Dying With Us: A Sermon For Good Friday 2020



The crucifixion by an unknown Ethiopian artist.

Struggling With The Theology of Atonement

I have been struggling with the cross of Jesus for over thirty years.

I have accepted the Resurrection. The radical idea that God did not abandon Jesus, but raised him from the dead, and that through him all things were being made anew – including you and me – is something I have never had a problem with. It is hopeful. And, likewise, I have never had much problem with the Incarnation, that Jesus is the Word made flesh, and that if we want to understand who the Creator is, and what our destiny as human beings is supposed to be, Jesus is that revelation from the Divine. I can take both of these theological propositions “literally” and in that sense I am very orthodox. The more theology I read about the Resurrection and the Incarnation the more I think I understand, and paradoxically I also know how little I comprehend (which is fine).

The cross has been a stumbling block for me.

Screenshot 2020-04-10 at 1.18.23 PMI have read Anselm of Canterbury and I understand his Satisfaction Theory of Atonement. I had the evangelical Bridge diagram and penal substitution explained to me. I understand that Christ died for our sins. In the Doctrine of Original Sin I am told that, in Augustine‘s words, we are a massa damnata, and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. In Calvin’s language, we are subjects of total depravity. In this theology of atonement nothing that I can do could possibly merit forgiveness – I deserve death and damnation – and yet forgiveness is given, despite my unworthiness. In certain Augustinian thought even the faith that I have in Jesus is a gift from God; it only appears that I have willed my faith. Anything right that I do is due to God working in me, and anything wrong that I do is my own fault and deserves eternal damnation. Jesus has paid a ransom for us, Jesus was sacrificed for us, he paid a debt, and, most importantly, he suffered on our behalf. Jesus, who is wholly innocent, is able to take on the punishment due to all the rest of humanity, and thus release us from the effects of sin and death. As a result, we have been justified in the sight of God by what Jesus has done. Righteousness is imputed to us, even though we remain active in our sins.

This theology leaves me cold.

It is all very legalistic. It presents the Divine as an outraged judge, a righteous ogre who demands an eternal penalty for our temporal sins. Whether we have told a small lie or whether we are a mass murderer, it is all the same in God’s eyes – we deserve the second death, the lake of burning oil. God, as a just being, is angry and repelled by our sinful nature.

Further, what does this say about the Father and Jesus? The Father demands that the Son die for others, a form of filial murder, it seems.

Some would say that it was all preordained, in which case the death of Jesus upon the cross is nothing but the payment of accounts, a kind of supernatural balancing trick. Jesus, while genuinely suffering, foreknew the result, so he just had to bear down and get through it. But the problem with this is that the cross comes across as unnecessary fussing; Jesus did not have to die – could the Father as judge not simply forgive, without all the suffering and the blood? Recall that, in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the father in the story welcomes the son back even before the child makes his confession of sin, and he does not demand that the wayward son suffer, or that someone else suffer on his behalf. So why, in Atonement theology, does God require that the Son suffer on behalf of the rest of humanity?

All of these theological issues are tied up in the theory of substitutionary atonement – the idea that the preeminent metaphor for understanding the cross is that Jesus died on our behalf, that his death was required by the father on account that someone human needed to be punished for humanity’s sins. The seemingly infinite sins could only be paid by a human who was also divine, the infinite joined to the finite in the person of Jesus Christ. His undeserved suffering overflows the deficit of sins.

I know that this is a powerful theology throughout history, and there are many millions of Christians for whom it is deeply meaningful. But for me it is deeply problematic. It reduces Jesus to a mere sacrifice, and ignores his teachings, his healings, and other parts of his life. If all that mattered that Jesus die, why not let Herod the Great kill him as an infant, along with all the other little boys massacred?

Further, is there no discriminating among sins? The sins of a small child cannot be compared to that of a mass murderer. A person who sexually abuses children is surely worse than someone who occasionally gets angry, or steals a pen from work. What is worse, someone who lies habitually, or someone who launches a war of aggression that kills millions? As someone who has lived a fairly dull life I will admit to my sins before God and a confessor, but I wonder if they are deserving of death and eternal damnation, and that they are on the same level as Stalin, Hitler, or a Dr Harold Shipman.

