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?
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.