August 14, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
1 Corinthians 15:1-12
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
All That Matters
(fifth in the series “I’ve Always Wanted to Know”)
Two years ago during our Wednesday Lenten program, we read The Book of Forgiving by Desmond and Mpho Tutu. Desmond Tutu is a Nobel Prize-winning Archbishop in South Africa and his daughter, Mpho, is an Episcopal priest. It’s clear these authors bring professional expertise to the process of forgiveness. So it’s no surprise their book lays out a methodical approach to forgiving someone through a four-fold path.
See, Desmond and Mpho Tutu are also qualified to write a book on forgiving because they have been personally impacted by violence. Their book is partly an instruction manual: here’s a step-by-step process for forgiving, and their book is partly a collection of stories: here’s what happened to me and why I need to forgive.
Instruction manuals provide a much needed service. We have some How-To books on our shelf at home. The Idiot’s Guide to Web Design is one I haven’t yet read. Puppies for Dummies has tips on house training; it’s one I’ve read several times. There is something soothing when a difficult problem can be broken into manageable steps, when a calm author starts out by saying, “All that matters is to follow the directions in the right order” or “All that matters is that you use extra virgin olive oil.” Just tell me what I need to know…
But I’ll tell you. If my life depended on my capacity to forgive someone, and maybe it does, it’s actually not the instructions I need most. It’s the stories. Kelly Connor was seventeen-years-old when she was driving; she accidentally hit and killed seventy-year-old Margaret Healy who was crossing the street. The accident was covered up and kept secret for thirty years until Kelly couldn’t take it any more. When she came forward and confessed, Margaret’s family forgave her.
Throughout The Book of Forgiving, Mpho Tutu tells the story of coming home to find that her housekeeper, Angela, had been murdered in her daughter’s bedroom. Forgiving the killer is how her family is moving toward healing. She says, “The story of Angela’s murder and her murderer will always be part of our story, but I forgive, so that it is not the main plot of our life story, so we can go on to write new stories, better stories, happier stories.”
If I am ever faced with the forgiveness that will save my life, it won’t be because I remember the steps to the fourfold path in the right order. It will be because I remember how Mpho’s family is forgiving, how Margaret’s family is forgiving, so maybe I can too. Stories are not headlines. Stories don’t try to boil the truth down to “All that matters is….” Stories involve actual people with actual names. They show a trajectory of change. First we were here, but now see how far we’ve come. God is transforming us, turning our hearts from anguish into peace.
Today we’re continuing our summer sermon series “I’ve Always Wanted to Know” with two questions from the congregation: One: “Some say, all that matters is we believe Jesus died for our sins; what does this mean?” Two: “Was the crucifixion, as a physical sacrifice, really necessary for the forgiveness of sins?” Thank you for these questions.
Sacrifice has power because something meaningful is given up and because something meaningful is given to a greater purpose. In ancient Judaism, animal sacrifice was a common practice at the Temple. Sometimes, the killed animals were an offering to God, an expression of praise and devotion. Sometimes, the animals were used as a substitute for repaying sin. So if I sin against God, instead of God killing me dead, which may be what I deserve, a priest could transfer my guilt to an animal, then kill the animal instead of me.
In the Bible, there are stories which describe how the smoke from the burning of the animals makes an odor which is pleasing to the LORD (Genesis 8:21). There’s also poetry where God says, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice!” (Hosea 6:6) When it comes to asking how God feels about sacrifice, the Bible is all over the place.
When it comes to asking, What does Jesus’ death on the cross have to do with our forgiveness? that’s not a test. I don’t ask this question because I want to get the right answer written down in my notebook. I’m asking because God’s forgiveness is something I need. We harbor a deep hunger to be reconciled with God. Now this question isn’t looking for a doctrine. If I want to know why the cross makes a way for forgiveness, and I do, then I need a story. Thankfully, there is no shortage of stories.
One story comes from the early church fathers and describes how the devil held the world in bondage. So God came up with a con to send Jesus into the world as ransom in exchange for all the hostages of humanity. The devil went along with this thinking he’d get to keep Jesus, but not so much. It’s a classic bait and switch; God freed Jesus too in the resurrection.