There must be more going on. Fundamentally, God is presented by Jesus as a loving father, not as an angry judge. Recognizing that substitutionary atonement really only dominated western Christian thought for the second half of the two millennia of Christian faith, what other approaches might there be?

Christus Victor

christ-enthroned-iconAnother approach was discerned and recovered by Gustav Aulen, a Swedish Lutheran. In his book Christus Victor (1931) he discerned three types of Atonement theology over the course of history. One was the theology of penal substitution, or satisfaction theology, described above. He also noted that there was a reaction in Medieval Theology to Anselm of Canterbury. Peter Abelard promoted what is now called “the moral influence theory of atonement”, in which Christ’s obedience to the Father – “Not my will but yours be done” – influencing believers to become likewise obedient. Abelard’s theology is better for me that substitutionary atonement, as God’s love is paramount, but it is rather weak. It just points to Jesus and says, “Be like that”. It stresses obedience to a higher authority without explaining why the Father requires the death of the Son.

Aulen believed that there was a theology of atonement that was older than these two, and in his book he demonstrated its biblical roots and use in the first millennium. He saw the narrative not in legal terms, but as an epic struggle between Christ and the forces of evil. For example, in the Gospel of Mark we see the battle in three stages: first, the temptation in the desert; then the challenges to Jesus by demons whenever he would exorcise them; and finally on the cross, when the powers and principalities worked through the Sanhedrin and the Roman Imperium to have Jesus crucified. Of course, with the resurrection, Jesus is shown to be the winner (hence the title, Christus Victor), and the powers of sin and death are defeated. Jesus will come again, not so much to act as a judge on sinners, but to complete the work begun in his earthly life, and destroy every spirit that warps God’s creation.

I like this approach. While it does not account for all the metaphors used to describe the cross, it seemed to encompass the whole narrative of Christ’s life and teachings, and expands to include the eschatological vision of Jesus returning and transforming creation into a new heaven and a new earth.

The problem with this is that human beings seem to be reduced to being spectators. It is not clear what I, as a follower of Jesus Christ, am supposed to do. Applaud and rejoice, yes, and challenge the powers and principalities of my time, but as part of the mainstream of western society, what does that mean?

The Cross in Black Theology

71TL6ZHN0zLTo understand the real meaning of the cross, and to get at a real theology of atonement, we need to listen to those who have suffered. In the United States African-Americans have suffered greatly. Four hundred years ago they were captured and sold into slavery, transported across the Atlantic, and made to work in forced labour camps called “plantations”. Even after Emancipation and the Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution they suffered, under the Jim Crow laws and segregation. As the late theologian James Cone pointed out in The Cross and the Lynching Tree African-Americans were subject to terror unmitigated by law. The Ku Klux Klan paraded at night and burned crosses on the lawns of Blacks, and frequently beat those they considered “uppity”. The homes, businesses, and churches of African-Americans were burned as a warning.

The worst form of violence was that of lynching, the summary murders of Black men and women by hanging them on a tree, usually accompanied by torture, and the burning of the corpse as it still hung. These lynchings, some 5000 of them over the period from the Civil War down to the 1950s, were not private affairs. Indeed, it was not uncommon to have them advertised in the newspapers, and thousands of white folk – men,women, and children – would show up to watch and jeer. Food would be sold as if at a fair, and photographs would be taken and reproduced as post cards. And all of those involved in these lynchings were Christians. The lynchings were a warning and a threat to Blacks: “We Whites are in power and we will never let go, and we can do whatever we want with you.”

