The Atonement Sermon

We’re going to be in Romans 5 this morning,
so I’d invite you to turn there.

We’re in the middle of exploring what the church means by “the gospel.”

That’s what the church is known for throughout the centuries—
for proclaiming “gospel,” proclaiming “good news.”

And so we’ve exploring the shape of that good news,
and recognizing that the good news is primarily about God.

It’s the story of what God is like,
what God has done in the world,
and what God will do in the world.

And so we’re working our way through these ancient words (called “the Apostle’s Creed”)
that a lot of smart people think may go back as far as the second century.

And the last few weeks, we’ve been confessing these words together—
we’ve been telling this story together.

I’d invite you to stand and confess our faith together right now:

We believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

We believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.

On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

This week we’re reaching arguably the center of the good news—
the nucleus around which the entire gospel orbits—
the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is why we’re here.

Historically speaking the Christian church exists
for one reason and only one reason.

The earliest Christians were absolutely convinced that despite being executed in one of the worst ways conceivable Jesus of Nazareth had been resurrected from the dead and entered into an entirely new way of being human.

The early church was so convinced of this
that they endured persecution and eventually death themselves
in bearing witness to it.

That’s how the Christian church got started.

They were proclaiming the death and resurrection of a Jewish peasant
as good news for all mankind.

Resurrection from the dead—
that’s easier to recognize as good news.

But the death of Jesus as good news—that’s a little more of a puzzle.
How could anyone’s death be good news?

So let’s talk about that today.

Next week we’ll be talking a little more about the resurrection of Jesus
(and the ascension of Jesus… something that often gets overlooked)
but this week, let’s talk about the death of Jesus.

Let’s talk about the cross.

That’s what Paul is talking about in Romans 5:

(5.1-11) Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

(v6) You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

(v9) Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Paul is writing about the death of Jesus of Nazareth.
His death was a relatively recent death of someone that lots of people had known
(someone they’d eaten with, talked with, laughed with).

And Paul is writing about Jesus’ death in the strangest of ways.

He’s saying that the death of this man
is where the world finds the peace with God (v1).

What kind of weird statement is that?

Peace with God—
through that man’s death?

And we’re just invited to trust that, Paul?
Invited to have faith in that (v1)?

What is he talking about?

The letters of Paul (including this letter to the Romans)
are the earliest documents that we have in the entire New Testament.

Jesus was crucified in the early 30s and this letter is probably from the mid 50s.

From the 30s to the 50s, that’s a difference of about 20 years, and the older I get, the more I realize that 20 years isn’t a long time—not long at all.

I mean, twenty years is enough time to reflect on an event—
to maybe get some perspective and understand it a little better —
but it’s not NEARLY long enough to turn recent events into legends.

For example, the Oklahoma City bombing was 20 years ago.

Enough time has passed that we’re not all in the moment anymore,
but it’s not been NEARLY long enough for us to totally forget history
and turn it into a legend.

You need a lot longer than 20 years to say:
“Oh! That catastrophe in Oklahoma City—yeah, the bombing of that federal building—
it was actually the best thing to ever happen in the history of the world.”

It’s weird to even pretend to say that, isn’t it?
But that’s just the kind of weird thing we just read in Romans 5.

Paul is saying:
“That catastrophe outside of Jerusalem—yeah, the execution of Jesus—
his death has fundamentally changed humanity’s condition before God.”

Not nearly enough time has passed to somehow
turn recent tragedy into a mythic legend.

This letter is a time machine—
it takes us back to just two decades into the Christian faith,
and they’re already saying things like
“Christ died for us” (v8).

Twenty years of reflection doesn’t make people talk like this.

The only thing that would make me
talk this way about my friend’s death
would be if I was absolutely convinced
that death wasn’t the end of my friend’s story.
And that’s exactly what we’ve got in the New Testament.

The early church was a community who had seen Jesus after he had been raised from the dead (eaten with him and talked with him and laughed with him), and if you part of a community that had experienced that—then you’re just trying to work through what his all of it means.

