“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” – 1 Cor. 15:3-4
That one phrase: “Christ died for our sins,” has risen to prominence in Christian circles to the extent that for many of us it essentially summarizes the faith. I’ll confess, however, that it doesn’t for me. First of all, it doesn’t because as Paul uttered the phrase he thought also of the resurrection. For Paul crucifixion and resurrection are considered parts of the same event. This is reflected in Christian liturgy as, in truth, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday are all considered to be parts of one extended worship service. It would be equally true to say, “Christ rose for our sins.”
But, the other reason that the confession, “Christ died for our sins,” doesn’t summarize my faith is that I’m not sure what exactly it means. What good would his dying do? Why would it pay for my sins? To whom would the payment go? If the answer is that the payment is made to God, then you have to wonder why God would demand such a payment. Why would God demand anyone’s death in order to pay for my sins?
These questions come under the category of atonement. Atonement questions are good ones to think about during Lent. Even if the answers aren’t always clear they direct us to a very important truth. This quote from Christian Wyman helps get there, I believe.
“The sick person becomes very adept at distinguishing between compassion and pity. Compassion is someone else’s suffering flaring in your own nerves. Pity is a projection of, a lament for, the self. All those people weeping in the mirror of your misery? Their tears are real, but they are not for you.” (From “My Bright Abyss.”)
What we confess during Lent and especially during Holy Week/Easter is that Christ gives us a most remarkable example of compassion, not pity. We confess that somehow and in ways that are not always clear, God in Jesus Christ has felt the pain of our own suffering in God’s very nerves. God has done something selfless, sacrificial, beautiful, and salvific for us out of nothing less than eternal compassion and perfect love. On Good Friday, for example, I’m never any closer to being able to explain the atonement to anyone; however, I almost always well up with tears and feel deep in my heart that God has gone far – too far, in fact – on my behalf and on behalf of us all.
I want to invite you to observe a holy Lent with me. Please join us as Lent begins here at TCC with Ash Wednesday. Caroly and I are both leading classes during March. Why not make room in your schedule to nurture your faith this way? And, of course, Holy Week and Easter will be a beautiful time to celebrate the mercy, compassion, and endless love that God pours out upon us for reasons that can only be called grace.
God bless you,