Living the Way of love, the Way of Jesus, requires learning to see how God sees, to move as God moves, and to love as God loves. Our human nature does not always align with God’s nature, so living the Way of Love actually requires unlearning. And new understandings require us to let go of previous truths, previous ways of being, previous knowledge. And that is hard. So we usually avoid it.
Following Jesus as a disciple, then, is about taking up practices, particularly those of worship, study, giving and service, so we can relearn and realign ourselves with God’s other-centered way of being, instead of remaining in our human self-centered way of being.
Today’s readings bring to the forefront our struggle between how we see and how God sees, how we move and how God moves---and how they are often not the same thing.
Take today’s epistle, for example, from Paul’s first letter to Timothy. While the reading is about having a life of prayer---there is one line in it, that doesn’t really have much to do with prayer, that just stops me in my tracks: “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all”
This Christian truth is often broken down to the billboard or the bumper sticker: Jesus died for our sins. But what on earth does that mean? Because we all know that Jesus’ death didn’t just take away sin, right? Evil wasn’t really conquered once and for all on that day. So, it can’t be a simple debt paid now we can move on kind of thing.
Since the 11th century, one understanding, or theory of this quote, is called the substitutionary atonement theory, or penal atonement theory. You may not know the name, but you know the theory: God was angry with humanity; we owed a debt to God for our sin, someone had to be punished for our wickedness, and no human could really pay that debt, so Jesus, as both human and the Son of God, paid it for us. Sound familiar?
It does to me: I sang it at camp and have sung it in bands and at Sunday services for the past 20 years: Lord I lift your name on high, Lord I love to sing your praises, I’m so glad you’re in my life, I’m so glad you came to save us. You came from heaven to earth to show the way, from the earth to the cross my debt to pay, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky, Lord I lift your name on high.
Not only do I know the song, I know the accompanying gestures. I’ve song it in the car, in the choir, in the shower, at prayer, humming it under my breath as I walk along and go about my day. Not stopping to really think about what I was singing. And Beloved, 90% of this song is wonderful; it’s just that one line: My debt to pay. What does that mean? Who is the captor? To whom am I in debt? If Jesus paid it, then where’s the freedom?
And it’s not just more contemporary songs. How many of us grew up singing: Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to war with the cross of Jesus going on before….?
Maybe you’re thinking: Who cares…..you’re overthinking this, preacher. What does this have to do with me, my life, our life together? But, indulge me a little and let’s unpack this a bit. This understanding of a God who is angry with humanity so Jesus is punished to right our wrong and pay our debt, this theory requires us to understand God as transactional. That God requires a payment and consumerism is how God works, much like how humanity works: there is a price to be paid for every commodity, every good deed, every necessity. If you want this, then you must do, or pay, that. This is how our entire economy works, right? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. And we see this understanding echoed throughout the Old Testament because this is how humanity has worked for centuries, maybe forever. We are a transactional people. You want this then you have to pay that.
But here’s the problem, while we can understand God acting that way since it is how we act, it isn’t actually the God we see in Jesus. God’s economy is not our economy. Beloved, if God’s nature is transactional then God’s love is conditional. If God’s nature is transactional, then this isn’t about grace. It’s about payment. Someone has to pay. But thanks to God, not us: Jesus! If Jesus has paid the price, then we are off the hook.
And let’s spin the yarn out a little farther. When we swallow the idea of God being transactional, then the next step is that God doesn’t love everybody no matter what…..God loves people only if……only if…….and then we arrive at who is in and who is out; we begin to determine who God loves and who God hates. We begin to think that if we follow the rules, we are in with God. And we can point our fingers to those who don’t follow the rules. After all, this is no longer about grace---a gift of love and mercy given freely by God---but it is about a transaction. If I do this, then God will do that.
And are you hearing what this means? Having a transactional God means we think our actions can control God’s responses. It’s part of the reason our hearts and minds like this theory. It makes salvation clear-cut and controllable: We do this, this and this, and we are in God’s favor and God will do that and that and that. And then, if we think we have fulfilled our part of the bargain but we are not seeing God live up to God’s part…..what’s the point?
