Jesus and atonement
The Eighteenth Sunday After Trinity
St. Matthew 22:34-46
By his own testimony, as a student at Cambridge University Charles Simeon was “spiritually careless.” An almost flippant phrase. If we could get round behind those words, what secrets would they tell?
In the year of our Lord 1779, Simeon faced a crisis. The university requitudents to attend Easter Communion. How could a “spiritually careless” young man partake of the gifts of God, and on the highest holy day of the year?
Simeon picked up “Instruction for the Lord’s Supper” by Bishop Thomas Wilson and began to read.
As he read, a sense of panic over his unworthiness set in. Simeon fasted and prayed until he made himself ill. But he read on, and at last he came to this explanation of the Old Testament sacrifices of atonement:
“The Jews knew what they did when they transferred their sin to the head of their offering.”
A tide of comprehension threatened to drown him. “I can transfer all my guilt to Another.” He decided in that moment, “I will not bear my sins on my soul a moment longer.” He later wrote:
“Accordingly I sought to lay my sins upon the sacred head of Jesus; and on Wednesday began to have a hope of mercy; on the Thursday that hope increased; on the Friday and Saturday it became more strong; and on the Sunday morning, Easter Day, April 4th, I awoke early with those words upon my heart and lips, ‘Jesus Christ is risen today! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’
“From that hour peace flowed in rich abundance into my soul, and at the Lord’s Table in our Chapel I had the sweetest access to God through my blessed Saviour.” Such is the witness of Charles Simeon.
Can the gospel be so simple? As I proceed step by agonizing step on my way to the death chamber, Another overtakes me and offers His life in payment for my crimes. If this is the Christian proposition, what fool would spurn it – once he has awakened to the simple truth of it?
Charles Simeon would serve Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge as rector for 53 years and play a major role in the English evangelical revival. Armed with an understanding of substitution, a “spiritually careless” young man morphed into a powerful preacher with a gift for making salvation simple.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, never quite caught on.
In our gospel lesson, St. Matthew marries two ideas that might first appear to have a compatibility issue, simplicity and sovereignty. Flowing out of his inspired quill, they waltz on a cloud of cotton candy, missing not a single step.
Life in the kingdom becomes simple when we bow before our Savior as our King. He commands, we obey. You may keep your precious democracy. Give me a Ruler ruthless in His love for His subjects.
Give me a Sovereign who spares nothing, not even His own life, to preserve His people in His sanctuary. Give me a King who wraps me up in a love so irresistible I have no choice but to love Him back.
Let me submit my imperfect obedience in response to His perfect love. He has promised me He will accept that paltry offering. Put me down for a subject in the realm of a perfectly just King rather than a citizen in everyman’s deluded state.
Well, the Pharisees are back for an encore. See how simple our Lord makes the gospel as they have another go at tripping Him up. Do not miss the rhetorical thrust-and-parry. Jesus has just now silenced the Sadducees on the question of resurrection, their cause célèbre, when the Pharisees trot out theirs – the law – to test Him once more.
If Ronald Reagan had been there, he would have said, “There you go again.”
A lawyer poses the question: Which is the greatest commandment? This was the subject of an ongoing debate among the rabbis. The Jews by this time had a corpus of law that had swelled to 613 statutes. Their scholars peered at it from 613 directions in an effort to determine which were more “weighty” and which less so.
And so, Teacher, You with the big following and bigger ideas, what say Thou? Which commandment is the greatest?
Jesus’ answer: Love. Period. He throws all 613 of their laws into a pot and turns up the heat to a roiling boil. Let’s cook away all the silly stuff and see what good sauce is left. He reaches back into their God-given Scriptures and plucks out two passages.
The first is from the Shema in Deuteronomy 6. Pious Jews recited it twice daily. Jesus tells them to love God with all their heart, soul and mind. These are not distinct parts of the person but overlapping ones. Give all of yourself to God.
The second is from Leviticus 19: Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Again, He has made a summary statement. The phrase “law and prophets” refers to the entirety of the Hebrew Bible. He has distilled the 39 books of the Hebrew Scriptures into this: Love God, love your fellow man.
Oh dear. A legalist runs from simplicity like it was leprosy, and then some. Simplicity deprives him of endless hours of tinkering with something that had no need of fixing. It robs him of the grandeur of explaining a thing to the great unwashed. It cheats him of his rationale for manipulating a code to use it to make himself worthy.
In the chapter that follows, St. Matthew will report Jesus’ pronouncement of woes on the scribes and Pharisees. In 23:23, the Lord says:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”
This rabbi from the sticks who didn’t attend “the right schools” is schooling the greatest theologians of the era on the law – by reducing it to the principle that underlies it and always has. It has ever been, since that far-distant day on Mount Sinai when God gave Israel the 10 Commandments, the law of love.
