Fall 2000


One of the great joys that I have in wearing more than one hat is the responsibility of planning music for weekly services at St. George’s in Ottawa. Recently I came across a rare gem in the new Common Praise, which we put to Hyfrodol, since our congregation did not know the suggested tune. The lyrics are as follows:

As we gather at Your table, as we listen to Your word,
Help us know, O God, Your presence; let our hearts and minds be stirred.
Nourish us with sacred story, tell we claim it as our own;
Teach us through this holy banquet how to make love’s victory known.

This appeal to “sacred story,” that is, to the holy, particular story about the victory of our loving God, is quite wonderful, particularly because the story is recalled in the context of both the liturgy of the word and the eucharist. Wonderful, too, is the yearning that this story become “our own,” because the gospel is God’s gift to us. To find this prayer in the midst of a hymn book where a good part of the sacred story has been downplayed struck me as ironic, or tragic, or both. Let me explain. Last Lent, while I was preparing music for Holy Week, I was looking for extra material, particularly to use on Good Friday. As I went to the new Common Praise to supplement our usual fare from the blue and red books, I was struck by the huge number of hymns for Easter, and the disproportionate number of hymns for Good Friday. Surprised, I wondered whether they had been displaced in another section, perhaps something entitled, “the Cross”, since of course we have both sections in the old blue Common Praise. Alas, it was not so. I was galvanised into an investigation, leaving aside my planning for the moment. The results? In the old Common Praise, 25 hymns for Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through to Easter Even, plus 11 under the Cross section, totalling 36. In the new Common Praise, only 22 songs for the same season, a few of which are alternate versions of the same, and some of which are not explicitly about Jesus’ death. There is no separate section for the cross. (For those of you interested, the metamorphosis seems to have begun with the intermediate book, the red book, which has 23 hymns in Holy Week up to Good Friday, with a few on the cross scattered throughout other sections.) I won’t touch the content of the hymns printed in the new book, which is in itself revealing. 

Corresponding changes have been noted in the emphases of the recent liturgies, particularly those proposed for use by Synod last year. Language about the atonement is becoming more and more vague, a trend that matches contemporary hymnody’s lack of enthusiasm about the cross, that event and symbol which is, quite literally, crucial for Christians. We all know the reasons why -- the perennial problem of the scandal of the cross, now coupled with liberationist and feminist critiques that atonement theology amounts to a story of “Cosmic Child Abuse” -- a Divine vengeful Father who demands to be propitiated by an innocent son. In every case, theology goes back to the story. So, what story or stories do the Scriptures tell that we are to hear, and inwardly digest, until they become our own? Most particularly, as we consider the topic for today, how is the story of Love’s Victory, the atonement, told?

Our difficulty with speaking about atonement begins of course, first with the English language. When I was a teen, I used to think preachers who broke down the word into its constituent parts “at-one-ment” were merely using a mnemonic device. But they weren’t -- the noun does mean, in its most general sense, to make “at one,” to bring peace or reconciliation or unity between parties. But of course, the story doesn’t end there, for we use the verb “to atone” to refer specifically to the use of sacrifice so that sins will not be punished, and by extension, to refer to any action that is intended to “make up” for what we have done wrong. Hence, atonement can also be the noun that refers to this kind of sacrificial or compensatory action. Of course, the reason why the semantic range of the English word encompasses both a general and more specific meaning is because of the Biblical legacy: Old Testament sacrifice and New Testament images of sacrifice frequently accompany the hope or promise of reconciliation with God. This afternoon, let’s consider the stories or fragments of stories that fill out our understanding of atonement in its general meaning, without leaving behind the particular sacrificial sense.

We begin with the Gospel narratives themselves.

