Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Because I don't want to Flunk Substitutional Atonement

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
  the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
--God - Hosea 6:6

“We’ll kill the fatted calf tonight, so stick around.”
--Elton John and Bernie Taupin - Bennie and the Jets

As Im heading into the mysterious depths of the end of Holy Week this year, Im trying to wrap my mind around the concept of Jesus dying for our sins.  
Its baffling to me.  Ever since the first time I ever heard a Baptist preacher proclaim it from a pulpit when I was a child, Ive periodically pondered it and then decided it was just over my head.  Ive skipped it in my spiritual development just like I skip math questions on I.Q. tests.  Its too complicated.  It bounces off my brain like a Nerf ball.  I dont know the ins and outs of this covenant that God made by sacrificing his only son, but I know its the truth just like I dont know how electricity works but I know it makes lightbulbs glow
This year, though, I am a nun.  Ive got to get some kind of grasp of this theological trigonometry question or Ill be struck dumb when some earnest spiritual seeker asks me about it in the future.  Ive never been to seminary, Im bored to tears by long intellectual diatribes on the subject and I dont have any real concept of the correct theology on it so Ive decided simply to figure out what I, personally, think the whole thing means. 

God sacrificed his son for us.  Ok, lets start there.  Sacrifice was something humans had been doing for tens and thousands of years before Abraham (or the succession of men represented by the symbolic allegorical character of Abraham, if thats your thing) left his home in Sumeria (from whence some believe he came) at the urging of God.  Sumerians sacrificed livestock and humans to appease their many gods, and so did just about every other group that had evolved to the point of trying to figure out how to influence nature, disease, pestilence and whatever else was plaguing them.  
Early man created gods and then decided that the way to keep the gods happy was to kill the firstborn and most valuable creature they owned, and then give it to the gods.  This seemed reasonable because everybody had to slaughter animals at home for food anyway, and if you slaughtered your best animal and cooked it for some powerful or scary guys who suddenly showed up at your house it made them happy, and it might have prevented them from killing you.  
The gods didnt swoop down and eat the sacrificed animals, so the sacrificial meat of animals was eaten by the guests at the worship.  
Somewhere in the Iron Age, Abraham heard God speaking to  him.  I believe God had spoken to many, many men before and they all went “Wait, did I hear something…?  Nahhhh.”
Abraham listened and God said “Ok, this isnt what its all about.  Go move out into the boondocks with your family and your herds Ill set you on the right path.”   
God then did something completely unexpected, which God often does he told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, for him.  This is horrific to modern minds but while it was difficult for Abraham to do, it wasnt exactly horrific to his ancient mind. He, and every other person who worshipped any kind of higher being, had never known anything else.  People killed animals and humans for gods.  That was the way the universe worked.  
Then God did something even more unexpected:  He stopped Abraham, told him he didnt really have to kill Isaac, and that he was only testing him to see if he really regarded this voice he heard as an actual god, and that he would offer not only a sacrifice, but the utmost sacrifice to this new God.  This is when the first Covenant was made with the first people whose understanding had evolved far enough to look not only at their outside world through their worship and sacrifice, but within themselves.  It was also the first time that God said You know all that sacrificing that you people are doing?  You dont have to do it.  Everything on earth is mine.  You dont have to cook my own stuff and give it to me because its mine already.  Got it?  Im not some little guy living in a volcano who has to be fed.  I dont get hungry.  Im God.  I’m bigger than that.  I gave you that livestock for you to feed your families.  Stop wasting it!!”

And of course, people didnt get it.  They couldnt.  They were not advanced enough to grasp the concept of sacrificing their spirits and their wills to God instead of their animals and their fellow humans.  Over and over in the Bible, God says Im not like all those false gods. Stop doing false god stuff.  I dont need sacrifices.   I dont need a temple.  Im not like those imaginary guys Zeus and Poseidon who need temples to live in, ok?  Im everywhere. I dont live in a little house. and people insisted on building a temple.  For hundreds of years, they worshipped this one true and living God, who was bigger than anything they could possibly imagine, in the way that they had worshipped all the false gods.   God tolerated it because he knew they were primitive, and he loved them enough to meet them where they were at that point in history.
In the 12th Century Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides writes:
"But the custom which was in those days general among men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted in sacrificing animals... It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God...that God did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service. For to obey such a commandment would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present [the 12th Century] if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to God nor fast, nor seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action." 

God is currently tolerating our worship of him through candles, silky vestments and/or praise bands because he loves us and therefore he humors us.

The ancient Jews added a new reason for ritual sacrifice that was unheard of by pagans.   They offered up their finest, firstborn livestock as a payment for - sin.  Thomas Cahill points out in his book The Gifts of the Jews that ancient pagan religions didnt really have a concept of sin.  Their focus was completely outward.  They offered up their most valuable things to the gods to ward off things that might harm them from the outside.  Jews offered their sacrifices to repair negative things that had happened to their souls.  God said, over and over, You dont have to do that.  Just come to me with a contrite heart, ask for my forgiveness and then go and sincerely try to do better.

Did people listen?  Of course not.  God just slapped his forehead and said Oy vey!  More barbecued lamb.  How stupid can these people BE?”  He decided that since we weren’t getting it, he’d have to come down here himself.

Jesus Christ appeared on the scene in the midst of all this burnt offering stuff that God didnt want, at the Temple that God didnt want, and he kept saying things that people didnt understand.  He would bestow the deep wisdom of the whole of creation upon his Apostles and they would respond by asking exasperatingly stupid questions.  Still, even though humans werent quite ready to grasp the concept of a God who was beyond the reach of our tiny, primitive minds, Jesus did something that was far, far beyond anything anybody expected: He offered himself as a human sacrifice. 

Maybe this, God thought, will finally show them that all I really need is their love.  They keep giving me gifts.  I will give them a gift.  This is my only Son and Im sacrificing him for you.  Have your false gods ever given you anything?  I give you myself to be broken and to suffer and die just like these millions of living creatures have suffered and died, and just as many millions have died proclaiming my name.  Here is a gift for you because I love you so much.

A God who gives US a sacrifice?   This is still astonishing, all these centuries later.

God offered his only son to us as a gift.  The very least we can do is give him our love.  We can come to him and ask his forgiveness any time we dont love ourselves or others, and he will forgive us.  That’s what I personally think the New Covenant means.  We don’t have to do a whole barbecue.  God’s not one of those imaginary guys who needs barbecue.  He’s bigger than that.

It would be foolish to think that when Christ died on the cross, his followers immediately said “Ohhhh - that’s what God meant all those 900 times he said ‘Stop giving me sacrifices.  Just talk to me.”  Humans of all religions still kept doing it, but gradually most of them stopped and began focusing on a more personal conversation with God.   Some faiths still do ritual sacrifices, and God patiently puts up with it because he knows we’re a little slow.

Everything we have is a gift from God - our world, our selves, and God himself.  One of the gifts that God gives us is free will.  We can choose whether to love and follow him or not.  When we give this gift back to him and love him with our whole heart, we allow  him to guide us with his own will.  

How do we let him guide us?  We listen.  We can hear God very clearly in our gut instincts, in that “little voice in our head,” in the red flags that we often ignore.  We can hear him when we study the Bible and a phrase mystically jumps off the page and resonates deep within us.  We can hear him when we study prayer and work on deepening our relationship with him.  We can hear him when others say things to us that strike a chord in our souls.  We can hear him in art, music, church, therapy…anywhere we choose to listen and wait for his instructions.

We’re still doing a lot of stupid things in our clumsy attempts to worship a God that is beyond our comprehension, but God understands.  He knows we’re trying.

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