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CrossJan2014 Second Talk, January Adventure, St. Simonís Island Marcus Borg

 

What I Wish All Christians Knew about the Cross

Prologue: To begin with the obvious, the cross is the most central and common Christian symbol. The most widespread understanding today is that it symbolizes Jesus dying to pay for our sins so that we can be forgiven. Yet the payment understanding of Jesusís death has serious historical and theological problems.

I. The Most Familiar Understanding for Almost 1000 Years: As Payment for Sin

*Semi-technical designations: the substitutionary or satisfaction understanding of Jesusís death: he died in our place to satisfy the debt we owe to God

*Goes with common Christianityís emphasis on sin and forgiveness as the central dynamic in the Christian life

*Central to evangelical Christianity. From Christianity Today, the most thoughtful evangelical magazine in the States: "No Substitute for the Substitute." Most recently, "Jesus fully satisfied God for me" (Sept. 2013, p. 37).

*Many of us, Catholic as well as Protestant, grew up with it. Good Friday memories:

"O Sacred Head Now Wounded": Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain"

"Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended": Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee. ĎTwas I Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee. I crucified thee."

"Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?"

*Shapes the meaning of "atonement" and "sacrifice" for many Christians who are not evangelicals. Neither is intrinsically about payment. So also it shapes much Eucharistic language. For many Christians, itís "the default position," shaping how we hear language about Jesusís death.

II. Problems With the Payment Understanding: Historical and Theological

1. Historically, It Is Not Central in the First 1000 Years of Christianity. In the NT, it is at most a minor metaphor, and some scholars say itís not there at all.

*First systematically articulated by Anselm in Cur Deus Homo (1098). His purpose: to provide a rational argument for the necessity of the incarnation and death of Jesus. *He used a model drawn from his cultural setting: the relationship between a medieval lord and his subjects. When a subject disobeyed the lord, could he forgive if he wanted to? No. For that would suggest that disobedience didnít matter very much. Instead, payment, satisfaction, must be made so that the lordís honor and order are maintained. Anselm then applied this model to our relationship with God. God cannot simply forgive; sin must be paid for. But only somebody who was sinless could pay the price of other peopleís sins. Hence the necessity of Jesus, the God-man, perfect and without sin.

2. Theological Problems

*Makes Jesusís death part of Godís plan of salvation Ė indeed, Godís will

*Emphasizes Godís wrath and that it must be satisfied. But is that what God is like?

*Makes Jesusís life less important than this death, and thus obscures his message and what he was passionate about. Mel Gibsonís movie The Passion of the Christ

*Makes believing in Jesus more important than following him (creates what Dallas Willard called "vampire Christians")

*Makes Easter irrelevant. That is, there is no intrinsic connection between Jesusís death and resurrection. What matters most is his death.

III. The Alternative to the Payment Understanding: The Twofold Meaning of Cross and Resurrection, Good Friday and Easter

1. The Cross as Execution by "The Powers," the Authorities. Its Political Meaning

*Jesus didnít just die. He was killed, and in a particular way: crucifixion was an imperial form of execution reserved for those who defied imperial authority.

*Why did they kill him? Because they were doing Godís will, even if they didnít know that???? No. But because his message about "the kingdom of God" on earth challenged the way the domination system had put the world together. This is the political meaning of Good Friday: it is the domination systemís "No" to Jesus and what he was passionate about. This also gives a political meaning to Easter: Easter is Godís "No" to the powers that killed Jesus and Godís "Yes" to Jesus and his passion for the kingdom of God.

*One of Paulís shorthand summaries of the gospel of Jesus: "Christ crucified." In that world, a cross was always a Roman cross.

2. As Archetype of Personal Transformation

*Dying and rising as a cross-cultural archetype of radical transformation. Joseph Campbell: The Hero with a Thousand Faces goes to the land of the dead and returns

*The gospels: following Jesus is about following him on the path of dying and rising

*Paul: I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2); dying and rising as the foundation of Christian identity (Rom 6)

*John: being born again, born of the Spirit

*Dying to an old identity and way of being (conferred by "this world") and being born into a new identity and way of being centered "in Christ," "in the Spirit," "in God" Ėa way of life marked by compassion, freedom, courage, gratitude, and a passion for justice and peace.

Conclusion: The Central Christian Symbol of Cross and Resurrection is about the twofold transformation at the center of the Christian life: personal and political. The cross is not about Jesus "doing it for us" so that we can be forgiven, but an invitation to participate in the path and passion we see in Jesus. It is not about substitution, but about participation. Not substitutionary atonement, but participatory atonement. It is about how we become one with God and with Godís passion for a transformed world. These two meanings of the cross correspond to deep human yearnings for transformationÖ