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Atonement

Good Friday: 18 April, 2014
Fr Samuel Dow
Assistant Curate, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

One of the most contested of doctrines in the church of today is that of the atonement. That is, how God has become one with us and all creation through the death of Jesus Christ upon the cross. The word atonement itself means exactly that — at-one-ment, God becoming one with all creation where the barriers of sin are removed from that relationship.

All Christians would agree that there is a massive paradigm shift through the crucifixion which changes the way we live in relationship with God and that life after the cross and resurrection is radically altered. Here God's grace is shown to us in an amazing way. But how this actually happens through Christ's death is where the debate escalates and Christian traditions differ.

One most popular protestant understanding of how God does this, and which has found its way into parts of Anglicanism, is through what is often described as penal substitutionary atonement. This theory, which attempts to comprehend and grasp a great mystery of God goes something like the following -

God makes all of creation and through Adam and Eve in the perfect garden of Eden humanity turns their backs on God and goes about things their own way, thus creating sin and breaking a close relationship with their creator God. We then read through the narrative of the first Testament that God tries over and over to rebuild that relationship with the people but gets continually frustrated and angry with a selfish people. The only way that the relationship can be really re-established permanently is to remove sin from the equation, and as St Paul later writes, the penalty for sin is death. Therefore someone must die in order to pay this price of sin to an upset God. But this can't be just anyone, this person must have to be holy and blameless before God, what's better than that God sends his only son that he should take on this sin of the world and be killed. And so, through this understanding of the cross, Jesus is crucified and God's anger is appeased. The ultimate price has been paid to God so that we can now be granted forgiveness of our sins and be in a right relationship with our creator.

I wonder if you can see the difficulties in this way of understanding the action of the cross?

For me, this is the doctrine that I was brought up with and knew up until my early twenties. But as I began to think more seriously about theology it became quite evident to me that either this theory was absolutely preposterous or that Christianity was all built entirely upon worshiping a vengeful and angry God.

Suddenly I started to question my whole understanding of God's grace. Even some of the hymns from my evangelical upbringing started to sit uncomfortably with me, such as 'how deep the fathers love for us' which includes a verse stating ... "How great the pain of searing loss, the father turns his face away". Or even worse, from the song 'in Christ alone' which sings "then on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied".

But how else was I to understand this gift of the grace of God through Christ's death upon the cross and his ultimate resurrection?

It wasn't until theological college that I began reading the works of Roman Catholic Theologian James Alison. Through Alison's explorations he suggests that the penal substitutionary atonement theory is not conservative enough and that it is just a theory — something which must be grasped on to and understood. Whereas Alison suggests that the atonement, in his view, is a liturgy and that liturgy is something that happens to you and at you. He reasons this by directing us back to first temple Judaism to consider the original liturgy of the atonement sacrifice. Here the priest would take two goats for the use of the atonement. He would take the first and sacrifice it, using the blood to expiate his own sins before going out to the people in a robe of similar material to that of the holy of Holies curtain symbolizing God coming out from the holy sanctuary towards the people. What is happening here is that the priest would be acting as 'The Lord for the day' and gifting the people with purification from their sins as the blood was asperged over them. Blood which is the substance of life is here so important as it sacramentally shows the people that the life of and through God is now covering them and forgiving them of their turning away from him.

It is an exciting thing for us to reconsider the atonement by this understanding because it is not at all like a sacrifice to an angry God in an 'Aztec' type of way, but rather it is a movement of God towards us. God would move from the holy of holies through the priest and come closer to the people but now Jesus Christ is in place of the high priest and comes out towards us from the Holy of Holies. This is God taking a step of loving embrace towards us and with us for the redemption of the world.

Alison even suggests that as Mary goes to the tomb on the day of resurrection she looks inside and sees two angels sitting at the place where Jesus body was, one at the head and one at the feet. What does this look like, Alison asks? It is the Mercy Seat or the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. Now it isn't a high priest who goes in to 'bring God out' towards the people but yet here is a normal person who discovers God who is now available for all people - and even to women as Mary is the first witness to this miracle of God!

At St Peters Eastern Hill we are blessed with so many amazing liturgies and this season of Holy Week and Eastertide is no exception. Like the atonement liturgy in first temple Judaism and like Jesus death on the cross and his glorious resurrection we can find a place of God coming towards us out of his love for us. It is for this reason that it is important to retell the story over and over each year and even to gather in the darkness of Good Friday. And we retell this story because it speaks of the great love of God.

In the crucifixion the whole of God experiences the pain of death — the sting of death has sunk itself into the heart of God. God pours himself out — an ultimate act of self-giving love. In the cross of Christ, God embraces what is wholly other — death, and in this embrace death is transformed. We worship a God who stands in solidarity with the suffering — because our God suffered too. But we know, in the words of saint Anselm of Canterbury, 'that despair turns to hope?' In the cross we find reconciliation, and in the resurrection, death is transformed. It is this hope that we as the Church are called to cling to.


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