Sep 9, 2007

reviewing sabbath: a community called atonement

What's the point?

Isn't this the question we unconsciously/concsciously ask about everything?

  • We stare at the stacks of chores around the house.

    • "What's the point?" we wonder.

  • We consider yet another burst of energy on the treadmill/bicycle/track/etc.
    • "What's the point?" we ponder.

  • We begin a conversation that we know is going to end in awkward frustration.

    • "What's the point?" we ask.
This was the question that began surfacing through my Sabbatical, especially during the previously mentioned "What the heck?" prayer to/from God.

Then... in the fullness of time a free book arrived in the mail.

As a bit of background, over the past couple of years I've had the chance to form some amazing friendships in various parts of the publishing world. Along the way I've been asked to do reviews of products before they hit the streets, which is not only fun in itself but is a double gift since I actually get to keep the books. There really are some great writers out there and it's always a blessing to read their stuff.

So just as I was in the midst of wrestling with God, a book arrived by noted scholar/thinker/writer/blogger Scot McKnight called "A Community Called Atonement." While on the surface it might sound like an academic theology book, McKnight writes with a practical edge that made his book "The Jesus Creed" one of my favorites.

Lean into this question with me, posed on the back cover of the book:

Can atonement be a way of life?
Again, I know this sounds like theological braniac kind of stuff, and perhaps in many ways it is. What stood out to me most, though, were the provocative thoughts and questions McKnight launches off with...

Christians believe that God really did atone for sins in Jesus Christ and that God really did redemptively create restored relationships with God, with self, with others, and with the world. Christians believe that all this took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and (the silent part of the Story) in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The atonement, in other words, is the good news of Christianity - it is our gospel. It explains how that gospel works.

The bad news, the anti-gospel as it were, is that the claim Christians make for the atonement is not making enough difference in the real lives of enough Christians to show up in statistics as compelling proof of what the Apostle Paul called the "truth of the gospel." Does this new relationship with God really transform the individual? Does this work of Christ and the Spirit to forgive sins and empower Christians make them forgiving people or morally empowered people? Does the claim of the Gospel extend to what can be observed in the concrete realities of those who claim to be its beneficiaries?

The challenge of the atonement is this: Does atonement work? Are Christians any better than anyone else in their relationship with God, self, others, and the world? Is there not a claim that atonement generates a muli-faceted healing of the person so that Christians ought to love God and love others, so that Christians ought to be differenr? Even a little?

And I'm not talking about individuals, for it's all to easy to find a bad Christian and a good Muslim or Buddhist and say, "Christianity doesn't work but Islam and Buddhism do!" We need to think of the big picture: Are Christians - taken as a whole - more loving people? Are they more forgiving? Are they more just? Are they more peaceful? Are they really better?

These are dangerous questions, are they not?

I've learned that sometime such questions are not so well received.

Just tonight I was talking with my oldest son about our time as a church picnic we'd just come back from. At this event, a couple of kids were giving him a hard time... just standard kid stuff, but his question most intrigued me.

Him: (confused) Why would they tease?

Me: That's a great question... sometimes kids tease because they want to feel better about themselves so they try to give others a hard time.

Him: I know that, Dad. You told me that before. I mean, why would these kids tease? They know about Jesus.

Me: Ah... (pause) that's an even greater question. (longer pause) Sometimes people that know a lot about Jesus don't love others with their words and choices the way He asks them to. That's why it's up to us to ask if we're going to be the kind of people Jesus dreams of.

In his six-year-old way, my son is asking the same question McKnight is asking...

"What's the point?"
Perhaps this even hints at God's "What the heck?" response back to me in my "What the heck?" prayer.

What if the point of "atonement" isn't the mere self-serving salvation we often leash it up to be? What if the point of atonement is not to just be changed but to become change as a person/people of atonement?

In other words, what if what Jesus did/does for us through an historical/eternal act is meant to become a personal/corporate Eucharist of redemption/reconciliation?
  • How would that impact how Christians critique talk about others inside and outside the church?

  • How would that change how Christians waste spend their time recreationally, socially, intellectually, emotionally, relationally, and so forth?

  • How would that alter how Christians overlook view their neighborhoods, jobs, hobbies?

  • How would that revolutionize the time we spend debating talking?

The problem is when we believe that we ought to be satisfied rather than God glorified.

Isn't one of the greatest things we can do for someone is to love them like God does so that they can know that God does in fact love them? Many unchurched people only look at the external changes in Christians because they don't know about the internal changes... but when we live out what it is we say we believe we bridge that gap.

