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Sermon for Proper 24/Ordinary 29B Mark 10: 35-45 ransom

September 26, 2015

ransomthe Son of Man came …… give his life a ransom for many. – words from today’s gospel

A building is on fire and a child is trapped upstairs; a firefighter rushes in to get him and manages to drop him safely to the net below before the roof caves in and kills her. The next day the local paper headlines “Firefighter Sacrifices Her Life.” That firefighter has made her own death sacred by giving it up to save the life of another.

Now imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with suffering and denied that it was a sacrifice because the firefighter died instantly and without intolerable suffering.

Or imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with substitution, saying that God wanted somebody dead that day and accepted the firefighter in lieu of the child.

Now imagine that somebody brought together sacrifice, suffering, and substitution by claiming that the firefighter had to die in agony as atonement for the sins of the child’s parents.

Weird? Not by the standards of some Christians.

I wonder if you saw Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ: brutal scenes, graphic violence. One woman said, “I left the cinema feeling sick. What sort of God would let that kind of violence happen to his own son? I guess I was supposed to be moved by the sacrifice of Jesus; instead I was repulsed by the idea of a God who would will such a thing.”

This isn’t new. Many Christians believe that only the violent sacrifice of a perfect and sinless Jesus could appease a God whose honour has been affronted whose anger has been aroused. A hymn by Isaac Watts puts it: ‘The streaming drops of Jesu’s blood/

Which calmed the Father’s frowning face.’ Come, let us lift our joyful eyes
Up to the courts above,

Yet this seems deeply unchristian, indeed demonic: this God is always seeking compensation; always wants his pound of flesh. Who would love or wish to draw near to such a God?

I have been itching to preach on our first two readings. We get them on Good Friday but we have the veneration of the cross instead of a sermon then. Even though I steadfastly refuse to choose the hymn ‘There is a green hill far away’ with its phrase: There was no other good enough/To pay the price of sin. I always wonder what people are thinking when they hear those readings.

In our first reading, from Isaiah: he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed….. it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.*

In our second reading, from Hebrews: he learned obedience through what he suffered

Yet the context of these passages is all-important.

The Isaiah passage is set in the context of a servant who will suffer because of sins. Some Jews read that into the experiences of the concentration camps. That somehow God allowed Hitler to punish Jews for the sins of the rest of the human race. But Isaiah’s servant basically says that because the Gentiles are sinful, they persecute Jews. Yet the Jews will be vindicated.

The Hebrews passage is not about Jesus being a sacrifice that is better than Jewish temple sacrifices. In fact, the very opposite. It is saying that the whole sacrificial system is abolished. Like many of the Jewish prophets, Hebrews is saying that God doesn’t want sacrifice. He wants obedience: not dying for other people but living for other people. And he cites the whole life of Jesus, from birth to death, not just the cross, as such a life. God doesn’t send his son to die. He sends him to live. His death is a bi-product. Because he broke the religious rules in order to help people, they punished him.

In the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, “The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard but that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you.” Terry Eagleton blog

God wants only one thing, said Hebrews. Not an unblemished goat but a fully human life, a life well lived. “The glory of God,” said Irenaeus, “is humanity full alive.” It was not pain and violence that God desired. The life of Jesus was human life as God created it to be. Pain and the violence were already out there on the path; they’ve been there since Cain and Abel. No one can walk this human path in faith and obedience without encountering suffering.

In the midst of that suffering Jesus cried out with tears “with prayers and supplications … to the one who was able to save.” The human being each of us fails to be, he was, and he is “not ashamed” to call us his brothers and sisters. So argues Hebrews chapter 2.

Back in 1965, Eric Mascall wrote that: there has … been a tendency, which has had the most unfortunate consequences, to assume that the essence of sacrifice consists in the destruction of some valuable object, preferably a living one, in order to honour or to propitiate a deity… It has obtained a firm foothold even in the Christian Church and has provided the guiding concept for many doctrines of the Atonement. Corpus Christi (Longmans 1965) pp. 86-87

……the basic significance of sacrifice is not the destruction of the creature but its offering to God……. so that it may find its end and therefore its happiness in him and for his glory… Sacrifice is the movement or action by which we try to bring ourselves to God, our end, to find our true beatitude in our union with him. Cited in Corpus Christi p. 92

So what of our gospel reading? the Son of Man came …… give his life a ransom for many.’ The Greek word for “ransom” lutron, means the payment to an owner for a slave’s freedom or a captive’s ransom. It is not used in the Bible for anything like vicarious satisfaction or vicarious atonement to God for sin. It’s used typically in connection with sixth-century Persian emperor Cyrus After conquering Babylon, he freed and sent home those Jews taken into captivity by the Babylonians. And Cyrus did it not for price or reward says Isaiah 45:13 Cyrus not only freed them; he didn’t demand any ransom in return. Sacrifice is not substitution The Last Week – M. Borg and J. Crossan (SPCK 2008 London):p. 38

So what has that to do with us? I may have preached against a popular evangelical doctrine. As has Baptist Steve Chalke, who was thrown out of the Evangelical Alliance for calling it ‘a form of cosmic child abuse.’ But the answer is still evangelical. God wants us to give our hearts to him, live our lives for him. The early church confessed, “that Jesus death was once for all.” At this altar, we offer Jesus’s sacrifice. We are not called to replicate it. Indeed, Jesus suffered once and for all so that we might become the types of sons and daughters of God who will remember his life and suffering and move boldly and continuously to alleviate suffering in the world.

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