Rev. Sarah Buteux
October 17, 2021
To view todays’ service click here
Has anyone here ever heard of beer and hymns…wait for it…as a thing you do together? Cause it’s a thing.
I doubt it’s been happening much lately thanks to Covid, but you’d be amazed how many different types of people will turn out to sing old hymns and drink fresh beer just for fun.
One YouTuber describes Beer and Hymns as “like a karaoke all-skate of songs that are nostalgic and meaningful, whether you love them because of their history or your present beliefs.”1
Back in the day when I used to go to progressive Christian conferences, there would almost always be a Beer and Hymns night where hordes of ex-evangelicals and mainliners would gather to sing all the hymns we don’t sing so much anymore in church because they are… for various reasons…oh how shall I say this? You know…PROBLEMATIC.
And none more so than the old blood hymns.
I mean let’s be honest, we’re probably never going to sing “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” here at First Churches. We’re just not. And I’m okay with that.
But for whatever reason, all bets are off when you sing these songs in a pub. So much so that sometimes the older, bloodier, more archaic or inappropriate the hymn, the better.
The truth is, it’s really fun to gather like the British after a victorious football match, and sing, “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus,” at the top of your lungs while sipping a nice stout.
There’s something real nice about throwing your arms around complete strangers and singing about the “rock of ages cleft for me” or the old rugged cross, for:
“’twas on that old cross (that) Jesus suffered and died,
to pardon and sanctify me.”
“In Christ Alone.” “It is Well with My Soul.” Sure, all that talk about Jesus suffering, bleeding and dying for our sins can get a little maudlin. Sure all that talk about the wrath of God being appeased by the sacrifice of his only begotten son is a wee bit disturbing.
But there is something deeply affective about these old hymns, a lyricism and musicality that moves the soul to pity and contrition, deep gratitude and – for me at least – a nostalgia that brings me right back to the warmth of my grandmother’s kitchen on a Sunday afternoon.
That holiest of holy places where we’d sing “Blessed assurance Jesus is mine, O what a foretaste of Glory Divine, Heir of salvation, purchase of God, born of his spirit washed in his blood,” as we whipped up a baked corn casserole for the Sunday evening potluck at the Baptist Church.
You see, I knew in my heart that my grandmother loved me more than life itself, that she would lay down her life for mine without a moment’s hesitation. I knew it on such a visceral level that it was impossible to distinguish between her love and God’s as we sang “This is my story, this is my song” rolling along in her giant maroon Oldsmobile all the way back to church.
There is a power in the old hymns, and power in the new. In 1995 Stuart Townend wrote “How Deep the Father’s Love for us” and it’s gorgeous:
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure,
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure…
Behold the man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished;
His dying breath has brought me life I know that it is finished.
I will not boast in anything,
No gifts, no power, no wisdom;
But I will boast in Jesus Christ,
His death and resurrection.
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer;
But this I know with all my heart –
His wounds have paid my ransom.
“His wounds have paid my ransom.”
It is such a powerful thought, this idea that you are loved so, so, so, so much that God would give up his only begotten son for you. Loved so, so, so, so much that Jesus would die on a cross to set you free. Loved even more than my grandmother loved me.
And who am I, or any of us, to question it? After all, this is the heart of the gospel in the minds of most Christians walking around today. Jesus himself, at the end of today’s reading, says that he came to give his life as a ransom for many. He comes straight out and says that he came to pay the ultimate price to set us free.
But free from what, exactly? Or free from whom?
I will tell you right now that this is not an easy question to answer, which is why, when the wisest theologians speak about such things, they speak in terms of theories.
In this case we are talking about theories of atonement, our best attempts to understand precisely how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection brings us back into oneness with God. And you need to know that there is more than one.
In fact, the idea that “on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied,” wasn’t a part of Christianity for the first thousand years of our faith. The dominate theory early on was actually the “Christus Victor” theory.
