“For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you declare the Lord’s death until he comes.” Familiar words. Powerful images. But what exactly are we declaring?
I will admit I’m not always the most gracious or diplomatic when it comes to discussing doctrinal matters. I’ve offended some of my religious friends over the past few years by my critique of songs we sing in church and buzz words we say behind the pulpit about the death of Jesus. Worse, I recently really put off a friend when I remarked that I didn’t believe Jesus died to pay for our sins. Those kinds of words can get you stoned – or at least ostracized – in some Christian circles.
But it’s not because I don’t believe Jesus’s death was important – I do. It’s because of how I now understand it.
I can no longer sing songs or say words to the effect that “Jesus paid for my sins” or that Jesus “took my place” on the cross – at least not in the way those terms are normally understood. Simply because I do not believe God is a blood-thirsty God.
I do not believe that there’s a “deep magic” or irrefutable demand of justice woven into the fabric of creation that says “sin must be paid for by death,” as many of us evangelical kids grew up reading in the Chronicles of Narnia, when Aslan agreed to die in Edmond’s place. And I don’t believe that cosmic scales of justice needed to be balanced: the sin of humanity, my sin, on the one scale, and the death and blood of Jesus balancing it out on the other. The idea that the Creator of All the Universe would require terrestrial hemoglobin to be appeased or to restore some balance in the universe, or that a death was required to satisfy some higher law which even God himself is bound by, seems ridiculous.
The argument is basically that blood (or life) is required to satisfy a higher law of justice, and even God must abide by this rule.
That may sound almost reasonable – if the world were a giant courtroom and God were a judge bound by his own laws.
A “Higher Law”
But that idea, those images, overlook an even “higher law.” Mercy triumphs over justice. Love covers a multitude of sins. And God is Love.
And that makes a whole lot more sense to me.
So all the blood and the “paying for sin” stuff, God didn’t need it.
(There are a bunch of Scriptural passages that you can google to back this up – some are listed at the end of this post.)
And if God didn’t need or want a blood pay-off, then the importance of Jesus’s death and his blood must lay somewhere else.
When I changed my mind
I can’t tell you, as a committed conservative evangelical, exactly what persuaded me to change my view of all this. It could just be years of living the faith, of examining my own experience of God’s presence. Did he ever “hate” me – did I ever feel that he did? Even when I was at my worst, didn’t I still sometimes sense his warm presence behind me, touching my shoulder? It was always gentle persuasion, a kind correction, a pointing out of a different perspective (often the other person’s side) that would coax me to change my thinking and my ways. It was never, “well, now you’ve got to go kill something and pay your due.” And, it was also never, “good thing my Son paid for your misbehavior, otherwise I’d have to strike you.”
Even as someone born and steeped in traditional evangelical doctrine, that was never my experience of God.
I do remember being struck one day in particular reading the Psalms and coming across a song written by King David after he’d committed adultery and ordered the death of Uriah, how he “came to” and approached God with a broken heart. These words were like lightning in my soul:
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, O God, will not despise. (Psalm 51:16,17)
The only thing required to forgive sin is a willingness to forgive. In other words, love. God’s love is reason enough for him to overlook our guilt, to release us from that debt. No payment needed. Even in the first verses of that Psalm, David is calling on God’s compassion as the basis for his restoration.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.
So right there, in a moment of deep personal crisis and mystical connection with the heart of God, despite a culture and tradition that understood right-standing with God to require blood sacrifice, David recognized that there was a different way. A deeper truth. Love and compassion were enough.
Like with any of us, when a child or friend or spouse offends us, we forgive out of love and compassion. We don’t require them to pay us off or balance the scales.
And, yeah, a broken and contrite heart show we are participating in that loving, mutual relationship. It shows we’re being transformed – and isn’t that really what it’s all about?
This nugget of spiritual truth is like a seed. And once it gets planted in your soul, you can never unsee it, you can never deny it. Love requires no payment to forgive. Love is enough.
From that point on, you’ll see it everywhere in Scripture. And all the other passages that seem to demand animal sacrifice (and by extension, Jesus as “the ultimate sacrifice”) to appease God, you’ll read with new eyes, you’ll understand differently. “Those poor people. All they knew were those angry gods – of Egypt and Canaan, Babylon and Rome – gods who needed constant appeasing, constant sacrifice. Like abused children, of course they’re going to think God is that way too.”
Love requires no payment to forgive. Love is enough.
So what about the body, the blood, and the new covenant?
So what about Jesus and the Last Supper, where he takes the matzah and the wine and says “this is my body, this is my blood”?
It was a Passover meal. The lamb slaughtered and eaten as part of the holiday had nothing to do with sin, and neither did the bread or wine. (Look it up.) So how did Communion, the Eucharist, get entangled with sin imagery? Probably because the words Jesus said at the time can be interpreted that way, if that’s how you choose to look at them.
“This is my body,” Jesus said – and Luke’s gospel adds “given for you.” That almost sounds transactional. But it doesn’t have to be. It could simply be, “I’m doing this – I’m going through all this – for you, for your benefit. You’ll understand later.” And the wine: “this is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many.” Somehow, “you” and “the many” will benefit by what’s about to happen. “For you” means “for your benefit,” not “in your place.”