Another traditional story of atonement describes Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God who volunteered to be killed in order to spare the lives of the guilty. During the Protestant Reformation, the story shifted to focus on the sin of humanity and the anger of God. The way to satisfy God’s wrath is through punishment —someone must pay. So Jesus will go and stand in our place and pay God for our sin.
Someone else might tell a different story. Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Well, his teaching was threatening the religious establishment. Well, his following was threatening the Roman Empire. Well, his friends were afraid, and the crowd shouted “Crucify him!” And it all happened so fast. He had to die because we killed him.
Believing that Jesus died for our sins is a central confession of our faith, and it’s one I struggle with seriously, and that’s okay. Speaking personally, I am less moved by the stories that depict God paying off the devil or demanding punishment. Much more compelling, for me, are the stories that illustrate how God comes to be with us, even when being with us means walking through that lonesome valley.
This week, Kevin shared with me a sermon by Bishop Robert Barron (I’ll link to it through my sermon on the Church of Peace website so you can watch on it youtube). Bishop Barron reminds me of the liberation theologians when he emphasizes that it wouldn’t mean very much, if God sat up in heaven, waved his hands, and said “All is forgiven.” There is real suffering in the world involving actual people with actual names, so God goes and gets right into it. God comes into the full horror of the human condition then turns it into something else.
This teaches me that there is no sin, no suffering, that can separate us from God. If the worst thing is being tortured, humiliated and executed, God knows what that is. If the worst thing is killing an unarmed innocent man, betraying your friend, God knows what that is. If the worst experience is letting your child die, God knows what that is. God has earned her street cred. So now when God talks about forgiving, I can believe her.
And so it is, the real problem with the claim “All that matters is we believe Jesus died for our sins” is the first three words. “All that matters” is fine for an instruction manual. But the world doesn’t need The Idiot’s Guide to Receiving Forgiveness or Salvation for Dummies. What we need is a story, and I’m pretty sure you have one.
Sisters and brothers, if you join in believing that Jesus died for our sins, that his death on the cross brings us closer to God, I encourage you to learn to tell this story. For you, it might be the story of how Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of God. For you, it might be the story of how the killing of someone you love enlarged your own capacity for forgiveness. Our best hope is not in a tagline; it’s not the secret phrase we whisper to get into heaven: I believe Jesus died for my sins. It’s the stories that matter; your story matters.
Stories involve actual people with actual names. They show a trajectory of change; we end in a different place from where we started. In our scripture, Paul is making a theological argument to the conflicted church at Corinth. He believes that those who die participate in resurrection, but the reason he believes this is the story of Jesus. In one verse, he sums up the Gospel: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and was buried, and was raised from the dead…”
Then Paul lists the people Jesus visited after being resurrected: “first Peter, then the twelve (actually Paul, first the women!), then more than five hundred brothers and sisters, then James, then the apostles, then even me.” Paul reminds us, he has his own story of believing in God’s forgiveness. Because Paul used to be Saul. He used to collect the coats of the people who stoned the Christians. He breathed threats and murder against the preachers of the Gospel that now saves his life. So you don’t have to believe him because his theology is responsibly reasonable; believe him because of his story.
God got into right into his story, changed its trajectory, and that might be what happens to us. God turns a sword into a plowshare and a spear into a pruning hook. God takes the weapon of execution like the rope used for lynching, like the electric chair, like the needle used in lethal injection —that’s what the cross is— God takes this weapon and turns it into a sign of compassion, a symbol of welcome. So you know God can come take our penchant for punishment and turn it into a story of forgiveness. That’s what happened for Margaret’s family. That’s what is happening for Mpho’s family. It could happen to yours.
It’s not just that Jesus died for our sins.
It’s that God took this death and turned it into life, and turns it into love. The whole story matters. Your stories matter. All that matters to God, I promise. Amen.
 Tutu, Desmond and Mpho Tutu. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World. Harper One: New York, 2014. pages 170-173, 197-198.
 Tutu 31-33, 74-83.
 Tutu 138.