Fifth in series: When the Bible came alive to me
The Cross & The Non-Violent God
I’m really enjoying the series Kyle has been taking us through, when the Bible came alive to me SLIDE, and I’m excited to add to it today.
Part of what we’ve been doing each week is an acknowledgment: religious trauma exists.
That’s important - many of us in this room have probably experienced religious trauma. Because there can be an unreflective assumption in faith settings that the more exposure to faith or the Bible, the better — period, all the time — And that ignores the reality that many people have had experiences around faith and the Bible that were quite hard and hurtful
This is what often leads people to (understandably) dismiss the Bible or the religion of their childhood. If you’re someone who's experienced religious trauma, or had the Bible weaponized at you, we are so sorry. We hope BLV can feel like a safe place to process that.
But, on the opposite side of religious trauma, obviously I believe religious depth and truth exist too — otherwise, why would I be a pastor? I very much believe that the more exposure to thoughtful, appropriate, informed approaches to the Bible and Faith — that is always good. Always.
This series has been telling about the moments in our lives when we stumbled into such thoughtful approaches, and how faith and, particularly, the Bible came alive to us as a result...
SLIDE For me personally, when I first learned of the God of the Bible, it was all good... My first ever experiences of God were after my mom died of cancer when I was 15, and I felt comforted and cared for and like God taught me how to grieve I felt in those experiences a message impressed in my mind: “You are not crushed. Life is not meaningless. You will get through this.” I had like no boxes to put those experiences in because I hadn’t grown up spiritual or reading the Bible But this just built a foundation in me -- there is an incredibly good and compassionate and empathetic God who cares about me Who was there for me in the worst thing that ever happened to me As I went from teenager to young adult, I felt like God brought me into, for the first time in my life, a rich network of life-giving friendships — friendships that built me up, instead of friendships full of talking behind each other’s backs In time, learning to pray and build relationship with God would lead me to my wife, and lead me and Kyle to starting this church Learning to pray and build relationship with God has helped me overcome insecurities and embrace who I am — like until the age of 18, I was uncomfortable singing out loud even for a moment in front of others — I remember sneaking out of an audition to a theater production I desperately wanted to be in before it was over and pretending I didn’t know there was a singing portion just to avoid singing in front of the directors... but people who have known me only the last decade find that crazy because I sing in front of people all the time now — I lead others in song regularly now, for goodness sake. That change has been the result of feeling God heal me of a hyperactive sensitivity to feeling embarrassed
All of this to say, I've just continually became more and more all-in on pursuing the God of the Bible as I’ve grown older and had good experience after good experience with faith…
EXCEPT... at the same time, there’s been another part of my faith, not the experience part but another part, that has felt less altogether and resolutely good all the time…
SLIDE It’s the beliefs part of my faith - the “how do we make sense of our experiences?” part.
Developing a belief system about the God of the Bible has been a rockier road for me — at times very confusing and challenging for me. And no matter of belief has confused or challenged me more than the matter I want to talk about today: Jesus’ death on the Cross. I wonder if anyone can relate?
For much of my young adult life, the best I could figure out, this was what the Cross was about: God loves us. But we are sinners. So he is also extremely angry with us and wants to punish us. Really, the punishment we deserve is death. But if we make a worthy enough sacrifice to appease God’s anger, to satisfy his wrath, he’ll settle for just that one death, and he won’t kill us. But we humans can’t seem to make a worthy enough sacrifice on our own, God just can’t seem to help but want to kill us So God reluctantly says, “Fine! When you want something done right, I guess you gotta do it yourself…” So he sends his son Jesus to be the worthy-enough sacrifice, satisfies his anger by killing Jesus, and now, because punishment was dealt out, he doesn’t feel the need to kill us anymore. Also, remember, God loves us.
Yeah… very confusing… so let me review where this leaves young adult Vince:
All that I’m experiencing from God is good stuff — life-changing stuff, I am a healthier, more whole person.
But, then, this pivotal belief piece that supposedly shows me who God is — Jesus on the Cross — seems to be the opposite of good to me — it seems scarily angry and violent, and the logic seems kind of ridiculous and it also seems out of nowhere, because nothing else from the life of Jesus seemed anything like this.
I hoped that reading the Bible for myself would help, but, unsurprisingly, because this angry, violent picture of God was the lens I had to look through, it seemed like so many Bible passages about Jesus on the Cross just confirmed God was angry and violent. SLIDE
1 Timothy 2: 5 For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave himself as a ransom for all people.
Romans 3: 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood.
1 John 2: My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
1 Peter 2: 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
Romans 5: 10 While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son...
Add to all this the countless worship songs I heard in church settings that reinforced this picture of an angry, wrathful God, but then kept calling that good and wonderful, when it did NOT feel good and wonderful to me at all — and I felt like I was taking crazy pills. SLIDE Did I have to believe this? Even though it didn’t math my experiences? SLIDE the mismatch was driving me mad. Made me angry, even.
Over time I would learn that those feelings of mine were nothing compared to many people. That many people with more religious experience than I had had in my childhood were even more triggered than me by these beliefs about Jesus on the Cross satisfying the wrath of an angry God — This, I discovered, is one of the most prevalent examples of religious trauma out there Richard Dawkins, the British atheist author, famously compared the Cross to child abuse. Totally legit to be triggered that way, I think!
