Book extract from Worshipping evolution's God (pp27-40).
As we approached Easter in our first ecofaith year, I decided, unlike other times, to stick to the lectionary. Because the Easter story is such a big part of the Christian story, then exploring alternative versions of the story, I thought that would be useful. In the end though, we did not use exactly the same texts. In the lectionary, around Easter time in the year of Mark, gets supplanted by John, with his much higher vision of who Jesus was. I decided to stick with the story of Mark.
We asked how the stories from the Hebrew scriptures, and the Markan stories, and the evolution story, and the Adelaide story come together? Do they? I particularly wanted to explore, what kind of salvation is being offered in these Easter readings? Who is it for? Who misses out? What kind of God would offer that kind of salvation? I’ve kept them as separate Easter readings and reflections, they might be handy to follow through next Easter yourself. They read more like mini sermons than the rest of the book, but I kind of like them that way.
This week we have an offer of salvation in Genesis which we will, I hope, reject. We have a reminder in Mark to look for salvation or wholeness in unexpected places, and to take the time necessary to find it.
The Old Testament (OT) reading is Genesis 9: where God promises never again to flood the Earth.
The lectionary bit is lovely. Astoundingly, lots of Christians take this story historically. Even those who don’t usually celebrated as a lovely message, a sign that God is trustworthy and good. God has promised never to hurt us again, no matter how bad we get (at least by flood).
Ecologically minded Christians are thrilled to point out that all flesh, all life is included in the covenant! Yay! God is a greenie!
But, if we read the preface to this story…
“God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.”
So the salvation of humans is the damnation and enslavement of all other life! This cannot really be salvation in an ecofaith community, a God who only cares about humans and treats animals as mere objects. If we read closely we see that it is only Noah and his sons who are blessed and given everything. Not for the first time, it seems that the women have disappeared and missed out. So even if we cared nothing for animals, most of us here might see this as a pretty raw deal!
But it gets worse.
Why is God promising never to kill all flesh by flood again? Because God just did kill all flesh!
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created -- people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them."
God is a mass murderer. Killing almost all life supposedly because humans are all evil (except Noah). This next bit isn’t in the Bible, but, if this story were taken historically, this is how someone might have described the scene,
“So God sent floods upon the Earth, and after forty days the stench of decay was upon the water. Vacantly staring babies and pregnant women, their fetuses now still within their wombs. Newborn lambs and once faithful hounds. The infirm, the senile, mighty elephants and tiny worms. All joined in a stinking raft of rotting flesh, islands upon which the carrion birds rested, and below which estuarine fish feasted.”
The God saved Noah by mass murdering babies! God commits a global abortion on a scale beyond the worst nightmares of pro-life advocates, who say the bible condemns abortion. Not only that, but billions of life forms who apparently are not evil, or even smart enough to be evil, are murdered too.
This is a God worthy of being spat on, not worshipped.
Genesis 9 offers salvation (assurance of God’s protection) for humans (men) at the expense of all other life. And the kind of God who offers that protection is the kind of God quite capable of mass genocide.
We cannot divorce the nice take home message offered in the lectionary (the rainbow set in the sky to remind God not to kill us) from the rest of the story. A Christian faith which simply picks out the bits of the Jewish story it likes is not a robust or real story.
We cannot accept the flood story: certainly not literally, but not even metaphorically. It is nothing but bad news for all life.
We must reject this false image of God and this false salvation.
Meanwhile, in the Christian story through Mark 1, we have Jesus entering the wilderness to get a clear head. To work out what his ministry was going to be about- would he bribe people to join with the promise of bread, or astonish the crowds with feats of invulnerability, or simply compel obedience?
As it turned out, none of these things.
But we are left with the challenge- to what extent are we following someone or something simply because they are giving us what we want, or dazzling us, or even compelling us?