While some of the newer Introductions seek to characterise the NT gospels as variants on the ancient genre of biographical narrative, attention to the shape and direction of Mat, Mark, Luke and John show this perspective to be inadequate. Certainly the gospels are interested in event, and concerned about what happened in time and space, as is demonstrated by the credal distillation of the Jesus story, “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Yet they are not biographical only, even if we take into account the ancient understanding of biography, for their purpose is not sheer encomium, not simply to praise a noteworthy figure of the past. Rather, the stories, all four of them, are carefully shaped, each in a unique way, to proclaim the story of atonement accomplished, and to invite the reader to make this story their own. What the author of the fourth gospel makes explicit is the implicit purpose, too, of the other gospels: “These things are written that you may ...have life in his name.”

The shape of Mark’s gospel is easiest to grasp. It can be conceived as akin to the mediaeval diptych, two panels that correspond to one another. The first panel leads the reader up to 8:29, where Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah; the second works from 8:31 to Jesus’ death, where on the cross Jesus is declared to be the Son of God. These two halves are linked by the contrasting episodes with Peter in 8:27-30 and 8:31-9:1. (Read) Insistently the question asked throughout the first half is the one posed by Jesus to the disciples in verse 27: “Who do men say that I am.” The answer, “the Christ, the Messiah”, is suppressed throughout the miracles and teaching stories of the first half until we come to this climactic point, and Peter answers. We see immediately the reason for the suppression, the “Don’t tell.”. For although this is a true answer, it is not enough. The second half of the gospel leads off with Jesus teaching them about the coming passion and crucifixion, despite Peter’s objections ( vs. 31-32). And from that point on, we see the second question answered more and more inevitably: What kind of Messiah is this? One who suffers and dies. So then, the first half of the gospel answers to the question: Who is this? and the second half answers to the question, What kind of Messiah is this? Mark has, then, two high points: Peter’s confession and identification of Jesus when he dies, by the centurion).

We can see, of course, why a suffering Messiah would be hard to swallow, considering the traditional role of deliverer ascribed to this figure. But Jesus makes the nettle even more difficult to grasp, by selecting from the Old Testament the most unlikely of figures, of national symbols. He begins (and continues throughout the gospel) to teach that “the Son of Man must suffer and die.” But where is it written the Son of Man must do this? The picture of that great Son of Man, so vivid in the Jewish imagination, evoked the story of victory, and greatness and glory. In Dan. 7, this one like a Son of Man is seen at the climax of Daniel’s vision. Up to this point the prophet has beheld visionary beasts who stand for hostile gentile dynasties which have ravaged God’s people. Now, following on the beasts comes a human figure, representative of God’s people, who ascends to the heavenly throne and receives honour and glory and judgement by the Almighty. But Jesus’ teaching is: no suffering, no glory. In effect, Jesus joins the traditional story of the triumphing Son of Man with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant: the one who is the sufferer is also the one who will go to the Father in glory!

Or, as the gospel of Mark puts the equation, the one who is glorious, the one identified through narrative as the Messiah by all these stories, and verbally by Peter, the one in the very next chapter who will shine with divine glory before the awe-struck eyes of his followers, that One is also the sufferer, the di-er. In the vision of his glory which the three disciples Peter James and John are given, Jesus is left before their eyes alone with the divine bath qol, the voice from heaven, ringing in their ears, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” To what must they listen? To the story that is embedded, hidden, concealed, in the Torah and the Prophets, and now made plain, interpreted, in fact performed in and by Jesus (“interpreté par” en francais). Before their eyes (and ours) in word, deed, and story, they will see that “the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected” (Mark 9:12 ). Ironically, it is not Peter, not this inner circle of disciples, not even a member of the Messiah’s tribe that will grasp the truth, but the representative of the Gentiles, and the representative of those who crucified him. What a wonder! Here, at the cross, deep calls unto deep: “Seeing how he died, the centurion declared, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.’”

