2 March 2008 at :00 am
St Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, speaks of the Son of Man ‘giving his life as a ransom for many’, and that same phrase is used by Matthew. Interestingly Luke does not repeat that, but he does speak of Jesus coming to proclaim the release of captives, he often talks of Jesus forgiving people their sins and he speaks of Jesus being ‘numbered with the transgressors’. John speaks of Jesus as ‘the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’, and it is, of course, St Paul who writes that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’, and he also writes that ‘Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed for us.’ The images may be different, but somehow the authors of the New Testmanet certainly believed that Christ’s death somehow made a difference to our relationship with God.
But how? Different understandings have been prominent at differing periods of the church’s history, and as I said there is no formal definition that has been accepted in any official creedal statement of the whole church. I suspect different individuals depending on their cultural background and their personal psychological make-up find some images more helpful than others. But the various theories have been grouped into three main categories. There are exemplar theories, where it is held that in some way Christ’s life and death were a compelling example that achieves a change in the follower of Christ because of the change in attitude it brings about within the believer. There are ransom theories, which dwell on that verse in St Mark’s Gospel, the Son of Man gives his life as a ransom for many’, and there are so called ‘satisfaction theories’, which suggest that in some way Christ’s death provides a satisfaction for God that enables him to forgive. Today I want to think about the exemplar theories, next week to consider the other two, and then finally, on Palm Sunday in St Margaret’s Church, I shall look at a contemporary expression of the notion. And, if you are interested, I shall ensure that all the addresses go on the Abbey’s web-site.
So, what of the exemplar theories? In 1892 the then Dean of Carlisle, one Hastings Rashdall, preached a university sermon in St Mary the Virgin Church in his old University of Oxford where he had been Chaplain of New College. In it he advocated the understanding of the atonement that he found in the works of Peter Abelard, the 11th century monk and philosopher who is perhaps better known now for his love letters to Heloise, a nun. But according to Rashdall Abelard saw the example of the love for us shown in Christ to be the factor that can make a real difference to how we are. Never mind about theories of a ransom paid to the devil, or the abstract demands of justice being satisfied by the sacrifice of Christ’s death, concentrate, said Abelard, and Rashdall after him, on the example of Christ’s love. Throughout his life, and not just in his death, Jesus showed us what it was to love, to care for others in a sacrificial way, to seek the best for those whom he encountered, including their healing and their forgiveness. And that whole life of love culminated in his death where he could plead for those who crucified him ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ That, said Abelard, and Rashdall, is such an extraordinary act of forgiving love that it compels in us a response of gratitude, it creates at-one-ment, which is what atonement means, by the very wonder and thankfulness it evokes in us. So it works not by some notional legal fiction, like Christ paying a price for sin, which somehow is supposed to change our legal status with either the devil or God, it works rather by working on the heart of the believer, by producing a response of seeking to love in a similar way and so by reconciling us to God.
Now whether that is the only way of looking at the notion of atonement I am not sure, and I will return to that question next week, but it certainly is a powerful image to use among what may be many images. And perhaps the best test of any understanding of the atonement is to see how it works out in a very demanding situation.
One such situation was the First World War. How could you make sense of the atonement in the context of the mud and blood of the trenches. One Army padre of the time, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, put it in his own way in a poem written out of the experience of those trenches. He is talking about the crucifixion.
‘I look upon that body, writhing, pierced
And torn with nails, and see the battlefields
Of time, the mangled dead, the gaping wounds,
The sweating, dazed survivors straggling back,
The widows worn and haggard, still dry-eyed,
Because their weight of sorrow will not lift
And let them weep; I see the ravished maid,
The honest mother in her shame: I see
All history pass by, and through it all
Still shines that face, the Christ Face, like a star
Which pierces drifting clouds, and tells the Truth.’
That’s an exemplarist approach to the atonement; it worked for many then, and I suspect it still works for many now. And it works because it evokes a response in the heart of the believer, the example of Christ makes a difference to how he or she responds to the traumas of this world, because we see in them God also suffering with his people. And that brings God close to us, and us close to him. That is what atonement, at-one-ment, is all about.