Message from Rev. Dr. Andrew Lyons

SUMMER 2018

As I got up this morning and listened to the news, I heard that Stephen Lawrence’s father, Neville, had forgiven the killers of his son.  Stephen was killed 25 years ago in Eltham, London in a racist murder.

Neville Lawrence said that it was the hardest thing he had ever done but was a consequence of his Christian faith.  I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose my son that way – but like many of you I suspect that forgiving some people in our lives is not easy even if what they have done to us is less than what happened to the parents of Stephen Lawrence, even though we too share the Christian faith.

Our faith declares that Christ died for our sins.  We in turn need to repent and receive forgiveness of our sins – and we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”.  The idea of the death of Jesus as atonement – that is making us one with God – has been at the heart of the Christian faith.  And yet, I wonder if sometimes it is expressed in such a way that is not really in tune with the life of Jesus.  I have recently read a book called Problems with Atonement (Stephen Finlan: Liturgical Press 2005) that critiques much Christian expression of the atonement in theories that have become part of the Christian faith.  Finlan makes two major points.

Firstly, he says that Christian Doctrine has developed theories about atonement – but that is not what the bible does – even St. Paul.  What the scriptures do is to provide metaphors for the effect of the death (and resurrection) of Jesus – and often use two or three metaphors in the same sentence, mixing up meanings and leaving some ambiguity.  The early Christian communities experienced the transforming, forgiving love of God in and through Jesus.  St. Paul, not knowing Jesus in life, experienced Jesus on the Damascus road, as the crucified Messiah.  This experience they described in the best way they could – and used ideas and concepts that were familiar to them from Jewish and Hellenistic thought.  Some of these were of a sacrificial nature because sacrifice to God and the gods was common place in ancient tradition.  When we take an idea, expressed in a metaphor – and make it into a theory it can become enshrined in our theology, hymnody, prayer etc.  One such thought is expressed in the Stuart Townend hymn/song (Singing the Faith 351) ‘In Christ Alone’.  There is a line in that hymn that states “till on that cross as Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied”.  Whilst there is some mention of the wrath of God in St Paul’s writings it is limited.  Yet St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the first century of the second millennium, created a whole doctrine around this metaphor/concept of the wrath of God. To continue to propagate the idea that an angry/wrathful God demands the death of his son to satisfy God’s own anger seems, to me at least, utterly barbaric, a form of child abuse, and a million miles away from Neville Lawrence’s forgiveness.

Finlan, secondly, says that if we really want to see God as a loving Father – which we do proclaim – we need to spend more attention on the Incarnation – the life of God who took flesh in Jesus Christ – that we might know God. Whilst Jesus expresses anger to those who hold and misuse power and authority – Jesus is always compassionate to those who need God’s mercy, love, justice and healing. Read the Sermon on the Mount again! And again!

If we hold a view of God as forgiving and loving of human kind that he ‘sent his only son into the world that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life’ (John 3: 16) - that is being made one with God – then we need to understand the death of Jesus not as an atoning act that God demands but as the sacrifice of Jesus who willingly gives up his life so that the very non-violent and loving nature of God is revealed.

Such an approach leads to different hymnody and prayer in our worship. We ask for God’s forgiveness – but not granted by God because we are washed in the blood of Christ – another metaphor that has surely passed its sell by date- but because we fall short of the forgiveness and love that God offers all of us. Indeed, I want to say that we can ask for forgiveness – we can be honest with ourselves, each other and God about our fault and failings – because we know God forgives us, God loves us, God encourages us on our journey. We don’t ask for forgiveness because we are frightened of judgement – of going to hell – we ask because we believe that the way of Jesus is the way of life and we gladly and wholeheartedly want to follow that path.

As Jesus said to the man lowered through the roof by his friends – ‘Get up, walk – your sins are forgiven’.  Brothers and sisters know that God loves you and that God’s desire is to strengthen and encourage you to walk the way of our Lord. And then, try at least, to forgive others for that is the way to eternal life.