We could ask that of the flood story. Have we just accepted God’s rainbow because it gives us what we want (security), without looking at it harder? Are we dazzled by the magnificent sweep of the story, and the promise of being protected by such a powerful being? Have we felt uncomfortable about the story for ages, but not said anything because we felt compelled to fit in with others in our faith communities? Or afraid of how such a mighty God might feel about, and act towards, someone who disdained his offer?
How to decide? Wilderness. Time out. Space. Being with the wild beasts. Paying attention to life.
Or forget Genesis, what of us? If we are leaders, are we out there trying to bribe, dazzle, or compel? If we are followers- have we chosen what we follow for the right reasons?
Jesus came out of the wilderness, out of his immersion in life with Good News! He realised that God was near, he found good things, good news in unexpected places through unlikely events. May it be the same for us this Lent.
This bit from Genesis 17 is in the lectionary. God said to Abram, “…I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be your God."
This bit isn’t, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised… when he is eight days old, … Any male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
In Mark’s story, chapter 8, we have Jesus teaching in the Decapolis and feeding the four thousand, and then sighing when the Pharisees ask for a sign, before crossing back to the other side.
Again we continue our exploration of salvation- what kind of salvation is offered? Who gets it, who misses out, what kind of God is described?
We have a highlight of the Jewish story. God promises that Abraham’s descendents will be given Canaan, the land where they are now living as immigrants. Little does Abraham know that first his descendents will enter Egypt and be enslaved, requiring, as we read it, the great saving act of God- the Exodus!
If is a powerful story- of delivery from persecution and inheritance of a new land. Of salvation. The Afrikaners referred to it constantly when they arrived in southern Africa. Those fleeing to the new America to avoid religious persecution saw that this story was their story as they spread across the continent. To a lesser extent white Christian Australians claimed the Exodus and delivery to the promised land as their story.
But in order to fill a promised land one must deal with the indigenous inhabitants. Who don’t just disappear. The Kaurna people here didn’t just disappear. Nor did the native Americans, the original Africans or the Canaanites.
Rather, the Israelites, the rest of the bible tells us, were told to commit mass genocide. Perhaps the first holocaust. Again, if we read further into the story we see men, woman and children being butchered at God’s supposed command. Again, God commands mass infanticide and abortion.
What salvation is being offered? Salvation for the few, the pure, and those whom the pure own.
Salvation for the circumcised. Again, we notice it is men who are the focus.
So last week we saw a salvation offered to men (perhaps women) at the expense of the animals. This week it is salvation for the Jewish men at the expense of the Canaanites.
If we are not willing to accept that God favours some people, and considers others mere objects to be disposed of, then this is not a salvation we can accept. This is not an image of God we can accept. This is not part of our story as ecologically aware Christians in Adelaide.
Then comes a quirky twist.
The sign of salvation is the cutting off of the end of the penis. Now that’s just weird.
Anyway. Those men who don’t cut off the end of their penis are to be cut off from their people. They are out! And, so the story goes, this is to go on for ever.
Yet Christians, by and large, don’t go in for penis chopping. Peter, so we read, realised that circumcision wasn’t a requirement of those who were filled by the Spirit. But so strong was the tradition, and so harsh his criticism by the Jewish Christians, that he wavered on the point. So Paul had to confront him and force the issue. Eventually it was agreed that you could be a Christian, part of the “saved” without cutting off the end of your penis. Not only that, but amongst Christians no distinction was to be made between male and female.
This was really, really radical!
To claim to be part of the saved community, yet to have a foreskin, was completely unbiblical. Everyone knew it, which is why it caused so much controversy.
The first Christians were indisputably unbiblical!
Are those Christians amongst us today as willing to be unbiblical today as the first Christians were? To follow the Spirit (which blows where it will) wherever it blows?
Now, as it happens, the gospel story is about Jesus preaching amongst, pretty much, the Greeks (out in the Decapolis), who thought chopping off the end of your penis was just plain mad.
