The Fall Takes Place Not in Eden But at Mt. Sinai
The covenant is broken as soon as it is established
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Recently I ventured onto social media long enough to see the above meme shared as enthusiastically as it was ubiquitously.
I confess that whenever I see either/or assertions of this sort thrown down on the internet, the Old Adam in me first wonders:
“Have you actually read the scriptures?”
The available texts are too numerous to list. I could start with John the Baptizer’s declaration, which kicks off John’s Gospel proper, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of of the world.” I could follow-up with Paul’s Easter text from his first epistle to the Corinthians, “Christ died for our sins.” The apostle refers to that message as the Church’s word of first importance apart from which we are the most pathetic people in the world.
Of course, there’s the seldom examined anti-judaism that lingers behind the modern aversion to the language of sin and humanity’s need for atonement. While we can certainly debate the merits and demerits of so-called atonement motifs, Israel’s cultic life, commanded to it by God, straightforwardly says that God’s people, as they are presently constituted under Sin, are not acceptable to a holy God (I sure as shit know that’s true about me and worry about those who do not so identify). They must be made acceptable by God. And the mechanism God gave to Israel was gracious, vicarious sacrifice. Thus the Temple apparatus and its tribe of priests, of which, the Book of Hebrews claims, the Lord Jesus is the head not the negation.
Granting the above meme is a “sermon,” the god so invoked is not the triune God.
The binary between empire and atonement is simply not necessary as anyone who’s recited the Apostle’s Creed already knows.
There are only two proper names in the creed besides Jesus, who is 1) Mary’s son and 2) Pilate’s victim. It’s quite obvious that the simplest historical answer to the question “Why was Jesus was crucified?” is “Because we killed him.” As the creeds state bluntly, “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” However, Christ is not the only vicarious substitute in the paschal mystery. Pilate’s name abides in the dogma as a placeholder for all of us. In Christ, God the Son died because we killed him (and would do so again).
We are the empire—
a fact often elided by those who endorse the first half of the above meme.
That in Christ God the Son— ie, the Second Person of the Trinity— died means that the crucifixion of Jesus must always have more than the merely horizontal explanation of his opposition to an unjust imperial status quo.
Moreover, as a workaday preacher with over two decades experience attending to these texts, I often puzzle over those who posit that the political, anti-imperial posture of Christ and his apostles is the only faithful reading of the scriptures. On the one hand, it does not square with Israel’s scriptures, though Israel herself was not shy about agitating against oppressive empires (often, embarrassingly so to us, the Lord himself dispatched those empires to oppress his people Israel and so chasten her back to faithfulness to him). On the other hand, the purely political, anti-imperial interpretation of Jesus’s ministry requires a tremendous leap of blind faith, for it asks us to accept that the apostles who first journeyed forth with the gospel, the evangelists who composed the canon, the church fathers who formulated it into creed, and most of the ensuing tradition all misconstrued the fundamental nature of the faith.
If Jesus is fundamentally nothing more than an anti-imperial political activist who died an unfortunate death, then all the evangelists and the apostles, all the fathers and the mothers of the ancient church, all those who formed the tradition and all those who reformed it, then all of them would be the very worst communicators.
Everywhere they allowed language like, “The death he died, he died to sin once for all,” to confuse their simple, this-worldly horizontal message. For example, the simplest refutation of the above meme’s assertion is the Church’s liturgy for the Easter Vigil, whose sequence of readings makes it clear that the choice offered in the “mini-sermon” is a false one.
Again, Israel is instructive. No one understands oppression under various empires better than the Hebrew people. Nevertheless, the witness of their scripture is that in the end only God can split the sea that stands between the oppressed and their Pharaoh. That the Tanakh is also the Christian Old Testament suggests a consensus on the claim.
The ills and injustices of empire are real and we should stand up against them, but ultimately, as Auden wrote, “nothing that is possible can save us.”
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