Beloved, this theory, which is still so prevalent in our society, has been so destructive. It has led to wars and oppressions, to hatred and violence. It has led to people thinking Christianity is hypocritical and a lie. And yet, it is still a theory that is often widely accepted by factions and denominations within Christianity. It’s one of the reasons there are very different understandings of what it means to be a Christian in our society.
But our two denominations, the ELCA Lutheran and the Episcopal church, we have moved away from this theory because of its destructive outcomes. Because it changes God’s love from unconditional to conditional. Because it leaves no room for grace. Because it means that God’s nature is one of angry feudal lord who demands a payment from his people who have done wrong. This is a God who is willing to subject the innocent to torture and death.
Franciscan Duns Scotus said: “Jesus didn’t come into the world to change God’s mind about us; God so loves the world. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.”
So, let’s not forget the other part of today’s verse: Jesus came as a mediator. A mediator is one who attempts to make two sides see the situation in the same way. Jesus came to help us see as God sees because in Jesus God’s nature is revealed. And yes, Jesus got angry at least once and overturned the tables. Jesus showed righteous anger because the poor and the disadvantaged were being manipulated and used by the system in order to make the rich richer. Because in Jesus we see God’s nature is love, compassion, mercy (not a angry Master who demands punishment and payment). We see that God doesn’t create divisions of who is in and who is out: God sits with the sinner at the dinner table; God touches the lepers and the dead; God speaks with the woman who has been slut-shamed and outcast. God doesn’t cast out; God invites in. In Jesus, we see God crossing boundaries, breaking down barriers, turning the exclusive into the inclusive and demanding a bigger table instead of a wall because God believes all are worthy of having enough food, water, shelter, healthcare and safety.
So what do I do with this line from Scripture that clearly says: Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all? I sit with it. I listen. I learn and unlearn. I see it again---but through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing that God so loves the world and God has called all of Creation very good, that this is a God of grace who is not transactional but who is transformational, I know it can’t be ransom as just “a debt to pay.” I know our freedom doesn’t come from a military battle that only creates winners and losers. So I dig deeper.
The word for ransom, antilutron, has many layers. This is a compound word, antilutron: Anti in Greek: meaning because or on account of + lutron: redeem, deliver, release, liberate.
Jesus lives and dies because we need to be redeemed, delivered, released. This isn’t about a debt; this is about a life sentence from which we need to be liberated. Liberated from the life of transaction into the life of transformational love, the life of sacrificial love we see in Jesus. And sacrifice, in the Temple of the Old Testament, wasn’t about payment for sin but, as theologian Marcus Borg explains, sacrifice was about making something sacred or holy by giving it as a gift to God. Sacrifice in the Old Testament was not a transaction, but an offering for transformation.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark are the only other places in Scripture that also tell us Jesus gave his life as a ransom---but in these Gospel verses we are first told that Jesus came to serve and not be served. So before we jump to our natural way of hearing ransom as a debt to be paid---an appeasement of an angry God---let’s remember the words of Jesus. Jesus tells us he is a Way to walk, a Truth to know, a Life to live. Not a simple transaction, but living a life of serving one another. Jesus as the way and truth is an offering of a life---with all its struggles, pain, joy, living and death---an offering of our lives as a gift to God in order to be made holy. Jesus is not a transaction, but a model to follow so that we, as a disciple and not a consumer, can be released from our prisons of resentment and conflict, worry and fear, by seeing and living in a whole new way.
But here’s the kicker: if I come to understand the cross in this transformational way, I have to give some things up. Unlearning requires letting go. Even letting go of songs that I have loved. Even if that song is 90% great. Because the 10% shapes me. Our words matter. Our music heavily matters because it is so formative. And more importantly, our way of seeing matters. As the Beloved Community of Lutherans and Episcopalians, we believe it’s all about grace. About unconditional love. Luke tells us that in God’s realm it is the living as Jesus, not a simple transaction, that sets us all free.
How would it change the world if we, as disciples and not consumers, lived this truth and sang this song?
