Sunday, April 4, 2010

Reflections During Holy Week

For a while I have been wrestling with trying to figure out what salvation is. That seems like such a basic question theologically that I almost don't know that I should admit that I have been asking about it. But I wrestle with what I feel like are two extremes that I see manifested in our culture. The first is the extreme that I heard most frequently in my circles growing up- that salvation is solely spiritual, that it involves a particular answer to the question "what happens when I die?"- that answer being "I go to heaven because I had faith (which has become a very, very vague term) in Jesus." The second extreme is one that I hear railed against on several fronts- most prominently in the "health and prosperity" gospel and the "total sanctification" gospel that is often associated with Wesleyan theology. The problem with this is extreme is that it makes everything immediate, salvation becomes about radically changing my life now in some otherworldly way- heaven becomes the rest of my earthly life beginning right this very instant. I think a large part of the problem that I see with both of these views is that neither takes into account the "already-not yet" manner in which our salvation takes place. Already, salvation is beginning its work in me. But it is not yet completed, and it will not be completed until all things come to their completion.

The already is a lot of what we celebrate this week. This is the week we remember most vividly the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Yet even the way we often talk about his death, I think, moves towards one of these extremes or the other. Protestants, as part of a reaction against the Catholic Mass, which taught that Jesus was continually being sacrificed for sins in the rite of the Eucharist, are quick to emphasize the "completion" of Christ's work on the cross, especially in light of its substitutionary status. Christ died to forgive our sins and that was done "once and for all." Thus, Zwingli can argue consistently that Lord's supper is just an act of remembrance, not in any way sacramental.

The problem is that I'm not certain either the Catholic theology of the mass or the Protestant theology of "once-for-all" substitutionary atonement really captures the essence of what is going on at the Crucifixion. What has been very interesting for me to realize is that Jesus death on the cross is intentionally connected in all four gospels not with a sin offering or the Day of Atonement offering but with the Passover offering! Passover is not really about the forgiveness of sins, its about the redemption of slaves. Passover is the celebration of God's final act of deliverance to redeem the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt- to set them free and make them his people, a nation of his own possession. Those are themes that are echoed all throughout the New Testament. God, through Christ, establishes a new people for his own possession, and the great act of redemption that brings these people out of their bondage to sin and death is Christ on the Cross. Christ's death is substitutionary, but not in the sense that we typically think of, a sense that is tailored by a desire to portray Christ as replacing the sin offerings of the Old Testament. He is substitutionary in the sense that the Passover lamb was substitutionary for the firstborn of Israel who were spared in the plague. They should have been killed with the firstborn of Egypt, but they were redeemed and bought back by the blood of a sacrificial lamb. So likewise we who are in bondage to sin and death should perish with sin and death as they are conquered and destroyed by God. Instead, we are redeemed by the blood of Christ and now we are the free people of God, a people for his own possession. Christ becomes the new Passover, and by conquering sin he makes the sin offerings obsolete.

Understanding the substitution this way makes a great deal of sense with the "already-not yet" scheme of the New Testament. Already, Christ has died on the cross, acting as a substitutionary Passover sacrifice and redeeming us as his people. Already, we are free. Already, God's kingdom is coming to earth. But it is not yet completed. The death blow has been dealt to sin, but the dragon is still writhing around wreaking havoc on this world. We have been set free, but it is difficult to stand up to one who has been master of our lives for so long. There is still a struggle going on, the final battle when the defeated enemy will be destroyed is still to come. That is the tension that we live in and the reality we wrestle with.

And that brings us back to the Eucharist and to the very concept of salvation itself. The Eucharist is not merely a remembrance of our sins forgiven. It is a celebration of our freedom. It is a celebration of the foundation of our faith, the founding of the Church as the People of God. In the same sense that the Passover was a somber but joyous celebration by the Jewish people of their nationhood and their covenant with God, so is the Eucharist for us. Even the name reflects this- Eucharist means "Thanksgiving." We are giving thanks for what Christ has done for us, for our redemption. But we are also remembering that it is not yet fully completed, and in that sense it is also a ceremony of dedication and renewal of our identity as Christ-Followers. It is an embodiment of the "already-not yet" theme of our salvation. Already, we are free. Already, Christ is Risen. Not yet has he returned. Thank you, Lord, for the Cross. Hurry, Lord, and come back to us to make your victory complete.

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