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Going Beyond Jesus as Rescuer

This is the fifth in a sermon series on "Going Beyond..."

It's time to talk about going beyond Jesus as our rescuer. Let me begin by being perfectly clear about what I’m trying to say: Jesus did not die for your sins or mine, or anyone else’s. If God is not a being "out there" somewhere watching, judging, and capriciously interacting with humanity, and if Adam and Eve is a myth and there is no grand fall of humanity, then there is no reason humanity needs to be rescued from our inherent sinfulness.

While the official doctrine of original sin didn’t appear until the fourth century, it was the apostle Paul, writing 15-25 years after the death of Jesus, who first developed this theological understanding of the reason for Jesus’ death. This does not make it truth. This is Paul’s interpretation of what happened looking through his lens of a first century, well-educated, extremely devout Jewish male, who had a mystical experience of Jesus following his death.

When we take a moment to understand Paul's context and religious upbringing, it is easy to understand his theological understanding of Jesus which we can sum up in these few lines from Romans 5:1, 6, 9, 12, 18-19:

Now since we have been made right in God’s sight by our faith, we are at peace with God through our Savior Jesus Christ

At the appointed time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for us godless people.

Now that we have been justified by Christ’s blood, it is all the more certain that we will be saved by Christ from God’s wrath.

Therefore, sin entered the world through the first humans, and through sin, death – and in this way death has spread through the whole human race, because all have sinned.

To sum up, then: just as a single offense brought condemnation to all, a single righteous act brought all acquittal and life. Just as through one person’s disobedience, all became sinners, so through one person’s obedience, all will become just.

Let’s rewind for just a second. In the Adam and Eve story, one of their punishments for disobeying God and eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was to become mortal. Death was the ultimate consequence of sin. Since everyone everywhere always died, it followed (in ancient logic) that all people were sinners. This sinfulness, it was believed, separated the people from a close connection with God. God supposedly tried to help solve this problem by giving the ancient Israelites a way to be in right relationship with God – follow all the laws that God set forth through Moses. But who can keep 613 commandments? No one. So, the people developed a sacrificial system to help bridge this chasm between themselves as fallen human beings and the Divine. One day of the year, the Israelites participated in a high holy day called Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.

It is easy to remember what atonement is if you break down the word into at-one-ment. It is the process of becoming once again “at one” with God. On Yom Kippur two rituals took place. First, people publicly confessed their sins and symbolically heaped them on the back of a goat which was then run off into the wilderness (aka the scapegoat). After their sins were carried away, a sacrifice was offered: the lamb of atonement. This lamb had to be perfect – no scratches, bruises, broken bones or blemishes. It was sacrificed to atone for, or pay for, the sins of the people.

Now, remember that Paul took part in this ritual his entire life and turns to it to inform his understanding of Jesus’ death. Believing Jesus to be special and uniquely connected to God, Paul quickly puts Jesus into the role of the perfect sacrifice to atone for the people’s sins once and for all. Not only is this leap clear in some of Paul’s writings, but by the time Mark (who mostly likely used Paul as a source), the first Gospel, is written, Mark asserts that Jesus was the “ransom paid for many.”

Unfortunately, Jesus as the atoning sacrifice for humanity, became entrenched as the foundational theological understanding of who Jesus was and why he died. All we have to do is look to traditional liturgy and hymns and we will find it everywhere. Maybe you remember the songs about being “washed in the blood of Jesus” or “saved by the blood of Jesus” or "for a world of lost sinners was slain." Not to mention all the songs that glorify the cross, or the references to the lamb of God who’s asked to have mercy on us and "take away the sins of the world."  Of course, we can't forget the traditional communion language of the “body and blood of Christ given for you.” It’s pervasive, and awful.

And what kind of God has all this portrayed? A sado-masochistic divine father who willingly demands that his son die a painful, horrendous death because that’s God’s price to forgive the people. Wait… isn’t God the one making the rules here? Can’t God just change the rules? Which one of us would sacrifice our children on a cross because only blood and death will make up for people screwing up? I can't do the mental gymnastics to make this work for me. Is it not clear to everyone that this understanding came about through the lens of ancient beliefs and rituals and was basically wrong?

Jesus’ messages on how to live were hijacked by false, unhealthy theology that focused on why he died.  There is no way in my mind that Jesus intended for this to be turned into his primary message. Just think of all the things we could be focusing on! Love your neighbor as yourself. Pray, be humble, be compassionate and loving. Abide in God as God abides in us. Care for the sick, the prisoner, the hungry, the homeless. Forgive. Be open, trusting and loving as a child. Rmember the kin-dom of heaven is within. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Finally, let me say this. I know it is easier to look outside of ourselves to be rescued. And, it is true that sometimes it is crucial to have help from others. But at the end of the day it is up to us. We can go to a therapist for guidance and help, but we need to do the work. We can go to a doctor for diagnosis and treatment options, but we need to follow through. We can cry out to Jesus to fix us, but we need to look within to heal our souls, to deal with our baggage, to find and offer forgiveness. God doesn’t do the work for us, but I do believe the Divine is within us giving us strength, courage, determination and hope.

Love & Light!