Rebellion was not an option; the use of violence in defense would only engender a worse response (the Second Amendment only seemed to apply to White folk). In the first half of the 20th Century many Blacks travelled north, to get jobs working in factories, to get away from the sharecropping of the South. However, even in the North they encountered much discrimination. The sufferings of the Blacks found expression in two places. One was the Juke joint on Saturday nights, the places men and women could dance to Jazz and listen to performers sing the Blues. The other was the historic Black Church, where they sang about a Saviour who had suffered like them. Thus we got music like this:

While the African-Americans received Christianity from the Whites, they could not stay in their churches, sitting in the back or in the galleries, for the hypocrisy was too great. So they founded their own churches. While many of their pastors were educated, just as many were not. This resulted in a faith that grew out of experience in dialogue with scripture. They saw Jesus as one of them – someone unjustly suffering, betrayed and executed by a foreign power.

While the churches did not sing directly of lynching – it was just too painful – popular music did. Thus Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit as a protest song. When she began singing it in the 1940s people walked out, but ultimately it became her signature song, always sung last in her performances, as a reminder to her audiences of the outrages of White Americans upon Blacks.

The catalyst for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was one of the last of the lynchings, that of fourteen year-old Emmet Till in Mississippi. The atrocity was exacerbated by the subsequent trial of his killers and the verdicts of “Not Guilty” delivered by the all White jury. Shortly thereafter, Rosa Parks attended a rally protesting Till’s murder, in Montgomery, Alabama, led by a young newly ordained pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr.  A few weeks later she got on a bus, and sat down. When she was told to give up her seat to a White person, she refused. “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back” she later said. This began a boycott of bus system by African-Americans, which launched the Civil Rights movement. It seems that Black Americans decided that if they were going to suffer, they should suffer in the attempt to achieve something.

In Black Theology it is not so much that Jesus suffers for us, it is that Jesus suffered with us. This reveals the love of God, which is for the downtrodden and abused. The ultimate vindication is found in the resurrection, which seems impossible – but, then, equal rights for Blacks seemed impossible in the 1950s. Yes, it may be that Jesus died for sins, too, but far more important was that God was on the side of justice for the oppressed.

I want Jesus to walk with me
I want Jesus to walk with me
All along my pilgrim journey
I want Jesus to walk with me

In my trials, Lord, walk with me
In my trials, Lord, walk with me
When the shades of life are falling
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me

In my sorrows, Lord walk with me
In my sorrows, Lord walk with me
When my heart is aching
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me

In my troubles, Lord walk with me
In my troubles, Lord walk with me
When my life becomes a burden
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me

Standing at the Foot of the Cross

So where does this leave us?

We are not Black or African-Americans, and not many of us have suffered as they have suffered. Speaking for myself, I am, if anything, recovering from generations of unconscious low-level racism and bigotry, and quite surprised when I find it in myself, thinking that I was more enlightened than I actually was. I am the product of a settler society in Canada which benefited from taking the land of the indigenous peoples living there and forcing them onto marginal reserves, and sought to assimilate them into settler society, extinguishing their languages, economies, and identities. If I was prone to feeling guilt (which I am not), I could wallow in the past injustices and weep. Or I could move on, as if a Stoic philosopher, and just continue to live my life.

But today, Good Friday, we stand at the foot of the cross. Jesus, a colonized indigenous man, not a citizen but a man with no real “rights” as we would understand them, belonging to a people who were considered by Roman authorities to be suitable for slavery, is being put to death by the Romans, at the instigation of their collaborationists among the elite of Jerusalem. We watch his death, and this forces us to a decision.

Whose side are we on?

Do we ally ourselves with the oppressors, or with those who are suffering? Do we respond to Immanuel, “God with us”, by settling into the satisfaction that we are saved because Jesus has died in our place? Or are we stirred by outrage at the powers and principalities that continue to murder and execute? Are we willing to let go of power and privilege, as Jesus emptied himself out into human form, so that we might have more just institutions and a righteous society? As Reinhold Niebuhr said, Love in its public form is justice – can we love with the same love that God had in Jesus?

As the alternative collect for Good Friday states, let us pray:

Eternal God,
in the cross of Jesus
we see the cost of our sin
and the depth of your love:
in humble hope and fear
may we place at his feet
all that we have and all that we are,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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