What happened on the Cross? And what happened afterward? Here we are deep in Easter season, and we all feel safe again. Those dark days between Maundy Thursday and Easter Vigil are over. Christ Jesus did come back, rise again, and the reserve Sacrament isn’t all that is left in the world. But how does it work, this soteriology thing, this salvation? Theologians have been trying to pin down the Mystery of the Resurrection into a business model or government policy since the beginning. What is really important is how we know it, believe it, live it, to glorify God and bring the Kingdom into the world.
In the Old Testament reading for today’s Morning Office, Moses is given laws regarding priestly reparation before an angry God. After Aaron’s sons were killed, God mandated a bloodbath of animal sacrifice (Lev 16:1-19). A goat sacrificed to atone for the rebelliousness of the people, and a bull for Aaron as priest. Blood sprinkled on the altar and on the priest and on the people. Payment must be made to God. The people were guilty. But the sacrificial animals were innocent. It is a powerful ritual: frightening ritual to appease a frightening God. The narrative of Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian eunuch points out the limits of the Law (Acts 8:26-40).
Many Gentiles came to worship the Jewish God and follow the Law. Philip was sent to a wilderness road where he encountered the chariot of a clearly important man, reading aloud (as was normal until the Middle Ages) while he, his chariot driver, and probably a couple of guards sped down the road. The man was reading Isaiah 53:7-8. Philip explained the text as a prophecy describing the death of Jesus which brought salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection. The Ethiopian was converted and was baptized. Despite his faith and love of God, he wouldn’t have been able to convert to Judaism. The man was a eunuch, a not uncommon procedure in Late Antiquity. Men who served royal women were castrated by mutilation. In Jewish law (Deut. 23:1) a castrated man could not be admitted to the assembly. But Jesus welcomes all his sheep into his fold, all the world into his salvation, and the Ethiopian was welcomed.
We no longer have to pay God with sufficient sacrifices, as in Leviticus 16. Even in the Psalms God is not satisfied by sacrifice, but by a pure and repentant heart, and obedience (Ps 51:16-17, Ps 40:16). Jesus is very clear about what is necessary; love the Lord our God, and love our neighbor, but also be poor, humble, dependant on God for everything, follow Jesus, confess Jesus, because to know and confess him is to know and confess the Father. The payment theory of salvation doesn’t hold up well. How about substitution? Maybe a little, at least insofar as the Sacrifice of the Lamb of God overturns the sacrifice from Leviticus. I don’t think Jesus so much takes our sins in a celestial trade as changes the rules to make them, like death, vanish.
Humans are a mess. We are all broken, and sooner or later our pride, will, need, and sheer cruelty will lead us to sin. But we also can learn new things, explore the universe, write poetry, save kittens, and have the capacity to care for one another. We need help. We have to believe that God really loves us so much that God was willing to submit to being one of us. To the extent that Jesus silently placed himself in the control of the worst that humankind could offer and died a horrible death after a fake trial and the hate of the mob he loved and served. It doesn’t get worse than that.
John keeps saying that if we believe in Jesus, we know the Father. It was the passionate caring of a Father for a Son, and the loving obedience of a Son for a Father that enacted salvation for us. That is the key to our redemption, forgiveness of sin, the closing of the separation between us, the created but often rebellious, from the God who created us, and who sustains us, but also who died and rose again for us. Love is relational.
In the farewell discourse in John, Jesus says that he is the true vine and his Father is the vine dresser (Jn 15:1-8). If we are loved, we will be pruned by the Father. We have been adopted, children of our Father, our Abba. A good parent will chastise a child, train them, give them room to grow, but set limits. The scripture says that we are already cleansed, referring to the Greek meaning of pruned (kathairó, καθαίρω). But are we? We are sinners despite our best efforts. Because we are not cleansed by our own efforts. We are cleansed by God’s love, and by Jesus Christ’s willing death on the Cross. It is not just the substitution of Jesus dying taking on our sins. Yes, a willing Lamb sacrificed, not the goat in Leviticus. This is not just a legal contract for a trade. This was love, a deep personal love by Jesus for us, by the Father for Jesus, and for us. The Shepherd who put down his life for his sheep. But this Shepherd had the option to put it down, but also the ability to take it up. To destroy death for us through him.
We can’t pay this back, or buy or barter for it. All we can do is glorify God with the love God gives us. 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.” Yet, we do need to fear God, submit to God. And we will be punished, pruned, because our love in this life is rarely perfect. We sin, but after the Cross we have redemption, total forgiveness. By prayer, and helped by our Lord and Brother, and our God and Father, who will work with us, we can grow in that love. To live that love. To share that love with the broken world. We must love our brothers and sisters, the least lovable, the more threatening, the most Other, seeing God in them (1 Jn 4:20-21). Because Jesus commands us to “Love one another (Jn 15:17),” and now we can in Christ.
That is what Easter is about, a new covenant, not just a substitution, not just a legal transaction, not just a payment. It is a new life including those broken in mind, body, or spirit. It is a gift, freely given in love, to save us, creatures to whom God gave free will, and through it sin and imperfection. A gift to be perfect in Christ, in obedience to the Father, through selfless Love. Now we are cleansed by the Holy One who is both Shepherd and Lamb, making us part of God’s great plan, building God’s Kingdom. ALLELUIA.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.