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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Good Friday, April 14, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer
Scriptures quoted from the New Revised Standard Version

            Simply put, I reject penal substitutionary atonement.  Well, maybe that’s not so simply put.  So, let me unpack that phrase, “penal substitutionary atonement.”  An atonement is an act that makes reparation for a wrong or injury.  It is an act that allows two parties to become at one again, thus the division of the word as “at-one-ment.”

Substitutionary atonement is an act made, not by the one who harmed the aggrieved person, but by someone on their behalf.  So, when a parent acts on behalf of a child who has done something to wrong or injury a neighbor, that substitutionary atonement.

And penal substitutionary atonement is a substitutionary act of atonement that involves punishment or penalty.

In Christian theology, penal substitutionary atonement is the belief that the only way for us sinners to be at-one with God again was if someone – someone who was perfect, without sin – paid the penalty on our behalf with their life.  This theology looks at the death of Jesus on the cross as the punishment (penal) borne on our behalf (substitutionary) so that we may be in right relationship with God (atonement).  In this theology, Good Friday is “good” because we are saved through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

There are lots of reasons I reject this theology.  The most basic of these reasons is the portrait it paints of God.  I reject the idea that God requires suffering of anyone to forgive and reconcile.

So, then, if Jesus didn’t die as part of some substitutionary atonement scheme, why did Jesus die?  Jesus died because he was seen to be a threat to the established power structure.  The principalities and powers of his day – the Roman government and the Jewish religious establishment – say the good news that Jesus preached to threaten their power.  Whatever mob that came together against Jesus did not do so because God caused it.  The principalities and powers wanted him gone, and that was enough.  The contagion of violence is enough.

Jesus died for us, but not for God.  The cross is not what God requires in order to forgive, but what God endures as God forgives.  Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston says, “Good Friday is the ultimate reality check, the graphic reminder that there is an end to all things.  We are called to confront our mortality.  We cannot escape into worlds of our own creation, but we must stand before the final authority of change.  Nothing stays the same.  And there, in that one truth, hidden away in the apparent darkness of this day, is the small seed of our liberation.  Nothing stays the same.  No, thank God, it doesn’t.  The deep message of Good Friday speaks a profound truth: nothing lives forever.  Nothing.  Not even death.  Even it has to change.  It has to become something new.”[1]

And this reality check is one of the two big things that make Good Friday “good” for me.  The other is the way of courage it reveals.

The gospels tell us that in what turned out to be the last months of his life, Jesus turned his face to Jerusalem – in theory the city of peace, but in reality the city of the principalities and powers of his life.  He headed to Jerusalem to face off against the principalities and powers, the systems that believe that we can be saved through violence, to proclaim his way of peace and justice and love.  And at some point along the way, he came to realize that the way he was walking and talking would be seen as a threat and lead to his arrest and execution.  Still, he kept walking.  It was his call.

Even in the hours before his arrest, when he knew it was just around the corner, he prayed about it, and somehow managed to maintain his integrity to the call.  He managed to stay on the path, even though it would cost him his life.  He got to his “okay.”  In the presence of God, he moved to the place where he could say, “Okay.  Not my will, but your will be done.”

Listen again to the story.

            Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”  He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated.  Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.”  And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?  Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”  [Matthew 26:36-42]

Jesus seemed to know that the path he was on would lead to his death.  And, even though it was leading to his death, he sensed that the path he was on was still, somehow, the will of God.  It wasn’t God’s will that he die, but that he remain faithful to God’s call for justice and love, even in the shadow of death.  In prayer, Jesus got to his “okay.”  “Okay, God, I don’t want to be killed, but I know you call me to embody your love, and your love is leading me this way.  So, okay, your will, not mine, be done.”

Matthew goes on tell about Jesus’ arrest and his so-called trials before the Sanhedrin and the Roman Governor, Pilate.  He tells about Jesus being mocked and beaten and being led away to be crucified.

            And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” …

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last.…

When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. He then rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.  [Matthew 27:35-37, 45-50, 57-61]

[1] Steven Charleston, a post on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/bishopstevencharleston/posts/1327331527351716 (posted and accessed 14 April 2017).

