When a friend asked me, “what does it mean that Jesus died for my sins?” my first impulse was to tell him, “I don’t have a clue.” Although that would not have been true, I realized that, when I hear stuff like that, I feel impatient and irritated. How have we come so far from a message of love to a message of fear?
We have to imagine an angry God out to get us if we don’t dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s. And to have imposed a message that this angry God killed his own son on my behalf, and for that I’m supposed to be grateful rather than scared, is untenable. It’s no wonder to me that the fastest growing religious organization in this country is the “church alumni association.” If we haven’t been scared into heaven, we just want out of the place trying to scare us there.
Although I, personally, started out in that terrified place, there that’s not where I am now. In the African-American church, one hears, “Jesus takes you where he finds you, but he doesn’t leave you there.” To that I can only say “Amen.”
I’m impatient and irritated because those frightened people with frightening beliefs keep a lot of people from doing some of the work God needs them to do. I don’t believe God gives up on people, but for those who join the church alumni association there is a sense, at best, that that stuff is irrelevant and, at worst, there remains an underlying of fear of divine punishment at a later time.
While thinking about all of this way of understanding God, I got hold of a book by Rob Bell entitled: “Love Wins.” Rob Bell is a preacher who came from an evangelical background, and he tackles the question of a punitive God head on. He knows his Bible well and assures his readers, “No matter how painful, brutal, oppressive, no matter how far people find themselves from home because of their sin, indifference, and rejection, there’s always the assurance that it won’t be this way forever.” He quotes from Lamentations 3, Hosea 14, and Zephaniah 3, backing up his claim. As far as I’m concerned, he also clarifies the fact that there is not a God of the Old Testament and a God of the New Testament. There is God. He says, “God is love and love is a relationship. This relationship is one of joy, and it can’t be contained.” Now there’s some really good news!
Bell expands to say that, “Life has never been about just “getting in.” It’s about thriving in God’s good world. It’s stillness, peace, and that feeling of your soul being at rest, while at the same time it’s about asking things, learning things, creating things, and sharing it all with others who are finding the same kind of joy.
An unspoken concern underlying all of this is the question of being “saved”. I remember being at a conference with members of other faiths. The Muslim commented that because the Quran is always in Arabic and in one version only, there are no problems of translation. There are for Christians. One has to do with the term “save”. The word “soter” in Greek refers to healing. In English, “salvation” is related to salve, again healing. Somehow we’ve shifted emphasis to being safe or rescued, which isn’t often the intent in the original languages. But thinking of people who come to Jesus, he often tells them, “your faith (or trust) has saved (or healed) you.” Somehow we’ve twisted meanings.
So to return to my friend’s question, I’d say that Jesus’ death on a cross is one way of expressing the deep connection Jesus has with our lives. There’s nothing we experience that he doesn’t know about. The connection is both human and divine. For me this connection is reiterated each time I take communion and remember that Jesus instituted it, “on the night he was betrayed.” What could be more human?
My friend was once churched. I’m sorry that’s no longer true because we, truly, form Christ’s body, and each of us is needed, with our individual gifts. Each of us needs to be part of something bigger than those gifts, and especially the places in our lives where others truly can provide what we can’t for ourselves.
I hope that my impatience and irritation have the potential to lead others to a new and deeper understanding of how our lives intersect with Christ’s life.
The Rev. Dorothy Price Knudson is retired from active ministry in the Presbyterian Church, but still preaches regularly at various local churches and Presbyterian churches in the Eastern Oregon Presbytery. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.