Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring what it means to be Christian. While travelling through the festival of Easter we have started chipping away at encrusted Christian dogma to discover new life underneath. We took the chance of looking closely at our traditions and beliefs to see not only their meaning but their implications when lived out in the real world. We have seen that one of the most harmful Christian dogmas has been substitutionary atonement, a doctrine developed by Anselm of Canterbury in the 12th century in his book Cur Deus Homo (Why Did God Become Human?). According to Anselm, human beings are so sinful that that God could not love them; human beings are so sinful that we could not pay the debt we owed God. So God had to pay these debts for us. To do so God became a perfect human being in Jesus Christ and died on the cross for our sins. By doing that God was able to reconcile Godself to us. And in order for us to access this reconciliation we have to confess the divinity and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Anselm was trying to make sense of why God would become human and also if Jesus was really God why would he be tortured and murdered on the cross. So Anselm came up with this clever and imaginative theory to explain these conundrums. And his theory is very clever and very imaginative but it is not really biblical. It is not really true to the biblical witness. Jesus was clearly a human being who loved and cried and laughed and died. We must admit Jesus’ humanity and while we have delved into the meaning of resurrection over the past few weeks, today I want to examine the repercussions of Anselm’s Substitutionary Atonement theory.
There are several deleterious effects of Anselm’s theory. It’s exclusionary, averring that Christians have a monopoly on salvation. It tends to glorify suffering. But the problem of Substitutionary Atonement I want to focus on today is that it is extremely individualistic. If we believe in order to achieve salvation that all we have to do is affirm the divinity and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ then it is far too easy to believe that as long as my salvation is assured then my problems are solved. It’s all going to be ok because I am saved. I can still be a good person but it is actually optional. I confess the risen Christ, I am saved, problem solved. Yay! So it promotes an individual relationship with God that excludes others and helps create a world where individualism, rather than the common good, is first and foremost.
And individualism is a problem in our world today. We have taken the notion that as a long as my salvation is assured and applied it to how we relate to the world. As long as my salvation is assured has morphed into as long as I have enough money for a nice place to live and a few vacations and nice car then that is all that matters. We have all seen the bumper sticker, “The one with the most toys wins”. We have organised our world such that we take care of ourselves and that is all that matters. Yes, I am exaggerating but there is a strong element of that present in our world. I only have to take care of myself and if a child goes to bed hungry or a first nation reserve doesn’t have clean drinking water then that is not my problem. God helps those who help themselves. This is a problem.
While you can make the case that traditional theories of atonement have contributed to the rise of rampant individualism this way of being is directly contradicted by the biblical narrative. Jesus proclamation of the Basilea Theou, that is, the kin-dom of God is centred not in individual salvation or individual satisfaction or who has the most toys wins but rather in the material well-being of everybody. It is centred in the common good. In Luke’s Gospel, as Jesus is about to begin his public minister he reads in his home church. And as he does he quotes Isaiah and says that”
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
This passage from Isaiah is the theme of Jesus ministry. To bring good news to the poor. To proclaim release to the captives. To let the oppressed go free. This is it what it means to be Christian. God helps those who helps themselves is a quote from Ben Franklin one of the architects of the most individualistic nations in history. It is not a quote from the bible. God helps everyone and calls us to do the same. Participating in the co-creation of the kin-dom of God means that we have to bring good news to the poor. We have to proclaim release to the captives. We have to let the oppressed go free. It’s that simple.
Or that complicated. Because I don’t think anyone really wants a child to go to bed hungry. I don’t think anyone wants substandard drinking water on reserves. But still it happens. So the question remains. How do we actually participate in the kin-dom of God? How do we bring good news to the poor? How do we let the oppressed go free? We don’t want children living in poverty. But these problems are complex and enormous and if there was a simple solution we would have done it already. But still we have to respond. Of course for any complex problem there needs to be action at many levels and places. OK so what about us? What do we do here at Wesley? How do we respond here in Hillsdale?
Well, if we look at the story of the first Christian community in our reading from Acts there might some hints. What did Jesus followers do in the first days following Jesus’ death and resurrection? They created a community that is committed to prayer, education and their mutual love. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They created a spiritual community where people took care of each other.
I’m not saying that we have to sell everything and put it in a pile for everybody. I not saying we should slavishly mimic today’s scripture reading. As always we should take the bible seriously not literally. But we can build community whose values are based in sufficient resources for everyone. We can centre our lives on the common good, ending poverty, ensuring there is enough for everybody. Through prayer, mutual love and social action we can participate in the co-creation of the Basilea Theou, the kin-dom of God. We can have Stone Soup for the Soul.
Because living that way, living for others is good for the soul. It increases our humanity. Living for the common good leads to emotional well-being. There is a mutuality in the Stone Soup Story. We don’t just make soup and take it out to people. In the story, everybody participates.in making stone soup. You can’t make it yourself. You need the whole community. Maybe we can turn our kitchen into the Stone Soup kitchen; making Stone Soup every day, building a community of mutual love, that cares for the neighborhood we live in, that promotes the common good, that brings good news to the poor, proclaims release to the captives and sets the oppressed free.
And I we do that we can make stone soup for the soul. We can make delicious, nutritious, life-giving stone soup that will save our soul and feed the kin-dom of God. We can have stone soup for the soul. Amen.
Justo L. González, Essential Theological Terms, (Westminster
John Knox Press), 2005.