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, July 22, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Matthew 5:33-45
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Four high school boys were late to their morning classes one day.[1]  They entered the classroom and solemnly told their teacher they were delayed due to a flat tire.  The sympathetic teacher smiled and told them it was too bad they were late because they had missed a test that morning.  But, she said, she was willing to let them make it up.  She gave them each a piece of paper and a pencil and sent them to four corners of the room.  Then she told them they would pass if they could answer just one question:  Which tire was flat?

When I think about stories or examples about truthfulness and lying, three come to mind.  I think of Aesop’s fable of the boy who cried wolf, I think of George Washington and the cherry tree, and I think of stories about good ol’ Honest Abe.  You heard me tell a version of Aesop’s fable to the kids just a moment ago.  It is, of course, told as a story to teach a lesson, not as a record of an historical event.

The story about George Washington and the cherry tree is a myth about our first President created, apparently, by an early biographer, Manson Weems, to express how honest Washington was.[2]  Does anyone else find it interesting that a book written to tell the facts about someone’s life would include a made-up story – perhaps we can even say, a lie – about that person to show how honest that person was?

There are many stories about Abraham Lincoln that led to him having the moniker “Honest Abe” – most of them apparently rooted in historical events.  Like the story of him closing the story he was managing to return a few cents he had overcharged a customer.  Or taking the extra tea he had under-weighed (because of a problem with the scales he later discovered) to another customer.[3]  Or the time – well, there are many stories like this.

I’m not sure what it means that only one of the three that came to my mind was true – at least in the sense of it being factual.  I’ll let you ponder that while I change subjects.

I had a wonderful little vacation.  I went to Denver with the Golden Gate Men’s Chorus (the chorus I sing with) to be part of a big choral festival.  6,000 singers, 175 choruses and small ensembles, some 200 performances – a gathering so big they had to run concerts blocks simultaneously in the opera house, the theatre, and the concert hall.  With rehearsals and catching up with friends from other choruses, it meant that I only heard about a quarter of the event.  It was a busy five days in Denver – that I extended a little to be a tourist because, after all, I was in Denver.  Yet, somehow I did manage to find the time to watch maybe three or four hours of television while I was there.

Having done away with the cable TV at my home back when I was on sabbatical, I’m not used to watching live TV.  I’ll catch a few shows on the computer and I’ll watch a few old series thanks to Netflix.  But generally speaking, I don’t have to put up with much TV advertising.  Well, I was in Colorado, a so-called “battle ground state.”  You know what that means:  Political advertisements and plenty of them.  Ladies and gentlemen, I can declare without equivocation, we have entered the season of half-truths and lies.

Consider this ad[4] – I’ll attempt to describe it:

We hear a man’s urgent voice:

“America is in crisis.  It feels like we’re coming apart.”

Shots from a hand-held camera – blurry, indistinct.  Angry citizens, protests.  Close-up on a bearded young man, his face distorted by rage.

“We face unprecedented challenges.”

Cuts of lonely farms, small houses with for-sale signs.  A little girl with pleading eyes.

“Is this any time for inexperience?”

A tattered flag blows in the wind.

“One candidate has silky words, but what do they mean?  What do we really know of him?”

Video shot from behind a candidate who stands at a podium.  We see his back, the jerky movement of his arms.  We see faces in the crowd – confused, shaking their heads.  Are they being deceived?

“His backwoods chatter can’t hide the facts.  He’s never had a college education – or any education at all.  He claims he read the classics at night, by candlelight.  But that’s not really what the frontier was about.”

Cut to a raucous bonfire – frantic dancing, men and women, drinking.  An hysterical laugh pierces the outer darkness.

“He says he’s for the little guy.  Why is he hiding the fact that he’s a big-time lawyer who sold himself to the highest bidder?”

Archival film shot:  a saloon table, a wad of bills gathered up by a fat man’s hand.  Gleaming cuffs, cufflinks, ruby ring.  In the background, a woman’s chuckle.  Somehow we know her name is Belle.

“He served just one term in the House – one.  And wasn’t re-elected.”

