Our thoughts on United Methodist Believing continue with these thoughts about Jesus Christ as our way to God.
The way Scripture tells the story (and nothing we know about Jesus would we know without Scripture – here is a story so wonderfully strange we could have never thought this up ourselves) Jesus is not only God with us but God actively doing something about the problem that exists between us and God. We call that divine work in Christ and on his cross “atonement” – at-one-ment. The atonement names that dramatic process of divine love through which God did something decisive in Jesus Christ about the separation between us and God. Note, in the above thickly packed quote from our Discipline that Jesus’ work is described as “redeeming,” “atoning,” work that is “triumph” as well as that which “judges” us, “summons…, pardons us, receives us” and “gives” us. God doesn’t just sit back and say, “You know, don’t you, how much I love you?”
God acts, moves, works, triumphs and gives and forgives. I note this because it is my impression that many Americans have had our theological imaginations truncated with a flaccid Deism that renders God into an allegedly compassionate, but essentially inactive and uninvolved sort of deity. Deism says that while God may have created the world, God fairly quickly retired and has left us to ourselves.
Deism always sent John Wesley into orbit. Wesley not only thought that, without the Trinity, we cannot follow God, but that without the self-revelation of God in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit we can know nothing of God. Walk all in the woods, hug a tree or listen to the song of a bird, you will still not know much about God.
Against Deism of any stripe, United Methodists believe God is very, very busy. The name for God’s busyness among us in Christ and the Holy Spirit is atonement. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection demonstrates that any God who would reach out in love to the likes of us has got to be a God who doesn’t mind much blood, sacrifice, and death, for we are murderous toward our would-be saviors. To redeem us, a high cost must be paid. Jesus risked all and got down and dirty with us sinners in order to embrace us and carry us home. He atoned and redeemed.
Who was Jesus? Jesus was a wonderful teacher and preacher. Many found in his words the words of life and words that wisely pointed the way to greater love of God and neighbor. However, when some sincerely tried to follow the way that was cast by this great teacher, they found it virtually impossible. It would have been one thing if the teacher had urged us simply “do not worry about tomorrow” (Mt. 6:34), which might have led us to greater peace of mind. But he went on to say that we should love our enemies (Lk. 6:35), pray for rather than revenge our enemies (Mt. 5:44), and hate our mothers (Lk. 14:26). Such talk forever disturbed our peace. Paul spoke for us all in saying, “I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19). That many believe that Christianity is mostly about “trying to live a good life and being kind to your neighbor” suggests that they have never actually listened to or tried to practice the teachings of Jesus!
Who was Jesus? He was not just a great ethical teacher, he was the Redeemer who went to the cross and “died for our sins” as the church said from the first, attempting to account for the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross. We are, as we have admitted, sinners. What’s to be done about our rebellion and estrangement from God? Whatever is to be done, it can’t be done by us. Our debts are too great, our lives too corrupt and deformed. So somehow, in the cross of Christ, God took up our sin, our propensity to serve death rather than life, and redeemed us (bought us back from slavery to sin and death), atoned for us (did something about the great gap between us and God), judged us (our sin is deadly serious), and pardons us (writes off our debts that we have incurred through our sin).
Note that the Discipline doesn’t spend much verbiage in attempting to explain just how this happens. For us, God’s reconciling the world in Christ is a great mystery that we Wesleyans would rather experience and live into rather than explain. All we know is that, from the testimony of Scripture and in our own experience, God in Christ did something decisive at Calvary, wrought a victory that totally rearranged relations between God and humanity.
Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served by to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)
William H. Willimon