Proper 28 (November 13-19)
Texts: Mark 13:1-8;
Heb 10:11-25; Dan 12:1-3
GOD IS SAVING CREATION FROM THE SIN OF . . . HUMAN VIOLENCE
Last week as I began my time with you as Bridge Pastor, I introduced you to my constant concern: how do we invite our children’s and grandchildren’s generations back to church? I believe that the most important key is to revitalize our basic Christian message. I told the story of a thirty year-old woman named Charis, who expressed a common concern for her generation, when she told my friend Brian,
“I know about climate change and nuclear war and economic inequality and all that. The world is in such a mess! I don’t just want to be a good, happy, fulfilled, spiritual consumer while it all goes down the toilet. I want to be part of a group, a movement, that’s trying to . . . you know, save it. There. I said it. I want to be part of a community that isn’t obsessed with just saving their own damned souls, but that actually wants to try to save this world that we’re on the verge of destroying.” (Brian McLaren, Faith after Doubt, 134)
She wants to be part of a community working to literally save the world. If that sounds a bit foreign to our ears, it’s because for many generations the focus of our Christian message has been on us being saved for the afterlife. Sometimes, talk about saving the world has even been categorized by we Lutherans as being too much about “works righteousness.” In thinking about salvation, we have thought in terms almost exclusively of Jesus saving us from our sins as blocking our way to heaven. Trying to save the world seems to only get us into trouble, leading us into more sin. It’s better to focus, we have thought, on getting to heaven when we die. That’s what salvation has basically meant for us . . . getting to heaven when we die.
What I’m proposing to you is that this way of messaging salvation not only doesn’t work anymore for our children’s and grandchildren’s generations — young people like Charis who truly are concerned about saving this world. I’m also saying that that way of messaging salvation doesn’t really fit the Bible’s message. Scholars are telling us that Jesus’s Good News — The kingdom of God is at hand! — became on Easter the message of New Creation. God in Jesus Christ is working to save the entire creation and calling us to join in. Jesus greets his disciples on Easter evening and immediately says, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). If our children and grandchildren are concerned about saving this world, then our message to them can be, “So is God concerned! God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to save it (John 3:16), and now Jesus is sending us!”
O.K. So we’re talking about revitalizing our basic message of salvation. Last week was about answering a first basic question: What is God trying to save in sending Jesus? And our first answer is: God is trying to save the entire creation, not just a few human souls. This week, we need to take on another small piece of our messaging with a follow-up question: What is God trying to save the creation from? The traditional answer is: human sinfulness. God is working through Christ to save the world from sin. But I think we can be more specific than that. There’s one most preeminent sin that we literally need saving from. We’ve come to think that it’s all our sins (sins in the plural) that are the problem. God would punish us from any and all of our sins by sending us to hell when we die. That’s what God sent Jesus to save us from . . . the penalty for our sins.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, in my time with you I hope to unbind us (like Lazarus was unbound in last week’s Gospel Reading) from that way of thinking about sin. I won’t be able to do it all in one week, but I need to get us started this week by focusing in on one Sin that I believe is a focus in the Bible. That sin is . . . human violence — all the ways in which we harm one another and even kill one another — and that includes the way we harm the creation, our earth home.
Have you ever noticed that when we sing “Lamb of God,” as we begin to receive Communion, that we sing, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world”? Sin in the singular, not sins in the plural. This is accurate from the passage it comes from: John the Baptist sees Jesus coming to be baptized and proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). If we had to focus on one sin above others, think about which sin is most specifically and literally represented on the cross. Jesus literally dies at the hands of our sin of violence. We execute him on the cross. I believe that it is the sin which Jesus most specifically came to save us from — the sin of human violence.
Think about it. In the opening quote from Charis, she names, “climate change and nuclear war and economic inequality and all that.” Nuclear war is clearly about violence. Climate change is about the harm we are doing to our earth home, damage that will lead to many uninhabitable places, causing mass migration and violence. Economic inequality? I believe that Mahatma Gandhi was in synch with the message of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus, when he said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” I invite us to think about all our current crises in terms of our human violence, the various ways — both personal and systemic — that we human beings bring harm to each other and to our earth home. When we look at the big problems that face us as human beings today, don’t most or all of them involve forms of our violence? Whether it’s as far away as the melting polar ice caps, or as close to home as the Kyle Rittenhouse trial? As we look around the world which we are leaving for our children and grandchildren, how on-point is the Gospel of Jesus as saving us from our violence!?
Have you noticed that the Bible is also quite filled with violence? Right from the very beginning. The first man and woman eat from the forbidden tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the next story is about their first son killing his brother. After some chapters about who begat who — mixed in with comments about revenge stemming from Cain killing Abel now spiraling out of control through the generations (see, for example, Lamech claiming the right of vengeance seventy-seven-fold compared to Cain’s seven-fold in Genesis 4:22-23) — the next story is about the great Flood. Why is everyone on earth destroyed except Noah and his family? We are told quite simply: “The earth was filled with violence” (Gen 6:11). The Bible is very honest about showing us the problem we human beings have with violence — from the very beginning all the way to its apocalyptic ending in the Book of Revelation. In my time here as your Bridge Pastor, I hope to help you understand how to read the Bible as the long journey of God working to save us from our own violence.
With today’s readings from Scripture, I’d like to focus on one particularly difficult form of human violence, ritual blood sacrifice. Placing animals, and originally even human beings, on altars and killing them as offerings to the gods. Ugh! This is so alien to us! But it is a crucial part of the biblical journey, so we need to try to understand it.