When I was little, I went to a department store of some kind with my grandparents. I know it was a department store because it had those racks of clothes that were a circle---remember those? Usually they were hung with shirts or dresses…..and since I was small for my age (hard to believe, I know), I used to love to go into the middle of those clothes racks. Not quite sure why. I think I liked the feeling that it was my own space. So, I know the store that I was in with my grandparents that day was a department store because I remember being in the middle of one of those clothes racks---hidden from view---and then coming out. And quickly realizing I was lost. My grandparents were nowhere in sight.
Suddenly the world in which I had been safe and happy just a moment ago became a world in which I was lost and afraid. The environment around me quickly turned unmanageable without the safety of my grandparents. I started to cry.
Luckily, someone came and helped me and then there was an announcement over the loudspeaker saying that whoever belonged to Jane should come to the customer service desk. And then…..then I saw my grandparents hurrying over. My grandmother wrapped me in those grandma arms and I knew I was safe. The world became manageable again. Nothing had really changed. I was in the same place. But now I was found. And my grandmother’s hug, followed by grandpa’s, told me how valuable and loved I was. Found.
And I am certain that we all have similar stories. And we chuckle at our silly, childish stories as we retell them. But do we recognize how profound these stories are? This moment has stuck with me for my entire life. I mean a thousand things probably happened to me in that year of my life---but it is this memory I carry. Because this moment, this story, shaped and formed me. This seeking and finding, this moment of joy when they saw me and wrapped me in their arms----it was one of several moments that has defined me----helped me to see myself as someone who is loved and valuable---someone who would not be allowed to stay lost. Can we even begin to understand the indelible mark this leaves?
And Beloved, that Cross we mark on those who are being baptized, when we say the words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and Marked as Christ’s own forever,” that cross means that we are found. That cross is like a branding, an imprint, an indelible mark that declares we are loved beyond measure, valuable beyond price, worthy of relentless seeking. Like the shepherd and the woman, God knows our value---even though we ourselves may doubt it or others doubt our worth. Let’s face it; most of us wouldn’t leave the 99 to find the one or get down on our hands and knees, sweep the house and search carefully, turn on all the lights to find one coin, a tenth of what we have. We have a term for that 1 sheep, that 1 coin: Collateral damage. We believe that the effort required to gain back the loss is not worth it. Like those Pharisees and scribes we complain and murmur about folks we have judged, become filled with resentment, become blind to the inherent value of other humans, and are content to ignore their lostness. But God knows our value and refuses to give up on us, refuses to allow us to remain lost. God is the relentless seeker who never stops looking. For each and every single created thing, every human who ever took breath.
And we are all lost, let’s just be honest. Some of us are lost because we are possessed by our possessions. Some of us are lost because we disconnect and divide ourselves from our siblings and fellow beloved. Some of us are lost because greed is driving the bus. Or our resentments lead us astray. Some of us are lost because of the voices we listen to that are not God’s or because the idols we worship (power, fame, status, beauty, wealth, comfort and preferences) are actually not worthy of our worship. We are lost because we forget where home base is, who our home base is.
Remember playing those games---maybe some of you still do play them---like Kick the Can or Hide and Seek? When we used to play in my neighborhood, someone would yell: Ollie Ollie Oxen Free---Come out, Come out wherever you are! And then we would all know it was safe to come out into the open without losing the game. And we would all run in to Home Base.
Beloved, we are lost. God is seeking us. And Jesus is our Home Base. In Jesus is where we are safe; where we are home and whole. We gather as the Body of Christ so we can touch home base. We come in order to hold Jesus up in front of our eyes, through Word and Sacrament, to proclaim, witness and experience Jesus. Jesus, who is our mark, our target, the model of our truest nature. Jesus whose life, ministry and ways show us what our life, ministry and ways should like. Jesus who worships God and glorifies God by living the truth that God so loves the world. And what follows this truth is an outpouring of love, mercy, forgiveness, second chances, reconciliation, renewal, makeovers and re-dos. Return. Being found. Made whole. Shalom.
God calls us together for this Eucharistic meal not because God has some need or desire for us all to be in one space at the same time. God calls us to gather together each week because God knows we need it. We need this liturgy, these prayers, this music, this Sacrament, this Body of Christ. We need to re-member whose we are and who we are----holding ourselves up to Jesus. And then recognizing and claiming where and how we have become lost.
