Mark 15: Jesus Dies (or Atonement Exploration)

This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, November 15, 2020 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of a chapter-by-chapter exploration of the Gospel of Mark, the goal of which is to get to know, love, and follow Jesus more fully in our daily lives.

This sermon is loosely based on Mark 15.

You can view worship and the sermons at BBUMC.orgYouTubeVimeo, or Facebook.

Who here remembers the Warner Brothers cartoon character, Pepe le Pew? The Pepe le Pew cartoons debuted in 1945 and continued for some time, with each cartoon following basically the same premise. Pepe, a love-sick skunk, spent each cartoon chasing a black cat named Penelope, who had somehow accidentally had a white strip painted down her back – like by crawling under a freshly painted white fence. Because he’s a skunk, and he smells like a skunk – and maybe because she’s just not that into Pepe – Penelope spends the majority of each episode running feverishly away from Pepe. Pepe remains undeterred, and joyfully bounces after Penelope, seeming always to end up ahead of Penelope in some way.  Pepe is persistent.

As we think about Jesus in Mark’s gospel, especially in today’s chapter 15, we see God’s persistence on full display; however, in order to see the story of Jesus this way, we first need to cover a little bit of biblical and theological history.

Mark began his gospel, which is the first written gospel that we have record of, with these words: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son” (Mk 1:1).  From that point on, hearers and readers of Mark’s gospel from the mid-First Century to today, know that the story of Jesus is a salvation story. As we discussed fifteen weeks ago when we began Mark, this introduction, using the word “gospel” – translated as “good news” – was a word the people knew. It was an announcement to the people of Caesar’s, or another leader’s, mighty acts that brought supposed “salvation” to the people. It was like this: Hear ye, hear ye, the great Caesar, Son of God, has cast out the infidels in the neighboring town, and brought peace to the land. Hear this good news!  In some highly traditional worship services, Christian folk will often say something like this after the reading of the gospel, The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God. When we read the gospel, like Mark’s, we know and believe that the entirety of the message contained in the gospel is a good news message of salvation.

But, we might ask, especially if we’re newer to the faith, “Saved from what?” And indeed, this is one of the ultimate questions. In Middle School Sunday School that last handful of weeks, we’ve explored this question a little as part of their preparation for confirmation. But what’s your answer? What does Jesus save us from?

Right, Jesus saves us from sin and death. When we say this, we mean that Jesus empowers us to live new lives shaped by his life by the power of the Holy Spirit in full connection with God in this life and the life to come. But here’s the next question, about which scripture and tradition have a number of answers, “How does Jesus save us from sin and death?” Does anyone want to offer their view of an answer?

Obviously, it is challenging to put into words our thoughts in answer to this question. If we find it difficult to answer, “How does Jesus save us from sin and death?” we are in relatively good company. But that hasn’t stopped theologians and biblical scholars from filling volumes of books trying to answer it over the past two centuries. This type of theology is called soteriology – meaning, the study of salvation – or more specifically atonement theology – meaning, how God makes us at-one with God (thus, at-one-ment, we sometimes say). Since Jesus’s death and resurrection, people of faith have been trying to articulate answers to this question without reaching a firm consensus. There are, across the broad diversity of Christianity, between four or seven – or more – theories of how, exactly, Jesus saves us from sin and death.

But here’s one piece of consensus: God saves us from sin and death and unites us with God in this life and the life to come by grace through faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. And here’s one other piece of consensus: God does this saving work in our lives particularly through Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. Since today’s chapter could be summarized as, “Jesus died,” or “Jesus was executed,” I thought today was a good day to explore a couple of these ideas about how Jesus saves us, because, how we think about Jesus’s saving work in our lives can impact how we live out our faith.

Sacrifice: It’s not surprising that some here, when asked “How does Jesus save?” answered with language about sacrifice. We find a good deal of language about sacrifice throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps, some of us remember Jesus alluding to this when he tells his disciples who’ve been arguing about greatness, “The Human One didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people” (Mk 10:45, CEB). Another translation of that verse sounds like this, “[The] Son of Man…[came] to give his life as a ransom for many” (NIV). The translation “liberate” is about setting free, but the alternate translation, “ransom,” carries with it the idea of making a payment to a captor to set someone else free.

In the Twelfth Century, a theologian named Anselm developed a theory of atonement that has become one of the dominant answers for how Jesus saves – especially among many Protestants – that is based on this idea of making a payment or a transaction. We call it penal substitutionary atonement – the idea meaning, that punishment (penal) is substituted or paid by another: Jesus. Here’s the basic idea.

God created humanity in perfect relationship with God. When humans sinned, God, in God’s righteousness and holiness, turned away from humanity. Humanity owed a debt of righteousness or holiness to God that we humans are never able to pay, in addition to reparations for all past sin. Because humanity could never pay this debt, God took on flesh in Jesus. Jesus carried the fullness of humanity, including humanity’s sin, and paid the wages of sin – death (Rom 6:23). In this way, Jesus was the perfect sacrifice in whose death, particularly, he paid the debt humans owed to God, freeing us from sin and death: God could now face humanity again.

