By The Rev. A. Wayne Schwab
[The Witness Magazine, January, 2005]
In these days of so many crises in public and private life, Christians are either too silent or too invisible! I believe the way we understand what Jesus does for us is much of the problem.
Moving Beyond Jesus’ Death as a Sacrificial Atonement for Our Sins
“Christ died for your sins.” From my preteen years, I recall seeing those words painted on a stone along the highway that took my family and me from Washington, D.C. to the Chesapeake Bay for summer outings. I passed those words many times during the 1930s, and wondered just what they meant. Although those words were familiar to me from the Book of Common Prayer, they still puzzled me.
In time, I came to realize that for many people, those words meant that someone had died to pay for our sins. Only then could God forgive us and assure us of unconditional love. And it was Jesus who had paid that price by dying for us in crucifixion. But that understanding of those words troubled me even more. I thought ‘What kind of a god demands that someone die so that we can be forgiven!” Even as a young teen. I was convinced that there must be another way to understand Jesus’ death and those words.
Later, in seminary, an assigned reading — Gustav Aulen’s book Christus Victor — opened up that way for me. Aulen said the first understanding of Jesus was that he overcame evil, sin, and death for us. Jesus was the agent of God’s rule and power among us. His teaching and healing were signs of God’s power working through him. His death made clear the depth of the evil and sin he fought. Jesus’ valiant facing of death followed by his resurrection proclaimed the victory of God over, even, death.
Aulen, and other theologians who affirmed his theology, had answered my search for another way. Jesus did not die “for” our sins but “because” of our sins. In our sinfulness, we put him to death. It helped me when my daughter, a veteran of Desert Storm and the mother of two young children, asked me. “What am I to make of this the Jesus-died-for-my-sins way of thinking that so dominates my Bible class?” I responded that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection was the victory of God over evil, sin, and death.
The Gospel as Jesus’ Victory
To talk only of God’s forgiveness and unconditional love as the Gospel can tempt us to a childish pattern of seeking only to be cared for rather than seeking to be God’s coworkers. There is so much more power in the Gospel as the Good News of God’s victory in Jesus Christ Forgiveness of sin and God’s unconditional love are still there as part of the Good News. But the even greater Good News is that the risen Jesus shares his power over evil with us! “As the Father has sent me, so I send you … receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22). Through his gift of the Holy Spirit, we receive the power to cope with sin, not only in ourselves, but in the whole world out there.
Through baptism, we join God’s ongoing work in Jesus Christ to overcome evil, sin, and death — all that is against love and justice. Christian living becomes working with Jesus Christ in each of our daily arenas — in our homes, at work, in our local communities, in the wider world, when we’re at our leisure and in our church life. We join Jesus in his ongoing work to make life more loving and more just.
Making life more loving and more just is a call to action! Christians can be invisible and silent no longer. We are on mission with Jesus Christ wherever we are. His Spirit — the Holy Spirit — is at work in us all the time as well. Not only are we forgiven, we have the power to cope with our own sin and to take on transforming life in each of our own daily arenas.
Becoming Agents of Jesus’ Struggle and Victory
“Let Jesus into your heart.” We hear that often enough. But the question is: What do we let him in to do? In those words, there is no call to transform ourselves and the world with God’s help.
In Christus Victor we have the call to be agents of transformation. Our message, in deed and word, is that Jesus Christ is at work among us now to make the world more loving and just; and he shares his power over evil, sin, and death with us. As Christians we are longer silent or indistinguishable from non-Christians as we join Jesus’ work of transforming our “worlds” to share in God’s reign of love and justice.
Here are stories of two of Jesus’ co-workers who transformed the “world” of their daily work. Margaret, a single mother, declined a promotion in order to keep the time and the energy she needed to care for her three children. Ironically, she was assigned to train the person who took the job she turned down. Her trainee became competitive and blamed Margaret for the mistakes the trainee made herself. Praying for guidance and help, Margaret found the power and wisdom to reassure her trainee that she had nothing to fear and that the trainee’s success would be Margaret’s too. As the trainee settled down, the climate of the whole office improved. Margaret had been part of Jesus’ work to make that work place more caring.