Blurry photo of a man.  We’re not sure who it is.  Slowly it begins to come into focus – stark face, rude cheekbones, slick black hair.  Now cut to close-up:  his irregular eyes.  One pupil is more dilated than the other.  He’s cockeyed.

“He ran for the Senate, and failed.”

Video of torches being extinguished.  A slump-shouldered voter walks away, alone.

“They said they loved his speeches, but what were they beyond words?  His wife?  Imperious.  His address?  Impeccable.  As for the family he came from, he left them in the backwoods when he went to the big city.”

Shot of sad, impoverished family in an empty field.

Then quick shots:  An honest American worker in front of a tool shed.  Yearning families on farms and in cities.  A little girl holding a flag, which droops on her shoulder.

“This is a time of crisis – and he’s telling jokes.”

Screen goes black.

“They call him ‘Honest Abe.’  But he’s just another Springfield insider.”

Then, another man’s voice:

“I’m Stephen A. Douglas, and I approved this message.”

All of the ad is true.  And all of it is a lie.

It’s easy for me to throw brickbats at political advertisements.  Maybe it’s even a cheap shot.  And Jesus would probably suggest I look at the plank in my own eye before I complain about the speck (or plank, for that matter) in someone else’s.

The most frequent charge I hear against my shop, against Christianity, or perhaps more specifically against the church, is that it’s full of hypocrites.  To which I think, “Of course it is; it’s full of people.”

No one ever taught me to lie, but I certainly learned how.  I suspect no one every taught you to lie, either, but you learned how nonetheless.  Lying is something we humans do – out of a sense of fear or anxiety or convenience.  And one way to look at hypocrisy is to see it as a form of lying.  People say they believe in something or that they hold some value and then they behave in another way.

And yet, Jesus calls us to integrity.  “I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No.’”

This is an interesting thing for Jesus to say.  “Don’t make any oaths.”  This is not the same thing as “Don’t make any promises,” for covenants, a cornerstone of our faith, are a form of promise.  No, this admonition not to make oaths has to do with calling upon a god or the gods to be a witness and enforcer of the promise.  And to call upon Yahweh to enforce an oath is tantamount to taking God’s name in vain, a violation of one of the Ten Commandments.

You know what the fish said when he swam into a cement wall.  “Dam.”

That was without an “N” because to include the “N” is a prayer or a curse.  To damn something is to banish it from God.  And to say, “God damn,” is to ask God to do that banishing.  Jesus is saying that we shouldn’t say things like “God damn” or “Cross my heart and hope to die.”  Just tell the truth.  Let your “yes” mean yes and your “no” mean “no.”

This got me thinking about going to court as a witness and being sworn in.  “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
“Yes, but your inflection is wrong.  I promise to tell the truth, the whole trust and nothing but the trust, so, [pause] help me God.  Help me to keep this promise.”

Jesus realizes (as should we) that God witnesses every word we say anyway, so we should be able to tell the truth without having to call God as a witness of the truthfulness of what we’re saying.  Jesus teaches that all oaths invoke God’s witness equally.  It doesn’t matter whether we swear in the name of God or God’s heaven, earth, or holy city of Jerusalem, or even the hairs on our heads (if we’re lucky enough to have them).  All of it is God’s and infused with God.  All oaths implicitly call God to witness, because everything that exists is God’s.  Because God witnesses every word we speak anyway, we should simply speak the truth.

When I was a chaplain in the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall years ago, I learned the importance of saying what you mean and meaning what you say.  The kids who were locked up there, in addition to being people who victimized others through their crimes, were also victims themselves, at least of inconsistent parenting and often of much worse.  If I said to a kid, “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I had pretty darn well make sure I was there the next day to see that kid.  It was so easy to lose their trust, and trust was the foundation of my work.  They were so used to being let down by adults that it was the expectation, and following through on a statement that wasn’t even meant as a promise was vital to building that trust.

The stakes may not be as great in our everyday lives.  But that doesn’t make integrity any less important.

Ted Engstrom gives a succinct definition of integrity:  Simply put, integrity is doing what you said you would do.[5]  When you said you’d be faithful to your mate, integrity says you’ll stay with that person no matter what – for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health.  When you said “yes” to God at your baptism or confirmation or when you renewed your baptism when you joined the church, integrity means you keep following Jesus no matter what happens in your life.