Paul is saying the death of Jesus—
is where the relationship between God and humanity
has been most radically and definitely restored.

The word in English use to describe a relationship being restored like this is “atonement.”

It’s actually an old, old Middle English word
that you can break down into pieces
and hear what it means: at-one-ment.

Atonement is when two people who had been divided or estranged are put back together.

They’re no longer two,
no longer divided,
no longer apart,
they’re “at one” again.

The relationship is restored.

Well, from the very beginning of the Christian movement
people were saying that the death and the resurrection of Jesus is the place
where atonement between God and the world had taken place.

God and humanity are
no longer divided,
no longer apart,
they’re “at one” again.

This “atonement” gets talked about it a lot of ways.

The early Christians use a lot of different images from different spheres of.
It’s like they were racking their brains,
raiding the word pantry, searching for any metaphor,
any picture, any image, any sphere of life—
that could help them understand more fully what had happened in Jesus.

Because they’ve seen this guy after his death,
and so they’re processing—what did his death mean?

Here in first half of Romans,
Paul has been using imagery from two different spheres of life:
from the religious world and the legal world.

He says Jesus’ death is like the blood of sacrifice (v9)—
a sacrifice that cleanses us and wipes away our darkness.

But then he’s also using courtroom images.

Jesus’ death justifies us (v1, 9), it acquits us in court,
it causes the judge to rule in our favor.
And all of this means (v10-11) that we’ve been reconciled to God.
and that’s yet another image.

That’s an image of intimacy from the world of relationships.

That’s three different images from three different spheres of life
(the worlds of religion and law and relationships)
all in just eleven verses.

Look further in the New Testament,
you’ll find Jesus’ death talked about
with economic language and battlefield imagery

Look further in this very chapter,
you’ll see Paul start using creation imagery—
that the human race has been restarted in Jesus.

His coming back the dead—it’s like the world is being remade.
Like new creation.

For the early church,
the point of the atonement is not in exactly how it happened,
the point of the atonement is that it has happened.

That in the death and resurrection of Jesus,
God has taken care of the sins of the entire world (cf. 1 Jn 2.2).

The good news is about God.

That God has brought atonement to the world
because God loves the world.

And the death and resurrection of Jesus is where we find
the deepest assurance of God’s unfailing, unrelenting, unstoppable love for us.

After all (v8), God has demonstrated his love for us
by becoming one of us and dying for us
before we ever gave him a thought.

No—more than that!

In our most darkest, in our most devilish, in our most murderous—
when we’re still enemies of God (v10),
God is loving us.

This is good news.

Incredibly good news,
insanely good news,
good news that (let’s be honest) we don’t believe—
because we have nothing to compare this to.

That’s what Paul is saying in verses 6-7.

No one dies for the powerless, for the ugly, for the ungodly—
it’s almost impossible to find someone willing for a good person.

But in the words of one theologian:

“God has always gone infinitely further”
in loving us than we go in rejecting him.

Despite whatever we’ve done,
despite how often we’ve done it,
despite how far we’ve drifted,
despite how long we’ve been running,
despite whoever we’ve become—

God’s love has always gone further.
Infinitely further.

I think that’s the reason the creed has that little phrase:
“he descended to the dead.”

That’s how far God goes—into the abyss itself.

God’s love has gone even there.

Consider what the suffering of Jesus under Pontius Pilate means.
and his crucifixion and his death and his burial mean
while you were still a sinner.

God’s love for you is not dependent
on your love for him.

It never has been,
and it never will be.

God thoughts about you
have always been more
than your thoughts about God.

God’s concern for you
is always more
than your concern about God.

God’s love for you,
will always be more
than your love for God.

There’s nothing that you can ever do
to restore your relationship with God.

No prayer you can pray,
no penance you can complete,
no thing you can do,
that will make you right with God.

All any of us can ever do is trust that God
has already made us right with him.

There’s nothing that any of us can ever do to atone for our sins.
All any of us can ever do is trust that God already has.

The good news is about God.

