We’ve often spoken about how we define God’s character. Our understanding of the Cross, why Jesus came to live among us, and why he died shapes our view of God. And thinking about this in the context of sacrifice and punishment distorts our understanding of a God who is for us. Let’s take a look at these two passages in Hebrews 10.
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll--
I have come to do your will, my God.’” (Hebrews 10:5-7)
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
“This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”
And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary. (Hebrews 10:15-18)
The author of Hebrews writes that Christ stated God did not desire sacrifice. If sacrifice wasn’t desired, then why did Jesus die on the cross. Was it nonessential? I had always understood that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins, my poor behavioral choices. That Jesus’ sacrifice appeased an angry Father who can’t look at me in my sin. In theological circles, this understanding is called penal substitution atonement theory. Historically, this hasn’t always been part of our understanding of God. But, it is the only understanding I was aware of for most of my Christian journey.
Verses 5-7 share something different. God did not desire sacrifice or an offering, and prepared a body for Christ, the incarnation. Why did Christ need a body if it wasn’t for sacrifice? What if the cross was nonessential with respect to what God needed for appeasement and punishment, but was more about what we needed to understand, what we needed to see?
One of my favorite pictures of God’s care for humanity comes from Genesis 3. If you recall the story, God is walking in the Garden. Adam and Eve are hiding because of the shame they feel due to eating the fruit. I’ve always understood this scene as God calling out the misbehaving children. Yet, what I understand now is God walking in the Garden, as was God’s habit, calling out to Adam and Eve. We know looking on that God knew exactly where Adam and Eve were hiding. Yet, God calls out, “Where are you?” Such an invitational approach shows God’s desire to be with humankind. God never shames them in the conversation that follows, but only offers the natural outflow of having eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. God actually listens and clothes them before he removes them from the Garden, for their safety and benefit. If you read the whole passage, God curses the serpent and the ground but never Adam or Eve.
As we think about a God who desires to be with us--with humankind--let’s go back to the body that God made for Christ. We can tend to miss the incredible gift of the incarnation, God becoming human to live among us, to live like us. I wonder if the incarnation is a little like God habitually walking in the Garden desiring to be with us. In breaking into our world, God shows us a “new” way of experiencing a relationship, much like the “old” way: a place of continual knowing and being known between God and humankind.
What if “sin” is thinking we are separate from God instead of the behavioral choices that come from this place of separation? The Greek understanding of sin is “missing the mark,” which we have formed into a right and wrong moral code. This hasn’t been the understanding for all streams of Christianity through history. A Jewish understanding of sin is more about a break in relationship: hiding, in shame, from a behavioral choice. Like what we saw with Adam and Eve in the Garden.
In reality, we are truly loved without regard to anything we have or haven’t done, or even in how we define ourselves. We have a hard time receiving God’s unconditional love into, believing that it could be the reality. We, also, have a difficult time allowing God’s unconditional love to impact our view of those around us. We form layers of self-protection to keep ourselves and others from seeing who we really are. Spiritual writers call these layers our false self. It is who we think we need to be to be accepted or thought “right.” We hide our shame--that which defines who we think we really are underneath it all. Yet, in reality what we really are, underneath our shame, is our Imago Dei, the image of God in which we are formed.
Adam and Eve came out from hiding and God met them in their shame. God clothed them, and tended to what they needed. What if God did the same thing for humankind in breaking into our world through becoming fully human and fully divine? What if in that amazing act, God is calling out to us to tend to what we truly need?
I believe that this is true. Jesus’ death on the cross was nonessential for God to accept me and you, but was essential for us to understand God’s loving embrace. God knew that this is what we needed to fully understand God’s love. The lens of sacrifice and offering was never God’s lens, but it was and often is ours. Jesus was willing to experience great suffering at the hands of humankind so that we could “get it,” so we could let go of our trying to get it all “right” and certain.
God crossed the boundary of the other by becoming human, breaking into our world, so that we could let go of our perceptions of ourselves and others and allow ourselves to love and to be loved, to know and to be known. God invites us to join the dance. The invitation is to let go of our self-protective barriers, our false selves, how we think we need to be perceived, and allow ourselves to be known. God modeled this for us by letting go of God’s perceived right to be God, to become one with us. Can we follow the example of the cross and let go of our own perceptions of who we need to be and allow ourselves to be known and to know those around us?
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!