An Emerging Theological Mosaic

Things That Didn’t Get Said: further reflections on the atonement

Today at Vintage, we held a theological symposium of sorts, which you can listen to here, or you can search iTunes for Vintage Fellowship. In our journey through Romans, we have encountered the idea of the atonement, what the death of Jesus accomplishes for us. So, today, we decided to pull back and consider the atonement from a broad theological perspective. We talked about how the best stories can be told and retold from various vantage points and with different emphases. The story of the cross is no exception. Throughout its history, the church has told the story different ways.

Ransom: The death of Jesus bought us back from the power of the Devil.

Release: The death of Jesus freed us from the power of sin and death.

Redemption: The death of Jesus paid a price we could not pay on our own.

Representation: The death of Jesus exemplified God’s love for us.

Reconciliation: The death of Jesus provided a way for us back into relationship with God.

Re-Creation: The death of Jesus inaugurated a new world and reality.

In the hour or so that we discussed these, there were several important considerations that didn’t get mentioned explicitly. They are too important to just ignore, and so I thought I would blog them. Anyone, those who were at Vintage today and those who weren’t, are more than invited to join the conversation.

Metaphors

Throughout our discussion today, we referred to the various ways to tell the atonement story as “theories.” This is quite common, but the more I think about it, the more unfortunate I think it is. I think it would be better to refer to them as “metaphors.” 

Theories compete with one another, causing division and argument. Theories typically attempt to be a comprehensive explanation of something and can be easily rejected out of hand. Metaphors are different. Metaphors shed light and spread understanding without explaining everything. 

If we think of the various atonement stories as metaphors rather than theories, we can learn from each of them, recognizing that each has something to teach us even without telling the whole story. As metaphors, the stories of the cross are limited and yet complimentary.

Hebrew Sacrificial System
A couple of times this morning, we mentioned the Hebrew sacrificial system and the idea of telling the story through the lens of Jesus being the Lamb of God. What I intended to do and yet failed to do because of time (and my faulty memory) was to place this metaphor as a viable alternative to penal substitution. Penal substitution sees the atonement as a price paid on behalf of a guilt party by an innocent party within the divine courtroom of a just Judge. When penal substitution is told in such a way as to present God the Father as an angry, vindictive being, it can come off as bad news, not good news.

And yet, the themes of substitution are present throughout the Scriptures. In the Hebrew sacrificial system, the guilt of sin was transferred to an animal which would be slaughtered so that its blood could be a covering for sin. Jesus is the substitute for the sacrificial lamb, whose blood covers our sin so that we can be forgiven.

Universal Component
Today, like often happens in atonement discussions, we focused almost exclusively on the personal benefits of the atonement. We failed to explore the universal implications of the atonement. The death of Jesus is not just life for me. It impacts, in biblical terms, all tribes, tongues, and nations. The death of Jesus impacts the planet and the cosmos. Whenever we tell the story as purely a personal story, we miss the important universal components of the story.

I feel like we just began to scratch the surface this morning of what could (and maybe should) be a full semester of discussions. Thankfully, we have a lifetime to explore together all that the death of Jesus means to us.

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Dreaming of Community

He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I have been thinking a lot lately about community. It is word we use often in our emerging conversation. But maybe for all of our talking about the need for community, we haven’t reflected enough on how it is actually experienced. My thinking lately has coalesced around three ideas: community takes actual relationships, a heavy dose of reality, and a good bit of resilience.

I am always amazed by people who speak of community but don’t invest themselves in actual relationships. I’ve seen this as a pastor when people talk about how they love church community but they don’t talk to people at worship gatherings (if they attend at all) and don’t join small groups when they are offered. It reminds me a little bit of the young woman who has every detail of her wedding planned and is only missing the groom. What is community without relationships? Community is not some mystical or magical thing that happens outside of ourselves. Community only takes places where relationships exist, where friendships are growing, where people are connecting.

Relationships require investment. If I am going to be in community with a group of people, I need to invest myself in them and be prepared for them to invest themselves in me. Investment takes time, emotion, energy, even money – all of my precious resources that are already scarce. I need to listen and not just talk. I need to give and not just take. I need to initiate and not just respond.

True community also requires a substantial grip on reality. Bonhoeffer’s observation that people who love their dream of community more than the actual Christian community end up destroying the actual community is a profound one. How often has a person been so enamored by the prospect of being in love that they have driven their potential lover away by being too clingy and needy?