Ransom (Sort of): That’s a way of thinking about how Jesus saves that is well-supported in scripture and tradition; however, let’s take the same passage from Mark about Jesus giving his life to liberate or ransom many in a different way. Throughout the first eleven centuries of Christianity, various theologians understood this idea differently. Sometimes theologians call this the Ransom, or Christus Victor, view of atonement, which I’ll try to summarize very briefly (here’s a great summary of multiple atonement theories). Here’s how it works.

Again, God created humanity for perfect relationship with God. When humans sinned and turned away from God, God kept pursuing humans. God pursued humans through the covenant with Abram and Sarai, and their descendants. When humans turned away from God, again and again, in sin, God kept turning around to humans, pursuing them through the prophets. Humans continued to turn away from God in sin – setting themselves and other things up as idols to worship and order their lives around: happiness, fulfillment, pleasure, power, wealth, experiences, you name it. But God, like Pepe le Pew, kept pursuing humans, and so it came to pass that God pursued humans by becoming human too, in Jesus.

And now, when a man was treated as an outcast, because his profession profited by the tax collecting system that oppressed his neighbors, God saw him, called to him, and sat down at table with him and his friends (Mk 2:14-15). When a long-suffering, unclean woman, driven to transgress all social and religious norms, braved the crowds and defiled those around her, God stopped, looking everywhere for her and said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, healed from your disease” (Mk 5:34). When man experienced the fullness of brokenness and sin in humanity; when he was betrayed, falsely convicted, spat upon, and beaten; when he was at his lowest and felt like God had utterly abandoned him upon a cross to die; God pursued him and says, “I forgive you.” And when the man experiences the final moments of life, gives up his spirit in defeat, and dies, God pursues him into death saying, “Even if you make your bed in Sheol, I will be with you” (Ps 139:8), and mocks death saying, “Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55). And then, God says, I am Life. And in the power of my life, and in my resurrection, all will be raised with me.

These two views of how Jesus saves are important, and we can find both within scripture, our worship songs, in our hymnals, and within our language about how we talk about our faith. Still, perhaps they don’t amount to much more than Christians arguing about theology, because, at the end of the day, we all believe that God came to earth in flesh to live among us, and that in the fullness of his life, death, and resurrection, God saves us from sin and death by grace through faith. And yet, there’s one difference that seems significant to me, which is tied to the image of Pepe le Pew.

In the second view, especially, Jesus is God’s way of actively pursuing us. No matter how far we run, or how much we sin, or how many ways we manage to turn our back on God, Jesus proves God’s love for us, pursuing us through every situation of our lives – and even our deaths – to continually offer life in relationship with God. Jesus’s death proves that there is no length, and no place, to which God will not go to pursue us and unite us with Godself. God pursues us as an act of grace – a gift that we don’t deserve and can never earn. And in pursuing us, God frees us from the guilt and shame we load upon ourselves in phrases like, “I’m not a very good Christian,” or “I try to be a good person, but I’m not that good.” Instead, God pursues us, knowing that we’re not all that good, and maybe that we’re sometimes rotten. But God pursues us, in love and forgiveness and mercy, because that’s who God is, from the beginning of the story to the end, and beyond. And then, what’s left to us is simply this, “Can we accept God’s great love shown toward us in Jesus, and yoke ourselves to him, seeking to be human as he is human?”

Reflection Questions:

  1. This sermon deals with these two questions, the first of which is implied: 1) What is the problem with life/creation? and 2) What is God’s solution to the problem? How would you answer these questions, based on the sermon or prior knowledge and conviction?
  2. If this idea of atonement is new to you, consider checking out this video and website. It does an excellent job at naming the problem (sin or evil) and how God seeks to solve the problem. What ideas or questions does this video bring up for you?
  3. This site offers a brief summary of some of the main atonement theories. Consider ways you see each of them at work in your understanding of God and Jesus. How do each of these impact how we live out our faith? Are there some that make more sense to you than others?
  4. This sermon explores ideas that we sometimes assume but often don’t talk about. And, it leaves the main question (“How does Jesus save us from sin and death?”) open to interpretation. Does this make you uncomfortable? Why?
  5. Here’s a deep dive on the statement, “God does not demand blood.” Has the idea of Jesus as a blood sacrifice for sin ever been unsettling to you? Have you ever experienced suffering during which someone suggested that there was a purpose for your suffering? How did that make you feel? Do you think God intends for suffering, our suffering or Jesus’s, to be redemptive and draw us closer to God?
  6. If you’re interested in a deep dive into some theology, this article deals with St. Augustine’s view on this matter.
  7. Finally, here’s a great video illustration of what I tried to do in this sermon.

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