Atonement, Eucharist, Good News

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve been on here. What can I say? Life has been busy. Since I last checked in, I’ve hit several walls and come pretty close to a few break-downs. For now, though, things are going OK.

Shifting gears.

For Lent, as we’ve been doing for the last several years, we’ve had “guest preachers” from the pews share their perspectives on the texts we use in worship, how they impact the lives of those who are doing the preaching, things like that. I love this practice, not only for the practical reasons (mainly that it gives me a break from writing a couple of sermons in an already busy season), but also and especially because it gives the rest of the congregation a different perspective than mine all the time,  plus I think it raises people to different positions of leadership in the congregation. It’s not that everyone is called to become a preacher or a pastor, but those gifts DO exist among the saints in the pews, even if not on a full-time basis. I just really love doing this, and I’m always impressed with how the lay people who feel drawn to preach on occasion are able to work with the texts and communicate with the rest of the congregation just what it is in those scriptures that moves and shapes them in their lives.

One of the other benefits of the lay preacher series is that I wind up with some more time to pursue other things in the congregation. Things like teaching. Which I also love to do.

This Lent we decided (on the urging of Augsburg Fortress, who produced a new version of this publication) to study Luther’s “Small Catechism.” We spent a week going over the 10 Commandments, a week looking at “The Lord’s Prayer,” a week on the Apostles’ Creed, another week on Baptism. This week we’ll be wrapping up with the Sacrament of the Table.

As I’ve been thinking about this, even though I’m teaching primarily in line with traditional Lutheran thought, my own theological life has been deeply touched by Girardian thought, especially as interpreted by theologians like Michael Hardin. With that said, I wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve been digesting from Michael and others. That’s what follows here. Feel free to comment, agree, disagree, call me a heretic, whatever. I hope it gives you some, er, food for thought.


In the ancient world – let’s pick a date of 2000 BCE, just for argument’s sake – people in every culture believed in God, or more properly, in “the gods.” This wasn’t about intellectual assent to a god-concept or to a set of doctrines, but rather it was a set of practices including offering sacrifice to the deities. “Believing” equaled “making sacrifice.” Not making a sacrifice or making a poor one was a mark of infidelity and it brought about the curse or the wrath of the gods. But making a good sacrifice yielded blessings. The better the sacrifice, the greater the blessing. Firstborn boys and virgin girls made excellent sacrifices in most cultures.

Sacrifice, then, was practical theology. It was the way in which religion and culture were both formed and practiced.

This is no less true of the ancient Hebrews. The first major modification in their culture/religion is that they stopped sacrificing to the many gods, and began offering sacrifice to the One, True God. At first, this God they saw as the greatest among many, but eventually (perhaps because they stopped sacrificing to the many gods?) they came to believe in and sacrifice ONLY to the One God, seeing the many gods as mere idols. After some time, they stopped offering human victims to this One God (see the linguistic shift in the story known as “The Binding of Isaac”), moving to a “lesser” sacrifice of animals, especially goats, cattle, and sheep, but also turtle doves and other small animals.

By the time of the Prophets, even this lesser sacrifice was being called into question. Isaiah, Zechariah, Micah, Hosea, and even some of the Psalms begin to speak negatively about sacrifice.

While theologically-speaking, this diminished emphasis on sacrifice was occurring, on an anthropological, sociological level, the idea and practice of sacrifice carried on – not only among the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews, of course, but in all cultures — in other, less overt forms, especially through the practice of “scapegoating” a victim in times of tribal/cultural conflict or anxiety. As group cohesiveness would begin to appear threatened and anxiety began to rise, groups could find unity in locating and naming a guilty Other, then casting that person from the group, either by expulsion or by murder (usually carried out anonymously in mobs, so that no one person would bear the burden of murdering the scapegoat). Following this, the identified “problem” was “taken care of,” and unity would be restored … for a time. It would have to be repeated over and over again, but the more often it worked to restore unity, the more cemented the practice became.

There is also within this practice of scapegoating, a move by which the expelled/murdered victim moves from being seen as “the guilty one,” in terms of taking blame for the original problem, to being seen as holy, heroic, godly, because their death solved the group’s problem. They move from victim to rescuer of the people. The “sacrificial” killing of our victims gives us life.

It doesn’t require much of a stretch to see this applied to Jesus. The Gospel witness even attests to the unlikely friendship that developed between Herod and Pilate on account of the disposal of Jesus.

