Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Monday, May 5, 2014

Easter songs....ugh!

- This is where I could get crossed out of the book of life!
We were good little Christian people and attended the local Good Friday service and the Easter Sunday service. The Good Friday service was led by the Parish Council. There were readings and prayers and I appreciated them. But as I sang the songs (ones I had no doubt chosen myself in years gone by) I realised how much I had changed. At various points I had to stop singing. Here are some sample words...
"Who am I
That for my sake
My Lord should take
frail flesh and die."
"Jesus, all grace supplying
turn thou thy face on me..."

"Be thou my consolation
My shield when I must die
remind me of thy passing
when my last hour draws nigh"
"There is a green hill far away
without a city wall,
where the dear Lord was crucified
who died to save us all."

"we believe it was for us
he hung and suffered there."

"He died that we might be forgiven
he died to make us good
he died that we might go at last to heaven
saved by his precious blood."

"There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin
he only could unlock the gate
of heaven and let us in."
Those who have spent time in Church will know the familiar theme. One young man in my old Church used to repeat the theme like this:
1.            God’s justice says there can be no forgiveness without the spilling of blood. (Old Testament sacrificial system)
2.            There had to be a perfect offering because God's wrath demanded a perfect offering.
3.            But God loved us so much that He provided that perfect offering in the form of his divine Son who came to die as an offering in our place.
4.            Because of that we can be forgiven (if of course we believe all of the above) and God will let us go to heaven so that we get to have eternal life.
5.            That is essentially why Jesus came... to die for us so that we can go to heaven.
The hassle is I don't believe it! If it was true I would not worship a God like that. I would loathe him! I would not want to spend eternal life with him thank you very much!

Now I know that I probably have offended good Christian people and that some would say I am headed for the burning fires of hell. I will take my chances on that, I need to be honest to myself and to my experience of the sacred.  What I am saying is that I do not accept the "substitutionary" theory of the atonement that many Christian hymns, songs, liturgies and writings focus on. Secondly I do not think that Jesus' reason for being and ministering and dying was "so that we might go at last to heaven".
"Well what do you do with the Bible passages that seem to endorse the substitutionary theory of the atonement?” some would ask accusingly.
The story is told of the difficulty that missionaries and Bible translators had trying to translate the word “lamb” and “shepherd” in the scriptures for Eskimos who had never seen sheep or who had never known green pastures or seen shepherding.  The Bible has plenty of pictures of lamb, sheep and shepherd to explain experiences the people of Israel had with their God.  There is a sense when it comes to speaking about deep experiences in life all our language has to be metaphor.  Metaphor, however, is very much linked and tied to the culture in which we are placed. We use the familiar to explain the deep and unfamiliar.
A new experience of God
Let me tell you a story. In my last ministry there was a woman who rented a car park in the Church car park.  She ran a shop around the corner. She never looked very happy, always wore black and whenever I greeted her she tended to ignore my gesture of friendship.  The only real conversations I seemed to have with her were when she complained about some event in the car park. Though she was a good-looking woman, I pictured her as a grumpy, frosty woman.  I retired as minister and a week or so ago went to this lady’s shop with my wife to purchase some clothing for our family in Edinburgh. This woman I had seen as a “dragon” was personable, friendly, helpful and encouraging. My picture and experience of her changed dramatically. Now a similar thing happened for the early followers of Jesus.  They had known a God interpreted for them by the religious/political elite. This elite used religion to keep everyone in their place.  These elite presented a God of purity rules, who dictated who was in and who was out, who was acceptable and who did not measure up. But when they encountered Jesus they learned of a loving God like the father of the prodigal son. They now knew one who counted them all as acceptable. Their picture of God dramatically changed. Their experience of God was now a warm experience, an inclusive one, one of “Grace” ( the Apostle Paul’s favourite words) - unmerited favour.
Putting spiritual experience into words
How do you explain this to others? In their world and in their culture what metaphors communicate this deep new spiritual reality? They had in their religion a sacrificial system. Forgiveness required a price and it now felt like the price was paid! Secondly they were used to a slavery system. Slaves found freedom when someone redeemed them. They now felt free! They used these metaphors of sacrifice and redemption to explain this new spiritual experience. They were metaphors describing their religious experience. I do not believe they were ever intended to be a description of metaphysical/spiritual “deals” that God did by providing his son as a “price”.  The emperor Constantine forced the Church into drawing up definitive creeds and so these colourful metaphors began to be set in concrete as “dogma”. Once again religion was used to control people and keep them in their place. We have for centuries misread the original writings and for years distorted the picture of the God Jesus sensed a partnership with.
Why Jesus died…
·      Jesus died because his way of love and his teachings cut across the system that economically favoured their position.
·      Jesus died because the inclusiveness of his lifestyle challenged the purity system that kept everyone in their place and reinforced the elite in their position of privilege and power.
·      Jesus died because he loved so much that he did not divert from his way of love, and even symbolically challenged the forces of military power.
·      Jesus died because he was open to, and embodied the Kingdom of God (the ways and currents of God’s life)
·       When we are open to Jesus and his way, we participate in this flow of life and in scriptural terminology enter “eternal life” (a divine quality about our living) and “the Kingdom of God.” (the activity and flow of the sacred life within the world)

Much more can be written about this, but for me we discover the truth of Easter when we are open to the freedom of loving as Jesus loved. We discover the exciting freedom and life giving power found in God’s way of giving as Jesus gave.  The paradox within the way of Jesus and indeed in life; In giving we receive: In losing our lives we find them; In serving we find true greatness. 

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