Messiah. Son of Man. Son of God. All representative titles. (Even Son of God, which from the Hebrew perspective, remember, was the title applied to King David, to Israel, and now to Jesus.) Yet this little term, Son of God, limited in its Old Testament meaning to suggest a special human, now points in the gospel towards the other side of the mystery that brings suffering and death together. For Jesus is Son of God in a way that none other is. The voice at the Baptism and Transfiguration have indicated it: here is a unique Son, one who represents God in a unique and full way, like no other before or after. The term “Son of God”, like “Son of Man” and “Suffering Servant” identifies Jesus with Israel. But there is a fuller identity, a deeper revelation. The beginning and the end of Mark’s gospel mark an apocalypse, literally, a taking away of the veil. There, in baptism, Jesus plunges into the elements, fully identifying with exiled Israel, with fallen humanity, with decaying earth, with the deeps. The heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends, and Jesus hears “You are my Son, my beloved.” There, in the baptism of his blood, at the cross, the veil of the temple is rent, Jesus cries, groaning in the Spirit: “My God, why have you forsaken me”. He breathes out Spirit, and the curtain is torn. Here is the polar opposite of atonement, of reconciliation, while the very atonement is coming to fulfilment. The nadir and the zenith are one. As he suffers, as he dies, he loves his own to the very fullest. And perpetrator says, drawn unawares into a story that he did not know was his own: “Truly this was God’s Son.” 

Yet even this is not quite right -- for he is God’s Son. The resurrection will demonstrate that this One is not merely a representative of Israel, not merely even a representative of humanity, but a representative of the living God. And when the women hear the news of the resurrected One, the author of life who is risen, they tremble with awe. But before them is a promise: he will meet them, they will be at-one with him, in Galilee, just as he promised.

Here, in nuce, are the great paradoxes of the atonement story: suffering and death joined to resurrection and glory, representative of Israel and humanity joined with the representative of God, the creator of Israel and Adam. Driving the narrative are all the elements of atonement over which theologians have struggled, debated and hypothesised. I have stressed the representative part here, for the titles of Jesus in Mark’s gospel demand it: Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, are all representative names. But, of course, the one who is representative is also substitute. Driven like the scapegoat into the desert at the beginning of his ministry, drinking a cup that is not rightly his own (and which he could have refused), betrayed into the hands of sinners, crucified instead of Barabbas, mocked and punished as though he were a zealot Jew by the Romans. Substitute because he is innocent, substitute because he did not embody the national pride of his people. And dare I say, substitute because he is God, dying for his people, God dying for the Gentiles, too. I am not saying that the gospel writer necessarily was self-conscious about Jesus as God-Man. But the paradox is there, in the story, from beginning to end. John, as forerunner, “prepares the way for the LORD, for Yahweh;” Jesus asks “whose Son is the Messiah?” Jesus, at the moment of his separation, Man from God, God from Man, breathes out Spirit, and the temple veil is rent. His separation means our atonement. No more is there a restricted holy place -- God has exploded it, as the One who is both substitute and representative dies.

What Mark does by the shape of his drama, the other gospels accomplish in other ways. Think of the climax of Luke’s account, where, two of those who had hoped that this one was the “redeemer, the deliverer, of Israel” are nourished by interpreted Scripture and by broken bread, so as to understand more. “The Christ had to suffer and die and so enter his glory” -- a glory that is shared as they eat bread with him, and as they will go on to preach beyond Israel to the Gentiles. Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus is again the representative of Israel. He accomplishes Israel’s exodus at the cross -- notice that this is Luke’s word for the passion and crucifixion, a word which he uses in the Transfiguration account as Jesus, Moses and Elijah speak together about the coming ordeal. And he is the “son of Adam, the son of God,” a representative of humanity, as is emphasised from the very beginning in Luke’s genealogy. The full implications of what he accomplishes on the cross find expression in Luke’s sequel, the book of Acts: Paul is sent by Jesus to the Gentiles “to open eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Jesus” (Acts 26:17)

Here, in the work of Luke, we also glimpse another facet of the atonement. Clearer in Luke, but also latent in Mark, is the story of the One who conquers over Satan, the great deliverer who rescues his own, whether Jew or Gentile, from the enemy. In Mark, we might have traced, along with the other images, the story of Jesus casting out demons by “the finger of God,” speaking about the binding of the “strong man” and hinting at the downfall of the Adversary as God’s rule arrives. In Luke/Acts, the theme is even stronger: Jesus sees Satan fall like lightning from heaven, has direct contact with the demons over which he has authority, interprets his victory over the demons as a sign of the God’s inbreaking kingdom, finishes his words about the great signs of the end by explaining, “Your deliverance is drawing near”, and as risen Lord commissions Paul to bring this deliverance from Satan to the Gentiles. So we add to our story of one who represents Israel, and one who represents Humankind, and one who represents the God who dies for us, One who is the victor over Satan and sin, through his ministry, death and resurrection.