If you’d asked the first Christians to explain what happened on the cross they would have told you a story about God locked in an epic battle with the Devil for the soul of humanity.2
When Jesus failed to win over the people and was crucified, the devil (and anyone else paying attention) was convinced that sin and death had triumphed over love and life. With the help of humanity, the devil had killed God’s only son and everything he stood for.
But when God resurrected Jesus on the third day, the forces of evil were cheated and we came to know that it is life that gets the last word, not death, forgiveness that gets the last word, not hate, God who gets the last word, not Satan.
Do we have any fans of the “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” If so, you will recognize God’s unconquerable love as the deeper magic Aslan speaks of at the end of that book, a love that, when freely given, is stronger than death itself.
It’s a beautiful theory, but it didn’t sit so well with everyone, including a monk by the name of Anselm who came along in 1099 with his classic, “Why Did God Become Man.” Do we have any fans of that book?
In particular, Anselm objected to the way the “Christus Victor” story put the power of God on par with the power of the devil. Why should God have to play by the devil’s rules or pay the powers of death and hell a ransom? He wondered. Something about that didn’t smell right. So Anselm – deeply steeped in his own medieval culture of honor and hierarchy – developed another way to tell the story.
He understood God as a supreme ruler, a being of infinite righteousness and perfect justice and our sin as an offense against God’s honor. To put this in perspective, think about all those costume dramas you’ve watched where the young men run off to duel at the least provocation.
Now think about the depth of humanity’s sins and what a provocation that would be. God, like an offended nobleman straight out of “Bridgerton,” has no choice but to demand satisfaction in order to maintain his own integrity.
And yes, I just compared God, the creator of the universe, to Anthony Bridgerton, London’s most elusive bachelor, in “the Viscount Who Loved Me.” Why, because Anthony, like Anselm, being a man of his time, would agree that someone must pay in order for God’s honor to be restored. It’s just how things were done back then.
Unfortunately, according to this scenario, humanity was so sinful and our debt so great, that only a perfect sacrifice could right the scales. Thankfully, infinitely sinless Jesus stepped in to take our place. Jesus bears the consequence of our sins upon the cross, and all is made well.
Five Hundred years later, the reformers (men like Luther and Calvin) take this idea and run with it, really emphasizing the fact that the wages of sin is death. God is not only dishonored by our disobedience and duty bound to punish us all, but seriously angry to boot.
Think back to my esteemed colleague on the wall over there and his description of us all as sinners in the hands of an angry God. But the good news, at least according to this theory called penal substitutionary atonement, is that Jesus is willing to stand in and take the punishment meant for us upon himself.
Jesus’ perfect life not only satisfies God’s desire for righteousness but Jesus’ willingness to suffer on our behalf satisfies God’s need for justice. Honor is restored. Scales are balanced. All’s well that ends well and Bob’s your uncle.
Or is he?
By which I mean, that as neat and logical as these theories appear on the surface, they both raise as many questions as they solve. Each captures a facet, a sliver, a glimpse of a truth that is as old and vast and wide and deep as the love of God, but neither of them fully satisfies.
Neither is without merit or power, and both have their limitations and problems. Which is perhaps why, as we face into a third millennium, more and more people are yearning for a new understanding of the cross, even if it means leaving some of our most beloved hymns behind.
There are more and more of us who simply cannot abide this portrait of God as an offended nobleman, an angry judge, or worst of all, an abusive father, whose love and forgiveness must be bought through the pain and suffering of an innocent sacrifice.
It simply doesn’t square with our experience of God as love, what we know about the character of Jesus, or our sense that the way Jesus lived was just as important, if not more so, than the way he died.
If the old theories work for you, like they did for my grandma, God bless you. But, if you’re looking for another way to understand what Jesus was up to, I would suggest that the best place to look is back in the gospels themselves.
What are the three most important things in real estate? Location, location, location.
Well I think something similar can be said for our theology. If you want to understand what Jesus is really up to, the most important thing is context, context, context.
And in this context, Jesus’ words about being “a ransom for many,” come at the end of a rich and repetitive section of Mark’s gospel that we’ve been wading around in since September. You really need to take this portion of the gospel, that begins toward the end of chapter 8 and continues right through 10, as a whole.
