Wednesday, January 17, 2007

“An Open Door”

Hebrews 10:19-25[1]

Religion is not generally known for its openness. To the contrary, it would seem that most religions are defined more by the boundaries they prescribe, or by the barriers and restrictions they impose.

Just about every religion, it seems, has some sort of prescribed ritual for entering the presence of the deity. [2] Only the authorized priests may conduct the ritual, and they must exercise meticulous care to follow the prescribed ritual to the letter. Not only is it forbidden for an ordinary individual to approach God, it is positively dangerous. Sometimes it’s even dangerous for the priests! They and only they can enter the sacred places to conduct the ritual of worship.

All of these boundaries and limits presuppose God as someone or something unapproachable. Many religions developed animal sacrifices in order to resolve this problem of approaching an unapproachable deity. Animal sacrifices were believed to have a kind of magical power to soothe God’s demeanor and render God favorable and gracious toward humanity that falls short and goes astray.

While all of this would seem to run counter to the New Testament lesson for today, the reality is that the Christian religion hasn’t been very different from other religions in this regard. Priests and meticulous rituals and sacred places with boundaries have been a regular part of the Christian religion throughout history.

But the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that they are not a part of the Christian faith. Hebrews offers in place of all that a “new and living way” that has been opened by Jesus the Christ. It is new in that there are no sacrifices you have to meticulously follow in order to enter this way. It is living in that it is a way that truly leads to life (cf. the “path of life” in Ps. 16). Through Jesus’ death on the cross, the path that leads to life is open for anyone and everyone.[3] There is no gate-keeper who has the authority to keep out those who don’t belong. There is no special password you have to learn in order to be allowed to follow Jesus on the path that leads to life.

This message is the heart of the Christian faith, yet it has puzzled humankind for 2000 years. How is it that the death of this Jewish rabbi on a Roman cross in a backwater Mediterranean country makes it possible for us to have an open door to God? Throughout history, there have been many theories proposed to explain just exactly why Jesus died on the cross and what his death accomplished. But through the ages the best theological minds have not been able to explain the cross in a way that has satisfied the whole church so much that we have embraced it in something like the Apostles’ Creed. [4] It is a “truth which cannot be demonstrated but which is not without witnesses.”[5]

I think the best we can do is to stick with what the New Testament does—the Apostles were content to describe the effects of Jesus’ death on the cross without being able to explain all that it involved.

Our Study Catechism puts it well, I think, when in response to the question “Why did Jesus have to suffer as he did?” it says: “Because grace is more abundant — and sin more serious — than we suppose. … The cross in all its severity reveals an abyss of sin swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”[6] Essentially, Jesus died to break the power of that which keeps humankind from the life God intends for us to have—call it sin, or selfishness, or alienation.[7]

But Jesus also died to open the door to a relationship with God that is meaningful and fulfilling.[8] The biblical idea of sin is not just that our lives are marred, but also that we have broken the relationship God intends for us to share by our willfulness, our resistance, our violence, our pride, and our greed. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ is that God takes the initiative to heal the breach. We are the offending party, yet we are the ones who need to be reconciled. God holds no grudges against us; God does not need to be softened up toward us. God already loves us unconditionally and irrevocably.[9] God is the one who seeks us out like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep. God does not need to be reconciled to us—we need to be reconciled to God. [10]

But because of the seriousness of the breach, our restoration requires “the cross in all its severity” as our catechism puts it. What that means is that God takes on the consequences of our willfulness and pride and greed. God endures the pain of our sins, but by so doing it becomes a pain that heals us (Isa. 53:4; 1 Pet. 2:24: “by his wounds we are healed”).[11]

I don’t think that we have to endorse a certain theory of atonement that involves some sort of substitution or satisfaction to recognize that Jesus’ death on the cross restores our relationship with God that was broken by human sin. Much of that kind of thinking seems to me to boil down to a return to the belief that a sacrifice involving blood has some special power to soothe God’s demeanor![12]

We don’t have to go there to recognize that Jesus has opened a door so that we can have the kind of relationship God has always intended for us to have—one that leads to life.[13]

[1] A sermon preached 11/19/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Harry Emerson Fosdick, A Guide to Understanding the Bible, 208-210

[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:92.

[4] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 309. Paul Tillich expresses this idea by saying that the Cross and the Resurrection must be seen as both events and as symbols; Systematic Theology II:150-58.

[5] Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:169. He adds: “He who persists at the level of the verifiable will miss the truth which breaks through our untruth, therapeutically lays bare our hybris, and corrects our perversity.”

[6] Study Catechism, q. 45.

[7] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 181-83; cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:97.

[8] Moltmann, in The Way of Jesus Christ, 188-89, points out that this is not merely a restoration of life to its original state, but rather it is the transformation of life that points to a new creation; cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV. 1:13, 110.

[9] J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 87, 95-96.

[10] A. Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation; cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:88-89, 122-23.

[11] Tillich, Systematic Theology II:174-75; cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 86: “man’s sufferings become Christ’s history, and Christ’s freedom becomes man’s history.”

[12] Fosdick, Guide to the Bible, 254.

[13] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:14, 22, 36, 38, 47, 113

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