Let’s turn to the first gospel. Matthew begins his good news with the hope of Immanuel, a name that bespeaks atonement in the most general sense, “God with us.” He ends, too with the risen Lord who says, “I am with you always.” So the theme of atonement, at-one-ment, frames the gospel. We might expect that, Matthew, as the longest gospel, includes all the pictures of atonement that we have seen in Matthew and Mark. But there is more. With Matthew, the Victor imagery is highlighted in a characteristically Jewish way, as the author, a scribe trained for the kingdom, takes out of his storehouse things that are both old and new. At the moment of the crucifixion, there is a curious little vignette, an episode of apocalyptic significance, which unfolds like this: when Jesus died, the ground is split by earthquake, the veil of the Temple is rent, and the tombs of the righteous are opened -- so that the dead righteous can be delivered from death and restored (Mat 27:52)! For a moment, the gospel jumps forward to Easter day, when he says that the righteous from the paths walked the streets of Jerusalem, public proof of the effect of the death and resurrection of Jesus. By the way that he tells the story, embedding this moment of triumph within his description of what happens as Jesus dies, the writer emphasises how it is the cross that is God’s means to conquer the final enemy, death itself. So, both Luke and Matthew envision Jesus as the great Victor: Luke highlights his power over sin, Matthew his power over death.

In John’s gospel, we see an aspect of atonement that is only hinted at in the synoptics -- this is the drawing of humankind into the glory, the life of God. I know that at this point I am going beyond the parameters of what most theologians would consider to be atonement. However, the minute one considers the atonement story in terms of God’s assumption of our humanity, the ancient notion of exchange slips in. John does not state the equation in the blunt terms of the fathers, whether we speak of Augustine in the west, or numerous lights in the east: God became man so that man could become God. Yet think about the contours of his story, from the solemn prologue about the Word made flesh, through to the promises of intimacy at the Last Supper discourse. Jesus, identified with Israel by Nathanel as “King of Israel” is also clearly the One who says again and again “I am”. He is that the true light that gives light to everyone who comes into the world. John presents to us the exemplarist’s best picture, the one who lays down his life for his friends. Yet this is no mere pattern to follow, for the cross in this gospel is an effective victory of suffering love. We hear the shepherd say , “I lay down my life for my sheep”, we see the great battler in agony in the garden, where his love tested to the extreme, but not conquered: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not understood or overwhelmed. For who can understand fully the story that John tells, in which the Cross is the Glory? And who can receive easily the words of this gospel which stretch the limits of what we can understand -- “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you cannot have life within you.”

Here we go beyond thinking of Jesus as a substitute who dies instead of us, wonderful though that is. We go deeper than even considering Jesus as a representative who dies in our place, as true Israel or true Adam, humbling though that is. We are reminded by the hard words of Jesus about his flesh and blood, by his straight talk to the disciples about their destiny to “share his glory” , and by his commission to Peter in the last chapter, that the Son suffers and so gives us not a way “around” suffering, but a way through it. He is substitute, dying where zealot and sinner should die; he is representative, plumbing the depth of sin and corrupted nature for us; but he is also pioneer, conquering over death and sin, over the “Prince of this World” who had no hold on him, that we might follow, and like Peter, “glorify God by the death” given to us to bear. Jesus, in speaking of the coming of the Spirit, of the wonderful intimacy that he shares with the Father, and with his disciples, reminds us forcibly that suffering and glory are intertwined. “The Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you” (16:15). When Jesus breathes his Spirit onto the apostles, recreating them in a way that is reminiscent of God’s action in the garden, but in a higher mode, part of what they receive is the commission to witness faithfully unto death. So is Peter directed to give God glory. In a similar vein, the seer John can say, in writing to the churches of Asia Minor, that they are “sharers” in suffering and the kingdom and endurance that are ours in Christ Jesus. (Rev. 1:9). And in the midst of his twin visions, the first vision of the battle in heaven with the Devil, and the second of the persecution of the Church by the Dragon on earth, in the midst of these, he hears these words of triumph: “

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their martyring testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and those who dwell in them!