When we do, we're a little Christ...

when we don't, we're just wearing a Jesus mask.

Amazingly, as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people the permission to do the same.

But... when we critique others we make them seem as though they aren't worthy of God's love (which goes against the real message of the Gospel).

And really, what's the point?


Thurman8er said...

I spent yesterday in a series of meetings as our church begins the process of selecting new elders. What a great opportunity to put these thoughts to a practical test!

Yes, there was sniping and critiquing, but mostly there was love and appreciation and encouragement to let God be glorified above all.

In years past, I would have seen nothing but those who were not loving others. Gladly, I've grown to where I now see those who are tough to love, but can be loved anyway. I saw a group of atoned people.

I am in the midst of my own kind of sabbatical, and I also received an unexpected book which has made a difference. I'll write about it sometime soon.

Blessings, bro.

Anonymous said...

I feel like you raised a question you never discussed...

If the atonement that took place and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit still takes place, why isn't there a transformation in the lives of professed followers of Jesus?

Is it a lack of knowing the fullness of the truth? (i'm sure that is at least part of it)

Is it a lack of authenticity on the part of the recipient of these graces?

Or wait... perhaps your other question supercedes the one I'm asking,

"IS there a difference in Christians as a whole?"

Well I've addressed maybe a couple issues for the individuals who haven't been changed from the inside out in a beautiful mosaic of redemption between God, other people and the earth,

but as for Christianity as a whole...

yes. beauty IS on the earth amen. as much as it seems i have to go search it out somtimes, there is an alternative Kingdom all about self-sacrificial mutually reciprocating relationships of love between God, friends, the earth itself--everything! these are Christians, the restored humanity... that's still being restored.

And the point of all this is... perfection.

Not in that "i can't even grasp it" or "perfect in each person's eyes" way...

but in a restored way. to finally have freedom, wholeness and joy. stuff that we have shadows of but know the real thing is out there because we've tasted it just enough.

we all know the opposite... death of a loved one (been there too many times), raped friends or yourself, boring relationships, workign and workign yet never making it out of the rat race...

there is a destination and a point and a purpose and a perfection of our relationship to God, each other and the earth.

and if that is perfection and perfection is the point than God is the point, we are His point and our point (along with God) is to live right together on the earth.

Tony Myles said...

Thurman8er - isn't it awesome when in reference to the Church our eyes move past blind naive optimism, then through painful realization, and then back to open-eyed naive optimism even in light of painful realization?

Scrammy - love this quote of yours:

"perfection is the point that God is the point"

That totally sums it up! I couldn't have said it better, and think I'll be stealing this and passing it off as my own.

(whistle, whistle, whistle)

paul said...

it's a very good post and i think that asking/feeling "what is the point" is a very healthy way of being a christian - especially when we ask it of God and with each other.

I don't know how Scott treat's it in his book but for me starting to move beyond an all for once model to one where i see my life as having being atoned, is being atoned and will be atoned as more healthy. I often take back my life and do my own thing - even though it's often stupid in hindsight.

Maybe that's the regular re-orientation of our lives is needed - and what's the point is a good Q to ask in that...

brian said...

Holy cow! This got me thinking today.

Ed G. said...

Emailed this post to a number of people... and not sure I have my arms around it all yet...

... I don't think I am called to answer about "Christians" as a whole... only my own actions... and what I have done to live a Christlike life and share His good news.

And I know that a lot of times I stink at it. I know in my heart (and my brain and my soul) that all of my hopes lie in Christ... and yet I personally don't act that way. If it wasn't for atonement, however, I would have long-ago given up. I think Jesus knows how hard it is for me (us) as selfish, distracted humans to live a life like Him -- but through the cross, he is saying "It's OK, let me help you back on that horse and see if we can ride a little further this time." So I try... I fall... and Christ lifts me up again. And that's pretty kewl.

turner said...

I have little to add except to say that I have a hard time living out the atonement as you suggest. There are people who have in my life had the atonement and theology down pat and are my intellectual superior in many ways. Then those same people often seem like they are (if I can be so bold) my "love-my-neighbor" inferior in many ways. Many of these people have been teachers and pastors who feel like they need to put others down in order to feel good about themselves. While I have no issue living out atonement to those they bash, I do have issue with living out atonement with these hypocrites. That is something I want to work on, but in the meantime struggle with.