And yet amongst whom the Jewish Christians had to admit God was at work.
How unfortunate. To find God in unexpected places (which was our homework from last week). To find God breaking the rules.
Hanging out in the Decapolis. Surprising even Jesus, who was amazed at the faith of the Roman centurion, not having found anyone with such great faith even in Israel.
So what does the feeding of the 4000 mean? Is it a demonstration that salvation, wholeness, feeding is offered outside the boundary? Is it a sign that salvation, wholeness, feeding comes when people, seeing others share, start sharing themselves? Does salvation come from the practical action of the community? The kind of things we’ve felt in miniature here when people spontaneously bring food to share?
Plenty to ponder: Can we accept a salvation which is only for a few, and at great expense to others? Can we cope with God breaking the rules? Dare we be unbiblical?
Does God feed outsiders? Do we contribute to our own salvation as a community?
Then God spoke all these words (in Exodus 20),
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
... For I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the sins of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
[God lists the 10 commandments]
Then Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."
Then God said … You need make for me only an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your offerings of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.
When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt.
If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master's and he alone shall be set free…”
Meanwhile (or actually thousands of years later), after feeding the 4000, Jesus and the disciples came to Bethsaida (beth-sigh-da). He then heals a blind man so that he could see everything clearly, and warns him to stay clear of the village. Then comes the big, “who do they say I am,” discussion,
Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that I am?" And they answered him, "John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
We’ve now had three stories of salvation, three offers of community with God from the Hebrew Scriptures.
The first, after the flood, was an offer for men (perhaps humans), to enter into a relationship with a genocidal maniac, in a covenant which offered other animals survival, but only as slaves.
Last week the offer was to the male descendents of one human family- Abraham’s, at the expense of locals amongst whom they lived, on the condition that they cut off the end of their penises. The God offering the salvation is quite willing to massacre all of the inhabitants of the promised land, every man, woman and unborn child.
This week the offer is to the descendents of Abram again, but now additional conditions are added beyond circumcision.
This God is jealous, happy to punish great great great grandchildren for the sins of the parents, wanting to keep people in fear so that they do not stray.
This covenant has nothing to offer animals except their murder in ritual sacrifice. It has little more to offer women, except that, as property, they are too valuable to murder.
I must confess a few things.
I’m beginning to feel like I’m flogging a dead horse, going on and on about how unacceptable various offers of salvation are. And I’m feeling very naughty, like some kind of teenage rebel who delights in undermining authority- in this case God’s or the Bible’s.
I really think I’m over my rebellious phase though. But it’s so striking! Once you start replacing the question- “what’s nice about this story?” with “what is being offered in this story, to whom, and by what sort of God?”
It really troubles me that some people could think that God is the kind of God represented here, that the offers are good ones, and that it doesn’t matter about the humans and other animals who are excluded.
Especially because, to a large degree, the church has taken these offers on as its own- saying that we are now Abram’s people, the people of the covenant. That the Christian covenant is the culmination of, rather than a repudiation of, all of these other offers.
Yet I also don’t want to sound like I’m saying that we should throw these stories out. We need to keep them to remind ourselves just how misguided, selfish and illogical people of faith can be, just how badly they can misrepresent God in their own interests, and just how blind they can be to the harm they cause to those who are left out of the promises.
But as 21C Christians aware of God’s relationship with the rest of life, I think that in our story there is no room for a God who punishes to the third generation. It is certainly true, however, that ecological consequences unfold over at least that sort of time frame. I suspect that by the end of Easter we might have concluded that many of the actions attributed to God are better attributed to ecology. That the punishment for breaking God’s laws will be replaced by an awareness of ecological cause and effect. And that those who do the actions are often not those who experience the effect.
I sound like I’m preaching again! I am! So to put it as a question- is the Christian offer, is Christian salvation, the culmination of, or the repudiation of, the Noah/Abram/Exodus offers?
