Reconciliation and Atonement

March 18. 2018               Lent V

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Today, the last Sunday of our Lenten theme of reconciliation, we will talk about the source of all our hope of reconciliation: God’s reconciliation with us in Jesus Christ.

Let us start with the epistle reading, which I chose to speak to our theme: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”

Now, the first thing that struck me as I pondered this passage, is that reconciliation is not the word the church usually uses to talk about the saving work of Christ. The more common word is . . . atonement.

What’s the difference. Many theologians say, reconciliation and atonement are the same thing. The word atonement comes from the Middle English “at-one-ment”, and it describes how we are made one with God, which sounds like a pretty good description of reconciliation.

Well, that may be where it comes from, but it’s not the way we use the word today. Atonement has a very particular meaning that goes beyond reconciliation. When we say, someone has to atone for something they’ve done, we don’t just mean they need to seek reconciliation. We mean they have to pay a price: they have to suffer in a way that corresponds to the wrong they have done.

That’s actually a very different idea than reconciliation. We can see this difference if we think about the criminal justice system. Our justice system is based on the idea of atonement, that criminals must be punished for their crimes. That may be true: there is a real sense of justice that demands that people who have cynically hurt others shouldn’t just get off scot-free. But the problem, we are discovering, is that this approach to justice doesn’t actually do anything for reconciliation, for restoring the offender to society and making peace with the victims. This is an area in which a different approach is needed, something we have come to call restorative justice, where attention is paid to restoring the offender’s relationship to society. A new approach is needed precisely because atonement and reconciliation are not the same thing.

When it comes to talking about Jesus’s saving act, the language of atonement has become dominant. I’m sure you all know how the account goes: God’s justice demands atonement for our sins; we cannot pay the price of our sins, so our lives are forfeit; only the perfect victim is good enough to cover our sins; so God sent his Son to be sacrificed for our sake; his blood alone is sufficient to assuage the wrath of God.

We all know this theory of atonement. It is woven into countless old hymns: “There was no other good enough, to pay the price of sin . . .” We all know this theory, and a great many of us have enormous difficulty accepting it. To many people, this theory seems to make God a monster, demanding blood as punishment for sin. We talked last week about forgiveness, and the heroic ways in which some people have found it in their hearts to forgive someone who has hurt them badly. When we compare those stories to this theory of atonement, it seems to make God incapable of that kind of forgiveness, and so morally inferior to us – which just doesn’t make sense.

Now, there are some things that are true in this theory of atonement. The idea, for example, that we can’t fully atone for our shortcomings ourselves. You don’t have to be a mass murderer, just an ordinary person who has made your share of mistakes, to realize that you will never be able to run around making everything right that you have messed up in your life. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, just that we have to accept that we will never be able to fix everything.

So we are dependent on mercy, on that thing we call the grace of God: the truth that we are forgiven and loved even when we can’t fix all the wrong we have done. But there is also a sense in which mercy and justice are often in tension with each other. That is, there is such a thing as cheap grace, as forgiveness that is demanded too easily. Justice demands a price for the wrong we have done, even if that price is just true regret and sorrow.

We can see this at work in celebrity apologies, such as we have been hearing a lot of lately. You know, when a privileged, powerful person stands up and says “I’m sorry if I offended you by what I did, but now you have to forgive me so I can get on with my charmed life”. Well, I think we rightly feel something is missing in this kind of apology. Justice still has its claim.

That’s what the idea of atonement gets right. But when it takes this idea to the extreme, and talks about the wrath of God demanding the blood sacrifice of his Son – well, then we are right to feel that something has gone off the rails theologically. Sometimes we try to explain too much, try to come up with a closed, neat explanation for mysteries that are deeper than simple logic, and that’s when we get into trouble.

This idea of atonement is so widespread, so ingrained in our traditional church culture, that this might come as a surprise: the word atonement is not a Biblical word. It does appear in the Old Testament, around some of the Temple sacrifices, but it is not a word the New Testament normally uses to talk about what Jesus came to accomplish. Instead, the word that St. Paul prefers, is reconciliation. Again and again, we heard it in the second reading:

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

And I wonder – what difference does it make in how we understand Jesus and his saving work, when we use the word reconciliation instead of atonement?

Well, first of all it takes the focus off of his death alone. The cross is still important, but not as a one-off blood sacrifice. Instead, the cross makes sense in the context of Jesus’s whole life and ministry. God reconciled himself to us through Christ, through the whole of Christ’s life.

Reconciliation begins with his birth, with the incarnation, where God drew near to us as Emmanuel, God with us: so very near, in the intimacy of sharing our flesh and blood, of living our life, of understanding and sharing our weakness, our fears, our vulnerability. God’s reconciliation begins with God coming to us where we live.

Reconciliation is the theme of his whole ministry: in his call to repentance, to a new life; in his reaching out to the lost sheep, the marginalized, the excluded, the sinners; in his inviting us to the kingdom, to a new community where God’s intentions might be lived out in our lives.

It is against that background that we come to the cross, to the reconciliation that comes from Jesus’s choice to follow our earthy life to the bitter end – indeed to the bitterest end that a human life can have, crushed and humiliated by the power of the arrogant. Christ died for our sins: this is undeniably true, but not as an arbitrary blood price demanded by God, but quite literally, because of our sins. It was human sin, and human sin alone, that brought Jesus to the cross. It was cruelty, and the cynical drive for power and dominance, and fear of anyone who is different, and jealousy, and hatred of what is gentle and true. If anything good came out of it, it was only because of the power to God to heal and transform even our worst sins.

And now we come to the core of the question: how are our sins forgiven, how are they transformed, redeemed? Only by bearing pain. Cruelty, indifference, domination, hatred: these things produce pain, wherever they are found. That pain is a fact, it is simply there. We have talked about examples of that kind of pain in recent weeks: the pain left by the residential schools, the pain of a young woman losing her father to murder. You could add your own stories of pain, no doubt. And heres the thing: the pain that our evil deeds have caused must not just be swept under the carpet. It must not be left with the victims to suffer in silence. That is what atonement gets right, the truth that this pain needs to be dealt with. Because pain is there, it needs to be borne; it needs to be carried in our hearts until it can be transformed by forgiveness and healing. But forgiveness and healing are not instant, automatic, easy things: they take time, they take work, they take sacrifice, which is why pain needs to be borne.

That is what the cross means to me. It is the sign that God’s reconciling love has taken all the pain of this world into God’s own heart. All the pain that human cruelty and selfishness and indifference has caused is carved into the heart of God, just as sure as the marks of the nails and spear were carved into the flesh of Jesus. God, Emmanuel, God with us, has consented to bear all our pain with us, until it finds healing and reconciliation, until all things, all lives, have been made whole again in the kingdom.

Finally, God’s reconciliation is seen also in the resurrection of Jesus: in the promise that, when we have done our worst, the infinite power of God, the source of all life – God’s infinite capacity to bear pain – will still bring healing and wholeness.

It is the promise that, in the words of Desmond Tutu:

Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death.
Victory is ours, through Him who loved us.

And so, as we approach this holiest of seasons, when we rehearse once again the story of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are invited to share just a bit in the pain of the passion; to bear the suffering of Jesus – and with it the suffering of all God’s creatures – in our hearts. We do this not because pain is good in itself; it is not, it is evil, but it is also real, it exists. What is good is the bearing of pain in love and compassion, because that is the only path to reconciliation and healing. It is the work of God in this world, and we are invited to share in it.