So thorough is the atonement, so great the reversal, that it incorporates us also into the sufferings of Jesus, which will bear fruit. And paradoxically, to share in that suffering, to take up our cross, to die daily, does not have the effect of qualifying the uniqueness of what Jesus, the Lamb, has done for us -- in our lives we are to mirror the great Atoning act, telling that same story again and again. As Paul will put it, “We become the righteousness of God.”

Wait a minute! There’s the word that has been missing in all this. Where are the usual terms associated with atonement in all this -- justification, satisfaction, sacrifice? Well, of course, sacrifice has been here all along, because we have seen in the gospels the constant refrain that this One must die -- Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem (Matthew) The Son of Man must suffer and die (Mark) ; This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel (Luke); I lay down my life for the sheep (John). And justification is implied too, as the righteous one suffers on behalf of the unrighteous. Although satisfaction in the Anselmian sense is not an explicit theme anywhere in the actual language of scripture, this great story of sacrifice and victory is certainly a fulfilment of God’s will. It is an effective act of utter holiness, justice and mercy, that does something about sin and death. Looking at this drama of his own conceiving, surely God sees “the fruit of the travail of his soul and is satisfied.”

The canvas is big in the scriptures, a huge complex of various networking stories and images, that speaks in different ways, about God’s action in and for Israel, humanity, and the cosmos as a whole. (Remember that Col 1:20 speaks of the reconciliation of all things as God’s goal for his world). At home I have two pictures of sentimental importance to me, that constantly remind me of the complexity and unity of God’s purposes. Whether they are great art or not, I don’t know. They were drawn by a friend of mine in highschool, a promising young artist with an eye for the richness of the world around us. Each of them is an overall picture, the first of a person who is thinking, the second of a couple obviously in love. But the overall picture, if you look closely, is made up of a multitude of vignettes, each of them contributing to the whole. God’s drama is one of even more integrity, so that the different pictures, or stories, are meant to be taken together, not in the end isolated or pitted one against the other as shibboleths. There are many different ways that God speaks to us about how he is in Christ reconciling the world to himself -- none of these is expendable, and all need to be taken together. Hence, Stott is right to remind us that substitution is a ongoing part of every telling of the story, not a separate model. But that is true also about representation -- whether we speak of the Victor and Deliverer, whether we speak of the One who justifies, whether we speak of the sacrificial Lamb, this One is a representative of humanity as well as a substitute. 

When we try to ask questions about the necessity of the cross, about the necessity that the God-Man should die for us, words fail. Immediately as we say this, we remember that in the garden, Jesus had a choice, and that is what makes this act all the more wonderful. Rev. 5 speaks of the Lamb, the one who is given as Saviour and Spouse to God’s people, slain from the foundation of the earth. We are, to use the words of C. S. Lewis, in the realm of “deep magic”, “magic from the dawn of time.” Perhaps, shrinking from the numerous ways that this part of the story is told in the Scriptures, we want to ask, “Why wouldn’t the righteous, perfect life of the Last Adam be enough to effect reconciliation?” Many answers have been given to that, including the importance of God’s justice, and the like. We may want to speculate, along with a few of our elder brothers and sisters in the Church, that the incarnation might have been sufficient for God to share with us his glory, but because of the fall, the depth of human experience, crucifixion, death, and the utter descent, abandonment, had also to be plumbed. Or, to change the metaphor, the wages of sin is death; Or, to change the metaphor, the Lamb must be a slaughtered as well as a standing victorious Lamb. Sometimes contemporary theologians point to the multiplicity of images in Scriptures for this great mystery in order to relativise, or to avoid the pictures that they find uncomfortable. What a desolation! The effect of the pictures is to point to a truth that is deeper, not less disturbing or challenging than the stories we currently shy away from -- the atonement was more costly, not less, than a earthly sacrifice; the battle was more intense, not less, than a human conflict; the journey was more arduous, not less, than the toughest human exploration; the price paid was beyond all human reasoning. 