Without this recognition, we will continue going on our merry way, still believing we know what we are doing---saying to ourselves: I am not lost. I got this.
Remember that relay game where one person on the team puts their forehead down on the top of a bat and spins around and around the bat until someone yells stop and then you have to try to run to the other side of the room and tag the next person on your team? But of course, you are so dizzy from spinning that you fall all over yourself and the path between you and your teammate becomes a stumbling comedy. Well, the world has the same effect on us because the world is constantly leading us in different directions. The world spins us dizzy, and we become dazed and lost. We can’t walk in a straight line---we lose sight of home base.
But then, Beloved, if we listen, if we pause and take a deep breath and lean into the silence of prayer and Word, we will hear God calling out: Ollie Ollie Oxen Free! Come out come out wherever you are. It’s safe. In fact, you are already saved. So come home. Come home.
And as we come in, running with our hands outstretched, and touch and taste home base, we are liberated by love and then it’s our turn. Our turn to look up and out as the Body of Christ and call out: Ollie Ollie Oxen Free. Come out Come out wherever you are.
In her book One Coin Found, Emmy Kegler, a one-time Episcopalian but now an ELCA pastor, writes: “We too are lost and dusty coins. We have gone unnoticed, rusted from others’ indifference, misspent and misused, and our friends and leaders did not see our neglect. But God, in big and little ways, has picked up a woman’s broom and swept every corner of creation. God, in big and little ways, has tucked up her skirts and flattened herself on the floor, dug through dust bunnies and checked every dress pocket. God has found us, dustier and rustier and without any luster, and held us up to the light to say: No matter how you rolled away or what corner you were dropped in, you are mine.” (8)
Ollie Ollie Oxen free! Come out, come out wherever you are.
So one of the things I pondered during this Sabbatical time was all the ways Jesus has ruint me. Seriously. Ruint me. And, frankly Beloved, I think we all need to be ruint; liberated by Jesus in order to shine love and give life---just like Jesus.
“The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” (Jeremiah 18)
All God’s beloved are in the potter’s hand. And when we wake to that Great Truth and Promise----we will be ruint. Transformed. Not because we are bad or not good enough, but because we are already more. We are made in the imago dei, and God desires us to live into the fullness of this reality, this Truth. We are made for so much more.
Once I began to experience the living Jesus (as opposed to the character I heard about and read about but who mostly stayed on the page and in the story), meeting the living Jesus and beginning a relationship with this One began my real transformation. I started to question the world around me with different eyes and a different heart---questioning what I had learned from society, culture, books, classrooms, teachers, parents, priests and friends---and holding those learnings up to the lens of Jesus—to the life of Jesus and the Way of Love. Seeing through the prism that is the Word.
The Word awakens us to the reality that there are many “little gods” we put before God and in place of God. First and foremost, there is greed; Greed in its many forms. The greed of wanting the most stuff, more stuff, and to keep all the stuff I already have, even if others don’t have enough. The greed of demanding that things are done my way and I am allowed, thank you very much, to live by my preferences---even though God calls us to community with a variety of preferences. The greed that is believing that because I work hard, or because I come from a good family, or because I am American, or because I am white, or because I am male, or because I am highly educated, or because I am straight or because I am…..(insert whatever lie you tell yourself here)….I deserve to have more than others. None of us are immune. Greed owns too much landscape in my heart just like anyone else.
Back when Murray was a social worker and I was a teacher, we lived paycheck to paycheck with four kids for many years, trying to pay off school and medical debt. Struggling to keep what we had and working to get more. And then you know what happened next? Ruint. Jesus did some of that re-shaping thing with the clay of our hearts. One year, when we were invited to consider how we would support Jesus’ work at our church, we decided to get serious about moving up that tithing scale instead of staying stagnant. And what really changed it for us is when we put our faith-giving at the top of our budget instead of the bottom. We decided to give to God first, instead of as a left-over. And, at first, we couldn’t give a lot more, but a little bit more. And we kept at it until we were able to give what we had been hoping. And I gotta tell you: Kingdom giving leads us into Kingdom living. Don’t get me wrong: Murray and I are not completely liberated from the stranglehold of greed, but giving first and leaning into generosity shoves that little greed demon farther and farther from the center of the heart’s throne.
