"All we like sheep have gone astray..." The stirring music of Handel's Messiah includes the well-known passage from Isaiah: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way. And the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all."
This text leads us to the theology of the Atonement, which can be summed up in the common bumper sticker quote: "Jesus died for your sins." Basic to the traditional Christian doctrine of the Atonement is the notion that somehow something went very wrong in God's creation - specifically, WE went wrong. And God is so holy, so righteous, so judgmental, that God needs to punish us for our sins. But God provides an out - a deal, so that God can love what God created, flawed as it is. So according to this interpretation of Atonement, God's acceptance is purchased through the death of Jesus, the sinless one. Jesus redeems us (to use pawn-broker terminology) or Jesus takes our place (a substitution in which Jesus takes the punishment that this righteously angry God intended for us.)
This has been the mainline position on atonement since it was developed by medieval Christian theologians in the West. However, back in the 13th c. when Thomas Aquinas was writing about Atonement along these lines, Aquinas' colleague at the University of Paris, the Franciscan Friar Bonaventure, was formulating an alternative view of the Atonement.
Franciscan Theology of Atonement:
Bonaventure viewed the Atonement in quite a different way, a "minority" position which was later developed further by other Franciscans. In our day it has been promulgated mostly by Fr. Richard Rohr, a prolific Roman Catholic Franciscan writer and workshop presenter, who feels the time has come for the Franciscan view of the Atonement to find its rightful place in our church theology.
Franciscan theology sees the Incarnation as the love of God made visible in the world. The incarnation didn't happen as a remedy for sin - a mop-up action to deal with the consequences of Adam and Eve's eating of that apple. Instead, as Richard Rohr says, there is no Plan B, the incarnation is Plan A. It is the completion of creation, the act of a God whose nature is Love, whose being is about relationship. Love is the reason for creation, and Christ is the perfect expression of God's love. So, God came to us in Jesus because of God's need to relate to us, to communicate unconditional love, to offer reconciliation and unity, at-one-ment, rather than Atonement. The passion and death of Jesus, as well as the resurrection, are all about Love, rather than judgment, punishment, or redemption.
In his Easter Letter to the church a couple of years ago, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said:
Jesus didn't just happen to be in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. Jesus was in Jerusalem on purpose... Jesus came to show us there is another way. The way of unselfish, sacrificial love. That's why he entered Jerusalem. That's why he went to the cross. It was the power of that love poured out from the throne of God that even after the horror of the crucifixion would raise him from death to life. He didn't just happen to be in Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday. He went to Jerusalem for a reason. To send a message. That not even the titanic powers of death can stop the love of God.
Fr. rex, TSF