Gospel writers, Paul, the writers of the epistles, and the Apocalypse, all follow Matthew’s method: they are householders trained for the kingdom of God that bring out of their treasure things both old and new.

The grand story of the atonement, like a huge symphony, with an overall shape, and various themes that lend themselves to it, sounds in our ears, compels us to gaze at it like a spectacle, and moves into the depths of our heart. As we read, and as we come to know the hero of the story, we see the

> Deliverance of Israel, of New Israel, of Humanity
> Redemption from Slavery, from slavery to sin and to death
> The re-enactment of Adam’s tragedy by our Second Adam, so that the climax ends in grand comedy
> The re-enactment of Israel’s history by the Son of Man, who fulfils God’s failed purposes for Israel
> Return from Exile, the exile from God, and from our true home
> Victory over Satan or death in a great battle, of which God’s people are the benefactors
> The turning aside of God’s wrath, through atoning sacrifice.
> The turning aside of God’s wrath, through righteous martyrdom.
> Reconciliation between God and man, through one who goes between.
> The great demonstration of God’s true nature, utter love and utter justice, in Jesus’ death.
> The cancelling of debts, or what was owed, through One with competence to accomplish this.
> The unexpected return of the divine judgement “not guilty” because of the work of Jesus, the innocent One. 

We could go on, and on. Christians throughout history have tended to accentuate one or a few of these pictures over the others, rendering “images” of the Atonement “theories,” to use the words of John Stott. In the end, however, one story alone is insufficient, just as we have four gospels and not a Diatessaron or a Marcionite gospel.

I was surprised to discover that I was out of touch with my class at Carleton last week. I was teaching about Jesus, arguing that we have in the gospels not only stories shaped for a later generation of the Church, but stories and words of Jesus that reflect what he was doing as he walked about Galilee and Judaea. The class is an elite one, all made up of students with at least an 85% average in high school (whatever that may mean today!) Moreover, they have also had some exposure to higher criticism in the first year of their studies at the College of the Humanities, since they have done an intro to the Old Testament. So I was concerned to do my job well, to show how one can arrive at a picture of Jesus that makes sense by reading the gospels in terms of history, literature, and theology. Suddenly, from the back row, a student raise his hand, and asked the one question I had not been prepared for. I had expected sceptical questions about historicity, and what this student asked me was, “This is very interesting, how Jesus speaks a word of judgement about Israel, and how he is concerned for Israel as a prophet. But what about Jesus dying for my sins?” Well, exactly. Of course some would say that there is no connection, that the early Church transformed Jesus’ message to Israel into a message about Jesus and the individual. But this is not the shape of our faith. That student had fallen on the Marcion side of the fence, because his tradition downplayed history, forgetting God’s whole story of Israel, and Jesus as the new light in the world. He thought that I was forgetting the other side, but I just had not gotten there yet. The bits of the story are not mutually exclusive. If I think about justification as a transaction so as to forget the wonder of the King of Glory before my eyes on the cross, it is too bad. If I count on sacrifice without remembering that Jesus is truly a representative, it is in adequate. If I concentrate on the story as a wonderful picture of God’s love, but have no sense of something happening in history for me, I haven’t got it right. Without the whole, God is rendered a Judge of legal niceties, a monstrous caricature of his Holy Self, or a Play-actor. Even shape of our canon should be instructive to us. In the New Testament, God gives us first four dramatic stories, comprising one whole drama, then letters that interpret and apply the story, then a final cosmic drama that sets it all in the context of heaven, reminding us that there is always a mysterious left-over, that bit of the revelation that exceeds our imaginations, the thunder’s voice that is not to be written down.

