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Terrance KleinMarch 06, 2024
Detail from “Christ on the Cross” by Eugène de la Croix, 1853, National Gallery London, used with permission.

A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23 Ephesians 2:4-11 John 3:14-21

A woman emailed me with questions about a recent homily. Inquisitive and reflective, she wrote:

Every single paragraph of today’s piece hit the right note for me, but these two sentences hurt: “What God would not ultimately ask of us, God freely gives. The Father sacrifices his son Jesus, his only son, the one whom he loves.”
I would love to see you address the awful atonement issue. Jesus did not die to appease an angry God, nor, through his torture and terrifying death, to atone for sin, unless the Father is just that bloodthirsty?

My correspondent rightly rejects the notion of God the Father angrily demanding the death of God the Son. I quote her here with her permission:

How on earth does his blood atone? Yes, the Jews had the tradition of the scapegoat, and of blood sacrifice, but was the Father limited to their religious imagination, and hence willing to offer up the Son in such a scandalous and disgraceful way? Today, of course, that Father would be rightly understood as a religious fanatic, yes?

She is quite right. Jesus did not die to appease an angry God, but I would still leave my words as they were.

What God would not ultimately ask of us, God freely gives. The Father sacrifices his son Jesus, his only son, the one whom he loves.

Like most theological statements, the truth of my words is not to be judged by correspondence: We cannot hold our words up to God for inspection. Instead, theological affirmations are judged primarily by coherence. How do they fit with everything else, which we can rightly affirm of God?

So, what does it mean to say: “What God would not ultimately ask of us, God freely gives. The Father sacrifices his son Jesus, his only son, the one whom he loves”?

What is at issue is our understanding of sin. It is more than breaking a biblical commandment. The Bible would be too large to carry if God legislated even a fraction of our possible actions. No, sin is a move away from God, who is our origin and our destiny. When we sin, we move away from ourselves. We do real harm to ourselves.

Consequently, punishment for sin is not something that God subsequently decrees. Better to say that every sin carries its own punishment. Sin is akin to water being blocked, a disease growing in the body, a loss of our way.

The only way for God to shield us from the effects of sin, which we freely choose, would be to withhold our freedom. But if God did that, we would not be who we are: creatures who either choose or reject their own origin and destiny. We would be something much less. Some sort of divine puppets, mere extensions of God.

In short, to be free is to be able to wander away, to walk from the light into the darkness. Think of someone wandering far from a campfire. The light does not decree a punishment. The darkness explains itself.

If God gives us freedom, God must allow for its misuse. The only way to undo the ineluctable consequences of our actions is to change our behavior. Conduct changes us. Just as it led us into death and darkness, it can bring us back into life and light. We must free the flow of water, cure our self-imposed disease through lifestyle changes and walk back toward the light.

And it is us who must undo what we have done. Once having placed us in the arena of freedom, everything we do must be fought for and worked out within its liberty. We must choose to walk back into the light. Yet if we are far from the light, wandering in the darkness, how do we find our way back unless the light comes seeking us?

This is why salvation, atonement, must be the gift of God. In turning from God, we lost everything. Our origin and destiny must come seeking us. The Son of God must come for us, and he must journey to the nadir of our self-negation, our alienation from God. He must embrace the very death that sin deals.

We cannot posit a difference in the will of the Father and the Son. Three divergent wills would mean three gods, an obvious error in coherence. No, while each member of the Trinity possesses a will, these three wills are always united. The Son and the Spirit choose to will as the Father does.

So, if we want to know the will of the Father regarding the death of the Son, we have only to acknowledge what the Son tells us about their mutual desire. It is love, all the way down into the depths of death itself.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world,
but that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:16-17).

So, we can say that “what God would not ultimately ask of us, God freely gives. The Father sacrifices his son Jesus, his only son, the one whom he loves.” Neither of them makes a sacrifice, in the religious sense, to the Evil One or some impersonal code of justice. Love sacrifices what necessity demands.

Likewise, it is abhorrent and foolish to think that the anger of God is appeased by the death of his Son. The will of God is eternal, unchanging. When Scripture applies our emotions to God, it does so by way of analogy. All the personal engagement that we express through our emotions finds resonance in God. But just as the eternal God does not move from one action to another, God’s heart is steadfast. Better to think of God as simultaneously angry and compassionate, sorrowing and rejoicing. Ours is the movement that reveals the variance.

All of salvation history is contained in the opening action of God. God wills us, which means God wills freedom outside himself. If created freedom turns from God, it must return, but it cannot do this without God’s assistance.

And so, each member of the Trinity wills that the Son, the one who is both God and man, journeys to the furthest point of our alienation. There in the strength of both his humanity and his divinity, he resolutely passes through death in his return to the Father. And of course, he brings us with him.

More: Scripture / Lent

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