Sermon Series: What Happened on the Cross?
“The Lamb of God”
First Sunday of Lent
What happened on the cross? I mean, in one sense, we know what happened. Jesus was executed, and we have some stories in the Gospels about some of the details of his execution.
But what significance does what happened have? What difference does it make in human history? In the cosmos? In the heart of God? In your life and mine?
How can something that happened two thousand years ago matter for our lives today?
This is the topic we are tackling during the season of Lent this year. We will not cover it in one sermon. So if you find this topic interesting and relevant for your life I’d encourage you to come back or to listen to the podcast or read the texts on the web.
What happened on the cross that affects me and you today?
I want to start out by saying something that I am probably going to repeat over and over again during this series.
There is no one understanding of the significance of the cross in the New Testament. There are multiple understandings.
Sometimes we are tempted to read the Bible as if it were a doctrinal dissertation. We assume that it is a coherent and neatly ordered argument or treatise with internal cohesion. It isn’t.
It would be more accurate to compare the Bible to a brainstorm than a dissertation. Something happened to a community of people as a result of Jesus’ life death and resurrection. We know that. This is one thing we know for sure. Jesus changed the way a group of people lived and thought and even the way some of them died. No one can argue against the reality that the life and death of Jesus started a new movement in human history.
The New Testament writings—27 small books—are a bubbling up of theories, ideas and intuitions about what the life and death of Jesus means.
Say something big happens in your life… really big… you fall in love in such a way that you realize you were never really in love before, you only thought you were. Say you keep a journal. One day you write that you love him because he is the most handsome man in the world. The next week you write that you love him because he is the most understanding man in the world. The next week you write that you love him because he is the most intelligent man in the world. Two months later you write that you love him in spite of his flaws, which you will fix, and which aren’t really his fault but his mother’s, that witch.
Now if a dozen people from a dozen different communities fell in love with the same person, and you put all their journals written over the course of a number of decades into one collection, you’d have something like the New Testament.
The early Christians had their lives turned upside down by Christ; the New Testament is a collection of writings attempting to figure out how to understand what happened, what it means, how to articulate it, what images and metaphors work best to try to express it.
So the first thing I want to say is that there is no one understanding of the cross, no one metaphor, no one articulation, no one theory that is definitive. There are at least 10 or 11 different theories about the significance of the cross in the New Testament.
So if you hear one that you can’t connect with, come back next week, there will be another. From the very beginning, not all Christians connected with any one particular idea or theory.
One of the reasons this is important is because there may be an understanding of the cross that works for us when we are 16 but it doesn’t work any more for us when we are 30. So we think we have lost our faith. No, no. It is just that a concept or metaphor that worked for us when we were 16 doesn’t work for us anymore when we are 30. There are other concepts and metaphors. I don’t know how many people have told me they aren’t a Christian because they can’t believe this or that, and I have to tell them “I don’t believe that either.”
“But don’t you have to believe that to be a Christian?” they say.
I say, “I hope not because if you do I’ll have to turn in my union card.”
Listen, there were ideas that worked for Paul when he was writing Galatians near the beginning of his ministry that he had given up on or changed by the time he wrote the book of Romans late in his ministry. We take an idea that Paul believed in Galatians and no longer believed the same way when he wrote Romans and we tell people they’ve got to believe it to be a Christian and even Paul had stopped using that idea by the Book of Romans because it didn’t work for him anymore.
We don’t all have to understand Christ the same way, and we do not have to understand Christ the same way at every stage of our lives in order to know that something eternally profound happened in the life and death of Jesus.
So that’s the first thing. From the very beginning, there has been no orthodoxy about the cross, but a variety of ideas and understandings… in fact, an exciting bubbling up of a diversity of ideas, theories, images, and metaphors.
I am going to say this again and again this Lent. There is no one theology of the cross. You hear one that doesn’t connect for you, come back next week.
What I want to focus on this morning is this: some of the New Testament theories about the cross are not pretty. There are some theologies of the cross that are elegant and sophisticated and intellectually satisfying. Some aren’t. Some are bloody and crude.
One of the most widespread and commonly repeated understandings of the cross is that Jesus bled and died to pay the price for our sin. Jesus was the lamb of God who was slain to pay the penalty that you and I deserved to pay. Jesus died for our sins. Drive through the South or through central Pennsylvania and you will see it painted on the side of barns: “Jesus died for your sins.”
You are a sinner; you deserve to die, but God sacrificed God’s own son to die in your place. We become cleaned by being washed in the blood of the lamb.
Anybody ever heard these kinds of images?
I chose a Scripture for this morning from I Peter that uses this kind of metaphor. There are others I could have chosen; I just mean this one to be an example.
I Peter 1:18: “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.”
We are ransomed from slavery to sin by the precious blood of Christ, like a lamb who is sacrificed on the altar of the temple.
Or read the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. Hebrews 9 says: “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22); then it says that “Christ appeared to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:27). Christ was sacrificed, offered up, “to bear the sins of many” (9:28).
It is called the theory of substitutionaryorpropitiatory atonement. Jesus is your and my substitute on the cross. His death satisfies or propitiates the penalty due for your and my sin.
Some people think this is the only understanding of the meaning of the cross. Hymn writers seem to like this understanding of the cross, so it appears in church hymns a lot. And because it seems bloody and crude, and because it is not a very civilized or rational or politically correct understanding of God, people who find it hard to resonate with this particular theory of the cross think they have to reject the cross altogether.
So I want to say a few words this morning about my understanding of the meaning of substitutionary or propitiatory theories of the cross.