It’s a new covenant, a new milestone in history, bringing with it a new understanding of God. Covenant was a way of changing how two parties related to each other. And that, at least, is something most of us can agree upon: what happened on the cross caused a shift in how we see and understand God. And, I would say, in how we relate to God – not about how God relates to us.
And that new understanding is simply this: God loves us enough to even let us murder him, and with Jesus’s dying breath on the cross to still forgive us: “Father, forgive them.” The new covenant, the new message, the new understanding of relationship is simply that: I love you. That is enough. You don’t need to appease me with anything.
Matthew’s version of the story complicates it a little because, unlike the other gospels and even Paul’s account of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor 11, Matthew adds, “this is my blood … poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” The writer of that gospel understood Jesus’s suffering to be linked with sin – the sin that nailed Jesus to the cross and the forgiveness that would be given there. But even that does not require us to understand the cross – as symbolized in the Eucharist – as being a transactional payment to God for our sin.
A more direct, simpler understanding of the Last Supper is exactly about love and forgiveness – that even the death of God’s Son, the broken body and the shed blood, could not stop God from loving us and seeing us worthy and loveable. Not even that most extreme of crimes could ever separate us from God. As the Apostle Paul would say a few years later, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” – the love shown us in the life and death of Jesus. That’s God’s love. And nothing – not even sin – keeps us away from him.
So, is the blood of Jesus precious? Is it sacred? Absolutely! It was his very life. Blood is the symbol of life. Jesus’s life was given up in an act of love, an act of self-sacrifice – but not to pay off God. Remember: “sacrifice you do not desire,” David wrote. Or as the prophet Isaiah, speaking for God, would write centuries later: “I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.” So the cross and the blood must be about something else.
A love that embraces us even at our worst moments.
A love that chose not to call a legion of angels and wipe out everyone present. A love that endured all the pain we could inflict, and remain unchanged. A love that has no vengeance, no wrath. A love, as the Apostle Paul wrote, that keeps no record of wrongs.
The Cross is a demonstration to us, not a payment to God.
So why the bread and the wine? Why choose those elements as a perpetual celebration of that moment? Perhaps because the Passover was a feast already established to be commemorated every year, a feast celebrating freedom from bondage. It would be repeated for as long as the Jewish people existed. And whenever believers would break that bread, they would remember the broken body. And when they stared into that cup of wine, when they drank it, they would remember the blood that was shed. Not to appease God. But as a perpetual reminder of the lengths to which God’s love will go. And they would celebrate their freedom from the old ways of thinking about God, the old ways of living in fear of God and feeling the need to appease him in order to walk fully, freely in that love.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said. Paul taught, “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” It is our reminder of who Jesus is and what he did. It tells us of the character of God. It is a living testimony of what love looks like. And we proclaim it! And for those who eat and drink in faith, it is receiving a sacrament of divine grace. We can not only remember, but we can participate in it; we can tap into and draw into our bodies and hearts the loving power of God.
So what can we sing about?
So, some of those songs we sing, so filled with images of appeasing an angry God by the brutal death of Jesus … yeah, I have to skip over those words. Or when we say we were “bought by the blood of the lamb,” I do cringe a little. “Bought”? Only in the loosest of metaphorical senses. Only in the sense that his death finally frees us from the nightmare of belief in an angry God demanding our blood. Certainly not bought from God; not blood that paid off God’s wrath.
The bloody sacrificial system is a hard thing to get out of religious thinking. Many of us are so soaked in it, it is like our native language. We’ve wrapped even our most sacred practice, Communion, in its judgment-filled transactional imagery. But what does that say about the character of God? Who is that God? That’s not the God I know – not the God that David knew, and not the God Jesus described.
So what can I sing about? What should I celebrate and what should I meditate on when I take the bread and the wine? That in the broken body of Jesus and in the blood that he shed, Jesus once for all testifies about the character of God. That love wins. That nothing can separate us from God. That God went to the extreme length of being willing to die, in the person of Jesus, to let humans kill him, and yet still love us and still forgive us based on that love. And when we eat that bread and drink the wine, we partake in that quintessential moment of the crucifixion – love triumphing over vengeance, and divine forgiveness expressed even in a broken and bloody body. That is what we proclaim. God is love – and always has been.
The cross – the broken body and the shed blood – is the moment of ultimate truth. A demonstration to us, not a payment to God.
Here are a couple of those passages that pretty much show God’s view of sacrifice. Of course, we all know that you can find verses to back up virtually any argument, and no one will be convinced by someone just quoting verses at them. It will all depend on our point of view, how we choose to read the bible, and if we’re open to a seeing things in a new way.
– Ps 40:6-8 Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have opened. Burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come … I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.”
– Ps 51:16-17 For you do not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you are not pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
– Prov 21:3 To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.
– Eccl 5:1 To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil.
– Hosea 6:6 “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
– Amos 5:21ff “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them….”
– Micah 6:6 With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
– Jer 7:22 “For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God …’”
– Isaiah 1:11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord; “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.”
– Mark 12:33 to love God with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. [This is the young ruler responding to Jesus about love being the foundation of all the commandments]
– 1 Cor 13:5-8 Love is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. … It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
– James 2:13 For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.
– 1 Peter 4:8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.
– 1 John 4:16-18 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. … There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
– none of these verses will prove the point. But they’re food for your soul if you’re willing.