We are stewards of our “yeses” and our “noes.”  So let your “yes” mean yes and your “no” mean no in every aspect of your life.
Amen.


[1] This story is attributed to Paul Harvey by Jeffery Anselmi in Integrity, http://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/integrity-jeffery-anselmi-sermon-on-christian-values-39109.asp (21 July 2012).

[4] Peggy Noonan, “How Honest Is ‘Honest Abe’?” The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204880404577227600618441484.html (21 July 2012).  I have only slightly modified what she wrote.

[5] Cited by Jeffery Anselmi, op. cit.

On July 28, Anne Rice, the famous author, announced on her Facebook fan page that she “quit being a Christian.”

Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

Still committed to Christ, but no longer a Christian.  I have a little problem with that language.  To me, a Christian is someone who is committed to Christ.  As I read Ms. Rice’s comments, I understand her to be saying that she’s a Christian who doesn’t want to be part of an institutional church.  No doubt she’d disagree with me; for her, being a Christian is about being part of a (the) church.

As I said … I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

It seems to me that it’s the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that Ms. Rice is objecting to.  I belong to the United Church of Christ, and if Ms. Rice has said this to me directly, I would have said to her, “Hey Anne, I’m part of a Christian denomination that is for gender and sexual orientation equality, that remains pro-choice as a matter of personal conscience, that is pro-humanity, and that is the very basis of the American form of democracy (okay, the Presbyterians helped out, too).”

I wasn’t surprised when, two days after her announcement, staff in the national settings of the UCC started a Facebook page, “You’d like the UCC, Anne Rice.”  Apparently some 3.400 people “Liked” this page within 48 hours.

All of this noise got me thinking, so I posted on my Facebook page this comment:

“Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car,” the saying goes. But I gotta tell you, I don’t know how to be a Christian [read: being committed to Christ] without being part of a Christian community!

What I was getting at was how being part of a faith community is an important part of my growing in faith and being accountable for my faith journey.   But then faith is much more about a journey than a destination for me.  It seems to me that a commitment to Christ is relational and relationships aren’t static.

My thought generated some comments of its own.  Here are some of them:

  • Very true, Jeff. I appreciate Anne Rice’s wit, wordsmithing, and desire to follow Christ, but I am flummoxed about how one does that without the community of believers. We have to live together, eat together, argue things together, but the point is that we who claim the name have to be together.
  • Yes, to both Jeff & Michael. I am reminded that, in the Catholic monastic tradition, only a nun / monk with the most mature faith, spirituality, discipline, and groundedness in the life of her / his monastic community is given permission to become a hermit and live alone. As fallible people, we need the community in which to grow, learn, be tested, in which to worship, share the Bread & Wine of Eucharist, work, support one another, in which to do the works of mercy, justice, and peace.
  • Ditto. I grieve her decision, and wonder about the public “news conference” approach to it. But there’s no question that the flaws (flagrant and otherwise) of church people do a number on the credibility of the body created by the Spirit.
  • Thanks, Jeff, for making a critical point about this brouhaha that no one else seems to be making!
  • Does this UCC campaign seem a bit exploitative to anyone besides me – if we really wanted to invite her to the UCC wouldn’t it have been nicer over a cup of tea? I’m not talking about the theological dialogue, but using her photo and name …
  • I agree, just a phone call from a local UCC pastor would seem more appropriate … does Ms Rice live anywhere near Northern California?
  • She commits the “Hitchkins” fallacy (named after Hitchens and Dawkins) of confusing the whole of Christianity with a particularly public version of Christianity…. if you haven’t yet, check out Terry Eagleton’s wonderful Reason, Faith and Revolution for how he eviscerates this wrongheaded confusion. But hey, she IS the thinking person’s Stephanie Meyer after all, and worth attending to … ? As far as the church thing, I remain ambivalent. For it on Sundays, mixed feelings by Mondays…

Would you care to add a comment?

My sermon from last Sunday, “Walking with Integrity” is now available online at http://www.nccucc.org/sermons/home.html.  It looks at the book of Job, suffering, and integrity.  Hope you enjoy it.

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