This was preached on Feb 24, 2013. I'm planning on preaching during Lent about the various ways to understand the atonement. This is is the Classic or Victory theory.
This sermon is, I heard, almost entirely theological and not very entertaining. If you are into that sort of thing - here it is:
Text: I Cor. 1:18 ff
Purpose of Lent: To ready our hearts and minds to enter into the events of Holy Week and Easter - so that we might experience the power of the death and resurrection of Christ to change lives and indeed, to change the world.
The cross is the central symbol of Christianity. Look around the sanctuary. Think about all the places we see crosses: On steeples, signs for churches, around Christian’s necks, as body art, on T-shirts. We make the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday and every time we baptize, or anoint someone to remind them of baptism. Many Christians, even Protestants, make the sign of the cross as a part of prayer.
Yet our understanding of the cross is not always very deep. Imagine trying to explain to an alien, or to a very persistent and intelligent child why the cross is so central to us. It is a symbol of a torture device, used to humiliate, inflict pain, execute and terrorize. Why is that a central symbol of our faith?
If we get past our familiarity with it, the cross is a jarring, stark reminder of the shocking way God in Jesus Christ entered and left our world. And I’m convinced that as we grow in our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, eventually we have to face the cross and try to understand two things:
what God was doing, letting his precious Son our Savior die that way?
What does it mean to belong to a community built around the cross?
Now, you’d think that after 2000 years, these questions would be all figured out. That there would be an answer and I could stand up here and preach it, or give you a book to read it, or even a youtube video we could all watch together. But God is a funny guy. He seems to have arranged it so that knowing him has more to do with struggling with profound questions than with having a firm grip on pat answers.
Christians have, from the very first, struggled to make sense of the cross. We’ve agreed that the cross is essential to Christ’s work of “atonement” - of saving us, or reconciling us, or making a new life with God possible for us.
At-one-ment is an interesting word. One of the few theological words that actually has an English root - it means “At-One-Ment” or bringing what was broken apart back together. We affirm that Jesus’ death on the cross was crucial to fixing whatever was broken between us and God.
One way to understand that is that in his death, Christ won a giant victory over the power of death.
The reading from 1 Corinthians focuses attention on the cross as the power of Christ: "For the word, of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (RSV).
Seeing atonement as victory is rooted in the Gospel of John’s imagery of darkness and light. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. There is a struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light.
There are a couple of things that give us pause about this way to understand the cross: One is that it seems like it’s based on a dualistic view of the world, in which two roughly equal powers vie for supremacy. If God is good, and God created the world, then where did all that evil come from? The answer to that gets a little messy and hard to swallow.
And the second drawback to this view is that it is about good and evil, light and dark, black and white. And the world just isn’t that way. It’s mostly shades of grey. There is so much good in the worst of people and so much bad in the best . . . Even situations where it seems obvious who is right and who is wrong . . . people are doing things they THINK are right and good. They may be mistaken, but nobody sets out to do the wrong thing.
Much of being a grown up is understanding that. And surely God understands it better than any of us. What evil could be defeated without also stamping out the good that grows entwined around it? Didn’t Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do?”
Nonetheless - there is a lot about this view that commends it. This view takes seriously the darkness and evil of sin and death. It recognizes that much of what goes on in this world is the product of forces which would crush beauty, creativity, love and life. And we cannot take a long unblinking look at the world around us without seeing the darkness that often corrupts the human heart. Mass killings. War. Child abuse and neglect. Violence against those who are different. It’s a dark world out there.
And we know how prone we are to participating in the darkness: How satisfying a cruel comment can be. How easy it is to ignore a pain that we could fix. How “worth it” it seems to inflict damage on someone else’s property, or to damage creation itself, for a little extra profit or to save some time.
This is what sin is - the darkness that wraps it’s stinking hands around our hearts and squeezes the life out of our ability to love and care for one another.
But Christ, by dying on the Cross, confronts that power of sin and hatred and death head on. Only Christ - because he is God - is strong enough to enter into the cosmic battle against evil. And only Christ is strong and good enough to defeat evil. By going to evil’s home court - the cross is a torture device that kills its victims - there’s nothing MORE evil than the cross - Jesus gives death every opportunity to win. But the power he displays on the cross is the power to enter into death and then come out victorious on the other side.
Peter’s first sermon: "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it" (Acts 2:23-24).
The cross’ meaning is only made clear in the resurrection. But once it is clear that Jesus who died lives again, we can see the cross as the final battle that proves once and for all which is stronger.
God overcomes the power of darkness.
Love wins over hate.
Life is more powerful than death.
The most ringing statement of this view of the atonement is Paul’s. (Which I love and use at every funeral I do.) "‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘0 death, where is thy victory? 0 death, where is thy sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 15:54-57).
To live as Christians is to live in the midst of a world where darkness and sin still vie for control over lives and hearts - but live knowing that we need not be defeated by those evil powers. That we share in the victory over these things. So even when we see their awful force, we have courage to stand against them, knowing that God will not let them extinguish us utterly.
This understanding of the cross invites us say with St. Paul in the face of every trial and difficulty, "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us . . . Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:37, 39).