Scholars and ministers will differ as to which part of the story is being missed, or ought to be stressed today. I have not talked a great deal about justification this afternoon, because I think this audience knows that version of the story well. In the academic evangelical and conservative circles in which I walk, I think Clark Pinnock may well be right, “The atonement, too, is normally discussed in quasi-legal terms with little attention being given to its participatory and representative aspects. We hear much more about Christ’s work for us than about his work with us and in us.” (“The Role of the Spirit in Redemption” pp1-2) But in other places (and some of these are in our very own church!) the message of acquittal is exactly what needs to be sounded with joy, confidence and faithfulness. What we cannot do is let this grand drama of the Atonement be turned into a cheap or expendable story by those who have not been grasped by it. There are those in the church today who persist in seeing the wonder of the atonement as akin to the sympathetic magic held to by the likes of a David Koresh.

David thought he was the Lamb of God, God’s sinful Messiah. As the altercation with authorities grew (and this is not the place to get into blaming over the Waco episode), he started to write down his exposition of the Seals, for the sake of posterity, no doubt hoping that his message would be heard after it was all over. He began the long, interrupted exposition of the first seal with a poem. I reflect it for you so that you can see and understand his thinking more clearly:

Search forth for the meaning here, Hidden within these words
Tis a song that’s sung of fallen tears,
Given way for two love birds.

Love birds yet not of feathered creed
Shot down for gambled play
And caged a far distance betweenst themselves
For the hunter felt it best that way.

She bird is mine,” the hunter said,
‘Twas this bird I raised and faithfully fed.”
‘Twas he bird who released her from her cage,
Sought her womb in youthful age.

Love birds the name, these birds they call,
Two, plural, love bird, takes tow.
‘Twas not her womb of which he sought,
And certainly not her youth..

Love birds, the name these birds they call,
Two, plural, love bird, takes two,
It’s just that he needed she
To fly the skies of blue.

And now we see the hunter man,
Robbed without a prey,
The evil which he sought to do
Caused the birds to pass away.

For loneliness and solitaire,
Is death to every soul.
For the birds of God were meant to pair,
The two to complete the whole.

And now we see the final meaning
Of this rhyme and verse:
The pending judgment of the King
Who rules the universe.

For with Adam and his spirit Eve,
To share the kingdom fair;
But when they sinned they lost their crown
In exchange for shame to bear.

So Eve travailed and brought forth death,
And passed the crown to all;
For each to learn the lesson here,
The kingdom of the fall.

For virgins do not bring forth sons,
Until God does reverse,
The inner meaning of the law,
To remove man from the curse.

For in the Christ, we’ve seen a bride,
The water mixed with blood,
The wife with cloven tongues of fire,
Of whom the Christ has loved,

And now He’s back to sing His song
The life of every spring,
And love birds gather, each one with mate,
For the marriage of the King..

Well, here are some common themes:

Hidden meaning in words, like a parable, the theme of divine love for humankind (here, the two love birds), an enemy (the hunter man), judgment of the cosmos by the heavenly King, the fall of Adam and Eve, the curse of death, the reversal of fortunes, imagery for the Spirit, a hope of springtime and a end-time wedding.

What’s wrong?

First, David styles himself as the male love bird, wooing his reader (“Two, plural, love bird, takes two”) and justifying his actions to those who would criticise (‘Twas not her womb which he sought, and certainly not her youth’). Unlike the one who did not open his mouth, this self-styled anointed explains that the actions he has taken, in joining himself to a harem of young females, has a greater purpose. Next, the poet is coy about the event that he expects will bring about judgment, and turn about fortunes, so that spring will return -- that is the death of himself, and probably also of his community, so that the “hunter man” (the earthly governmental powers) are “Robbed without a prey” and the birds “pass away.” Rather than dwelling upon the sacrificial importance of this event, it is merely intimated, to avoid scandal. And indeed, the concept is monstrous. For Koresh saw his pairing with the young virgins at Waco as enacting a kind of sympathetic magic, as would their deaths, so that the springtime of the world would turn around, and the final marriage would occur. This actually works in the opposite direction of the Christian notion of marriage and self-sacrifice, which are understood as mirroring, or pointing and giving glory to, the initiative of God himself, who loves the Church as a bride, and who gives his life for her. Where the Christian view is directed towards God’s initiative, the Koreshian view is to manipulate events so that God must act.

