Which Story Do We Love and Believe In? – John 1.1-5, 10-14; 20.1-18
Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard once said, “The destiny of the world depends less on the battles that are fought and won than on the stories the world loves and believes in.” This is important to keep in mind this resurrection morning, because the story we choose to love and believe in determines not only when we celebrate but also what we celebrate in this holy season.
On the Lenten journey toward Jerusalem, the light grew dimmer and dimmer until Holy Friday when the darkness finally overcame and snuffed out the light. Or so it seemed to the first disciples who were overcome with grief and despair at the unjust execution of their beloved teacher.
By contrast, the darkness we encounter on Holy Friday is experienced with the benefit of hindsight—we know that the light of resurrection is coming. For this we can give thanks, but perhaps such hindsight leads us astray by diminishing the despair the disciples felt on the day of Jesus’ death.
For example, the Friday before Easter is often labeled “Good Friday,” which would have struck Jesus’ earliest disciples as appalling. “If you had been there,” they might reply, “you would know there was nothing good about that day.” This begs the question: Do we rejoice and celebrate this morning because of Jesus’ death on Friday afternoon or because of Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday morning?
“Can it be both?” you may wonder. Some popular soteriology (efforts to explain how we are saved, from what we are saved, and who does the saving) tries to affirm both. However, the way the gospels tell the story, it makes it difficult to do so because no one is portrayed as happy on both Friday and Sunday. Jesus’ disciples grieve on Friday and rejoice on Sunday, while the political and religious establishment (the domination system of the day) rejoices on Friday after removing the dissident troublemaker and grieves his reappearance on Sunday. It seems to be an either/or not a both/and choice.
Therefore, when I reflect upon the soteriology popularized in some familiar hymnody I cannot help but conclude that many have chosen to love and believe in the wrong story without realizing it. You may disagree with me and that is perfectly alright. There are many ways that people have understood the significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and it is noteworthy that amidst all the many ideas that the Church has codified as “orthodoxy,” no single interpretation of Jesus’ death has been declared “orthodox.”
That being said, let’s consider two popular “blood hymns” that seem to encourage people to celebrate Jesus’ death as much as, if not more than, Jesus’ resurrection.
What can wash away my sins? asks one such hymn.
Nothing but the blood of Jesus is the answer given, followed by a celebratory response:
Oh precious is the flow that makes me white as snow.
Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power? asks another hymn,
and the purported cleansing power of Jesus is revealed in the follow up question:
Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?
Familiar though they are, these hymns (and others like them) have increasingly disturbed me, because they seem to celebrate Jesus’ death, even though the gospels go to great lengths to demonstrate that it was an act of injustice that deeply grieved the disciples and brought darkness to the land. More puzzling is the fact that there are no obvious references to the resurrection in these hymns, which (at the very least) ought to raise a metaphorical “red flag” about their theology.
The logic and language of these hymns is so familiar that we rarely stop to question whether it is correct. So, let us, on this resurrection morning, dare to consider whether reveling and rejoicing in Jesus’ death (apart from any explicit connection to Jesus’ resurrection) is really gospel?
To answer this question we must consider the logical problem of interpreting Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sins. It is a problem because on multiple occasions in the Old Testament, God, through the prophets, says that sacrifice (the killing of an animal or a human in order to be forgiven) is not only wrong and undesirable, but also something for which God never asked. Listen to the words of three prophets:
God desires chesed (variously translated steadfast love, mercy or compassion) not sacrifice, declares Hosea (6.6). A little later Hosea says Israel went astray in their ritual sacrifices to other gods, and calls them to stop sacrificing and to start seeking love and justice, that is chesed (11.1-2; 12.6). It is often assumed that the problem is the deity to whom they offer sacrifice and that Hosea wants them to sacrifice to YHWH instead of Baal, but this is not the case. The problem, according to Hosea, is ritual sacrifice. This is the sin of which they are called to repent from and chesed is the salvation they are called to repent to.
We turn next to the prophet Micah who asks, “Shall we come before God with burnt offerings? Will God be pleased with thousands of sacrificed rams? Shall we give our firstborn for our transgressions? Shall we sacrifice our children for the sins of our souls? No! God has told us what is good and what is expected of us: that we seek justice, love kindness and live humbly” (6.8).
