“The wrath that fell upon him was human not divine.”
Mark Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred
James and John must have been cooking up their scheme for a while before they went to Jesus. ‘Master, “ one of them said, “Do whatever we ask, OK?” I am surprised Jesus didn’t just stop them right there. We know that no good thing can come of this. Right? But, Jesus indulged them and asked what it was that they wanted.
I can just about hear it now…
“Well,“ said John excitedly, “What we want.
“No, let me tell it,” interrupted John. ‘We were thinking that when you come into your kingdom…”
“Right. When you are on the throne,” said John, “We could sit…”
“I could sit on your right side,” said James, “And John here, he could sit on your other side. That’s what we want, Lord. For one of us to sit on your right side and another on your other side. It would make Mom so proud.”
In response to this, Jesus asked them about the two things that would later become sacraments of the church: Eucharist and Baptism. Can you drink my cup? Can you be baptized like me? In other words, are you able to pour out your whole lives, even unto humiliation, even unto death? Are you able to bear the weight of my baptism and give yourselves over to my mission?
Of course, James and John didn’t even understand the mission. Jesus had told them three times already that he was going to be handed over and be killed, but they were still expecting the kind of kingdom in which they could each be prime ministers of good times. Of course, that is not the kind of kingdom Jesus was ushering in. The only “prime ministers” on Jesus’ right hand and his left hand would be two unnamed thieves and Jesus would enter his kingdom on a cross. James and John would be nowhere in sight.
Glory in Jesus’ kingdom is not about ruling, or “lording it over one another as the gentiles do.” In the new kingdom, Jesus explained, glory is in service to others. James and John would both experience their own true glory as martyrs, but it was not exactly what they’d had in mind on this day. Two thousand years on, it’s hard to believe that they could have been so dense. But, they had their ideas, their idols, and so do we!
We are not like James and John, though. They didn’t get it. We have a better idea of what God is really like, we have better idols. Any idea that lays claim to an image of God, or the notion that we know what God is like, is an idol. We are just as idolatrous as James and John or anybody else. For, as Lao Tzu said, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”
This is the idolatry that Jesus came to deliver us from: Our misguided ideas about God.
The popular God-idol in the ancient near east was a God that was loving, but also just. A God who was kind, but sort of vengeful too. A God who loved sinners, but hated sin so much that whenever he saw it somebody would have to pay, and pay big. A whole system of sacrifices had grown up around this idea of a transactional God who would happily be satisfied as long as there was some sort of violence done on his behalf. Most every society sacrificed an animal, or a child, or a virgin… anything with blood would do.
It was into this system that Jesus came preaching a new kind of kingdom, one in which the king comes into his glory in service, even unto death. And that does beg the question, why did Jesus have to die? Jesus had to die a sacrificial death because he was responding to a sacrificial system. Jesus gave himself over to our idol of a vengeful God, not because God demanded it but because we did. Our idolatry, our man-made idea of a God who is as petty and violent as we are, is what forced Jesus into the tourbillion of violence that became known as The Passion.
The atonement liturgy of the Jews, and the one we want to look at carefully, was a little different to the sacrificial system of most of their neighbors. Their sacrificial atonement was not that it appeased a vengeful God but that it allowed God to enter into the world and offer restoration through the liturgy of atonement. In liturgy, we participate by pouring out ourselves in participation. We say words, sing songs, say prayers… we pour ourselves into this activity. In turn, the liturgy allows us to enter a place in which we may be found by God. In his passion, Jesus lived out the atonement liturgy to the last little bit. The gate was opened, the holy released from its captivity. All was set right.
Jesus said that he came to offer his life as a ransom for many. You pay ransom to a kidnapper. But, God had not kidnapped us. The idea that Jesus had to pay a ransom to God is based on the idolatry that God is vengeful and demands sacrifice. When we get to passion week, though, it won’t be God standing in the street shouting, “Crucify Him!” No, that will be people like us. We are the ones who demanded that Jesus fit himself into our idolitry about God.
When Jesus came into his glory – that is, when he died – he showed the falsity of our idol and revealed God to be merciful and compassionate, a God of love who has been reaching out to us from the beginning.
Think about your own ideas about God. No matter, you are wrong. So am I. So is everybody else. But, we do have ideas. That’s just how it is. Think of your ideas about God and how that has guided your salvation path?
How might your salvation be worked out differently if you had different ideas about God?
What five adjectives, or describing words, help you think about God? Maybe loving, kind, compassionate, wrathful, just, merciful, mysterious…
If your God is vengeful and bloodthirsty, that is the kind of atonement you will have. That is what your salvation path will look like. If your God is kind and gentle then your salvation path will bear those characteristics.
Jesus gave his life to release us from all these limiting idols. There is a knowable God beyond all the names we can name and God is still reaching out.
Spend some quiet time thinking abut he fact that atonement is not a thing to be theorized about, but an accomplished event. It is complete. Done. Halas, as we say in Arabic. It is finished.
Linda McMillan is writing from a different kind of kingdom, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I seem to prefer countries that have kings.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Mark 14:24… He said to them, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1… “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”
Let’s please stop speaking of a “theory” of atonement. Atonement was a liturgy and it cannot be understood apart from this context. The words “Substitutionary Atonement Theory” are meaningless. For one thing all atonement is substitutionary, so that’s meaningless. Atonement is almost universally misunderstood as a rite instead of a revolution. And theories are for people who really don’t know. The Bible is really clear about atonement. You don’t have to wonder about it. Jesus lived out the atonement liturgy to the last little bit, not because it satisfied God but because it finally satisfied us! It is mind-blowingly monumental. But, of course, we’ll all just go to church and then take a nap. Why do I even write?
John 18:14… Caiaphas was the one who had told the other Jewish leaders, “It’s better that one man should die for the people.”