Emphasis on the death of Jesus as the act that brings about the forgiveness of our sins and puts us in union with God leaves a bad taste in many mouths. That is not surprising; it seems to make God a fan of death. Another reason for the growing lack of enthusiasm for so much importance placed on the death of Jesus as the source of our salvation is the fact that it has been a dominant theme for several generations, and so we feel the human need to swing the pendulum away from it and on to another way of thinking, just like we tend to do in the areas of politics and fashion. Swinging back and forth between what are often termed “theories of atonement” has been common in Christian history, and that can be surprising and unsettling for some people who insist on the need to believe in a set doctrine explaining exactly how “Jesus Saves”.
If one wants to get a glimpse of some of the theories of atonement that have been presented throughout church history, there are books in our library that carry that information, and they can be interesting and edifying. To be honest, I like some of the theories and dislike others, but what I really believe is that some of the truth is probably found in all of them. Theories don’t save; “Jesus Saves”, and maybe the important thing is not how but what and why. The what is a covenant between us and God, written in our hearts, stating that we and God belong to each other, as we heard in our first reading from the prophet Jeremiah. That covenant is ratified by Jesus as our priest, as we heard in the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. The why is God’s love for us and the desire to bring us closer to God’s self, as we heard Jesus say in the gospel reading: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Jesus was lifted up from the earth on a cross, and we must admit that hanging from a cross is quite a way to get someone’s attention. Even with all the other thousands of people who had been crucified before and have been crucified since, God got our attention with that one, and has been drawing people to himself ever since.
The death of Jesus is an important aspect of God’s gift of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is important because death is a part of life, and God lived and still lives a full human life as Jesus. We might not ever understand all the facets of all the “theories of atonement”, but that is ok, because our union with God is not dependent on our understanding. Our salvation is dependent on God, who has already given us eternal life, joy, and peace. God wants us to have a relationship with him, not with a theory. So he lives with us, dies with us, and enters a new eternal life with us. God is here with us – his Holy Spirit is praying through us, binding us together with each other and with God’s self; God is here with us as we gather to be fed by God; God is with us as we leave the church and go about our daily lives. God is hanging on a cross, drawing us to himself, and God is risen from the dead to be with us always. AMEN