With that in mind, the ongoing story of Jesus in Mark is intriguing and confronting. Amazingly, its not part of the Easter lectionary.
The first part of the story, where Jesus heals the blind man, get similar treatment by lots of commentators. It introduces a series of dialogues and actions which reveal something of Jesus’ character and mission. We are being urged to see what Jesus is on about. What his offer is and to whom, and what sort of person it is who is making the offer. And we are shown most emphatically that the disciples did not see.
Jesus asks the disciples who the crowds are saying he is. He then asks the disciples for their opinion. Peter responds, we are told, “The Messiah.”
Jesus sternly orders them not to tell anyone about him.
Peter has just said that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the fulfilment of God’s offer to the chosen race. The culmination of the covenant- the dawning of their salvation.
And Jesus tells him to shut up!
In any kind of category Peter and the others can understand, Jesus is not the Messiah. He is not the Christ.
Jesus goes on to talk, not about the Christ, but the Son of Man, and his suffering. Is it because he is trying to tell them what will really happen to the Christ? Or because he is saying, I am not the Christ but the son of Man?
Next week we’ll look at what offer Jesus is making his followers, who is included, and what kind of God is behind it. Does he fulfil, or replace the old promises?
Before going on though, read the next bit of Mark’s story, not as a twenty-first century Christian who already knows that Jesus ends up dead, but as a first century Jew who thinks they just might have found the Messiah, and have given away everything to follow him around. Read it as someone who thinks that the offers made to Noah, Abram and the Exodus community are good offers, once which they have already accepted and now, thanks to Jesus, expect to see fulfilled in their very lifetime!
Israel made a vow to the LORD and said, "If you will indeed give these Canaanites into our hands, then we will utterly destroy their towns." The LORD listened to the voice of Israel, and handed over the Canaanites; and they utterly destroyed them and their towns; so the place was called Hormah, which means devotion.
Then they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses,
"Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food."
Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said,
"We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us."
So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live."
So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.
Jesus asked his disciples, " who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Messiah." And Jesus rebuked them and ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
He called the crowd and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For those who want to save their soul will lose it, and those who lose their soul for my sake, and for the sake of the good news, will save it.
For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul? Indeed, what can you give in return for your soul?
Do not be ashamed of me and my words, though this is a faithless and sinful generation.
In Numbers 21 we again have the salvation of some through a holy war which brings destruction to others. Despite the victory, the Jews complain. After all, they are starving! But God responds not with Mannah from heaven, but another massacre. Unsuprisingly, they fall in line before the God who keeps his beloved people in line by killing them, then healing a few.
If it was a story of a husband and wife, as God and the people of faith are often described, we would probably think of domestic violence and applaud the woman if she had the courage to leave.
And this story is important because it continues in the Christian tradition. All around the world today Christians are reading this today as part of their Easter story:
“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life… Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already…” (John 3:14)
In other words- God is going to kill everyone who does not believe, just as God killed all those grumbling Israelites, but those who look to the Serpent (who believe in Jesus) will be healed.
So the God who is offering you salvation is a God who is quite willing to kill every one of your friends and family who do not believe in Jesus. And why not? This same God over the last few weeks has been shown to be willing to murder almost everyone on the planet (Noah), all the Canaanites (Abram), and all the males who fear God and participate in the ritual murder of animals (plus any women they own).
So we see the early church taking on stories which they accepted and made sense to them, and relating them to Jesus. Showing how he fulfilled them. How he was the Messiah, the Christ, of the people of those stories. If we don’t accept those stories (and some of us do not), then our story of Jesus will need to show how he cuts across and rejects them.
We also need to ask, of course, are we being faithful to Jesus and God in doing that? Let’s revisit Mark 8:29-38
Peter (the disciples) called Jesus the Christ. Jesus rebuked them, telling them to shut up about him. He talked instead about the Son of Man.