But Jesus was not to be the typical victim-turned-savior because this particular scapegoat returned from his expulsion “on the third day.” And in discontinuity with what most people would expect from a murdered victim, when he returned, rather than seeking revenge on his victimizers, he bore a message of peace. In forgiving those who denied and betrayed him, Jesus not only exposed the violent, murderous scapegoating process as a trap, thus giving humanity a chance to break the cycle of such violence, but also he took away the possibility for humans to use scapegoating as a means of seeing their violent activity as God-ordained. A murderous humanity actually attempted to sacrifice God to God, and as CS Lewis put it, the stone table (the altar) of death was shattered. The spell was broken. And a new possibility for living as non-violent, non-scapegoating, forgiving humanity grew up through the fissures.

This is a model of atonement most recently made popular by French sociologist Rene Girard, but the idea stretches back to the early church’s understanding of what God was up to in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, this is actually an ancient understanding of “atonement,” at-one-ment – the way God in Christ heals the broken relationship between humans and God, as well as between humans and their fellow creatures.

But this understanding became eclipsed in the church over time, and by the 17th century, a theory of penal substitutionary atonement, as espoused by John Calvin and others, came into vogue, both in Europe, and then through European resettlement to the North American continent, in the New World.

Part of this Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory reaches back into archaic religion/culture, and views the death of Jesus as a self-sacrifice to an angry God, as a means to appease this God’s wrath. This God is so holy and so honor-demanding that He (sic) cannot bear the sight of sin. He demands a sacrifice as restitution for the disobedience of sinful humanity. And so Jesus, although himself sinless, offers his own blood in place of ours, bears God’s wrath in his own person so that we don’t have to, thereby effecting our salvation. Jesus bears the penance (hence “penal”) in our place (hence “substitutionary”), stilling God’s anger so that we can be saved or brought back into God’s favor (“at-one-ment”).

Now, there are all kinds of problems with this view of what God was accomplishing for us in Christ on the cross, but that’s another discussion for another time. The reason I bring it up has to do with the ties between the Passion of Jesus and the meal we call the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

St. Paul writes (and we hear again each week in the “Words of Institution”):
On the night in which our Lord Jesus was handed over
he took the bread and gave thanks.
He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said,
Take this all of you and eat.
This is my body, which will be given up for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.

And after the supper was ended,
he took the cup and gave thanks,
then he gave it to his disciples, saying
Take this all of you and drink.
This cup is the new and everlasting covenant in my blood
which will be shed for you and for all people
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in remembrance of me.

According to Jesus, then, his body will be broken and given up “for you.” Likewise, his blood will be shed “for you and for all people” – for what? For the forgiveness of sins.

TO whom is Jesus being handed over to have his body broken and his blood shed? To God?
No. To the authorities: To Pilate as a representative of the occupying forces of Rome. To the Sanhedrin, the religious authorities. From Pilate to Herod, back to Pilate, to the people, who all cry “Crucify him!” It’s not God saying that. It’s the people, the powers, the principalities. But it’s not God.

FOR whom is he doing it? For God?
No. He explicitly says, “for you” and “for all people.”

This has nothing to do with appeasing a wrathful God, and everything to do with appeasing a wrathful, vengeful, violent humanity.

As Pastor Brian Zahnd puts it, “The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive: It’s what God endures in Christ as he forgives.”
The prophets were right: God doesn’t demand sacrifice, never mind sacrifice of the Father’s beloved Son, in order to forgive sinful humanity. But humanity DOES demand the sacrifice of the rabble rouser Jesus, who flagrantly violates religious laws and traditions of the elders; who refuses to pay homage to Caesar, but remains faithful to the Abba alone; who stands out as differentiated from the common people. There’s nothing worse in any human society than someone who dares to be different. They make themselves conspicuous, easy to pick out, easy to place blame on when the going gets rough.

In short, WE are the ones who break Jesus’ body. WE are the ones who shed his blood. WE are the ones who demand a sacrifice. God doesn’t command this or demand it in order to restore his pristine name, but rather God endures it. God doesn’t put Jesus on the cross in our place so that he can take the brunt of God’s righteous anger. We put Jesus up there. What God does is to allow himself to be pushed out of the world on the cross, as Bonhoeffer says. By us. And in the end, instead of wiping us out a deicidal sinners, he is persistently present with Jesus on the cross “in the world, reconciling all things to himself.”

So, when we come up for Communion, we’re coming forward not only with nothing to offer God (as beggars with empty hands, as Luther put it), but as a vengeful mob, looking once again to kill our scapegoat, to brutally consume his body and gorge on his blood so that we can suck eternal life out of his bones. And what does God dole out to us in this meal? Is it vengeance? Is it retaliation? That would be justice, but No. God’s response is forgiveness. Nothing but forgiveness.

UPDATE: In my original post, I inadvertently left a big chunk of material from Michael Hardin’s 5-part series on the Eucharist on here, uncredited. As I say, this was accidental. Here’s a link to his original material. Please read it. It’s fantastic! And while you’re at it, please also check out Rob Grayson’s response on his blog. These two guys are just awesome.


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