For a number of weeks, our Second Readings from the Letter to the Hebrews has been arguing that Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross is the sacrifice which ends all ritual blood sacrifice. Our Gospel Reading today relates Jesus’s prophecy that the Temple in Jerusalem, the place of ritual blood sacrifice in the Jewish culture, would be destroyed — which it was by the Romans about thirty years after he prophesied its demise. This was a big deal, since all the cultures at that time revolved around ritual blood sacrifice.1
It’s also a big deal for us, too, even though ritual blood sacrifice is no longer at the heart of our cultures. It’s logic still is. Let me explain. The logic of old-time blood sacrifice is that smaller doses of violence are needed to ward-off and contain larger outbreaks of violence. This might be easier for us to understand during a pandemic, because here’s the thing: the idea behind ritual blood sacrifice is the same logic as behind vaccinations. Ritual blood sacrifice was practiced as a vaccination of sorts against human violence. We understand that the COVID vaccine is a small, inert dose that mimics the virus itself and thus gets our immune system to build resistance against it. Ingenious. A small dose of the disease in order to protect us from the disease. That’s the role that ritual blood sacrifice played in ancient cultures: a smaller dose of the disease of violence — actually killing someone on an altar — in order to contain wider outbreaks.
As I said, the logic of sacrifice lives on in other ways in our cultures. There’s a brief story about British explorer James Cook, who charted the Polynesian Islands for Westerners.2 His favorite place was Tahiti, primarily because he loved the people. They were so warm and welcoming and generous. They were also quite peaceful. But on one of his trips to Tahiti, after they had grown to trust him, the king invited Cook to one of their major festivals — at the end of which it climaxed with a ritual human sacrifice. The king, thinking Cook would be impressed, asked what he thought. Cook, after picking up his jaw from the ground, said, “If you did that in England, we would hang you for it.” Do you see? James Cook was quite oblivious to the fact that execution is simply an updated form of ritual sacrifice. In James Cook’s England, execution was a practice of smaller doses of violence in order to prevent wider outbreaks of violence. And just as the gods demanded ritual blood sacrifice in ancient cultures, the God in James Cook’s England also demanded the execution of duly tried and convicted murderers. God and king and the rule of law.
The logic of sacrifice is also present in warfare. If we go back a couple centuries earlier than James Cook, the Spanish Conquistadores slaughtered the Aztecs in war. Cook said, “We’d hang you in England for practicing human sacrifice.’ Why did the Conquistadors so mercilessly slaughter the Aztecs? They justified it because the Aztecs were “pagans” who practiced human sacrifice — again, without realizing that their warring slaughter was but an updated form of human sacrifice.
So let’s dare to bring this closer to home. In our own land, how did we justify slaughtering so many Native Americans, or ripping millions of Africans from their continent to brutally enslave them? Didn’t we justify it on the basis of their being “pagans” who still practiced ritual forms of sacrifice? Our law and order is also based on just the right dose of violence to contain wider outbreaks of it.
This is uncomfortable, or even unsettling, to think about. Why do so? Let’s keep in mind our children and grandchildren and why they’re no longer here with us at church. I believe they have learned to sniff out the sacrificial logic that still lingers in our messaging.3 At the very least, we have not been clear enough in our counter-messaging to old-time sacrifice, and younger folks are tired of all the violence and justification for violence. They crave another way. They yearn for messaging that leads to real peace.
So let’s conclude this morning by being crystal clear. When we sing, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world,” this is a mixed metaphor meant to proclaim that we follow Jesus who takes away the logic of old-time sacrifice from us, both the ancient forms and the modern ones. The “Lamb of God” part is a clear metaphor for the ancient form: ritual blood sacrifice. But we also know full well how Jesus came to take that away: by letting himself be sacrificed in the modern way: namely, by being executed after undergoing trials in our human courts of law, both Jewish and Roman. God and king and rule of law. We need to be clear, then, about both ancient ritual blood sacrifice and modern societies based on the rule of law: these represent our human ways of trying to contain violence, but not God’s way. God in Jesus Christ has a different way to not only contain violence but to end it. Which brings us to next week’s (Christ the King B) piece of revitalized messaging: how God in sending Jesus is saving the world from human violence. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, November 14, 2021
1. This is such a big deal, in fact, that it is one of the big reasons that the early Christian communities finally took the step of writing Gospels — to explain how Jesus came to prophesy a different alternative for Jews to stand against the Romans than the violent means which caused their destruction. Mark, the first Gospel known to be written, was authored in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction in 70CE, with Mark 13 one of its most important elements. It was time to let everyone know in writing that Jesus of Nazareth had not only prophesied the Temple’s destruction but that his Gospel was about God’s kingdom coming as an alternative to the violent ways of human kingdoms.
2. I first came across this story about Captain James Cook in Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 67ff.
3. More on this next week, as we examine substitutionary atonement theory — the theology of the cross that says, ‘God’s justice is right to condemn us to eternal punishment if not for Jesus Christ stepping in to take the punishment for us.’ This represents a lapse right back into the old-time sacrificial logic, where God is the sacrificer! No! Jesus’ death means to reveal to us the opposite. God never demanded sacrifice. That’s not how God is saving us from our violence. Sacrifice is our way to contain violence. Jesus let himself be sacrificed — his self-sacrifice — in order to give us a better way.