Yet at the very first line of Mark, and at the end, Jesus is called the Christ. Were these later additions to bring Mark into line with the other gospels? I haven’t had time to look that up.
Jesus, perhaps, has been trying to tell people that he is not the Christ but the son of Man. Who will suffer, not reign victoriously on Earth.
So strong is the negative reaction to what Jesus says about suffering that Peter dares to rebuke him! So emphatic is Jesus about what he is saying that he rebuked Peter right back, even calling him Satan!
Peter’s mind is on human things.
Humans expect deliverance and victory over enemies. Humans expect the OT stories we’ve read. God sees it differently!
Jesus then goes on to describe his offer of salvation. It is not an offer to be found, but lost! Be willing to lose in order to gain.
Don’t be ashamed, don’t cling to success. Don’t look for victory.
All three offers were very counter cultural, then and now.
Stop and take five minutes to answer one of these questions:
1) What is your life do you think is good- yet you are ashamed of? Unwilling to talk about, let people know about?
2) “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Is your life being diminished because of something you are fixated on gaining?
By Jeremiah, to the Israelites while in exile in Babylon.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD… when people shall no longer say: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." But all shall die for their own sins
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt -- a covenant that they broke
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest
The day is surely coming, says the LORD, when Jerusalem shall be rebuilt… It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.
In Mark we read that, after catching them fighting,
Jesus asked the disciples what they were fighting about. But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
Jesus and the disciples came to Jerusalem. And Jesus entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers.
He said, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'? But you have made it a den of robbers."
The chief priests said to him, "By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?"
Then Jesus told them the parable of the vineyard. Again and again slaves were sent to the tenants to collect their rent, but they killed them all.
Finally, the owner sent his beloved son. They seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
When the chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
Now in the OT we get to the time of exile, when the middle and upper classes have been taken away to Babylon, and start compiling all the stories from Genesis through to the Exodus. All the covenants we have already read about over the last few weeks, all the stories of salvation (Noah, Abram, the exodus) were written and refashioned into one big story here.
All these stories were compiled by the priests, the bosses, in order to shore up the faith of a depressed people in exile. And perhaps to shore up their own position amongst the people.
But today we hear from a rebel. Jeremiah. Before the exile, when prophets were promising that God would save Israel, he was saying they were doomed.
Now in exile he speaks of restoration. Of salvation back to Jerusalem. But with a new and different covenant. The old ones are no longer valid. The old covenants are not to be fulfilled, but replaced, because the system of kings and priests obviously couldn’t be trusted. Jeremiah preached divine rebellion.
No more kings, no more teachers of the law, no more rulers. The people will have direct communion with God.
I’ve been asking- is the Christian covenant, or salvation, the fulfilment of the old covenants, or a rejection of them? Here we see that centuries before Jesus the old covenants were already being rejected by some.
But Jeremiah was wrong. After the return to Jerusalem the religious teachers remained (and they do today). The temple was not everlasting after all, but was sacked by Rome shortly after Jesus’ death.
So we move on to the Jesus story in Mark. Here Jesus continues Jeremiah’s tendency to turn things on their head. Only those who are last will be first. Only those who serve will lead. If Jesus had a hierarchy, it was upside down. This is an offer of salvation which involves humbling and demotion, not glory and power.
And Jesus was willing to go head to head against those who were not willing to be humbled, with those who were quite happy to be at the top of the hierarchy. Here again he followed Jeremiah against the prevailing temple system. The kings, the religious leaders, the bosses of the temple are to be replaced. They cannot be trusted, and they will be thrown out of the vineyard.
You don’t call the bosses wicked robbers without inviting retribution, so we see the seeds of Jesus’ death being sown.
Jeremiah said that God would give the Spirit to all people, not the religious leaders. It didn’t make him popular. Jesus said in the parable of the vineyard that the priests and scribes were to be replaced by others, since they kept killing the prophets like Jeremiah rather than listening to them. We all know how popular that was!