So young adult me was at a real choice point here -- and I want to note this because it’s what this series of talks at BLV has been all about I felt two opposing pressures at that time, but both felt like running away On one hand, there was a pressure to, in the name of quote - “standing firm in faith”, ignore how these passages provoked questions for me around the seeming violence and bloodthirstiness of God, I could try to explain it away, or pretend that this unsettledness in me didn’t exist. Or, on the other hand, there was a pressure to conclude from this that the Bible was just an antiquated relic, and I should dismiss it as something not worth speaking into my life.
Neither of those seemed right. Instead, the best choice — that I’m so glad others modeled for me — was to wrestle with my confusions and questions, not run away from them (in either of these ways). And that is what led to my feeling of a mismatch between my experience and my beliefs disappearing SLIDE In wrestling, I came to discover a new lens through which I could believe in Jesus on the Cross, and, really, the whole Bible
To show you what helped me so much, I want to start with a video — it may seem somewhat unrelated at first, but then very deftly I will reel you all in to understanding. It’s going to be incredible. You’ll tell stories about this someday...
SLIDE Ok... Here’s the helpfulness of this guy Girard’s theory on desire, rivalry, and how violence and scapegoating typically happen throughout human history…
If he’s right, that THAT is the humanity that God enters into through Jesus, then it shows something extremely important:
We are the ones demanding blood, NOT God. We humans project our own demand for punishment, death, and scapegoating on to God, not because God is like that, but because of our own cycles of rivalry and violence, and our mechanism of scapegoating, which we lie to ourselves and call peace or order or “preserving of goodness” We are the violent ones, NOT God.
As I heard one theologian put it: “Trying to create meaning out of violence is the oldest human trick in the book.” What a quote for our times, for America today, right?
So how did this help me to form a different belief in the Cross?
Because it suggests that: SLIDE Jesus isn’t a sacrifice to end God’s violence. Jesus is God sacrificing himself to end our violence And not just physical violence - violence in all its forms — the religious word is sin I love how the video points out that this is everywhere, we engage in rivalry and exclusion and scapegoating in small ways in our classrooms, our families, our friend groups, online — not just society at large. It’s all of the things we do to make ourselves feel acceptable but that harm others. Jesus on the Cross saves us from all that violence, or sin
Now the Cross is one of the things at the core of faith in Jesus, so there’s no way I can capture all of it here, but, for me, that distinction unlocked so much!
All those passages about the Cross are speaking truth about Jesus dying for our sins, but in a sort-of inverse of the way I thought, in an anti-violent way, rather than a violent way.
Jesus is the “ransom for us all" NOT because God needed to be paid off to put aside his violence, BUT because we needed to be paid off to put aside our violence, and God is so incredibly loving that, even though he sees the madness in our violent mechanism, he willingly walks into it, becoming the scapegoat, so no one else has to be the scapegoat and die at human hands.
Jesus’ “blood" is “the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world” NOT in that his blood satisfies God so God is no longer angry, BUT in that his blood exposes the sham that is this broken human mechanism of scapegoating that we think leads to peace.
He “bore our sins in his own body” NOT because God needed someone to “really feel it” before he could set aside his desire to punish us, BUT because we literally killed him — human violence was literally borne by Jesus’ body.
We are “reconciled to God through the death of Jesus” and “no longer God’s enemies" because in willingly sacrificing himself Jesus shows us how to become like God, rather than just reinforce human violence (which is the opposite of God) Jesus shows us a way to peace that actually is peace, and not violence in disguise — Self-sacrifice, instead of others-sacrifice.
Wow! When I came into contact with all this, I was like: YES! That is everything right there! That is what I’ve been longing for. That matches my experience. Honestly, above all I felt relief — Like: I can believe in the Cross and not feel gross about it!
Reading these passages from this perspective, there’s no unsettling feelings brought up in me about child abuse, or an angry, masochistic, violent God
SLIDE I just immediately see the amazingly loving self-sacrificial God.
Even this week while preparing this talk, my wife had hymns playing on her iPhone, many of them with references to Jesus dying for me, and they were just so powerful and beautiful to me because of all I had been pulling together for this talk. I was getting emotional.
I was talking with a friend from BLV here recently about believing in the cross this way, and we marveled at how, again, this feels like it speaks powerfully NOT JUST to human struggles on a societal scale — Obviously, that’s what this anthropologist Girard had most in mind — But we can totally think about this on the terms of everyday personal and interpersonal struggles.
This friend and I talked about being in conflict with our wives (or any loved one), and how we feel tempted in those moments to scapegoat or sacrifice our wives to end the internal violence in us over the conflict. The board room within me gathers and agrees that’s the best option to restore “peace” — Sacrifice her, meaning make her the bad guy in the argument, play the blame game and pin it on her.
Jesus on the Cross calls me to Self-sacrifice instead. To own my contributions to the conflicts I’m in, to not try to play the victim card, to point the finger at myself before I point the finger at another.
Jesus on the Cross calls me to consider any way my choices sacrifice others to keep my personal peace. Or any ways my efforts to assure myself I’m accepted or forgiven or okay are based in someone else’s exclusion
But, again, NOT because a violent God’s wrath burns against me if I don’t, but because the rivalry, violence, and scapegoating (the sin) that is in me, and every person, will ruin me if I don’t — and God is trying to save me from that!
So I want to end this morning by praying for us, and I can think of a few ways that might be helpful One is for anyone who feels like, yes, I need to be saved from some scapegoating - I want help to choose self-sacrifice rather than others-sacrifice in my life Another is praying for anyone here who might feel like a societal scapegoat right now, or who might feel aligned with societal scapegoats right now — immigrants, people of color, the lgbt community And lastly I want to pray for anyone for whom violent beliefs about the Cross have caused religious trauma
Stand with me...