One of the benefits of long plane rides is all the spare time for reading. So it was that, on the way to Chicago, I finally finished Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement.
This issue of Atonement (the theology, not the movie - although I read that book coming home from Chicago 5 years ago or so. . .) has been rumbling around in my head ever since taking the Theological Understandings of Jesus class at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary. Mark Baker, class professor, had written (with Joel Green) Recovering the Scandal of the Cross, which attempts to push back against the overwhelming single narrative of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Green and Baker argue that there are a number of biblical metaphors for atonement, and that the church should do well to claim them all. In fact, they suggest, it's time to write some new metaphors to carry the message of atonement into a world that has left the idea of guilt and sin behind.
(side note: The folks at Emergent are working on a contest, in which people will be able to submit new atonement metaphors that would speak to a post-modern culture. Judges will include MESSAGE DELETED TO PROTECT ANONYMITY OF JUDGES)
To cut this down - I was challenged by the book and Baker's teaching; I ended up submitting a chapter that was included in Recovering's sequal, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross. Following last Easter I preached a series on "what did the cross actually do?" The message I preached on shame was one of the most powerful experiences of my preaching career.
And, of course, last year Scot McKnight weighed into the discussion with the above-mentioned book. McKnight's premise, somewhat akin to Baker and Green's, is that there are any number iof biblical images that speak about atonement, and that they are all important. While each is metaphor in its own right, each offers a slightly different shade as to the extent of the work of the cross. McKnight's genius is in likening all this to a golf bag - in your bag, you need a number of different clubs, because different clubs fit different situations better than others. So too with atonement metaphors. One will speak to one issue, in one situation, one will speak better in another.
McKnight begins by discussing the problem itself - what problem was atonement meant to solve? Because where you begin ends up defining where you end. And the basic problem, according to McKnight, is this - we were made in the Image of God, to live in relationship to God, to others, to creation, and to ourselves. Sin cracked that Image, and distorted all four directions of relationship. Therefore, atonement must be big enough to restore that Image, and to restore relationships in all four directions.
He then moves on to discussing the various atonement moments and metaphors. I appreciate the fact that he pushes atonement further out than simply the cross, or the cross and resurrection. To McKnight (with whom I wholeheartedly agree), the whole life of Christ was an atoning work. Thus, the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection - these all are part of the bigger atonement picture.
McKnight briefly sketches a few of the historical developments related to atonement, and then sums them up with this thought: The bag that holds all the atonement images is defined as this - Atonement is identification for incorporation. Jesus came to earth to identify with humans. His life, Passion, and resurrection are all about identifying with humans, with living the human life in all its fullness. And Jesus did this that we might be incorporated into his death and resurrection, that we may be restored to God, self, others, and creation through his redemptive work. Jesus died for us, instead of us, and with us. "God sends his Son into this world, the Fourth Gospel tells us, to set in motion the earthly missio Dei, the mission of God to bring the world to its consummation, to restore cracked Eikons [humans made in the image of God], to heal humans in all four relational directions. . .Everything good happens to the Christian by virtue of union with Christ."
Finally, McKnight challenges us to recognize this fact - the primary work of God is to create an atoned community who will carry out the work of atonement in the World. This is not an individualistic "Jesus saved me!" thing; when we are incorporated into Christ, we are given the mandate of joining with the people of God to live out atonement for the world around us. Therefore, the Church is to be about the work of the missio Dei, fighting for the oppressed and loving the hurting and feeding the hungry and standing up to injustice and proclaiming the Good News that Jesus Christ is Lord. When the church gathers for fellowship, when the Church fights for justice for all, when the church goes to work in carrying out God's mission to the world, when the Church lives out the Lord's Supper and Baptism, then the Church is reflecting it's nature as God's atoned people.
Now, I must admit this. I love theology, I also love practicality. And I found myself at the end of the book saying "and how do we do this?" But this is more of a theological, setting-the-stage kind of book, than it is a "how-to" book. Perhaps sometimes I expect too much, or I'm looking for the easy answers. Either way, McKnight's book throws out the gauntlet - are we going to be the people God called us to be? Are we going to be living atonement in our midst? Are we going to be living out the Mission of God in our communities? Are we going to expand atonement until we realize it is about the restoration of all of Creation, and not just the salvation of a few? And are we going to be the Christians we're supposed to be, carrying on God's work into our communities?
Or are we going to settle in, knowing that "It's all good between Jesus and me. Now pass the chips. . ."