Come to think of it, this simple Man from Galilee, the carpenter’s son, had a habit of using the simple things of this world to confound the wise. Not intellectuals or aristocrats but ordinary fishermen.
Could it be to show that He calls all to a simple faith? An ‘A’ in systematic theology is no ticket into the kingdom of God. Just give me Jesus, without all the bells and whistles. Bring your GED. Don’t have one? Bring your trust and love. It is those who are wise in their own understanding who flunk.
Why study then? Because the saved soul who would be sanctified, who would become like his Lord, must know all he can about this Lord. We study not to attain grace but to grow in grace, and to make God’s grace simple for others.
Marjorie and I have friends named Jack and Clare who were missionaries in a Muslim country in North Africa. Jack is from Texas, Clare is from the north of England, near Durham, where to my untrained ear the English sound more like Scots. Clare was describing for us the church they planted in their town in North Africa:
“When visitors come to our church, our people ask ‘em, ‘Are ya Christian or are ya Muslim?’ And if the visitors say, ‘We’re Muslim,’ our people tell ‘em, ‘Well, ya better believe Jesus died for your sins ‘cause if ya don’ you’re goin’ to hell.’”
Is that simple enough for you?
Clare said, “Me and Jack, we kinda crrringe.”
God has His say through those who stumble over nuance. What my King says . . . that’s what I say.
Because of what Christ has done – that straightforward act of substitution that overwhelmed Charles Simeon when the Holy Spirit revealed it to him in its splendid simplicity — we may rise with Him and enter – due to no merit in us – into the Father’s favor and the blessed company of His saints.
And as the way of attaining God’s grace is simple – in Christ Jesus – so also is our response to it that He commands – love God, love your neighbor.
The naked truth of it strikes the legalist mute. “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask Him any more questions.”
Oh . . . love. Period.
Have you considered God’s servant Job? He, too, ran out of questions. After God speaks to him from the whirlwind Job sees “things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” From that point, he surrenders his demand that God must align His justice with Job’s notion of justice.
He discovers within himself the faith of a child, that simple, all-trusting faith that renders him what has been called a “holy fool.” God’s reason becomes his reason, God’s desire becomes his desire, God’s wish becomes his command.
Now Jesus poses a question to those who have been trying to trap Him because they refuse to believe He is God, also known as the Messiah. About this Messiah: “Whose Son is He?”
A first-century first-grader could answer. “The Son of David.” They know from their Scriptures the Messiah, or Christ, will come from King David’s seed, the tribe of Judah.
Jesus reaches back into those Scriptures again, to Psalm 110: “How then does David in the Spirit call Him Lord?” “In the Spirit,” David was speaking with a prophetic voice. This One whom David called “Lord” will sit at the right hand of God on His throne.
If your mightiest king called Him “Lord,” what must you think of Him? Again, silence. They will not utter the inescapable conclusion: that He must be David’s son in time and David’s Lord in eternity. He is the One who has merged heaven and earth in Himself, that He might reconcile the two.
David was king over Israel; David’s Son is king over no trifling single human empire but over every people, nation, tongue and tribe. And more than that, He is Lord over the heavens as well as the earth, over all His hands have made.
As the angel Gabriel declared to the virgin Mary of the One who would be born in the city of David:
“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
The enemies that will be made His footstool are not only the satraps and petty dictators who flex their muscles for a moment on the earth but the “spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
These first four verses from Psalm 110 will become the Old Testament passage most quoted by New Testament writers, who cite it to establish the Messiahship of Jesus, a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. He became a priest that He might serve as our Mediator with the Father, bridging the chasm our sin has torn between God and man. . . but Jesus was first a King.
And in a monarchy, which happens to be God’s preferred mode of government, the King hung the moon – in this case, literally. I’m reminded of Susan’s query to Mr. Beaver about Aslan the lion, the king of beasts, who represents Jesus in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Susan asks, “Is he quite safe?” Mr. Beaver replies:
“Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Hear any complexity there? We can call a meeting, interpret the data, tease out the nuances, consider the contingencies, anticipate the consequences . . . We may amuse ourselves endlessly in this fashion or we can declare, “What the King says goes,” and get on with it.
Is He quite safe? By no means! He is ferocious in His love. And a subject’s response of love to his King is submission. Not from fear, neither from hope of gain. But from a love that tries, at least, to match the intensity of our Lord’s love for us.
If I do not obey enough, it is because I do not love enough. And I do not.
But one day, I will succeed. It will be so simple then. I will dismantle the gates that guard the ego, hurl incredulity and irony into the outer darkness. Imagine a trust without rust, a faith never faltering. Where’s the nuance in that?
You may keep your precious democracy. I ache to kneel before the One David called “Lord,” to see at last with the eyes of my head the One I adore now with the eyes of my heart.
Give me bondage or give me death! Just let my Ruler be the One who died for me. Let me His servant be for all eternity. Amen.