Sermon preached at Evensong on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity 2023

Discerning the will of God for our lives and obeying God’s commandments.

The Right Reverend Anthony Ball Canon in Residence

Sunday, 8th October 2023 at 3.00 PM

Whoever says, ‘I abide in him’ ought to walk just as he walked.

Both of our readings this evening point in a similar direction—discerning the will of God for our lives and obeying God’s commandments. The trouble is, as we know only too well, even we understand what is demanded of us all too often we fall short of the ideal. Whilst, as Proverbs says, ‘the Lord gives wisdom’ and ‘is a shield to those who walk blamelessly’ what happens when we don’t ‘walk just as he walked’ even though we are desperately seeking to ‘abide in him’? Well, here St John has the answer ‘if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and [moreover] he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins’. It is this idea of atoning or atonement, at-one-ment, that I am going to explore a little more this evening. As Christians we often hear that ‘Jesus died for our sins on the cross’ but we less often look into the question of just why he had to die and how it is that his death deals with our sins. Over the course of Christian history there have been many theories offered in answer to these questions.

Probably the earliest sees Jesus' death as a ransom payment made in order to free humanity from the bondage of sin and death into which Adam and Eve had dragged us. As it says in Mark 10: 45 ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.’ Classically it is understood that the ransom was paid to Satan and it is the portrayal of God needing to negotiate with the devil and meet his demands which is the main objection to Ransom Theory.

Getting round this, another early theory, first proposed by Irenaeus in the 2nd century AD, sees Jesus as the second Adam and coming to earthy to re-write or recapitulate the human story. Christ lived a sinless life, died on the cross and rose again from the dead to reverse the effects of sin and restore human beings to their original state of righteousness, reconciled us to God.

900 or so years later the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury articulated the Satisfaction Theory which states that humans have sinned against God and offended His honour. The sacrificial death of Jesus is the ultimate act of obedience and restores God’s honour, allowing us to share in ‘satisfying’ that honour (Romans 6: 23). Unlike with the ransom theory the debt was owed to God rather than Satan. Still, it doesn’t leave a particularly positive impression of God’s mercy and implies that God actually requires violence to forgive humanity.

That kind of problem led another medieval theologian Peter Abelard to move away from legalistic aspects of atonement, such as the payment of a penalty, and develop what is known as the Moral Influence Theory. This suggests that the primary purpose of the Cross was not to satisfy divine justice or appease God's wrath, but to show mankind the fullness of God’s love, resulting in softened hearts, repentance, and righteousness—as we read in Ephesians 5: 1–2, ‘be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’. With this approach atonement is not directed toward God but toward humanity. Through his example of selfless love, sacrifice, and forgiveness, Jesus Christ shows us the way to live in harmony with God and with one another, reconciled. As with Recapitulation Theory, though, objections can be raised by those looking for an account of the sacrificial language about Jesus’s death that we find in Scripture.

So, another 400 years or so will bring us to the Reformation and the argument from the likes of Luther and Calvin that God's justice required punishment for sin and that this punishment could only be satisfied by the death of a perfect and sinless sacrifice. Since Jesus was both fully God and fully human, his death on the cross was a substitutionary sacrifice in which he took on the punishment that humanity deserved for its sins. ‘The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin’, as we heard in this evening’s reading. This approach, which is still prevalent in western Protestantism today, is known as the Penal Substitution Theory—Jesus is the substitution for the penalty we deserve. It is as if, as our Advocate, or lawyer, before the Divine Judge he repeatedly says as cases come up—yes, this one committed the crime, but I’ve already taken the rap for it.

This theory emphasizes that the punishment Jesus endured on the cross was not only physical but also spiritual. Critics argue it portrays God as a wrathful and vengeful judge (ignoring His love and mercy) and that sin ‘forced’ God’s hand to do something (contrary to ideas of God's sovereignty we find in the Bible). The sense that God does, or has already done, all the work can also have practical consequences for how we act.

In response to unease about these objections Gustaf Aulen (who died in 1977) developed a theory that has gained considerable popularity in several Christian traditions. The Christus Victor Theory. According to this Christ-the-Victor theory, the death and resurrection of Jesus was a confrontation with and victory over the powers of evil, sin and death, freeing humanity from bondage and, inaugurating a new era of salvation and redemption. We read in the letter to the Colossians (2: 12–15) ‘when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead... erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. The theory also stresses the ongoing work of Christ in the world through his Church. Although if does not have a legalistic element, Aulen argued that the early church fathers actually believed Jesus’ death—as a ransom—had the purpose of rescuing and liberating humanity from evil, which had enslaved us to sin, rather than it being a price paid to the devil.

So, that modern theory takes us back to the very first one that developed in the Church. There are many different variations of these theories and, indeed, others—which points to the difficulty of simply settling on one of them as the full or definitive explanation of the atonement. But, because 7 is a biblical number and I have only given 6, I am going to offer you one more. It comes from the work of Rene Girard, who died only about eight years ago and is called Scapegoat Theory.

This shifts the blame for the violence we see on the Cross from God to humans. The argument is that human violence is the result of mimetic desire, or the tendency of individuals to imitate the desires and actions of others. This leads to violence as individuals compete for objects of desire. Girard shows how societies throughout human history have selected scapegoats—a person or group who is blamed for the problems and conflicts within the community—on whom to focus their violence as a means to prevent more widespread communal violence. The scapegoat is then expelled, punished, or even killed in order to restore order and unity. Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat and his crucifixion exposes the practice of victimising those who are different or on the margins. It permanently ends the need to scapegoat individuals and groups of people in the future, so inaugurating the Kingdom of God. Obviously, it may be objected that this new theory doesn’t approach atonement in the more traditional ways.

But perhaps that is just the point. Thankfully, at the end of the day, those of us who are Christians do not see ourselves as saved by theories, rather by a person—Jesus! How that happens is something we have explored a little this evening—but the reality is that the who matters a whole lot more than the how! So, may you abide in him and strive to walk just as he walked.