- Isaiah 49:1-7
- 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
- John 1:29-42
Epiphany 2, Year A
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The question that all of this discussion leaves unasked, though, goes something like this, “Well, if God wasn’t satisfying God’s wrath, or righteousness, or honor in the death of Jesus, if Jesus wasn’t the lamb offered to God, then how is atonement achieved?”
This question needs to be asked outright, and answered in a straightforward manner if we are to deal with/preach to our congregations meaningfully. They have lived most of their lives with the vicious, transactional God whose punishment Jesus had to bear in one sense or another. We can surely show them that this is not so, that Jesus died to satisfy our demand for blood, but that isn’t enough.
The most powerful, life changing moment in any Christian’s life is the moment of catharsis. Mimetic theory treats catharsis as a culturally bound phenomenon, of a piece with the murder of the scapegoat, and therefore, something to be treated with suspicion at best. Yet, without this experience of catharsis, of a peace that washes away our anger and fear, the Christian message is little more than another call be a “do gooder.” Or, in this case, a non-do-badder (one who merely eschews sacrifice). It does not account for the overwhelming capacity for love and reconciliation that most Christians feel in the wake of this catharsis, nor does it give a theological groundwork within which to channel this incredibly positive energy. Christians know that the atonement brings this catharsis, and they hunger for it. To reject catharsis wholesale because it has been a part of the false sacrificial system that has crept into Christianity is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
What we must re-claim, if our proclamation is to be anything but dry to most of Christianity, is the powerful moment wherein the individual recognizes her/his reconciliation to God by virtue of some act of God’s. To do this apart from traditional sacrificial thinking will be difficult, but it can be done.
To put it bluntly, we need to lead our people to the Cross, help them experience their own violence as they hammer home the nails, and in the same moment, hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness. Without the violence, this time directed at God, the moment will forever lack power. Catharsis demands violence. If we shy away from that demand, our Gospel will remain a mental construct that lacks the power to change hearts. We must preserve the violence, and at the same time, claim it as our own. Then, as we rail in frustration because our mimetic desires cannot ever be satisfied, and at the same time weep for the murder we are committing of an innocent victim, Jesus can offer us a new way out of the trap, that of limitless forgiveness.
When we have taken full ownership of our own violence, and know ourselves even then to be fully loved and forgiven, there will be nothing we cannot forgive, no wound that can stand in the way of love.
But we resist this path with all our might. Even those of us who preach peace, perhaps we most of all, refuse to see our own murderous natures and the deadly results they yield. We want to think of ourselves as having emerged from that web of sin, and in that desire, we entangle ourselves even more deeply, driving our mimesis, our scapegoating further into the unconscious. And the violence we store there in the dark bubbles up in the most dangerous ways, ultimately robbing our proclamation of any validity.
“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away your scapegoat! Go, and hang him on a Cross, that you might finally be truly reconciled!”
Still, we do well not to leave the whole of this shift for one day on the calendar. The impacts of this shift in atonement thinking is so vast, and the way that our old, sacrificial theologies have insinuated themselves so systemic, that we need to take every opportunity to preach an alternative when we can.
This week, the part of this shift that seems most accessible is the naming of our old, violent, atonement thinking. I think that if we do a good job of painting the picture of the God of the Violent Atonement, we can convinced our congregations to expel him from our churches with relative ease. The “good news” of this sermon is, “God isn’t like that.”
Of course, that will leave the question, “Then pastor, what is God like?”
We may even want to name that question without trying to answer it. We have a short Epiphany season this year, and Lent is not far off. Leaving this empty place for them to ponder for a bit might not be a bad thing. That gives us several weeks in Lent within which to begin to fill in those blanks, to lead them to Good Friday, to the hammer, to the nails.