Oh, Beloved, this is so very hard. Waking up can happen in a moment or it can take a lifetime. And then, Beloved, we also have to stay woke which is a 24/7 journey of repenting and returning, of re-centering and remembering. Because the truth is, staying asleep to the call of Jesus, or allowing it to be a really quiet whisper in the background instead of our main soundtrack, is so much easier, and more convenient, than waking up and turning up the volume. This is why we gather in community, in this place---because we need to swim in the waters of baptism regularly, we need to marinate in the Word, we need to forgive and be forgiven, we need to see Jesus in the friend and the stranger, the newcomer and the awkward, in the child and the elder, in the atheist and the believer. It is this life of practice and ritual, of being inconvenienced and not getting our way, of worshiping, learning and serving that moves us from our self-centered lives to the Way of Love, into the life of Jesus.
This is what becoming Beloved Community is all about: a gathering of people who are committed to awakening---to diving deep into Jesus so that we might know the Word and Be the Word and Spread the Word. Our purpose is empowering all to be able to do that one thing Jesus asks us to do: Follow Him. Follow Him. Take up the cross---lift up the brokenness of humanity upon our own selves---just as Jesus did---so that we can allow death to bring forth new life. Follow Jesus: Love all others, undeserving though they may be, but worthy are they all. And that includes us, Beloved. Don’t forget your self. Because God, the Creator, the Potter, has declared us all Worthy of this love. Faith means allowing ourselves to awaken and committing to staying woke by recognizing our lives are already in the hands of the Potter. God’s love, desire and steadfast commitment is the Grace that makes it all happen.
But, Beloved, don’t get your unicorn and lollipop stickers out just yet because knowing, loving and following Jesus, changes us. And sometimes that puts distance between us and those who knew us before. Or those who don’t know us at all, but based on our last Facebook post, hope to never meet us. Because the truth is: Jesus followers can’t walk that “Consumerism, all-for-profit, wall-out-the-foreigner, the-planet-earth-is-here-for-my-benefit, every-man-for-himself” path that society continually beckons us to walk. Jesus followers cannot serve Money and Power, or convenience and preferences, as our Master. God is our God. And God’s goal is our goal: Tikkun Olam: the healing and restoration of Creation. Jesus warns us Beloved. Hear the Word: Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14)
Pretty darn clearly, Jesus is saying: Me first. Follow Me First. Take up the cross of redemption for all of humanity, and come, follow me.
You know, in the Commandments we are told not to take the Lord’s name in vain. Growing up I learned that this meant I wasn’t supposed to say certain things like: God da*** you or Go to Hell, and then there’s the other list of words that we were never to say, but I shall not repeat them at this time. Because I actually think that’s NOT what the commandment is about at all. I think we take the Lord’s name in vain when we call ourselves Christian and decide to go about living our life as we think best anyway---even when it looks nothing like Jesus.
St. John of the Cross said something that has been at the heart of my formation as a priest and pastor: He describes community as rocks in a bag, shaken together, in order to rub one another smooth. But during my sabbatical, it occurred to me that there’s something missing from this image: the water. Like those stones from the sea, we need water as we tumble and are reshaped, reformed, resurrected and made anew. So, come, follow Jesus. Let the waters of baptism drown you, let the water in the wine renew you, let the waters of fellowship replenish you. That’s what I love about this community, and this place where all of this happens. As beautiful as all those centuries-old church buildings in England that I saw this summer were ---there was something missing. Most of them are no longer first and foremost a place where people gather to take the bread, to hear the word, to pray in community. Oh, they all still have worship gatherings in some form. But, primarily, they are museums. Places people go and pay for a ticket to see beauty, and the vastness, and the overwhelming artistic genius, but they also go to see how it “used to be.”
But, Beloved, what made me long for this day is that here I am in the midst of not how it used to be, but how it is, and how we are becoming. Becoming Beloved. Being the Beloved. Awakening to Love and gently nudging others out of the nightmare the world so often can be. Inviting all to come and see, come and follow. There’s another story to hear, another way to walk, another life to live, another way to be. Beloved, it’s good to be home.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.