I think this distortion may be instructive to us as we contemplate the Atonement. For it is true that heresies are the unpaid debts of the Church. Did the version of Atonement that Koresh heard, and then accentuated in sect-like blindness, forget that God was the great initiator, that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”? Did Koresh fall prey to a story that accentuated God as wrathful and vengeful against humankind, rather than as wrathful with our sin, and so open himself to this bizarre idea of forcing God’s hand? Whatever story we tell to cast light on the great mystery, God must be put in the role of Subject, of Chief Actor, and never in the role of one who is worked upon.

Of course, it may well be that David’s error is no longer a common one, but that we have other unpaid debts to which we must attend in the normal run of life. For example, what do we make of the ad on the Christian radio station in Ottawa, CHRI, which cheerfully invites church leaders to a seminar so that they can learn to “impact the kingdom of God.” The grammatical error aside, this idea is quite fantastic, carrying to the extreme the notion that we co-operate with God’s purposes. And this can be done not in the Koreshian mode of an outright sacrifice of life, but by the simple passing on of principles. I can make an impact upon the rule of God! (That’s even worse than the old blooper, “extending” God’s kingdom) Did I not hear the parables of our Lord, which again and again remind us that this is God’s work, that the kingdom comes upon us in the person of Jesus, that the plants grow whether we sleep or whether we wake? If David Koresh was deluded to think that he was another special actor in the drama, making a unique atoning sacrifice that completed the suffering of Jesus, then there are plenty of believers walking around forgetful of the utter uniqueness of the cross, and full of their own importance to “impact the kingdom.” The second inability to grasp, or be grasped by the Truth is less heinous, somehow, and thus more widespread. To insist upon the once-for-all quality of the atonement does not mean, however, that we have no role in this great drama. For the invitation to participate in Christ through the Spirit has not always been heard, either. And the invitation can only be heard, as it is meant to be, when we grasp the enormity of what the cross and resurrection offer.

In the end, we go back again and again to Scripture, and to the enacted event of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the Eucharist, to be nourished and to have formed in us the mind of Christ. There, we see hear Paul and the gospels insisting on the historicity of what has been done for us, of God’s actions for Israel and through Messiah Jesus for the world, and of the mystery of Victory over sin and Death through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord. There we see them also glorying in the far-reaching aspects of this victory, a victory so deep and intimate that, through the work of the Holy Spirit, it declares innocent but also changes the person, each person who is in Christ, so that “glimpsed” glory becomes increasing glory. Both Paul in his letters, and John in his visions, bring together the different variations of the story, reminding us that we need all the pictures, all of them accentuated, each of the songs played with all the stops out, each story taken to its fullest climax, without being used to qualifying or nullify the another. In Romans 5:9-11, we hear these words:

Here Paul speaks of atonement as justification, as the effect of blood sacrifice, as the removal of God’s wrath, and as reconciliation. 

John, in his vision, shows to us the Lamb: the Lamb who is both Victim and Victor, the Lamb who Interprets the meaning of the world, opening the scroll of mystery, the Lamb who also Mystifies, showing things that are beyond our ken, the Lamb who makes his dwelling with us, and is to be our Spouse, and the Lamb who invites -- invites to the tree and water of life. Through all these actions, and through the gift of the Spirit to the church, he gives us grace to respond, and to say, as Bride, “Even so, Lord Jesus, come.”

My song is love unknown, my Saviour’s love to me,
Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take frail flesh and die?

Here might I stay and sing, No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King, Never was grief like thin.
This is my Friend, In whose sweet praise
I all my days Could gladly spend.