About what God is like—
he’s always dancing in love and joy and delight
and always inviting us to believe this good news of atonement
and to always wooing us to join the dance.

God is always inviting us
out of the hellish nightmare of life without him—
what the early church sometimes called “the wrath of God” (v9).

The “wrath of God”—now that’s something we have an easier time believing in.

That God is
angry, frustrated,
fed up, done with us.

I have an easier time believing that most days.

Something within me finds it easier to believe
bad news rather than good news.

But when someone like Paul says “wrath”
he doesn’t mean what we think he means.

At the beginning of Romans,
do you know what Paul said God’s wrath looks like?

It looks like God handing us over
to the whatever we want more than him (cf. 1.18-32).

That’s it.
He gives us what we want.

And that’s what Paul is tapping into here.

God’s wrath isn’t about the emotional state of God.
God isn’t angry. Or frustrated. Or impatient.

God is dancing.
Rejoicing. Delighting. Loving.

And he loves enough—
our lives and our decisions and our intentions matter enough—
that he doesn’t force us join him.

God doesn’t make us dance.
That’s God’s wrath.

He says: “You want to live that way—?
Full of anger, full of selfishness, full of greed?

“You want to leave the Dance? You want to crash your life?
Ok—I’ll let you. I’ll let you exhaust yourself,
I’ll let you chase what’s never going to satisfy
I’ll let you gorge yourself on death.”

“And when you’ve hit bottom—when you’re finally ready for life—I’ll be there.
And I will set a banquet before you.”

“When you’re ready to join the dance,
you’ll realize that you’ve always been welcome.”

And the way we know that we’re welcome at the dance—
that we’re in right relationship with God—
is we look at Jesus.

We experience God’s grace and forgiveness and healing by faith—
by looking at Jesus and trusting him.

We look at Jesus.

We look at God suffering, suffocating, dying, dead on the cross,
and we realize that God shouldn’t be doing any of that.

But God’s love has always gone infinitely further than we can imagine.

So God gives us what we think we want… but when our lives crash and burn
we discover that God is already in there in the wreckage.

The cross is the place where we realize
that God carries the carnage of the world.

God chooses to makes our stupidly self-inflicted wounds his own.

God demonstrates his own love for us in this:
while we were still sinners,
Christ died for us (v8).

And by taking our wounds, God heals them.

Death couldn’t stop his dance.

Jesus is risen from the dead.

That’s why Paul is writing like this,
that’s why the church began,
that’s why we’re here,
that’s how we hope.

Because if his death means we’ve been reconciled to God,
how much more (v10)—how much more will we be saved through his life.

Our Lord is alive,
and always pouring out love into the hearts willing to receive it (v5).
always giving his Spirit—his very life—to those who are thirsty.

We are invited… to begin to trust this.

To trust that God loves us more than we’ll ever love him.
To trust that God has always gone further.
To trust that God meets in the wreckage.

We’re invited to trust Jesus.

And we’re invited to begin to see
all of our lives in light of his.

Even our hurts, our struggles, our suffering (v3).

Maybe especially our hurt and struggle and suffering.

Because—for me—as I’ve begun trusting Jesus,
I’ve begun to realize that if God can transform
a Roman torture stake into a symbol of hope
then he probably wants to transform my suffering too.

The cross of Jesus wasn’t wasted—
and maybe that can help us trust
that our crosses won’t be wasted either.

On the night he was handed over to suffering and death,
our Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks,
he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said,

“Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you.
Do this in the remembrance of me.”

After supper he took the cup; and when he had given thanks,
he gave it to them, and said,

“Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant,
which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.”

In just a moment you’re invited to come down the center aisle,
receive a cracker, dip it into the juice, and return to your seats along the sides.

This table is open to anyone learning to trust that Christ died for us—and that includes you.

May you come with faith,
knowing that God’s love reaches us in our darkness,

May you come with hope,
knowing that we are receiving a life that death can’t stop.

And may you come with love,
knowing that all we can ever do is gratefully receive grace.