George and his colleagues at the post office were suffering because of the insensitive leadership of a new supervisor. No one had dared to speak up. George recalls a surprise: “I had imagined myself speaking up but had not yet done so. Then, all of a sudden, I opened my mouth. I had found the courage to speak up.” From that point on, things changed. The power promised by Jesus had come into his life and the life of that workplace as well. Some time earlier, George, in his mind, had “quit” the job to “work for God” instead of the Postal Service. George had joined God’s work in Jesus Christ to make the post office a more just place.
Some New Paths to Try
In our churches, discovering the Christus Victor way is not easy. There is much talk of Jesus’ work for us as sacrificing himself to “pay” for our sins. Instead, to hold up Jesus as the victor over sin, evil. and death and our call to join him in his mission will take explicit changes in deed and word.
Share in the Most Powerful Community of All
When we explore deeply what people seek from a religious experience, we usually hear that people seek to belong; to find meaning; and to have a sense of personal relationship with God. There is a way. That way is to do God’s work in our daily places; what I call our daily “mission fields.” When you share with other Christians how you try to do God’s work in your daily places, you share in the most powerful community of all. What greater meaning is there in life than to discover that what you do to make life better in your daily places is part of God’s work? This discovery can be the peak religious experience. It combines encounter with God with what God calls you to do and with God’s power to help you to do it.
Talk the Gospel as God’s Power
Just how will we capture in words the “Gospel” we offer? Usually we hear some form of “God forgives and loves you without condition.” Yet, the first “good news” was that God’s power was stronger than any of the world’s powers. “The kingdom of God has come near.” That was the “good news” to be “believed” (Mark 1:15). God’s reign was not good news to Caesar who knew this proclaimed a power greater than his. God’s power became visible in Jesus’ healings and teachings and, after his resurrection, in the caring, healing, and endurance of his followers when they faced persecution.
Unconditional love and forgiveness are part of the victory of God over evil, sin, and death. It is the invincible power of God that gives unconditional love and forgiveness their substance. We move on from just confessing “what we have done and left undone’ to drawing on Jesus’ power to transform ourselves and the world around us.
The Gospel is the victory of God in Jesus Christ over evil, sin, and death and the gift of power to join the risen Jesus in his ongoing struggle to overcome whatever blocks love and justice. Jesus calls us to be loving and just wherever we are and at all times. When we try to live this way, we quickly confront our need for help. God gives us that power to be more loving and more just. That is the “salvation” we need: for Jesus to break the power of evil and to share with us the power to transform ourselves and the world around us.
Avoid “Commodifying” the Gospel
A “commodity” is anything that can be measured and traded and that makes us feel comfortable. If we’re honest about it, we certainly do a great job of “commodifying” the Gospel so that it feels good. So many church bulletin boards display words or signs like. “Jesus lives for you and me.” These words present Jesus as offering a commodious relationship where he does things for us without expecting any specific deeds from us. What a difference it makes in people’s thinking if phrases like “Jesus calls you and me to be his co-workers” are displayed instead. Such wording tells you what you will — at least, should — find inside the church doors and how you should live outside the church doors in the world.
Reflect Jesus’ Victory in Our Worship and Current Catechisms
Another path to try — most cautiously — is in worship, because worship shapes the way we pray and live. It seems that sacrificial atonement dominates our prayers and hymns, and a Christus victor spirituality runs a distant second. Let a congregation’s worship committee request permission to experiment with rewording prayers. For example, Episcopalians can try rephrasing the first paragraph of Eucharistic Prayer A in the Prayer Book to “. . . reconcile us to you.” the God and Father of all, to share in your mission. As for music, choose — and write — hymns that celebrate Jesus’ victory over death and remind each of us to seek to live this victory each day.
Christus victor and the daily missions of the members need to be more evident in our current statements of faith. For example, Episcopalians might expand the “God the Son” section of “An Outline of the Faith” in the Prayer Book (p. 850):
Q.: What is the great importance of Jesus’ suffering and death?
A.: By his obedience, even to suffering and death. Jesus made the offering which we could not make; he unites himself with victims of violence and persecution and demonstrates the power to endure the worst without forsaking God’s mission: through him we find power to cope with sin and are reconciled to God.
I believe that this Christus victor spirituality can end our silence and invisibility as Christians. I pray that we all find the spiritual maturity to see all of our days as lived in God’s presence. And I believe that we are called to be part of God’s never-ending struggle to overcome over evil, sin, and death in Jesus Christ.