March 7

Approaching Atonement

By Marsh Chapel

Regarding Atonement, tone matters.

It is the tone in atonement that matters most. The hue. The fragrance. The touch. Without tone, love is lost, and atonement is love.

Both our Psalm and our Gospel tell us so.

Psalm 63:

Like the 23rd Psalm, Psalm 63: 1-8 is about faith, confident trust in God. The characteristic forms of lament are also present here. In this psalm, though, the words are spoken to God, not about God. Here we may find a helpful correction for some of our current spiritual life. This Psalm should put a little steady 4/4 rhythm into our willingness to talk to God. God is righteous, just, merciful, faithful…and gracious, we affirm. So, as this Psalm encourages us, we may find courage to lift our heartfelt prayers directly to God, to speak from the heart. It is healthy so to do. One college sophomore, recently considering the early choices about studies and majors that loom with later and larger consequences, said, in full and honest confession: “it’s scary, its scary to think hard about your future”. It is a brave person who will honestly admit and lament some fear, as this Psalm encourages us to do.

This matter of thirst both unites and complicates our poem. Like a fugue appearing and disappearing, the song of Psalm 63 names a “thirst” that will not be slaked by anything other than Ultimate Reality. Now some of this thirsty confusion may be due to a long observed confusion in the order of verses. Following H Gunkel, many commentators to the present day have arranged the verses to the order of 1,2,6,7,8,4,5,3 (e.g. I B, vol.4, 327). Yet the exact ordering of the psalm has little full influence on its interpretation. The verses hold together, whether in the inherited order or in the edited improvement, guided by a desire for lasting meaning. Once during a continuing education session at the local Veterans’ Hospital each staff person was asked to give a single word description of what he or she brought to the work of the hospital. What the nurses, technicians, physicians and administrators said, in a single word, has not been recalled. The chaplain’s word, though, stands out in memory: “meaning”. Her presence brings meaning to those singing in lament.

One formal feature of this set of verses deserves some remark. Like a repetitive staccato interruption, there is a physical praise at work in this song, a praise that employs “lips”(3), “hands”(4), “mouth” (5). The praise of God is a physical act. It is healthy so to do. Praise involves presence. A pastor once went for his physical exam to the office of a backsliding parishioner. Said the doctor: “Why do you worry so much about numbers—worship attendance, giving totals, numbers of members? I don’t need to be a part of the numbers game to be faithful.” Replied the minister: “oh, for the same reason you worry so much about numbers—blood pressure, cholesterol count, even the dreaded weight scale. The body craves health—true of your body and true of the Body of Christ”. In Psalm 63 there is a physical interest at work. There is also an awareness of physical intimacy here that is startling: “upon my bed…in the watches of the night”. Our psalm lifts a physical, even intimate, grace note that surprises and disturbs, and sets us on a course of healing. The poet has found that there is some “help” here. A choral swell lifts the end of the song: “because thy steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise thee” (v.3).

The tone, in atonement, is love. Love so amazing, so divine

Luke 13:

Here whatever events occurred in Jesus’ time are now lost. The soprano voice of Jesus in history is barely audible. Clearly, for the first churches, though, the matter of repentance was crucial. The alto harmony (the inner line voice in the choral harmony of the early church) breathes repentance. Then, in good tenor fashion, Luke connects repentance to experience. The experiences of political terrorism (Pilate and Galilean blood) and natural accidents (gravity and falling towers) we know as well as they did. The experience of fruitless labor we also know. We know too about injustice unaddressed leading to suffering. Through the centuries, the church’s bass voice has carried forward the intersection of experience and repentance. It is this humbling, quieting mode, tone, which the church has to offer to a post-church world.

To the question “Why?” I have no answer for you. But the good news is that you have an answer for me. And if you think I do not see it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not appreciate or admire it you are mistaken. And if you think I do not respect it you are mistaken. You live your answer by choosing the cruciform path of faith. You meet evil with honesty, grief with grace, failure with faith, and death with dignity. You carry yourselves in belief. And in humility. Maybe a story will remind us…

Why did Jesus have to suffer and die? In Christian history, there have been multiple answers. One is that God sent Jesus to die on the cross to atone for the sin or sins of the world. A righteous God holds sinners accountable and sends Jesus to suffer and die to satisfy\appease God’s judgment upon sinners. This atones for human sin and believing sinners go free. For me, such a view seems to suggest that God is behind and wills awful brutality.

Another view is that Jesus died the way he did because he lived the way he did. His uncompromising compassion and the integrity of his
love challenged others. Threatened religious and political authorities then combined to put him to death. Where is God in all of this?

Some people came to see God’s love at work in Jesus’ love, a love willing to go to the cross to show the depth of its integrity. God does not cause Jesus’ terrifying crucifixion, but God can use it to show that nothing in life or death or anything else in all creation can separate us from such love, including crucifixion. God’s raising Jesus from the dead is God’s imprimatur on such love. (Paul Hammer)

It is important to use the right tone when speaking of the atonement…

You remember that it is not the passion of Christ that defines the Person of Christ, but the Person that defines the passion. You remember that it is not the suffering that bears the meaning, but the meaning that bears the suffering…that it is not the cross that carries the love but the love that carries the cross…that it is not crucifixion that encompasses salvation, but salvation that encompasses even the tragedy of crucifixion… and that it is not the long sentence of Lent, with all its phrases, dependent clauses and semi-colons that completes the gospel, but it is the punctuation to come, the last mark of the season, whether it be the exclamation point of Peter, the full stop period of Paul or the question mark of Mary—Easter defines Holy Week, and not the other way around. Love defines death, and not the other way around. Oh, we want to be clear, now: the resurrection follows but not replace the cross, for sure. Still, it is also true that the cross precedes but does not overshadow the resurrection. It is Life, it is Love, it is Good Who has the last word.


~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,

Dean of Marsh Chapel

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