Sunday, May 21, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Christus Victor: The Victorious Christ"

1 Corinthians 15:50-58

This is what I’m saying, brothers and sisters: Flesh and blood can’t inherit God’s kingdom. Something that rots can’t inherit something that doesn’t decay. 51 Listen, I’m telling you a secret: All of us won’t die, but we will all be changed— 52 in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the final trumpet. The trumpet will blast, and the dead will be raised with bodies that won’t decay, and we will be changed. 53 It’s necessary for this rotting body to be clothed with what can’t decay, and for the body that is dying to be clothed in what can’t die. 

54 And when the rotting body has been clothed in what can’t decay, and the dying body has been clothed in what can’t die, then this statement in scripture will happen: Death has been swallowed up by a victory. 55 Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death? (56 Death’s sting is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.)

57 Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! 58 As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord. (Common English Bible)

“The Christus Victor: The Victorious Christ,” 1 Corinthians 15:50-58

“Imago Christi: Images and Titles of the Living Christ,” Week Five

The young girl’s deep brown eyes stare into the camera lens, giving off a sense of profound determination, the sort you don’t always expect from teenagers, and if you do, it’s often about far less trivial matters than, say, being married to someone much older than you against your will.

But that is a circumstance that teenaged girls in fundamentalist sects across a great many religions (including Christianity) face, and in Afghanistan, one such girl, Sonita Alizadeh found a creative way out of the devastation she experienced when her parents told her that she was about to be married off, as Shuka Kalantari for PRI in San Francisco writes:

“One day my mom told me, ‘You have to return to Afghanistan with me. There’s a man there who wants to marry you. Your brother’s engaged and we need your dowry money to pay for his wedding.’”

Sonita was devastated. So she wrote the song “Brides for Sale.” The song starts “Let me whisper, so no one hears that I speak of selling girls. My voice shouldn’t be heard since it’s against Sharia. Women must remain silent…this is our tradition.”…

Sonita was worried what her parents would think about the video—but they actually loved it—and they also told her that she didn’t have to get married.

“It means so much to me that my family went against our tradition for me. Now I’m somewhere that I never imagined I could be.”

The attention around Sonita’s music landed her a full scholarship to Wasatch Academy, a college prep school in Utah, and that led to the concert here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Freed from the oppressiveness of being married off as a child, Sonita was free—free to change the world through her music, but also free to see that even here in the United States, we struggle to provide for the poorest and the least among us, something that she laments later in this story about her, underlining just how much more the world still needs to be changed.

Which is the notion of atonement in Christianity in a nutshell—realizing that you and your circumstances may have been changed because of a change within you, but simultaneously realizing that you now must effect even more change beyond you on behalf of how you yourself have been set free. And there is one particular image of Christ that drives that notion home for us.

This is a (no longer) new sermon series for the church season of Easter, which extends for the forty-nine days between Easter Sunday last week to Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples as described in the second chapter of Acts. Much like Christmas, then, Easter does not actually end on Easter Day, but rather continues for a number of days afterwards so that we may continue our celebration of the good news that each of these two holidays represents for us.

So for the 2017 Easter season, we have been using words to explore something visual—the images of the living and risen Jesus Christ that have been handed down from one generation of Christians to another throughout the centuries. Some of these images of Christ are almost as old as the church (the Way, in its Biblical incarnation) itself. All of them are rooted in Scriptural accounts of the Lord. And they each have something different to teach us about how different Christian communities at different points in time saw Jesus as the promised Messiah.

Today, after talking about the images of Jesus as the man, the child with mother, the Good Shepherd, and the Lord, we arrive at an old, old image of Jesus Christ that was expressed in some of the earliest atonement theology of the ancient church: the Christus Victor, or the Victorious Christ.
The Christus Victor is one of the theories of atonement in the church, which, if it sounds a bit like a boring term, it’s because it is. I don’t preach an awful lot on systematic doctrine in part because of that boredom factor (also because my preaching doesn’t exactly make it more exciting either), but stick with me for a minute or three.

We use sayings like “Jesus paid for my sins” or “Jesus paid it all” all the time (heck, the latter is the name of one of the traditional hymns of the church). But payment is purely transactional in nature; it’s like any other commercial interaction. It’s a quid pro quo. I give you this, you give me that. There’s not much room for grace, or for freedom, in such a framework.

So what if—and keep sticking with me—the crucifixion and resurrection weren’t really about payment at all, but about being liberated? That all of this isn’t about our debt of sins being paid, but being set free from that debt altogether?

If you don’t think there is a difference between the two, consider trying to call Visa or MasterCard and asking them if they’ll forgive your credit card balance instead of you paying it off and seeing just how far you get with them before they explode into peals of laughter.

I’m not saying the notion of sin as a debt to God that must be repaid isn’t a part of Paul’s work—as Paul scholar Stephen Finlan notes, it’s not like such a concept was fashioned out of whole cloth.

But if reconciliation with God is only possible through repayment, then what need is there for grace? Put another way—how can forgiveness of a paid debt be considered forgiveness of said debt?

So if payment represents forgiveness, we’re left with two options: one is the one I just illustrated—that our debt with God has been paid in full, and so forgiveness of the debt is unnecessary, precisely because it is a paid debt, eliminating the need for grace.

The other option, though, is far more monstrous: that Jesus’s death does not pay our debt with God in full, which creates all sorts of problems, since we believe Jesus was divine as well as human in nature. If God’s own divine, infinite substance is not enough to appease God, then what in creation possibly could be? And if this God can never be appeased or satisfied, then why bother worshiping such a God? We might as well all go home and do the crossword, it’ll have the same net effect on such a deity.

But what if God doesn’t adhere to the notion that we must pay off our heavenly debt through Jesus? What if Christ, and especially Christ crucified, represents God tearing up the bill outlining in great detail our indebtedness and feeding it into the shredder?

What if God does not demand compensation for our sins? What if God really did decide to err on the side of grace?

Then we are indeed set free. If payment of debt is the only thing that saves us from divine anger or wrath, then what is the point of grace at all? It would be just as easy to worship a God that is only capable of wrath.

But it would not be freeing to worship such a God. And here we finally, at long last, arrive at Paul’s words at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. It is a *victory* that has been achieved through Jesus, Paul says, and that victory comes from God.

Not from repayment to God.

Can you see the parallel between this relationship and the relationship between Sonita and her parents? Her parents didn’t consider her potential dowry paid, but rather, not needing to be paid at all. God does not see our debt as having been paid, but in not needing to be paid as well.

So we should find comfort and motivation in being set free, just like Sonita, just like people around the world who have escaped poverty, violence, war, and a multitude of other such severe harms.

We should find encouragement and affirmation in the knowledge that we are not chattel that has been bought and paid for, but souls that have been liberated from bondage, at liberty to tell the story, to live out the Word, to be the body of Christ to a world still in need of that same liberation.

That is the victory of God over the grave of which Paul speaks. That is what life without the sting of sin, and being deadened by sin, is meant to be and to look like and to experience fully and vividly.

And it is life that God calls you still towards today, and on all days, through the Christus Victor—the Victorious Christ, as a soul not bought and paid for, but forgiven, redeemed, and liberated.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 21, 2017

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