And to do that I need to talk about the difference between the amygdale and the reptilian brain. Our brains actually have three layers— the old brain or the reptilian brain, the amygdale, and the cerebral cortex, but today I want to talk about the first two—the reptilian brain and amygdale.
Why do you think the most elemental part of our brain, located mostly in our brain stem at the back of our head, is called the reptilian brain? Because it resembles the brain of a snake. It has only appetites.
Robert Cummings Neville says: “The ‘old brain,’ or the ‘reptilian brain,’ at the core of the humanly evolved brain programs violent bursts of action, the selfish lunge and grab for food, the rage to fight, the instinct to flight, the overwhelming urge to copulate in season.”
The reptilian brain has no reason, no conscience, only a fierce and violent instinct for survival, appetites, and impulses.
The amygdale brain, the next layer of evolution, has the ability and responsibility to regulate the reptilian brain. Bob Neville says: “…the higher brain organs… provide a sensible display of the environment as a field of many actors and conditions within which measured responses are available. With this possibility, the advantages of cooperation at elementary and more advanced levels are also possible.”
Obviously different animals have more or less evolved brains with higher functions, but every animal including homo sapiens has a reptilian brain inside them… inside us. We would not want to not have a reptilian brain. It is the reptilian brain that gives life much of its zest and energy and vitality.
Anyone else besides me pay attention to your dreams? I try to pay attention to my dreams.
I don’t think I am unusual… I hope not… my dreams are not politically correct. The other night I threw an old man out of a second-story window in a dream. In my defense, he tried to throw me out of the window first. My dreams are more in tune with my reptilian brain than my consciousness is when I am awake.
One of my favorite poems is Carl Sandberg’s poem “Wilderness.” Do you know it? I want to take the time to read it today. We should spend more time reading poetry.
Carl Sandberg’s “Wilderness”
THERE is a wolf in me … fangs pointed for tearing gashes … a red tongue for raw meat … and the hot lapping of blood—I keep this wolf because the wilderness gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
What a wonderful poem! There is a zoo in me. There is a snake in me. I am not as polite and cultured and civilized as I appear. But there is also “a man-child heart, a woman-child heart” in me. Bless Carl Sandberg. What a wonderful poem!
There are three layers of the brain but the two most basic are the reptilian and the amygdale. Which of those two do you think beer commercials during sporting events are designed to stimulate?
There is a newsstand I often pass when I walk into church and they have a display of magazine covers in the window. Which of the parts of the brain do you think most of those magazine covers are designed to stimulate?
Here’s the thing about a bloody, substitutionary, propitiatory theory of the cross—it is the part of the symbol of the cross that speaks to our reptilian brain. Our reptilian brain knows that when someone hurts or threatens me, I need to kill him. When someone takes my eye, I need to take two of theirs. When someone takes out one of my teeth, I need to take out a mouthful of theirs. That’s what my reptilian brain knows.
My reptilian brain knows that every threat requires a fiercer and stronger counter-threat, every injury requires retaliation. That is the way the universe works in our reptilian brain.
There is a part of the cross—this bloody part—that speaks to the reptilian world within us. As soon as you try to turn it into rational theology there are all sorts of problems with it. It is illogical except by a very crude and unsophisticated logic; it is cruel; it is sexist and violent and totally politically incorrect. This is because it speaks to us at the same level a beer commercial during a sporting event speaks to 24-year old guys who get up at the game and tear their shirts off to reveal the name of their team spelled out on their chests.
This is why this image of the cross appears again and again in music. Music speaks to a place deeper within us than theology does. This is why we can get away with things in music that we can’t get away with in theology.
If you think you don’t have a reptilian brain inside of you, start keeping a dream journal.
This is what the cross says to my reptilian brain and yours—every threat and injury and hurt that you have done to someone or something else that you know you ought to be punished for has been absorbed by the cross… it has been covered by the blood of Jesus.
Your and my reptilian brain knows that there are things the universe ought to punish us for, but Jesus has taken that punishment for us. This only really works at the level of our reptilian brain, but it is healing when it works there. Our logical brains can talk us out of the sense that we deserve to be punished and die, but our reptilian brain thinks we do because our reptilian brain is full of aggression and meanness and violence and lust.
If you will close your eyes, I’d like to invite you to try an experiment… Participate in the experiment only if you want to. Take two or three fingers and put them on either side of the top of your head. If you move your fingers around you will find a place that just feels right. Hold your fingers there as we pray.
We give you thanks, O God for the amygdale brain within our skulls. The “man-child heart” and the “woman child heart” within our minds that allows us to control our rages and our lusts and our furies and our drives. We thank you, O God, that you have evolved our brains so that we are not merely snakes and reptiles but are capable of cooperation and love and sacrifice and delayed gratification and literature and music and the arts.”
Feel that part of your skull. Now move your hands to the place at the back of your head where your head and spine meet. Just cover that part of the back of your head with your hands. Feel the warmth of your hands on that part of your head and neck, and let us pray.
We thank you God for this source of energy and passion and drive as uncivilized and visceral as it is. This part of me thinks the universe wants to destroy me. Because it is violent and untamed, it thinks the universe will make it pay for its crimes and lusts and violent impulses. It thinks it needs to die. Fill this part of me, O God, with your grace… the cross of Christ. Speak through the cross to this most primitive and unreasoning part of me. Tell it that the price has been paid, the blood it owes has been shed by another, the lamb of God, it is forgiven, it is given the gift of life and joy. In the name of the Christ we pray. Amen.
Symbols speak beneath the rational. May the cross speak deep within us today.
Robert Cummings Neville, Symbols of Jesus: A Christology of Symbolic Engagement (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 68.