Atonement

A Christian Perspective

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Atonement
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Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

The Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes is the Minister of Maple Grove United Church, and is a member of the Interfaith Councill of Halton. A chatty extrovert with a conversational preaching style, a multi-tasker who is a “multi-worrier” when it comes to caring about people’s problems, and a leader who treasures teaming with the lay people in her church, Morar says that at Maple Grove she has experienced “a deeper level of ministry than I thought possible.” Anyone who has personally received Morar’s deeply compassionate caring and wise counsel will testify to what an inspirational, healing and encouraging ministry it is.

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This Lent we have been breaking open churchy words — those words you hear but perhaps don’t think too much about, or heaven forbid, figure they are words the minister uses and you have no clue what they mean. We began with demons, the devil and Satan, concluding that demons are those things that distract us from following God’s Word and will for our lives. Last week, we looked at the word ‘Amen’ — thinking that perhaps our lives are our loving ‘Amen’ in response to God’s love for us.

What does ‘atonement’ mean? Some like to include hyphens: ‘at-one-ment’. It means living in harmony with others: at one with them. For Christians it means living in harmony with God, our sins forgiven by the death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s about what happens when Jesus hangs on the cross.

John has Jesus describe it like this to Nicodemus:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

But John has Jesus precede this with,

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

So we need to look at this strange snake story from the time of the exile of the people of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures. Numbers 21.4-9

The people are refugees wandering in the wilderness. Even though they are near the promised land, they have to backtrack through the bleakest of deserts because the king of Edom would not let them pass. Tired, hungry, thirsty, they complain bitterly: ‘There is no food; we hate this food:’ God has given them manna, but they don’t like it. Suddenly they are overrun by venomous snakes.

Just as suddenly, they repent and ask for Moses’ help. He prays, and God instructs him to make an image of a snake. Moses forges this work of art in bronze: a snake on a stick, and the people are saved by looking at this bronze image of the snakes that continue to bite them, but now with no ill effects.

What do we learn from this strange story of God’s people in the wilderness?

Clearly behaviour matters to God who expects ‘holy manners’ from those who have made a covenant with God. The complaining Israelites ‘get God’s goat’.

When the people complain, they break the covenant they have with God. They see the snakes as punishment. God provides the remedy.

As soon as the people repent and Moses prays, God finds a way to save the people.

The snakes still bite, but now they don’t kill.

Why choose this story to talk about what happens when Christ is crucified? Because the gospel writer John points to this story when he reports Jesus’ theological conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus. John 3.14-21

John Wesley in:Wesley’s Notes unpacked the metaphor:

“The serpent signified Christ, who was in the likeness of sinful flesh, though without sin, as this brazen serpent had the outward shape, but not the inward poison, of the other serpents: the pole resembled the cross upon which Christ was lifted up for our salvation: and looking up to it designed our believing in Christ.”

In the gospel Jesus tells Nicodemus that God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son, not to condemn the world for its sin, but so those who believe might have life in him. The story of the bronze serpent points to the dependence of the people on their God, and God’s concern and loving care for his people. This same care and concern he expressed in Jesus whom he sent to bring life and light into the world. As the serpent was lifted up so that those who believed could look at it and be saved, so Jesus, too, will be lifted up, and those who believe will be saved.

What happens on the Cross? Atonement

One theory is that the purpose and work of Jesus Christ was

  • to bring positive moral change to humanity;
  • to change how human beings behaved towards one another.

God cares about our inner character and values.
Christ dies on the cross as a martyr.
Christ transforms individuals and societies into loving beings as God intended us to be.

Christ died, to destroy sin and death, so we may become fully human, as our Creator intended.
He is understood to have accomplished this

  • through his teachings,
  • by the example of his life,
  • in his founding of the Church,
  • through the inspiring power of his death and resurrection.

Jesus is about making people holy; his teachings inspire us to be good; his example shows us what that goodness looks like; and he led a controversial movement, which caused his death.

In this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change.

It remains the most popular view of atonement among those in Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and United Churches.

Another theory says that Jesus died on our behalf and final judgment is based on what he did for us and our trust in that, not on any wonderful things we have done or might do. This is the ‘salvation by faith not works’ argument. Sin is the breaking of God’s moral law. Jesus substitutes for sinners, taking their sin upon himself, and accepting the punishment of the cross in our place. We don’t do anything.

Mainline protestants have emphasized Christ’s crucifixion transforming our character and behaviour.
Evangelical protestants have emphasized Christ’s crucifixion doing it all.

All Christians teach Jesus as Saviour of the world and through his death the sins of humanity have been forgiven.

Other Perspectives on the Cross
There are a variety of theories about what effect Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection had on the world.

  • Jesus substituted for us: through his death, he did for us that which we can never do for ourselves.
  • Jesus was a scapegoat who gathered up the sins of the world and accepted punishment for them all.
  • Sin is an insult to God; only a perfect sacrifice can satisfy. Jesus was this perfect sacrifice, giving himself as a ransom for many.
  • Christ is seen as succeeding where Adam failed, undoing the wrong that Adam did.
  • Jesus is ransomed to save humanity from slavery to sin and Satan and thus death by sacrificing his own life.
  • Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (humans).
  • Humans are called to ask for the forgiveness of our sins and to seek to act in a way that makes up for them in the light of the cross.
    Pope John Paul II referred to the concept as:
    “the unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified”.

Perhaps all of these perspectives have something to teach us about the mystery of the cross. Jesus spends quite a bit of time trying to change the moral character and behaviour of those around him. Paul says it is by faith not works that we are saved.

Believe in the second; aim for the first
Personally, I think we are good if we act like Jesus’ death is making us better people; it will be an added bonus if it out to be true that we don’t have to do anything in order to be saved.

In looking for a human example of atonement, I had to look no farther than my hospital on-call work on Friday night. I was called to the bedside of a lovely man, a social worker in a school, who worked with a serious disease until he entered the hospital, a supporter of refugees who had been a birth coach for a young Haitian woman long before he was a father. His life lay before me: his loving children holding each of his hands, stroking him and murmuring their love. His wife nestled at his side, family at the foot of the bed. As his daughters read psalms of comfort, as I prayed and commended his spirit to God, he made his last journey, truly at one with those he loved, and at one with his God. That is Christ’s doing. That’s all I need to know about atonement.

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