Thursday, January 22, 2015

When a Mover of Your Life Dies

Marcus Borg, the Bible scholar loved and disdained in equal measure across Christianity's spectrum, died yesterday at the age of 72.

When I first heard the news, I posted this to my Facebook page:

I just read about Bible scholar Marcus Borg passing away yesterday. I didn't agree with everything he said, especially about Easter and the nature of the Resurrection, but his book "The Last Week" that he co-wrote with John Dominic Crossan was (is) one of those "it changed my life" books, and months before he died, I had already planned to use that book as the template for my Lenten sermon series this year, to begin on Sunday, February 22. That sermon series takes on an added dimension for me with his, as he himself put it, "dying into God." 

Go with God, Dr. Borg. Thanks for everything.

In The Last Week, Borg and Crossan, even though they argue for setting the factual nature of the Resurrection aside in order to approach it as a parable (something I never understood, because they are writing primarily about Mark's Gospel, and Mark's account of the Resurrection is too incomplete to have been made up as parables are), they also set me free from believing in the idea that Jesus had to die as a payment to God for my sins, because it too was something that I never understood.  Why would God want His Son's blood as restitution for my sins?  I know I'm a sinner and deserve punishment, but blood payment just makes God sound barbaric.

Borg and Crossan laid out the historical reality: just over a millennium ago, in 1097, St. Anselm of Canterbury wrote a book, Cur Deus Homo (translated, "When God Became Flesh") in which he applies the feudal relationship of peasant to lord to our relationship with God: "God must require a punishment, the payment of a price, before God can forgive our sins or crimes.  Jesus is the price.  The payment has been made, the debt has been satisfied."

This is called penal substitutionary atonement, and it basically says, "Jesus died in my place."

Except I couldn't understand that at all.  The Romans and their Jewish collaborators didn't have any beef with me, so why are they executing this Christ because of me?

Because it is human inevitability to sin in this way.

That is why Jesus had to die, Borg and Crossan write.  Our sinfulness means we will inevitably throw stones, make crowns of thorns, and ultimately crucify one another.  God may well not have wanted Jesus to die, but He knew that it was the only way it could happen because of the way we are.

And yet, Christ's death still affects us.  Rather than being a payment for our sins, it is, Mark writes in the Greek, a lutron, a ransom for our sins.  A lutron isn't restitution, it's ransom.  It is what you pay to liberate a slave from bondage, not to make up for breaking your neighbor's window with a baseball.

In other words, Mark is saying that Jesus died to liberate us from sin.  And, as it turns out, that is what the church taught for the 1,067 years between the Crucifixion and St. Anselm: it is called the Christus Victor (Victorious Christ) atonement, and it essentially says that the work of Christ on the cross was to liberate us, for just as Paul says we are slaves to sin (Romans 6:20), Jesus liberates us from our slavery.  Just as Moses liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, so does Jesus liberate us all from slavery in the world entire.

We are free again through the cross.  And for me, the light bulb finally went on.  I could finally understand this terrible thing in a way that made sense.

That is the gift that Marcus Borg gave me.  He enabled me to understand the death of my Lord and Savior.  He enabled me to transform into a Christian whose faith wasn't threatened by the cross, but strengthened by it.

And what a precious gift that is.  And how I shall miss the giver of that gift.

It is appropriate, then, that I end with this, a short excerpt from The Last Week on the relationship between death and resurrection:

Good Friday and Easter, death and resurrection together, are a central image in the New Testament for the path to a transformed self.  The path involves dying to an old way of being and being reborn into a new way of being.  Good Friday and Easter are about this path, the path of dying and rising, (and) of being born again.

May God welcome Marcus Borg, and one day all of us who believe, as reborn souls, if it is right that God should do so.

Yours in Christ,

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Eric. Marcus was truly a remarkable person: a empowering mixture of honest academic and deeply committed Christian. He demonstrated that those who qualities that are often seen as opposites, really belong together. Appreciate your comments on the meaning of the cross.