The same happens with churches. People come to church will all sorts of expectations (frequently unrealistic) and ideas and dreams. Many who have been hurt and burned by church are hopeful that their new community will finally live up to those dreams. Rarely can a church leap such a high bar. I get a little skittish when new folks at Vintage gush about how it’s the church they’ve been looking for. I know that if they invest themselves in relationships within our community that it’s only a matter of time before they experience reality. The reality is that churches are made up of weak, frail, and hurting people – and those who are pretending that they are not.

Weak, frail, and hurting people tend to hurt each other sometimes. Words are spoken out of turn. Memories fail. Priorities differ. Expectations are unmet. People are often selfish and immature and slow to do the right thing. The dream of community and the reality community are often far apart in our actual experience.

Does this mean that we should abandon the church whenever our feelings are hurt? Absolutely not. If we abandon anything, we should abandon our dream of community and embrace the reality of community. And this takes resilience. Community grows and develops over time. It is deepened and solidified by interpersonal conflicts.

Community is not a happily-ever-after fairy tale. Community is, to borrow another phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, life together. It can only take place when we commit ourselves to experience the ups and downs, the joys and disappointments, the twists of turns of reality in relationships with one another.

This runs counter to our cultural inclination. We live in a disposable culture. Take the unfolding saga of Jon and Kate Gosselin of Jon & Kate + 8 fame. While it might be easy to join the crowd that is casting stones at them for disposing of their marriage and family. Maybe we ought to consider how we collectively have used up and disposed of them. Their story was entertaining for a while, and as it has taken a turn for the worst, we’ve been content to stand by and crack jokes. Soon, we’ll be on to voyeuristically enjoying some other celebrity’s crisis. When we haven’t invested much in them and when we weren’t realistic about them in the first place (even though they were on a “reality show”), it doesn’t cost us much to dispose of relationships.

We dispose of relationships far too easily. As Bob Dylan once sang, “But to remain as friends you need the time to make amends and stay behind.”

If we dispose of actual community too soon in hopes of finding our dream of community, we will end up never experiencing either. Community is experienced when we know each other well enough to be ourselves. Community is experienced when forgiveness is needed and extended. Community is experienced in the tears of disappointment and recommitment. Community is experienced in the joy and pain of reconciliation.

In Philippians, Paul spoke of the fellowship (relationships) of sharing (resilience) in the suffering (reality) of Jesus. That’s not a dream; that’s how actual community is experienced.

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A Path to Community

Believe – Behave – Belong

For a long time, churches have operated with this process to assimilate new members. To be a part of a church, the first step a person had to take was to subscribe to believing the doctrinal statement of that church. If a person had doubts or differences on various things, large or small, it would cause a huge hurdle to belonging. An elder or deacon board could even deny a person membership to a church for not believing the right things. As a result, people learned that to belong, they would have to cross all the right belief T’s … or at least pretend like they did.

Once a person consented to believing the right things, then they would have to behave a certain way to achieve belonging. In some cases, they would have to renounce movies or alcohol or wearing jeans on Sundays or swearing or smoking. At one church I am familiar with, a man had to quit his job as a casino security guard before he was allowed to join the church. Once again, people had to act a certain way … often faking it … so that they could be a part of the church.

The result of this approach is inauthenticity and judgmentalism. The people on the outside wanting to get in are guilted into hypocrisy by putting on their Sunday best and pretending like they’ve got it all together and have all the answers. The people on the inside get to pass judgment on who is or is not worthy of membership based on people’s ability to conform to some external standards or their ability to articulate an approved belief system. Either way, the path to belonging is easy thwarted.

Belong – Behave – Believe

At Vintage, we are trying to invert this order. While we are not the church for everyone, we are a church for anyone. A person doesn’t have to agree with everything the pastor says to be a part of our community. Nor does a person have to be free of doubts and questions to be accepted, loved, and included. For us, it’s not about who is in and who is out. We see ourselves as a community of people on a journey, trying our best to follow Jesus together. We want to affirm anyone who is on that path, regardless of how far down the trail she may be.

Don’t take this to mean that we don’t think theology or discipleship is important. Quite the contrary. We think it is very, very important to understand and clearly articulate what we believe. We are trying to help people wrestle with their doubts and grow in their faith. And we think it’s very important that people live according to the example of Jesus – with love, grace, justice, and truth. We are trying to give people the tools and opportunities to walk in Jesus’ steps.

We know that our approach makes things messier sometimes. But we’re ok with that. We’re convinced that when people find a community of friends to live life with, a church to belong to, they will be able to best experience the grace and truth that will develop them into the people God wants them to be.

The Vision of Vintage Fellowship:
Because of Jesus’ grace in our lives, we at Vintage Fellowship belong to him and each other, becoming more like him, so that we can behave like he would, helping others to believe in him too.

Vintage Fellowship is an emerging church in Fayetteville AR.
visit Vintage online

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Where Is God?