So, it seems that in the Christian story, at least as Mark tells it, there is a repudiation of the old covenants, the old promises, the old ways of understanding salvation. A rejection of hierarchies, new and old.
And we have, in Mark at least, a clear understanding that Jesus died simply because the people he railed against had more political clout than he did.
Yet many Christians at this time of year will rehearse the stories about how Jesus died because God killed him. He was the perfect sacrifice which replaced all the millions of imperfect sacrifices which Jews had long made to God. He took the final punishment which we all deserved- rather than killing all of us, as God should of, he killed Jesus the God-man.
But if Jesus himself, like Jeremiah, was not on about fulfilling the old covenants but replacing them, what sense could we make of him as the final perfect sacrifice? How can he be the perfect culmination of the sacrificial system, since he has just rejected the authority of the temple and those who run it?
Matthew records that Jesus places himself in the tradition of Jeremiah, Amos and Micah. They claimed that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. What sense, then, does it make to claim that Jesus is a sacrifice?
If it makes no sense, as I and many other Christians believe, then how do we get salvation, wholeness and healing in this new covenant which Jesus talks about? This one that seems to be a rejection, rather than a fulfilment, of the old ways of understanding covenants, of the old offers of salvation- the human centred, nationalistic, male dominated ones?
If we don’t need to placate an angry God to be saved, what do we need to do, if anything?
In Mark’s story, Jesus, having just cleared the temple court, and declared that the time of the temple was coming to an end, said, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses."
Jesus went on to speak of the two great commandments,
"The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
Later, at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.
Some of those there were really miffed, claiming the luxury should have been sold for the poor. Jesus disagreed, and had a dig at them about their ability to help the poor whenever they felt like it. Finally, Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.
How do we win God’s forgiveness? The traditional Easter answer is often that it is given to us, through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, the lamb of God, the fulfilment of all the animals sacrifices of the Old Testament.
The New Covenant, sealed with Jesus’ sacrificial blood.
And this traditional answer has more than enough support in the scriptures to justify itself.
But I also think alternative views have plenty in scripture to justify them. For starters, we have four gospels, and they say different, though overlapping things about Jesus.
The New Testament (NT) writer’s claim that Jesus was a sacrifice only make sense in their context, where the sacrifices of other animals were thought by many to restore favour with God (but not by Jeremiah, Amos, Micah). A Pharisee might be persuaded that God had swapped animals sacrifices for Jesus, but would Jeremiah be persuaded? Are we?
This year the church is reading through Mark (very selectively), so what does Jesus say here, and in Mark generally?
He didn’t say “I will die so that God may forgive you.” No.
He said, “You forgive others, so that God may forgive you.”
There’s a whole sermon there about why can’t God just forgive us anyway, but for today let’s concentrate on this bit-
You forgive others so God can forgive you!
And it’s not just Mark who records this, but also Matthew and Luke.
In Mark, Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with our forgiveness, or with the offer God is making, apart from declaring the path to forgiveness and being willing to die rather than keep silent about it.
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
We forgive to be forgiven. Jesus declares the path to forgiveness, he doesn’t create it. He declares that we will have the courage to declare the same path, and live it, when the Spirit comes upon us. God’s work is scary work, and we need God’s help to do it.
It’s such a simple path- and such a hard one for anyone who has ever tried to forgive!!
We continue to hear Jesus’ simple message: the two great commandments, again recorded in Matthew and Luke- Love God. Love neighbour as yourself. Jesus doesn’t even say we need to love him.
Easy. Hard. Jesus seems to have laid before us a simple, gracious path, which is really, really difficult!
There was never any need for animal sacrifice, nor did Jesus sacrifice himself to appease God on our behalf.
The path to salvation is love and the forgiveness which flows from that. And we need a gracious spirit which lets us accept the things people do when they do them from good motivation, even if we would have done it differently.
Forgive, love, be gracious.
Be like God. Easy heh?