Easter 2b 2015 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
In today’s reading from the First Letter of John, we hear not only of his eyewitness testimony but of the mysterious truth of the atonement: how Jesus Christ the righteous is not only our advocate before God, but is also the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not of ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” This concept of atonement is not easy to grasp, and I want to spend a few moments today reflecting on what John — and the church after him — are getting at when they use this term atonement.
First of all, it is a term with a great deal of Old Testament baggage, baggage that served the Jewish people well on all their journeys and in all their resting places even on and up to this present day. For it is the word used to describe one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the day on which in ancient Israel the priests made solemn sacrifice to cleanse themselves and the whole people of their sins.
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Secondly, some have packed their own ideas into this already heavy baggage, by giving to the word “atone” a sense of feeling sorry for something you’ve done. But feeling sorry for something you’ve done wrong is really not at the heart of atonement: the heart of atonement lies in making reparations for the wrong that has been done. It’s not enough to feel sorry, or even offer a heartfelt apology; it is not enough to make a tearful confession of a crime — there are reparations to be made, and maybe a fine and court costs to be paid.
The surprising thing — and this goes back to the Day of Atonement — is that this restitution or reparation does not need to be made by the guilty party. On the Day of Atonement in ancient Israel it wasn’t the people who suffered punishment for their sins and failings — it was a bull and a goat who paid the price of sin. They were sacrificed, and their blood was the price, along with another goat on whose head the high priest would place the iniquities of the people — the scapegoat — that would be sent off into the wilderness to only God knows where. This is the bloody image that John develops in his Epistle: that, as he says, “the blood of Jesus… cleanses us from all sins.” Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice” that makes full reparation and reconciliation between humankind and God — for only Jesus Christ, truly human and truly divine, completely free of any sin himself but taking on himself the sin of the whole world, only Jesus Christ could serve as both our advocate before God, and as the atoning sacrifice who reconciles humanity with God.
Reconciliation is at the heart of what atonement means, this in a literal sense: for the word “atone” was created from the two words “at” and “one” — and it used in fact to be pronounce “at-one” instead of “a-tone.” The sacrifice of Yom Kippur “at-oned” the people of Israel with God, restoring what was broken in their relationship, re-joining the two so that they were “at one.”
The problem with this at-oning sacrifice of Yom Kippur was that it was temporary. It reconciled and “at-oned” the people with God only for one year at a time, so the sacrifice was part of the annual round of Temple worship. Every year the Day of Atonement would come around, and the goat and the bull would be sacrificed, and the other goat sent out with the sins on its head into the wilderness. Think of all of those hundreds of bulls and goats, slaughtered or set off into the wilderness as substitutes for the sins of the people, year after year, enough beef to fill a slaughterhouse and goat, Mon, to provide for a curry to end all curries! No shortage of curry there! Yet each and every year the people would accumulate their sins, only to bring them back to the Temple each Day of Atonement.
The sacrifice of Christ is different; it is, as Saint Paul was fond of saying, “once and for all.” We use that phrase casually and so lose how dramatic it is: once — that is, once Christ was crucified, once died and then once on Easter raised triumphant over death; and “for all” — for everyone who, as I reminded us in Lent, would look upon him and put their trust in him. Unlike the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, going through that ritual year after year and only for himself and the people of Israel, Jesus “at-ones” God with all of humanity over that three-day weekend from the cross to the resurrection — once and for all. It is through Jesus — one person, one death, one sacrifice — that, as the hymn puts it, “reconciled are we with God” and that “we” includes all of humanity — as John would say, “the whole world” — made one in him, by him and through him.
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We see the results of this kind of unity, this at-one-ment, in that short passage from the Acts of the Apostles. It describes the behavior of the whole group of believers, who are reported to be “of one heart and soul.” They are “at-one” with God and with each other. And just as atonement for sin isn’t just about feeling sorry (though it includes it), so too this way of life in the newborn church wasn’t just about feeling friendly towards each other (though it included that as well). These disciples took action, and literally put their money where their mouth was. I reminded us in Lent of the truth of the teaching, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Well, we see that principle in action in this short reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
This first community of Christ, this first incarnation of “the church” is of one mind and soul and heart; no one claims private ownership of any possessions, but the community holds everything in common. They have put their money where their mouth is — and there is not a needy person among them, because those with wealth and property liquidate their assets to spread them around for all to benefit. They show that what they truly treasure is each other: that is where their treasure is — in each other. And because of that, you know where their heart is, too: united one to the other and each to all, in a community of faith the like of which is rarely seen on this good, green earth of ours.
And that is the challenge before us, my friends: the challenge of the At-one-ment; to become as filled with love for each other, at-one with each other and with God, that we support each other in good times and in bad, to such an extent that anyone seeing us would be amazed, and say to himself, “Those people at Saint James Fordham must really love God and their neighbors.”
May we so live our commitment, so embrace the at-one-ment purchased for us by Christ our Savior on the cross by his precious blood, so show forth in our lives what we profess with our lips, that our light will shine, as a beacon of hope, to bring others out from the perilous waters of this world, into the safe harbor of Christ’s holy family, the church of God, of which this little building is but one of the many ports. +