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Trail Notes: 07/02/2017

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Quid pro quo?

The near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham in today’s Genesis passage raises the whole issue of sacrifice, which is as old as the religious quest to relate to God, or the gods.  The impulse to offer something to deities, in hopes of receiving something – bountiful harvests, success in war, pardon for wrongdoing – is as old as humanity itself. 

The Hebrews advanced religion dramatically from other ancient models: first by asserting one God instead of many.  The second advancement concerns human sacrifice – typically the offering of a first-born son as God’s due.  This entailed human sacrifice, as Abraham was about to do, to our horror.  But in the story God stops the sacrifice, and God substitutes a ram for Abraham’s son.  Furthermore, God provides the ram as a sacrifice – a new and strange twist. 

So, in Hebrew religion we see no more human sacrifice – thank God.  But the sacrifices of animals and foodstuffs would continue as long as there was a temple in Jerusalem in which to offer them.  This ended completely in 70 C.E. when the second temple was destroyed by the Romans – a few decades after the life of Jesus. 

Sacrifice enters Christian theology as the early church tried to figure out and describe what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant.  Many saw Jesus as sacrificing his life on the cross – and clearly he did accept that punishment for rocking the uneasy boat of Roman-Temple cooperation to keep the Jews peaceful. 

But if Jesus’ life and death were a sacrifice, then to whom were they offered, what benefit (quid pro quo) was derived, and who received the benefit?   

To answer these questions, a whole array of Atonement Theories have arisen during the history of the church, and (wisely) the church universal has never specified just one as the correct understanding.  One such theory as risen to the fore in the Western church, and was recently voted by the Southern Baptist Convention USA to be the only way to understand Jesus’ work on the cross in that denomination:  “penal substitutionary atonement.”  In short, this theory asserts that only human beings can repay the debt to God’s justice that  was/is incurred by our willful disobedience to God (sin).  To save us from the rightful penalty for sin (death), God sent Jesus to die in place of all humanity.  This satisfies God’s justice (or wrath). 

This no doubt sounds familiar from hymn texts, some Scriptures, and parts of our liturgy.  But is it the only way to understand Jesus’ death on the cross?  Is it the best way?  I don’t believe so. 

I object to this theory on a couple of counts.  First, it is transactionary: it involves a quid pro quo.  But Christian faith teaches us to live a life based on love and grace, not buying and selling.  Why, if love and forgiveness are paramount in Christian life, can God not simply and freely forgive humanity for our sins?  Why exact a terrible price, to be paid by an innocent bystander (Jesus)?  Why would God use violence to solve the problem of sin? 

Historically, many parts of the church have never assented to this theory.  The Franciscans, for instance, see Jesus’ death as a sign of his suffering with all humanity, especially poor and oppressed people.  Jesus’ love for us means he is willing to be vulnerable as we are, to walk with us even through death itself. 



Trail Notes: 6/18/2017

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“Let us go forth…”

When I was in seminary, we used to talk about the gathered church and the scattered church.  The gathered church – everybody together in a church building doing “churchy” things – is much easier to visualize and understand.  We know what that looks like; we know how to do it. 

The scattered church, on the other hand, is harder to grasp.  This is the people of God going forth into the world – into daily life – and living out our Christian values at work, at school, in the neighborhood.  It’s every kind word and deed of mercy we offer; every contribution of money; every ethical decision we make; every time we speak out against injustice and prejudice when we see it.  Many would say that the scattered church is the most important aspect of our Christian lives. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is training his disciples to become the scattered church.  I’m sure they were much more comfortable just hanging out with Jesus, listening to his wise words and watching him teach and heal people.  But Jesus pushed them out of the nest to go do ministry themselves.  He sent them without any money or other supports, so they would have to relate to the people they met.  Imagine going on a trip without a credit card in your pocket! 

When they came home from their “mission experience,” they were pretty excited about what had happened – they taught and healed in Jesus’ name, and many people welcomed their message!  Some even wanted to become part of the Jesus Movement – part of the gathered church.

This is the challenge for us who live after Pentecost: to go forth into the world in the power of the Spirit, to speak and act in the name of Jesus, to be the scattered church in a world that desperately needs God’s voice of love and justice.  JBM



Trail Notes: 6/11/2017

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Queen Esther has a secret.  She is beautiful.  She becomes the favorite queen of the Persian King Ahasuerus. But Esther is a Jew.  When the King is tricked into signing an edict to destroy the Jews, Esther faces a decision: to “come out” and plead for her people, or to stay silent and hide her true identity.  

This is a decision that has faced LGBT people and others: hide their true selves to get along, or boldly declare themselves in solidarity with others who face hardship and discrimination.  Esther offers her own face as the face of the Jews, and saves them all. 

Today we celebrate Pride Sunday as well as Trinity Sunday.  The Trinity points to the mystery of God’s diversity within God’s oneness.  Pride Sunday reminds us of the human diversity God created and loves.  Both occasions call us to hold fast to our unity as God’s people, even as we are infinite in our variety.  It’s not always easy, but it’s the right thing to do. 

Scripture tells us that God is love – love itself!  Love holds us together in an infinite web of relationships.  Love must conquer division.  When we face moral questions, we must follow the love.  JBM  


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