This morning’s gospel is a deeply heart-warming story of the two disciples who walked in deep sorrow and in their sadness did not recognize the resurrected Christ walking by their side. Those of us who have experienced grief or illness know how that happens; in our times of deepest pain it is most difficult to recognize God, which is one of the reasons that developing a discipline of looking for God in the midst of our daily lives is so important. If we don’t develop our God muscle when life is at least moderately OK we cannot expect it to lift us up when life weighs us down.
I have often wished that Cleopas or his companion had recorded what they heard that day when the strangely familiar stranger said, ‘“Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.’
I think it would have prevented a lot of problems, because we still don’t really know why it was ‘necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things.’
It is easy to say he died for our sins but what does it actually mean? Over the years there have been many theories. Some of them have been taught as gospel truth, and most of us here have a sense of why Jesus died which is based on one or more of those theories. On Good Friday this year I noticed that the sermon I gave at the noon service here was directly contradicted in the words of the hymns we sang at the Methodist church in the evening. And both were firmly within the Christian tradition.
Since we all have ideas of why Jesus died, it is very difficult for us to come to the text with a clear and unadulterated vision. When we read a passage like today’s reading from the 1st epistle attributed to Peter we read it within the context that we have learned.
“You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.” For most of us this speaks of blood sacrifice. It suggests that because of our sin and degradation, God was so angry that he needed a sacrifice which would be big enough to blot out our heinous sin or wash it away with blood. This reading, that God requires death to make up for the fact that we are so bad, is inconsistent with everything we know about God as shown to us in Jesus.
Why would a loving God demand blood? It smacks of revenge. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” And furthermore, the idea that God had to send his own Son to die in order to appease Godself, suggests child sacrifice.
As Christians, the way we interpret what we read is through the lens of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection. Because that’s the center of our faith. And what we see there is someone who was an inspired teacher, impatient with petty rules, who was known for his love and compassion as well as his willingness to speak truth to power. So when we try to understand why it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things we have to do it from the perspective of love and compassion.
1st Peter says “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors”. We hear the word ‘ransom’ in this sentence and immediately we are reminded of the theory that Jesus had to pay the price for our sin, the price of his life, the price that God demanded. But what if it wasn’t God that demanded a ransom? What if it was the sin matrix? What if Jesus’ death was the result of the way he lived and the way his life challenged the powers of darkness?
Back in the early pages of Genesis, Abel was killed by his brother Cain and Yahweh said, “If anyone kills Cain he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” (Gen 4:15) Five generations later, Cain’s descendent Lamech said, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”(Gen.4:24) In a short period of time, five generations – say 100 years, the appropriate vengeance has increased exponentially. Very soon we hear that Yahweh “saw how great man’s wickedness had become and that the inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time,” and that was the cause of the great flood.
This is not a historical account but our ancestors’ way of explaining life as they knew it. I want to suggest that this is an excellent description of the sin matrix. In the absence of forgiveness, it is easy for vengeance to increase. There is something about us humans that leads us to negativity and violence. If not violence in our actions, violence in our thoughts. There is something about humans that makes every institution we build have a shadow side. There is something that makes us exploitative and greedy as we look out first and foremost for our own selves, our own family, our own country.
That for me is the sin matrix.
It is the sin matrix which keeps us trapped in comparing ourselves with other people and either judging them or finding ourselves lacking. It is the sin matrix which keeps us destroying the planet even while we know we’re doing it. It is the sin matrix which undermines our attempts to create peace and cooperation, keeping some people getting richer and others getting poorer and poorer.
Jesus spoke up against the sin matrix and it struck back with the very worst thing it can do to a human; it mocked him, scorned him and then killed him. Jesus died. But then God resurrected him, showing that God’s love is stronger than the sin matrix. And so we too can resist the sin matrix in all its forms. We have been given an out. Not an out from God’s wrath because God wasn’t angry, but from “the futile ways inherited from [our] ancestors.”
Jesus death was costly both in human terms and in God’s terms. God chose to become human, even though God is God and did not need to do that. God became human and experienced the same limitations and mortality that we experience. It was costly for the human Jesus who gave up the thing that is most precious to all of us, the things we fight to keep; his life. A price was paid. It was similar to a ransom: the Greek word interpreted as ransom also means to liberate or redeem. We are liberated from the sin matrix by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Yes Jesus was, as 1st Peter says, like “a lamb without defect or blemish”. Jesus was innocent, and pure and non-violent. And the sin matrix got him and did its worst. But it could not destroy the pure and unadulterated love which is the Christ and which is the power of God working in you and me today.
It is in the interests of the sin matrix to keep us thinking that God is angry. It is in the interests of the sin matrix to keep us under its thumb.
What sets us free is the glorious resurrection of Christ!
Healing is possible, new life is available. We can oppose the sin matrix and we have the example of this man who resisted non-violently, without getting caught up in anger and blaming and who forgave his persecutors. Like a lamb he was defenseless. He allowed himself to be killed because of his great love for us and his obedience to God’s intention.
The coming of the Christ in Jesus was not some afterthought because humans were so bad but was always part of the plan for the redemption of the whole of creation. And none of us can ever fully understand why and how that all works, but we can be sure, with the writer of 1st Peter that Jesus the Christ was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for [y]our sake.
And so it is up to us. Are we going to live the resurrection life, resisting the sin matrix whenever we see it? Are we going to practice forgiveness? Or are we going to go on in the same old way?
Today we pray for healing, for ourselves, for each other and for the world. Healing starts in our beliefs and our attitudes. Healing starts when we realize that God isn’t mad at us. God didn’t kill his son because we were such schmucks. God loves each one of us with an exquisite and never failing love. Each one of us. Healing starts when we forgive ourselves and each other.
Yes our physical bodies fail. We are after all still mortal. But our spirits live on and the more that we can love God and one another, the more we will experience peace and healing. As 1st Peter says, “Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.”