Finally, the prophet Jeremiah declares, “The people have forsaken God and made the land a place of foreign gods by filling the Temple with the blood of the innocent victims of sacrifice. They have built the high places to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something God did not command or mention nor did it enter God’s mind” (19.4-5; cf. 7.30-31). Then, in chapter 31, Jeremiah proclaims a new covenant in which God forgives transgressions and remembers sin no more without any need for a sacrifice (animal, human or otherwise) to enable God to forgive and forget.
According to these prophets, the sacrificial death of animals or humans (i.e. the use of violence to bring peace and reconciliation between estranged parties) is a human system attributed to God by its practitioners, but continually rejected by God as valid. In other words, what humanity sees as its salvation from sin, God sees as the sin from which humanity must be saved.
That being said, there are voices in the Bible that declare ritual sacrifice to be a divine system that humanity must follow. Both views are present in the Bible. Therefore, one must decide which voice, which story to follow—the story that requires ritual sacrifice to save us from our sin or the story that saves us from the sin of ritual sacrifice. So, how do we choose?
If we believe Jesus to be, for us, the fullest revelation of God we have encountered, we should note that Jesus takes his stand with the anti-sacrifice prophets by calling people to turn, to repent from all manifestations of violence and to turn, to repent to all manifestations of profligate compassion or chesed.
On that note, have you ever stopped to consider that Jesus repeatedly offers forgiveness of sins to those he meets before his death by saying, “your sins are forgiven” or “your faith has saved you”? This does not make sense when viewed from the perspective of the “blood hymns” that require faith in a sacrificial interpretation of Jesus’ death, but it makes perfect sense from the perspective of the anti-sacrifice prophets that require faith in a non-sacrificial path of compassion.
Some theologians in Jesus’ day responded to his offer of forgiveness by telling him that this was blasphemy because only God could forgive sins. Some theologians in our day might respond by telling him that this was blasphemy because he was still alive and had to die before God could forgive their sins.
All of this leads us to a pivotal question: If God did not desire animal sacrifice, if child sacrifice is something that never entered into God’s mind, and if God forgives iniquity and remembers sin no more apart from any required sacrifices, what sense does it make to assert that God required the sacrificial death of Jesus in order to forgive us?
Put simply: God did not and does not desire either animal or human sacrifice to forgive us because God is not against us but for us. In fact, according to the anti-sacrifice prophets to suggest that ritual sacrifice is necessary for God to shift from being against us to being for us is to worship a false god, an idol, a deity of violence rather than a deity of chesed (compassion). This means that Jesus died because of the reconciliation system established by humanity that seeks unity through the scapegoating violence of ritual sacrifice. By contrast, God’s reconciliation system seeks unity through the compassionate grace of spoken words of blessing and forgiveness extended to all—even to enemies and persecutors.
This is why Jesus declared that God desired chesed not sacrifice, why Jesus taught us to respond to violence with non-violent resistance, why Jesus exhorted us to love our enemies, why Jesus extolled us to acts of compassion, why Jesus wept over Jerusalem (the city whose name means shalom—peace and wholeness) because it did not know that the way to true shalom was not through ritual sacrifice, and why Jesus extended chesed with his very last breath to all of us who are enslaved by humanity’s reconciliation system (manifested in the cross) because we don’t know what we are doing—we don’t know that the act we believe to be our salvation is actually the sinful act from which God is seeking to save us.
Tragically, what the OT prophets and the NT gospels reject is the act often celebrated this time each year. As one NT scholar put it, “God made [the] occasion of scapegoating sacrifice (what those who killed Jesus were doing) an occasion for overcoming scapegoating violence (what God was doing)…God used our sin to save us from that sin…[Thus,] there is a saving act of God in the cross and there is a sinful human act. The two are so close together that it is easy for them to get mixed up in our understanding and in our theology…We always run the risk of taking the diagnosis for the prescription.”
There are two primary gospel stories (with many variations) from which we must choose. One confuses the diagnosis for the prescription and remains enslaved. The other distinguishes between the two and finds salvation.
So, which story will we choose to love, believe in and build our lives upon? Perhaps our answer is most clearly revealed in the songs we choose to love and believe in. So let us choose wisely. AMEN.
 S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, xii.