July 9, 2017
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
When More Than Death Is Demanded
(fourth in the series Church and State)
It is right there in the middle of our scripture. Verse eight: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Paul goes on to say, “Since we have been reconciled by Jesus’ blood, we will be saved (through Christ) from the wrath of God” (my paraphrase).
This is probably not the first time you have heard this teaching. Even if today is the first time you’ve ever walked into a church, this teaching has become an emblem for the whole Christian faith. Jesus died for your sins, for my sins. Sometimes this claim gets pronounced with decisive completeness, as though if you only know one thing about what it means to be Christian, let it be this, as though all you have to do is simply believe. Jesus died for our sins.
If you have ever heard this, and there was some part of you that answered with, “Okay, but —really?” I would like to come and stand next to you in this tender and skeptical “really?” How, exactly? Now I believe there is Gospel in the story of how Jesus’ death on the cross gets turned into an act of peacemaking, how Jesus’ resurrection brings us new life in God. There’s a whole story to tell, and the story is still unfolding…
What concerns me is when a piece of this story gets pulled out and plastered on a billboard. Yes, Jesus died on a cross. But that cross has power, as a symbol, because there was also a manger, and a fishing boat, and a table, and a tomb that won’t stay sealed, and chains that break and fall off the prisoners, and a rainbow that keeps coming back. Yet we, as Christians, keep clinging to the cross.
I think there might be a few reasons why we do this, and none of them are really because of what Paul said in those scripture verses we heard. The promise that Jesus died for our sins is a common refrain in the old hymns and the contemporary lyrics. We sing this a lot, and our beliefs get shaped by what we sing to each other.
Of course, this claim was also instrumental in the development of the church as its leaders have long been grappling with differing doctrines of atonement. Atonement means reconciliation between humanity and God, and these different doctrines are our feeble attempts to explain the theory behind this reconciliation. If you follow the theories all the way back, you’ll find some fascinating folk stories.
For example, one legend from the early church fathers claims that human beings were in bondage to the devil. So Jesus came into the world to bait the devil by becoming a human person who did not sin. When Jesus died, the devil lost all power over him, so now anyone who attaches themselves to Jesus will share the same immunity from the devil.
Another story which became popular during the Reformation explains that sin is the division between humanity and God and the source of God’s wrath. In order for us to be close to God, something must be done to appease her anger. The only way for God to be satisfied is for someone to be punished. (I mean, does this sound like God to you? But okay…) So Jesus becomes the representative for all of us, taking on all the punishment for every person. Now God’s anger will subside, and we can be saved by her love.
These are just glimpses of some of the stories that try to make sense of this sound byte. There is no Christian story without the truth that Jesus died on the cross. But what if our lives are saved by something more than crucifixion? More than tricking than devil. More than assuming God needs revenge. What if the cross matters precisely because it is connected to something so much more…
Today we’re continuing the series Church and State by considering the theme of sacrifice. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul keeps pointing toward a vision of peacemaking between humans and God.
At the risk of over-simplifying, what I hear in Paul is the call for cosmic reunion when we humans come back only to find that our home is God’s loving embrace, when the new age of God’s kingdom reigns on earth. The promise is God’s grace pouring out into our hurting world, then meeting up with our human faith, and, for Paul, the event of this connection is Jesus laying down his life — so God’s grace and our faith can swirl together, so we can keep coming home, so God’s dream can keep unfolding on earth as it is in heaven.
Throughout the history of our faith, people have tried to provoke reconciliation with God by offering sacrifice. In ancient Judaism, animals were brought to the Temple. Sometimes the animal was given to pay the price for a person’s sin; sometimes the animal was given as a gift of praise and devotion to God. And in this we see that making a sacrifice is an act of power. It is taking something important, and giving it up, and giving it to a greater purpose.
But the power lives in the giving, which means if something of yours gets sacrificed without your consent, that is a dreadful violation. If you have ever had money stolen from your wallet, then you know. There is a bright and blaring difference between getting robbed and making a generous financial gift, even if we’re talking about the same amount of money.
Now in thinking about sacrifice, this question rises to the top: Who gets to do sacrifice to whom? Who gets to decide whether what happened was a terrible violation or a beautiful gift…
These days in our nation, you can feel a heightened intensity in our commitment to honor the sacrifice of those who died serving our country. In the standing in uniform at attention, in the laying of wreaths, and folding of the flag, and the firing of the guns, the message is clear: This person did not die in vain; this person gave her life for our freedom. Naming this as sacrifice is deeply important because it connects a tragedy to a greater purpose. Now her death is not just an unfortunate giving up of life, her death is giving to a larger story. But it’s up to us to prove this true.
Paradoxically, if honoring a person’s ultimate sacrifice is seeing how his death matters because his life mattered, because the cause he lived for matters, then our appreciation of his sacrifice cannot be just about his death (even death on a cross). We’ll need to honor his whole story and lift our eyes to the purpose his life was pointing toward.
But here’s the thing, once you bring in the whole story, this starts us down a path that asks, what if death is not the only valid sacrifice? What if the veterans who don’t get killed in combat, who come back to us forever transformed, what if they are sacrificing more than we realize? What if their children and families are sacrificing more than we realize? What if we could sacrifice more than we realize?
For the rest of July, the Adult Forum will explore the question of how churches can support veterans and military families. In the book we’re reading called Coming Home, Chaplain Zachary Moon, includes an example of a different kind of sacrifice. Let me share with you a reflection by Laura Fauntleroy who writes:
“In two thousand three, the war began again for our family. My husband had deployed during Desert Storm in nineteen ninety-one, several times in between, and now for Operation Iraqi Freedom… Our two children were in middle school. I have never been so scared in all my life. Many of our neighbors were deploying with various services and units. For twelve months, I held a letter that a Marine had written for his wife, and I was to give it to her in the event that he did not return alive… That was the context of our world…
One year, my husband’s deployment was extended and he was possibly going to miss being home by Christmas. The kids and I were all making the best of it. We got a tree and decorated it. But our house was the only one on the street without lights. Then one day, I came home from work to find my neighbor in my driveway, climbing down his ladder. He had hung Christmas lights on our house…He just did it. That one simple act of kindness is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received, even all these years later.”
Look, I know how this could sound. There is no comparison between the act of dying in a war and the act of putting up your neighbor’s Christmas lights. These actions are worlds apart. And yet, there is something about the generosity in each. The neighbor who put the lights on Laura’s house was saying: “I see that you and your family are going through something; I see that you are sacrificing.” And you know, acknowledging this is something we can do for each other.
It is one thing to prepare yourself for the possibility that you might die, but what about the possibility that you might live? Then you might live again tomorrow, and the day after that… By dying, I can make my death a sacrifice exactly once, but each day, we have the power to make ourselves into a living sacrifice for God, giving our lives for each other again and again.
I believe Jesus died on the cross. I believe God took Jesus’ death and turned it into a symbol of grace, but this death on the cross is not our best hope. Our best hope might be the promise of reunion with God, healing division between us, and pursuing reconciliation. As Paul puts it, “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely,…will we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10). So God’s grace and our faith are swirling together, so we keep on coming home, so God’s dream keeps unfolding on earth as it is in heaven. And we can give our lives for this every day. Thank God. Amen.
 For a helpful, brief sketch of differences between atonement theories see: Musser, Donald W. and Jospeh L. Price editors of The New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology. Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2003. pages 44-46.
 Moon, Zachary. Coming Home: Ministry That Matters with Veterans and Military Families. Chalice Press: St Louis, 2015. pages 32-33.