Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Lamb of God

Romans 5.8 
While we were still sinners, Christ died for us!

Some of Paul's best-known words occur in one of the set readings for today. Having written in his letter to the Romans about the fulfillment of God's promise through the Jewish nation, Paul goes on to examine what it means to "get right with God." It seems that this comes through Jesus' death on the cross "while we were still sinners ..."

How is it possible for a man's death to put anyone right with God - much less the death of an obscure prophet two thousand years ago? That at first sight appears utter nonsense(1 Corinthians 1.23). And what sort of God requires anyone's death as payment for sins? To many in the 21st century that's an appalling concept. It doesn't make sense.

Yet the first Christians did make sense of it.

They were Jews. For them the idea of sacrifice was central to their way of life - as it was throughout the known world of the time. A general belief was that "life is in the blood" (Deuteronomy 12.23). When an animal was killed at the altar there was a supposed substitution of the animal's life for the sins of the person or community. That was how people got right with God. On the Day of Atonement sins were symbolically placed on a goat which was then driven into the desert (Leviticus 16.20): "The goat will carry all their sins away..." and make them right with God.

Not surprisingly, similar ideas came into play when early Christians sought to make sense of the death of Jesus,. What more natural than the time-honoured metaphor of sacrifice? The image of Jesus as the sacrificial "Lamb of God" who makes us right with God was easily understood by all, both Jew and Gentile. 

But how are we to understand the death of Jesus today? We no longer sacrifice animals to get right with God. We no longer ritually place our sins onto a goat or any other animal. Such ideas would be totally unacceptable to most people in Westernised societies - though similar practices survive in some parts of the world to this day.

All of us, however, can still recognise in the giving of life something ultimately heroic. A parent dies for a child; a lover gives up all for the beloved; a soldier tastes death for his or her country; a mother nurtures her family. Likewise, Jesus died selflessly to prevent his friends being hunted down and killed by the Roman authorities. This sort of sacrifice is the giving up of life for what is intrinsically worthwhile, for people and ideals which really matter. Its value is plain to us all - something which always has, and always will be, worthy of our admiration, gratitude and celebration. 

But I for one can't work out how the death of Jesus 2 000 years ago can possibly directly affect me today except in the most distant manner. Not only is the image of a sacrificial lamb no longer relevant to me, but my mind doesn't grasp the mechanism of substitution involved in older interpretations of his death.

Despite that, it's a fact of life that Jesus started something. Just as we say that the Beatles or Elvis Presley "started something" in the world of pop music, so the death of Jesus started something. Julius Caesar, Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln and a host of other great leaders all "started something".

The "something" that Jesus started by his death was, it seems to me, a way of life which loves other people to the death without regard for the merits of the receiver. Jesus died for his friends even though few would have said, either then or later, that they were worth the sacrifice of so great a person.

This is the revolutionary truth which has powered the Christian faith for two millennia, despite all its accretions and absurdities. Many Christians don't like it because it might call them out of their comfortable pews. Many others ignore it because, instead of killing or exploiting others for their own gain, they would be dying for the gain of the other.

Recognising this sharpens the challenge of Lent almost unbearably. If we are to continue what Jesus started, then repentance becomes something much more than emotionally-charged conversion to believing this or that doctrine, or submitting to this or that ecclesiastical authority, or becoming part of this or that denomination. Repentance in Lent isn't only being sorry for failures to love (though it's partly that) - it's about a radical turnabout towards the possibility of sacrifice for no good reason except love of the other.

Quite what sacrificial repentance is for each of us depends upon our situations. A few may find themselves facing literal death for no good cause except other people. The vast majority of us face not the giving of life, but the giving of time, or effort, or compassion, or our own priorities for others who by most measures are not worth it. That's what Paul meant, I suppose, when he said that Jesus died for sinners - for people who are troublesome, irreligious, foreign, poor, unhealthy, of the wrong class or tribe and the like. Or even our enemies.

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