Week 4: Atonement
There is something for which we we long that nothing of this world can satisfy. Much of our competing, striving, stressing and pain comes from a deep down hidden feeling of discontent—and vain efforts to conceal it. That hidden struggle longs for the sense of ‘coming home,’ of connection, peace and being truly known and truly loved.
That longing will only ever find its fulfilment through the death of Jesus, when God took on human flesh and surrendered Himself to evil. God took on the depths of our humanity and depravity, lived and died as humans do, and in His death took on Himself the weight and responsibility of sin and death. His death—His giving Himself up for our sakes—is the event that changes the course of history, not just for you and me, but for the whole of Creation. The event of the death of Jesus is the key to that deep dis-ease that we feel at the losses we experience in this life, the inevitability of our sin and the shame in our hearts that reminds us we are not enough.
The death of Jesus is the event theologians calls the Atonement. Christian theology has done an excellent job, through the years, of giving Christian concepts and beliefs complicated names that require some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to decipher. ‘Atonement’ is not one of them! It is as simple as breaking down the parts: At-one-ment.
It is an event that brings us back into unity, back into harmony, back into peace. Like someone who has a severe break in their leg that has put the bone out of joint, no amount of rest, ice, compression or elevation is going to put it straight. Someone needs to reset the bone before anything else will resolve. And the problem of sin is one that echoes throughout the whole of Creation, and the solution is for the whole of Creation too. So what does Jesus’ death mean? What does it do to deal with the chaos of this world?
(1) It means the power of evil is no more.
Jesus has defeated those powers that would want to keep us enslaved to evil and death, but He has broken their power. Hear these words from the New Testament: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Colossians 2:15, cf. also Ephesians 2:1-5) We are no longer bound, enslaved or held captive. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (cf. Romans 8). The only thing that can hold us back is our choice: do we want to know this freedom into new life or do we want to stay enslaved to sin? The death of Christ was the payment that freed us from slavery. It bought our freedom and liberation.
(2) The death of Christ also means our sin is a real and serious problem… with a costly solution.
Something about Jesus’ goodness, light and life stirred up people to reject Him. Jesus did not die because He showed up at the wrong time in the wrong place. He died because humans, like you and me, didn’t want their evil hearts exposed. They wanted to continue in their sin. They chose a criminal, Barabbas, to go free rather than face another day with a man who disturbed their false sense of peace.
The same is true for us. Reading the Gospels and seeing the things Jesus said and did steps on the toes of our sinfulness, and shows up the ungodliness of our hearts. We like to soft-pedal guilt. Generally, our response to people pointing out our guilt is to push back and deny it, but the truth is this: we intend harm. We are not ‘good people’ making mistakes. We are fundamentally broken people swimming in sin. We choose to sin. M. Scott Peck said this:
“The poor in spirit do not commit evil. Evil is not committed by people who feel uncertain about their righteousness, who question their own motives, who worry about betraying themselves. The evil in this world is committed by the spiritual fat cats who think that they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination.
Unpleasant though it may be, the sense of personal sin is precisely that which keeps our sin from getting out of hand. It is quite painful at times, but it is a very great blessing because it is our one and only effective safeguard against out own proclivity for evil. St Therese of Lisieux put it so nicely in her gentle way: If you are willing to serenely bear the trial of being displeasing to yourself, you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.”
(M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie, p.72)
The Cross tells us that we have a very serious problem: our sin, i.e. where we are complicit with evil. The Cross shows us the depths of the abyss of our sin and it bridges it too.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 5:23-25)
It was not when we had mended our own lives that God offered a sacrifice for us. It was when we were enemies of God–when we were still merrily choosing a life without Him. He gave of Himself for our freedom, even when we were set against him. When “we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son,” Romans 5:10 tells us. It was our wrong, our responsibility, but He paid the cost. The Cross makes the way possible for us to be reconcile back to God, to come home to Him.
(3) The Cross shows a God who is there with us in our weakness, brokenness and our suffering.
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2:24 God stands in solidarity with us. He entered into the pain we experience in our humanity and He lived it alongside us. He, through His suffering, has made our healing and wholeness possible.
Jesus, from a human point of view, didn’t want to die. Look at the story of Him suffering in Gethsemane. He asked that, if it was possible–if there was any other way–He’d rather take it. Yet He knew it was the only way, the only path to healing and wholeness.
The Cross deals with our sin–and even deals with the reasons for our sin. Much of the time, our sin comes from our brokenness and insecurities, our experiences of hurt at the hands of others, times we’ve been rejected or shamed and become hardened. Through the death of Jesus, we discover that in suffering, we are not alone–we have a God who gets it, and a God who can redeem our suffering and change what the Enemy used for evil and transform it into something that can bring goodness and life.
(4) The Cross shows us the life Christ calls us to live.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Take up your cross, not take up your pen, take up your toolbox, take up your knife or take up your book. Following Jesus is not about becoming an author, builder, chef or academic. It’s about death: your death, your willingness to follow Him and to face whatever suffering comes your way because of it. That means Jesus’ way is:
A way of non-retaliation. Jesus did not fight against those who wanted to have Him arrested and crucified. He did not try and argue His way out of what was ahead of Him.
A way of humility and selflessness. Jesus knew that it is not through coercion or force that hearts are won to Him. It is not by legislation or regulation, but through generosity and sacrifice.
A way of powerlessness. Jesus’ way is a way of foolishness–a way that looks ridiculous to the world around us, perhaps even to some who go to church! (1 Corinthians 1:18-20, 26-29)
Questions for Reflection
- Which of the four points above resonates most with you? Why? Which one resonates the least?
- Why do you think that even those who say they believe can find facing the depths of our own sin so challenging?
- God is with us in our suffering. How is that good news for the world around us? Who in our world needs to hear that most?
- What do you personally find challenging about the model Jesus left us to follow as one of denying ourselves and following His more gentle way?
Heavenly Father, thank You for sending Jesus to atone for our sins, break the power of evil, bring healing into our hearts and show us the way of love. Help us to be honest in facing our sinful hearts, courageous in confronting evil, open to Your touch in places within us that hurt and humble in taking up our cross as we follow You. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.