Holy Week for Newbies
A few years back an international student from China named Peter spent his senior year of high school living with us. Growing up in an atheist country, Peter had no spiritual upbringing except to think that religion was something for silly people. After about six months of living with us (and attending church out of respect), we took a road trip to California. Peter was staring at the passing desert when he turned and blurted, “I think every hero movie is really just a metaphor for Jesus!”
I thought about Peter’s insight and realized that whether we are talking Lord of the Rings, Raiders, or Narnia; MIB, or the Matrix, an end of the world series streaming on Netflix or every Western ever, our epics are all variations on a theme. You can hear the deep voiced announcer on the trailer, “Dark forces hold the world in its’ grip. One man can deliver us. One solitary, misunderstood man.” And, just when all seems lost, a miraculous turn of events in the climactic showdown carries the day…and all is saved. And while this may have happened long, long ago, it was certainly not in a galaxy far, far away. The epics that captivate our imaginations all channel the same day: The day when God’s deliverer overcame the marshaled forces of evil, defeated the dark overlord, kicked down the gates of a prison called hell, and set a captive cosmos free.
Like a great movie, the timeline of the narrative can get complex …Time melds together: The victory may have been won, long, long ago, but it is a victory that transcends time, culture, and distance. It is a victory that is here. Now. Today.
But how does the resurrection of Jesus save us? Jesus making things right is called “atonement,” literally, “at-one-ment.” All Christians believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection saves humanity by making us “at one” with God. But how those actions save has been the subject of centuries of study and contemplation. It is a complicated thing for an infinite God to communicate an infinite rescue to finite humans. To do that takes analogy. And finite analogies, by definition, all fall short somewhere.
I live in Texas these days. Texans, as good Bible-belters, generally see the cross and empty tomb in terms of the substitution analogy. You know this analogy: God sends his son to take our punishment to satisfy the legal debt of sin to God. Please don’t misunderstand, I am not saying that’s wrong. I am simply saying that it is an analogy, and like all analogies, incomplete. The analogy of Jesus’ death satisfying a debt was first explored by Anselm in the 11th century, and developed in the Reformation. It is biblical, occurring most clearly in Paul, Hebrews, and places like 1 John 2:2, “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” This analogy works for us; Jesus satisfying the law resonates with people under the rule of law. And with today’s student loan balances, I suspect the idea of debt forgiveness isn’t going away anytime soon either.
But a penalty paid for laws broken is not the only way to understand the atonement. The analogy with a profound place in the early church was the Passover (from Exodus 12). You hear echoes of this in the ancient Communion prayers when they quote 1 Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” You see this in the Eucharistic prayer of St. Basil from the 4th century, “He is the true paschal lamb…” (“pascha” being Greek for Passover).
It is interesting that the Jewish calendar had a day dedicated to forgiving sins through sacrifice, the Day of Atonement. One might expect that Jesus would have chosen The Day of Atonement to lay down his life…but he didn’t. God set Jesus’ redeeming work in motion at the Passover. The Passover.
Same lamb. Different purpose.
Both Jewish feasts involve sacrifice. On the Day of Atonement, the lamb’s death substituted for the sinner’s death. In Passover, a lamb also dies, but the lamb’s blood isn’t applied to the doorposts to cover sin, but rather to mark relationship. The blood notified the death angel to “pass over” as that family belonged to God. The Passover sacrifice had another ritual attached: The children of Israel ate the Passover lamb, a meal of belonging and communion. Then God used Moses to deliver His people from bondage and slavery through the Red Sea, from death to life.
The problem being solved at Passover was not of a lawless people, but a captive one. How Israel came to be in bondage was not addressed. God says to the captors, “Let my people go.”
The New Testament describes Jesus as the New Moses who delivers God’s people. The people of God, are in bondage to sin and death, so Jesus intervenes. He forgives our sins and sets humanity free. At the last supper, Jesus becomes our New (wait for it) Passover meal, our meal of belonging and communion.
Unlike the Day of Atonement, the imagery in Passover is not legal. Sin is more than a legal infraction demanding God’s justice. Sin is primarily a heart condition: a life lived out of communion with God, the giver of life. We are not sinners because we do sinful stuff, we do sinful stuff because we seek life apart from God. Life apart from the source of life is death (Rom. 6:23 “the wages of sin”). Sin is deeper than a legal consequence (like getting a ticket for going too fast); sin is a natural consequence (like skidding off the road for going too fast).
In the Passover analogy…
God’s Son enters death, not to do our time, but to destroy our jail!
Jesus entered death itself to rescue us. In the resurrection, Christ defeats death, the last bondage. In the New Passover, God Himself becomes our sacrifice. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is not only called the lamb of God, but to make his point, John actually moves the date of the Last Supper so that Jesus is killed on Passover…literally becoming our Passover lamb, slain for God to proclaim, “Mine” over you and me.
So when Jesus burst from the tomb, leaving an angel to tell the women “go find the disciples and Peter,” (Mark 16:7) the message may have been mystifying, but it was unmistakable: Death is destroyed. The evil forces defeated.
Because of the resurrection, we can live in God’s presence as designed. We can assume the vocations we were created for in the garden; image bearers of the creator, Gospel proclaimers, kings and priests, representing God to the creation, and representing the creation to God. All of this makes Cecil B. DeMille’s “Ten Commandments,” a great movie for Easter, because the Passover helps us understand what all our hero movies point to: the amazing news of Easter.
Peter understood that our great stories are but variations on a theme – riffs on the one great story, the life-changing story of stories. And you and I are not only invited to the premier, we hold complementary tickets for our family, friends and colleagues.
Living as stewards of the story
How do we live as the freed captives God declares us to be? (And as those with pockets full of tickets?)
First, Love God. Love God by rediscovering worship. Real worship. In worship we represent the creation to God.
Second, Love people: Love them by serving them. In service we represent God to the creation.
Prisoner, the hero has done his part. You have been released. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just a proof of concept, or the trump card in the argument for God. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a proclamation: We are delivered from the evil forces. The gates are open. The chains released. That is why when we hear, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” We cannot help but reply, “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”