If you were to worship in an American conservative evangelical church that hasn’t yet sold its soul to the prosperity Gospel, there is a good chance you may soon hear a sermon about the cross.
Not so in many Mainline churches. I have been ruminating about why this is, given the cross’ important place in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s writings, of which the Epistle Lesson appointed for tomorrow, 2 Corinthians 5:16-2, is a prime example.
This passage is clearly about the atonement, which was a word invented by Tyndale (“at-one-ment”) to translate the same Greek word that is also translated as “reconciliation.”
I expect there will be many sermons preached from it in “our” pulpits on how we need to be ambassadors of reconciliation, which is an important message and one I have preached myself.
But what you are less likely to hear is why we Christians are to be ambassadors of reconciliation. And that reason is clearly because “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” which goes right to the heart of the Gospel, the act of God in Christ that became known as the atonement.
I have stopped using the term “liberal,” because it’s practically useless as a identifier, and its new substitute “progressive” carries political baggage that I find unhelpful. I realize “mainline” has its own problems, but at least it covers a wider range of both theological and political positions.
So why do “we” (by whatever name) generally like the idea of reconciliation, yet not like the idea of atonement, even though they mean the same thing?
I have some thoughts. One reason is some bad teaching in some of our seminaries, based on a view (false, in my view) that the cross is a bad business that perpetuates violence, which I have addressed elsewhere. There is a current cottage industry making the rounds with this view, and many of our newer ministers, indoctrinated by it, are just uncomfortable or downright hostile to any atonement theology, however nuanced.
Another reason is that many folks who end up with our denominations are refugees from various traditions that have had excessive or morbid preoccupations with “the power of the blood,” and/or who have been subject to formulaic atonement theories that make God into a monster that needs blood sacrifice. I have addressed that as well, in my book, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement.
I realize that some atonement theories can be monstrous, and I am aware of Stanley Hauerwas’s typically biting comment that if “you need a theory to worship Christ, go worship your theory.”
Nevertheless, what the word atonement connotes is at the crux (which is Latin for cross ) of our Gospel and proclamation if we are still to be called Christians.
And “the power of the blood,” however it has been misused, is just theological shorthand for Christ dying on our behalf, an act of the triune God, that does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, namely reconciling us to God and to one another. This is why Paul says we are now ambassadors of reconciliation.
Yesterday I sent out a Passion hymn text to a number of my colleagues, thinking they might want to use it on Passion/Palm Sunday or during Holy Week. Most thanked me, some said they would use it, but several said they had a problem with the” blood“ in it.
The first verse is:
“He died upon the lonely tree
forsaken by his God.
And yet his death means all to me
and saves me by his blood.”
If you want to see the rest of the hymn it can be found here.
As Passiontide and Good Friday loom, “we” might do well to ask ourselves just what it is we are going to preach about if “the work of Christ” and its symbolic language is off limits?