By Stephen Marshall-Ward
The fourth indictment in our requiem is, “Where the Church exalts the cross through Jesus’ payment for our sins, Jesus exalts what God has done gifting life and grace through birth and resurrection.”
My thoughts about this indictment are some of the most challenging thoughts I have about the traditional theological posturing of the Church. This indictment, as I presented it to various people during the formation of the Requiem text, was the one that people kept getting stuck on. People wanted to enter into a discussion with me and debate what it meant and what it means and why I wanted to include it. There were two extremes in those discussions. One was, “Why are we even talking about this? The Church has moved on from this archaic theology. Why do we even need to bring this up?” The other extreme was, “This is so incredibly offensive. Of course Jesus dying on the cross to save me from my sins is the most important tenet of our faith. Take the blood away and we don’t have a faith!”
To be truthful, I’m not one hundred percent sure what I think about this particular indictment. Sometimes I think I know… but I am not sure. But, then again, that admission in itself is one of the most important statements of this Requiem: that it is ok to not know. It’s ok to posture yourself in a place of continual learning – not dogmatic theological stance.
Most people reading this blog will be somewhere in between these extremes (though I expect to hear from people on the extremes). It’s not popular and potentially offensive to say, “I know you believe your sins are forgiven because God loved you so much that God sent God’s Son to the world for the sole purpose of shedding his blood so that your sins would be forgiven. I know you base your whole faith on it. But I am here to challenge that.” It’s not very winsome. But in reality that fundamentalist/evangelical theology doesn't make sense to me. It never has. Even as a small child, listening to my father preach about it, I would find myself thinking, “that's all fine and good but it sure doesn't make any sense.” It’s like saying, “I love you so much that I am going to sacrifice the thing most precious to me, the very incarnation of myself, to prove to you how much I love you.” And then add to it, as is customary with the people who believe it, if I don’t accept this gift of love (the blood and death of Jesus) in just the right way, with just the right prayer, with just the right content, in just the right church, God will still send me to hell forever all because he loves me so much. I’m sorry, it's just bizarre.
Whatever you believe about the blood and death of Jesus, this indictment is about what God was showing us in Jesus. His birth was God’s gift to us. The life of Jesus was God’s gift to us. Not the death of Jesus. And when humanity rejected that gift and killed it, God said, “I’m still going to show you my gift – which is Jesus alive.” Hence, the resurrection. A summary statement is as follows:
No matter how much we continue to mess things up as human beings, no matter how much we bring death to God’s wonderful creations, God will continue to intervene with hope, resurrection, and new life.
I am asking the question: Did God really plan to kill God’s Son and shed Jesus’ blood for our redemption? Or was that just humanity messing it up? If it was humanity messing it up, all God did was use that mess up to prove once again God’s intent: not death – but life.
The shedding of blood as some requirement of God is in question here. I get it, I know the scriptures, I don’t even have to quote them here because most of us know them. They talk about the blood and that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.
The gift of God is eternal life. “The wages of sin is death” – that’s a humanity thing, not necessarily a God thing – but God’s gift to us is eternal life and God showed us that eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus.
When we talk about the blood I think back to a situation when I was teaching at a college and the students in the worship band were preparing for chapel and they were singing a contemporary setting of traditional hymn What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. I stopped them and said, “I have a question about the theology related to this: is it really about the blood of Jesus? Does the blood of Jesus really wash away your sins? I’d like to propose that it is really the love of Jesus, the love of God, that washes away your sin.” So it was changed to What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the love of Jesus.
My former student, Alex Johnston, re-texted and recorded his own version of Nothing but the love of Jesus. You can listen to it here:
The final point I’d like to make in relation to this is the more I understand about scripture and the relationship of God to humanity within them, the more clear it becomes that God continually tries to reconcile – reconciling over and over again – not killing – not shedding blood – but reconciling.
The scriptures are full of lessons about what God truly desires from us and it is not first and foremost the traditional sacrifice. What God wants from us is obedience and love. God wants you to know God. There are so many stores in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, about God demonstrating to us that what God wants is our hearts, not our religious actions. The position will always bring us back to life.
God wants our lives to be full of life and love – not violence – and certainly not death and blood.