Substitutionary Atonement- the notion that Jesus was the sinless sacrifice offered by God to Himself to atone for our sins- was only fully worked out by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century. Prior to that, one mediaeval understanding was that God was like our feudal overlord, and after we gave false allegiance to the devil God bought our vassalage back. Substitution became central in Reformation theology, as the basis of “Radical grace”: God has abolished the system of requirements for righteousness. We have nothing to bring to God: God comes to us. Unfortunately, it became the centre of a new system of requirements: you must believe to be saved from Hell. This is valuable for a church which seeks authority over its members: they have the keys to the Kingdom. Only through them can you be Saved.
Instead, Jesus proclaims the truth to the Jews, throughout Galilee and ending in the capital, Jerusalem. This truth challenges the basis of human domination, by the aristocrats of Judea and by the Roman Empire, and is a threat to those in power. Jesus refuses to buckle under to the Domination system, but also refuses to resist: not only does he not call forth an army of angels to rescue him, he does not call on the crowd who welcomed him– surely a different crowd from that which called for his blood.
Violence begets violence. Jesus offers us a pattern and example for breaking the cycle of violence. If Jesus had resisted, he would have contributed to the cycle of repression and rebellion, violence and death. Jesus confronts human fear and the desire for control, and shows us the more excellent way of Love. Matthew reports that this is recognised by the Roman Empire, as symbolised by the Centurion: “Truly this man was God’s son“. Before the time of Christ, God revealed that sacrifice was not the way: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”.
For Paul, the Crucifixion is central to the Faith: “We proclaim Christ crucified“. The rulers of the world are doomed to perish before God’s wisdom of Love. Christ died for us, showing the depth of God’s love. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.
The root of the word “sacrifice” is to make sacred. Jesus’ death has become sacred for us. Jesus, our Passover lamb, is our food, as it was for the Jews. We take Love into ourselves.
Post for Ken, mostly from Marcus J Borg.