You see, within these chapters, Jesus circles back three times to explain to his disciples that the messiah they thought would triumph with power over their enemies has instead come to serve, to suffer, and to die. The fact that Jesus comes back to this three times, the fact that the disciples fail to grasp his meaning 3 times, and the fact that he needs to clarify exactly what he means 3 times, is Mark’s way of signaling to us that this is a really big, really hard concept to understand.
One theory or approach or hymn or… well…sermon, is probably not going to get us there. But here goes nothing.
When Jesus spoke for the first time to his disciples about how he must suffer and die in order to fulfill his purpose here on earth, you’ll remember that Peter rebuked him for saying such a thing. After telling Peter off with the famous phrase – Get Thee behind me Satan – Jesus proceeded to teach his disciples that in order to gain your life you must be willing to lose it.
He talks about taking up your cross, the very weapon Rome used to crush dissenters, and bringing it to them so they can do their worst. He makes it clear that he has not come to defeat Rome, but to let Rome defeat him. He explicitly rejects the idea that God’s kingdom will come through violence or coercion. His way is different than the way of the empire.
Then, in chapter 9, the disciples argue amongst themselves about who is the greatest. Placing a child before them – a person of no power or account – Jesus says that: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and a servant of all,” willing to serve even someone as powerless as this child.
When you give of yourself for the sake of someone who has nothing to give to you, you’re starting to get what I’m about, says Jesus. Greatness is not about what you can get out of others but what you have to give to others.
And now, in our reading for today, James and John come to Jesus in hopes that they can be the greatest, if not here on earth, then at least in heaven. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
To their credit, James and John understand that Jesus is on a mission to lose in this life, and they’re willing to go down with him if – and it’s a big if – if it means they will be raised up with him and rewarded in the life to come.
They’re getting closer, but they still don’t get it. Ultimately, they are still in this for themselves, and now the rest of the disciples are angry because they want their fair share too. So Jesus sits them all down again and explains, for the third time, that his gospel isn’t about what you get, it’s about what you have to give.
This isn’t about gaining power over others like the Romans so you can force people to do what you want.
This isn’t about amassing wealth or rank so you can hire people to do what you want.
Following in my way, says Jesus, is about using your power, your wealth, your rank – what the kids now a days call your privilege – and leveraging it to see to the wants and needs of others. Pouring your life out in service for the sake of all: this is the way… of Jesus, not the Mandalorian.
“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
In context, it would seem that Jesus is willing to give up his whole life to show us how to do this, put it up as collateral – if you will – as a ransom for many.
Notice that he makes no mention of paying off God or the devil here. Perhaps because his disciples, both then and now, are not held captive by Satan anymore than we are mired in an un-payable debt to God. We are simply trapped in our own heads, held captive by our own fears and selfish desires?
Trapped in a lie, the lie that if we just had enough power and might, wealth or rank to make everyone else do what we want then we’d finally be safe? Then we would finally be saved. A lie that causes us to chase after the wrong things and do the most harmful things to ourselves, our planet, and one another over and over and over, world without end, amen.
What if the good news is the message that we don’t have to live that way here upon the earth any longer? Friends, if power in God’s kingdom is not defined by honor or rank, control or fear, why would our salvation be?
What if Jesus gives his whole life to set us free, not from the wrath of God or the pains of hell, but from the vicious cycles of violence and poverty we promulgate in order to protect ourselves from one another; the hells we create and impose in an effort to get ahead of one another?
What if Jesus gives his whole life to show us that there is a better way? What if salvation, freedom from sin and hell, death and destruction, is as simple as realizing that if we would all just put one another first, be servants of all, that we could finally bring heaven to earth, right here, right now?
I don’t know how to set it to music, but that’s a gospel worth singing about, together. Amen
- Kristen Howerton https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6eS6ObbC3s
2. Although this is common knowledge, I am deeply indebted to Matthew Meyer Boulton and his “Strange New World” podcast produced by Saltproject for elucidating these theories so succinctly and for the exegesis of the passage that follows.