Bad things happen. No one really expects otherwise. We know that one of these days, the shit is going to hit the fan, and we’re going to be covered in it. I’m not sure if I’m like most people, but I always have some vague sense of impending doom, like at any moment the happiness is going to be shattered and everything I’ve been working to build is going to come caving in around me. … And I consider myself an optimist.

Whenever bad things happen – the diagnosis, the dreaded phone call, the foreclosure notice, the offended friend – I’ve observed that people react to God with classic fight or flight tendencies. Some will take the opportunity of bad things happening to run from God, shaking their head and walking away muttering like Robin Williams in Patch Adams, “you’re not worth it.” Others will argue with God, debate with God, wrestle with God, trying to make sense of what God is up to or to trying to convince God to do what they want him to do.

Either way, most people end up asking the question, “Where is God?”

The idea is that if God were here, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s another way of saying, “Why would God allow this to happen?” We try to convince ourselves that the famous Footprints poem is correct, that eventually we’ll find out that God was walking with us and even carrying us all along. But still we wonder. Where is God?

I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but my church background taught me to think of God as standing in the past. God elected, predestined. He chose and willed. We had the idea that everything is settled, that God ordained it, that one day he sat down and decreed all that should come to pass. With this mentality, when we face hard times, we comfort ourselves with phrases like “God is in control” and “God has a wonderful plan for your life.”

But this approach, when taken by itself, can lead to some unfortunate side effects. It’s easy to develop a rather fatalistic attitude. We’re just robots. Everything is settled, so why bother? Or, when things don’t turn out OK, we are left searching for the grander purpose and reason in our tragedies. God must have some reason to give us this trial, we tell ourselves. But what happens when we can’t figure that reason out? Do we end up blaming God? We end up blaming God, not just for keeping us in the dark, but for preordaining the bad things to happen.

If God is standing in the past, aren’t we moving further away from him with every passing day?

In recent years, it has become popular to think of God as being exclusively with us in the present. Some theologians, in an attempt to answer the question, “Why would God allow bad things to happen?” have suggested that God experiences those bad things right along with us. Since he is bound by time, living in the present. He not only hasn’t stood in the past and ordained what would come to pass, he’s not exactly sure what will happen in the future.

This approach is supposed to comfort us by letting us know that God is as deeply wounded by, disappointed about, and regretful of the bad things that happen in our lives as we are. He feels our pain. He’s sorry we’re going through what we’re going through. But does it leave us with a God who is merely wringing his hands, ultimately helpless, neutered by the infinite options that leave him unable to make a difference in our lives?

If God has no better vantage point than I do, what’s the point?

I’ve come to think of God as residing in the future. This doesn’t replace for me what is valid in the other perspectives, but it augments them with a fresh way of thinking. I now think of God as one who has a dream, a vision, of what the world – his kingdom – is to be like. And I think of him as having a dream, a vision, a goal for me. Maybe we could picture an artist with a masterpiece in mind that is presently being pieced together. I think God is there in the future, drawing me toward himself, inviting me to participate, to move toward him with hope for what could be.

This approach reverberates throughout the biblical story. Jesus told us to “follow him,” saying that he is going on ahead of us to prepare a place for us. Also, in Ephesians and other places, Paul repeats a theme of fulfillment and fullness, indicating that God is moving things along toward a final destination in which all things are brought to completion in the kingdom of Jesus.

So when bad things happen, I don’t need to hunt for all the hidden answers and purpose, nor do I have to either blame him for ordaining this or defy logic by somehow letting him off the hook. When things go wrong, I don’t have to put my arm around God and comfort him because he’s so upset too. Rather, when tragedy strikes, I need to keep moving toward God. When I’m asking “Where is God?” I need to keep reminding myself that he’s up ahead. I need to remember that he is up to something in my life and in this world. I need to keep journeying, to keep taking steps in his direction by responding and reacting as kingdomly as I can. And I need to keep hope.

Wolfhart Pannenberg said, “God is the power of the future.” For me, that’s the most comforting thing of all.

Iconic

Right now at Vintage, we are doing a series called God, Is That You? (emphasis on the “that“) In this series, we are considering our perceptions (and misperceptions) of God, and we are challenging ourselves with some of the highly unusual ways God reveals himself in the Bible. Two weeks in, it feels like the kind of series we’re going to remember for a while!

In conjunction with this series, on Friday night, we gathered at Vintage for a unique worship experience. With lots of music and candles and quiet, we made Post Secret-like cards that express how we view God. The result is a fascinating collective theology project that is now hanging on the gallery wall at Vintage.

Enjoy.

Mine is taken from a compelling quote from theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg.

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