Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 25 March 2012
25 March 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
I have been using the matins addresses this month to look at the idea of atonement, that somehow, through the death of Jesus we human beings are made at one with God and through his death are brought into a new relationship with God the Father. Two weeks ago I looked at the idea of his death as a sacrifice, and last week I looked at it as an example. Both those addresses and the introductory one to the series at the beginning of the month are on the Abbey’s web-site. This week in this final address I want to look at his death as a victory.
That way of looking at the cross was developed very powerfully by a Swedish bishop called Gustav Aulen some eighty years ago in a book called ‘Christus Victor’, Christ the Victor. It probably is one of the classic books of theology of the twentieth century and it was certainly very influential. Aulen did not think he was developing a new way of looking at the Atonement, but rather was re-establishing what he called the classic idea of the atonement that was in the church from its earliest days. And in his book he contrasted that way of thinking from two other views. One, which he described as the Latin view, emerged particularly with the writings of St Anselm in the 11th century, and it essentially saw Jesus’ death as a sacrifice made to propitiate God who needed satisfaction in order to be able to forgive humankind. I talked about that a fortnight ago. And the other was what he described as the subjective view, with Christ as a human example, which is mainly what I was talking about last week.
Now in Aulen’s understanding of what he thought was the classic view the essence was that in Jesus’ life he was at every point engaged in a battle with evil. It started in the gospels with the story of the temptations, where Jesus is presented as being tempted by the devil. It continued in the conflicts with disease in the healing miracles, which the New Testament writers saw as a response to demonic possession which was the cause of illness. And then, finally it was concluded in that last and terrible conflict at Calvary. And for Aulen the point was that in that life-long battle God in Jesus won. He was not defeated by the devil in the temptations, he was victorious over disease in those whom he healed, and, most of all, he was victorious on the Cross because he was not overcome by the temptations that would have afflicted almost anyone else in such extreme conditions, despair, hopelessness or anger.
Now in talking about a battle with evil it is very easy in reading the gospels to see the battle as one between a good God and a demanding external force that for want of anything else the gospel writers call the devil. But that somehow externalises what is potentially destructive as though it could be seen as outside us, a battle between the goodies, presumably us, and the ‘badies’, other people or other forces out there. Yet just a moment’s reflection on our own experience will show that it is far more complicated than that. Of course sometimes the forces of destruction can be outside us, there are some people or groups of people whose experience of life has turned them into something very wrong, but the forces of destruction are also inside each of us as well, the selfishness and self-centeredness, the ego aggrandisement that leads to the desire for privilege and status, or sometimes even just the desire to beat someone who has opposed us and to get even. If you want to use the symbol of ‘the devil’ he is not just ‘out there’, but subtly, shrewdly, deviously even inside us as well. So the victory has to be won internally as well as externally, and we can very easily fool ourselves. And that means that if we want to claim Christ’s victory as our own, which I do think is part of the notion of Christ as the Victor, we always need to pause, to check that it really is Christ’s victory, and not just the devil’s victory, hidden as our desires.
But if we go back to the story of the Cross itself as it is presented to us in the gospels, it was a remarkable victory. Even when being crucified Jesus could pray for those who were carrying out the task – ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’. He could think of those who were being crucified with him –‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. He could remember the needs of his mother and make provision for her care through the beloved disciple – ‘Mother behold your son, son behold your mother’. And even though he could know despair – ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ that was not the last word. According to St Luke his last words were a prayer ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ or even more remarkably, according to St John’s Gospel it was almost a cry of victory ‘It is finished.’ Not just throughout his life but even in the very experience of Calvary, Jesus was not destroyed by those things that would probably have destroyed any of us, but in his spirit even there he won, he was victorious. In one sense it was a victory won by God, because God was in Christ reconciling us to himself as St Paul put it, but in another sense it was also a victory by the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who was tempted just as any human being would have been in such terrible circumstances, and yet whose faith and trust in the goodness of God was not destroyed, and he was victorious.
And that victory was not just a victory for one time, but in a way a victory for all time. The forces of destruction and evil have been faced, and faced at their very worst, and yet a victory has been won. And the knowledge of that victory can make a difference to us when we face temptations to despair, to hopelessness or to simple self-centeredness. The fact that the victory was won at Calvary means that it can still be won now, and that has the potential to make a difference.
So the notion of the Cross as a victory has, I believe, great power in the many areas of life where we need to become at one with God, which is what atonement is all about. But there is one final thing I must say in concluding this series of addresses. In all the approaches to the atonement that I have talked about it is not a question of choosing one or another and saying that is the only right way. Wisely, I think, the church has never formally defined its understanding of how the death of Jesus works in reconciling us to God. We are dealing with what is ultimately a mystery, and any one understanding of the Atonement is always only going to be one way among others. A sacrifice to help us feel reparation has been paid, an example to show us that God has really entered personally in the suffering and evil of this world, a victory that has been won that changes everything; all of those images have their part to play in making the notion real for us. And the conclusion is well summed up in St Paul’s words that I quoted earlier; ‘God was in Christ, reconciling us to himself.’ So the best result of reflecting on all the theories is to know that reconciliation, to know that God has become one with us that we might become one with him. And that has the potential to change everything.