on such an opinion, this is just empirical fact. From the beginning, Jesus’ death has been the lynch pin of the faith called by his name. As powerful as it was, it was not Jesus’ life that created a movement, so much as it was his death, and its surprising aftermath. The followers of the living Jesus were Jews. Paul was the earliest disciple, whose critical-thinking training as a Pharisee caused him to begin wrestling with Jesus’ death – asking if it actually had any meaning – and in a stunning, offensive, heretical break with his Jewish teaching, he soon pronounced that Jesus’ death was not a curse, as the Law claimed in the book of Deuteronomy (21.23), but the death of Jesus was, itself, the very path to life.
Christianity – even in its very best form – is inseparable from the death of Jesus. And Jesus’ horrifying death, properly understood, was not in vain, was not for nothing, because it opens to us a breathtaking view into the heart of God. This is a view that is not accessible, it is a view that could not be known only in looking at Jesus’ life. There is an irony here. The God revealed through such a wounded healer, a dying savior is one which should appeal to a more progressive understanding, a more liberal approach – yet liberal Christians often denounce the death of Jesus in such a way as to preclude that revelation. Maybe this is a case of throwing the baby out with the (bloody) bathwater! And as I’ve said to you, I understand that reflex. But I want to invite you, especially you who want to roll your eyes at such theology, who feel like slamming your hymnal shut every time you see the word “blood,” who want to put your fingers in your ears when you hear the preacher even hint at atonement. I want to invite you to listen. After all, you are our most open-minded thinkers! (Right!?)
Donald Baillie says, “There is an atonement, an expiation, in the [very] heart of God… and out of this comes the forgiveness of our sins.” His statement needs careful thought before you scoff and discard it. The Christian God is not a demanding, blood-thirsty tyrant. Jesus did not save us from God by dying on a Roman Cross. God did not send Jesus to the earth for the express purpose of dying. And the Christian God is not a distant, foreboding, fearful, allpowerful deity who throws his power around manipulating things and events at his divine whim. Quite on the contrary. Scripture makes the simple, but audacious claim that “God is love” (1 John 4.7). And any love that will not expose itself to the vulnerability of suffering… any love that is not ultimately self-giving… any love that would simply refuse to lay down its life for its friends… (John 15.13) is not really love. As you surely have known by your lived experience, true love is always hard… it is always costly… sometimes it is even bloody. And, regardless your Christology, if Jesus represents God for us – then Jesus’ death becomes the clearest prism into the heart of the Divine. God is… self-sacrificial love.
Jesus’ life had been life-changing for his disciples. His death crushed them. Their dreams all died that day. But after that event they called resurrection, the developing Church, beginning with Paul, began trying to make sense of a senseless and truly gruesome death. How did this fit with his beautiful life? In this search, the early Church looked into its own culture and mostly Jewish experience, reaching for all kinds of analogies: Oh… it’s like someone who bought the slave – but then turned around and gave him his freedom… Oh… it’s like the warrior who won the great battle, but died in the warfare… Oh… it’s like the scapegoat, that Moses sent off into the wilderness… Oh… it’s like someone who gave his life for his friends… Yes, it’s like all of those. And God’s love is like none of those. The value of the varying images in scripture is that we can learn from each. We can find truth in each – and yet when we recognize that there are many images, we should be able to see that each is just one perspective of a kaleidoscope that is just a wonderful painting – an attempt to show us God.
There is no theology of atonement. There are many theologies of atonement. The Church has also suggested, using scripture, that God’s grace, if it be grace at all, means no atonement is necessary. This Lenten season we will look at the theologies and the non-theology of atonement present in the images of scripture. We will sing their words, some from the old, 1956 Baptist hymnal. I hope you will sing with joy – even if you disagree with the words that are coming out of your mouth! This is our history, our heritage, and at its core, a deep, and deeply true theology. And if we have an open mind, we will be able to learn from all of them. Despite the way they can be, and have been abused, these images all paint for us the picture of a very different kind of God. A God whose love is true, whose love is redemptive and sacrificial and victorious and life giving and whose love is “mercy within mercy within mercy.”
The value of such a theology, ultimately, is not what it means about Jesus. It is what it means for us. Jesus death is salvation only if it teaches us how to live and how to die – and that is, by living and dying for one another. If Jesus can teach us that… He Did Not Die for Nothing.
May it be so!
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