As we enter into the mystery of Holy Week, it seems appropriate to be thinking about atonement theories (that, and I've been teaching them in my systematic theology class!). Most seminarians are familiar with Gustaf Aulen's typology of atonement theories (the Latin theory (debt or penal satisfaction), the subjective theory (moral example) and the classic theory (ransom or Christus Victor); however, there are many newer theories vying for consideration. I've been interested to learn more about the non-violent atonement theory of Dennis Weaver and S. Mark Heim's interpretation of the Girardian scapegoat theory [and his critique of the classic theories]. Both authors have also published book-length treatments of their theories. Several other recent contributions are reviewed by David Heim in "Rethinking the Death of Jesus: Cross Purposes." One of the reviewed authors, Hans Boersma, offers a reappraisal of the penal substitutional theory. Anselm's debt satisfaction theory also is defended against its feminist critiques by Flora Keshgegian.
I have always thought Abelard's theory is worth revisiting, if for no other reason than it has been unfairly characterized as being "merely subjective." Richard A. Weingert, who while acknowledging a subjective element to Abelard’s understanding of the atonement, defends him against charges that his understanding is Pelagian in that it is merely subjective or exemplarist. He writes, “Abailard’s stress on reconciliation, the New Testament metaphor which best summarizes his consideration of Christ’s work, refutes both the charge of Pelagianism and any interpretation which makes his teaching Pelagian in character. . . It is God who reconciles men to himself, God who has eternally loved man, and acts in Jesus Christ to overcome the alienation that separates man from himself.” Cf. Weingart, The Logic of Divine Love: A Critical Analysis of the Soteriology of Peter Abailard (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 203. Thomas Williams makes the same point in his forthcoming entry, "Sin, Redemption and Grace in Abelard" in the new Cambridge Companion to Abelard.
Abelard's critique is that Anselm seems to emphasize God’s justice at the expense of his love and mercy. Abelard wants to see the cross as a revelation of God’s love—a love that changed the very fabric of the universe and thereby changing us. It has always struck me that Ablelard at his best is very Johannine. Let me illustrate what I mean with this sermon I preached last year in Gloria Dei on the Fifth Sunday in Lent (John 12:20-33).
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our gospel lesson today begins with what appears to be an evangelism opportunity. Some Greeks want to meet Jesus so they seek out one of his disciples, Philip, with their request. What follows seems, well, a bit odd, as these seekers fall into the background (we’re not even sure they get to see Jesus!) and Jesus says what feels at first like a bunch of non-sequiturs.
And yet his words evoke all the major themes we’ve heard already in this season of Lent: discipleship and self-giving (“whoever serves me must follow me,” “those who love their life will lose it”), and the necessity of his death (“unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies”), even to the point of describing his death on the cross as “being lifted up” just as he did in the conversation with Nicodemus that we heard in last week’s gospel lesson.
But Jesus’ words are more than a summary: something new is happening here. This is a turning point in John’s gospel. The key is in Jesus’ statement: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Several times in John’s gospel, Jesus states that his house has not yet come, three times in fact: in chapter 2 (when his mother asks him for help at the wedding of Cana), and then later on in chapters 7 and 8, Jesus gets into trouble with the authorities but avoids arrest in each case because “his hour had not yet come.”
But now, Jesus says, his hour is here. His hour, of course, refers to the hour of his death—for he has just entered the city of Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. Although we don’t observe the event of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem until next Sunday (as we too, acclaim him with palms and shouts of “Hosanna!”), in John’s gospel, this happens right before the verses we read for today.
Jesus has entered the city of Jerusalem in order to die and it is at this point that some Greeks—outsiders to the Jewish faith—approach his disciples, wishing to see him. Now as I said a moment ago, at first it does not seem like he answers their question—that is, until you get to the last verse: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” It is as if Jesus is saying, “So they want to see me? Tell them to look at the cross. Tell them to watch me suffer and die for the world. THAT is where I will be glorified. That is how I will draw all people to myself.”
Jesus describes his death as “drawing people” to himself. The Greek word for “draw” does not mean “draw” in the sense of attracting someone by beauty or power. It is much more forceful than that. It means physically compelling someone to go where they may not want to do (like the doctor’s office). It is used of “hauling” in nets full of fish (John 21:6, 11) and of “dragging” Paul and Silas before the authorities (Acts 16:19).
So how does Jesus’ death “draw” us to him? Being “drawn” to Jesus is probably not how most of us interpret the event of the cross. Most of us grew up learning an interpretation of Jesus’ death that goes something like this: when Jesus died on the cross, he took the punishment for our sins, he paid the penalty, so we would not have to. Salvation is defined in the negative—it means you WON’T get something (what you rightly deserve for your sin!)—sort of a “get out of jail free” card (only it’s hell, not jail, that you are spared!). That is still the most prevalent theory of Jesus’ death, as you probably know—theologians call it the penal substitutionary theory—Jesus stands as our “substitute,” taking our just punishment upon himself.
As you may have guessed by now, I have never liked this particular theory of Jesus’ death and so it seems, neither does the Evangelist John. There is no mention in John’s gospel of Jesus’ death being some sort of payment that buys us sinners freedom from the penalty of sin. Jesus is not presented as a victim whose death is understood as the sacrifice necessary to atone for human guilt.
Jesus speaks of his death in a very different way in John’s gospel. His death draws all people to himself. On the cross, Jesus draws to himself NOT our sins, not the punishment we deserve, but US. We are drawn (hauled, if you will!) to the cross, but for what, you ask? So that we—our whole selves—could die with him.
As St. Paul says in Romans chapter 6, “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death. Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
We are buried with him, not as an end in itself, but so that we might experience a new life. Kind of like the seed of grain Jesus talked about. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” What is buried? Our old selves—including the sin that separates us from God and each other—but so for the purpose of being “put to death,” NOT punished. Salvation is not about being “off the hook” for wrongs we have done; it is about being given a chance to experience a new self and a new life in spite of our sin!
And yet something IS buried—our old self, our old way of doing things. The seed that does not fall into the earth and die stays pretty much the same. An attitude of many people (not to mention congregations!) is that they want things to get better, but nothing to change (thus fulfilling the old saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting different results”). But lest you think I am proposing that being a Christian is about “self-improvement,” let me share tell you a story.
A London businessman was trying to sell a warehouse property. The building had been vacant for months and was sorely in need of repair. Vandals had damaged the doors, smashed the windows, and strewn trash around the interior. As the businessman showed a prospective buyer the property, he took pains to say that he would replace the broken windows, bring in a crew to correct any structural damage, and clean out the garbage. “Forget about the repairs,” the buyer said, “When I buy this place, I am going to build something completely different. I don’t want the building. I want the site.”
The good news, sisters and brothers, is that because we have been buried with Christ by baptism, we already belong to God. We already have been given a new life. We don’t need to go looking for one. We don’t need to write up a list of things we might do to improve our lives. We have been given the blueprint in Jesus’ own life, death, and resurrection: it’s called forgiveness.
What was put to death on the cross was the old way of keeping track of grudges, the way of retaliation, the way of an eye for an eye. What is offered to us on the cross is a new life that we can experience by being forgiven by God and learning to forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven. THIS is what we are “drawn into” – and it is much more than “seeing Jesus.” It is receiving new life in him. Amen.