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Only the Innocent Can Die for the Guilty

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Sermons -- Audio Version

Lent V - 3/21/10 Lam. 3:19-33 Ps. 71; Heb. 9:11-15; Jn. 8:46-59

We have progressed through to the fifth week of Lent, learning the lessons of the cross life, learning the lessons of death to self, all in preparation for that ultimate sacrifice of self by Him Who Is. How can He Who Is die?

And why can only the Innocent die for the guilty? Why cannot the guilty die for the guilty?

In one sense, of course, the guilty can die for the guilty, as in wartime. It is not as though the soldiers who die on the front lines for our freedom are guiltless, and yet their deaths can lead directly to our own benefit and welfare by protecting us from enemies who would enslave us.

But even, for example, that Greatest Generation, many of whom died for us, did not relieve us of our sins. They came home, those who survived Normandy beachhead and many other terrible situations, and rejoined the rest of us sinners in a continuing sinful world -- in this case, a world which was experiencing the end of Christian civilization. We were not saved from our sins, not even from the cultural effects of those sins. As a result, western Christendom continues downhill, with western Christians seemingly able to do little about it.

I have made reference many times to the distinction between "who we are" and "what we do". It is a distinction which is crucially, decisively at the foundation of all understanding of salvation.

A spiritually healthy person understands that guilt applies to what we do, not who we are, to our behavior and attitudes, not to our being. I am not guilty for the mere fact of being myself -- although some mystical theologians have, very wrongly, said that our very existence is a sin.

That cannot be true if God is our Creator. God produces only good things, affirmed in the story of creation in Genesis 1, and doubly affirmed in the creation of mankind. God reflected that we were not just good, as He had reflected about the earlier parts of creation, but very good. We had an original goodness and original innocence. We, that is, Adam and Eve, the human race, could walk in the cool of the evening in fellowship with God Himself.

That appearance of God with them must have been Christ. He Who Is. Yahweh.

Last Sunday we read the lesson from Exodus 3 in which God meets Moses at the burning bush. When Moses inquires as to His name:

God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And He said, "Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’" God also said to Moses, "Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

"I AM WHO I AM" in Hebrew is "Yahweh", the name by which God said He wanted to be known. And today, we read:

Then said the Jews unto Him, "Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast Thou seen Abraham?" Jesus said unto them, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I AM." Then took they up stones to cast at Him.

The Pharisees, or the rabbis, had wrongfully made a law that no one was to use ‘Yahweh’, the name which God had specifically told Moses was that by which He was to be called. So, from the view of the Pharisees, Jesus had doubly violated the law. He had used the forbidden name publicly, and, much worse, had claimed to be that person whom Moses had met at the burning bush. Jesus had claimed to be God Himself, in the flesh.

The phrase, "He Who Is", in the sense meant in Scripture, occurs no where else in all of pagan and secular literature. There is good reason for that. For the pagan philosophical and mythological mind, ultimate reality was abstract, not concrete and personal, not a Person, not a Somebody. Ultimate reality was an unknowable, vague, mysterious essence out of which all other things came, and to which all things returned.

But for the Hebrews, Ultimate Reality was a Person, the most concrete and particular being there is. And quite knowable because He reveals Himself to draw us into relationship with Himself. No other religion makes such a claim, nothing outside of the Bible sees heaven as a love relationship with our Creator -- with Him Who Is.

And we human beings, first by creation, and then by adoption and grace, are to partake of that nature of God. We, too, are to be somebodies, not nobodies, not mere things. We are to "be", to exist as persons with wills of our own. We are. I am. We are, not in the ultimate sense as is Jesus, we are only because HE IS, and because He Who Is wills our existence. But, again by adoption and grace, we can be as eternal as God, so long as we trust and obey Him. That being of ours is invulnerable to the attacks of any creature, including Satan -- so long as we reject the fruit of the forbidden tree.

All of that is what God considered "very good".

But there is that small matter of the Fall. Our progenitors, as it were, Adam and Eve, did eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and thereby cast the human race out of heaven and into the chaos of the Fall, the world without God.

The effect of the Fall, however, was not to make our being evil, because even in our fallen state, God was and is still our Creator. And whatever God makes is always good. It is what we make, not what God makes, it is our doing which can be evil.

In our fallen state, we might lose any awareness of the presence of God, but that does not mean that our existence is evil, it means that our behavior and attitudes are evil. In the Fall, we are in rebellion against our reason for existence, to love God and our neighbors. But our existence is still good, and is therefore the object, by God, of salvation. God wants to save us from ourselves, save us from our own mutual- and self-destruction.

But, in our now darkened world, we, ourselves, began to think of our being as evil. We had lost our relationship of love, obedience, and trust with our Creator, the source of our being, and so had to discover some other way of establishing our being, our ontological and moral security. We had only one option -- to find something in the world to trust for our being, our security of personhood. Idolatry, worship of the creation.

Our source, of course, is each other. We try to earn our worth from each other, beginning at first with mother and father, brothers and sisters, then friends, employers, all the world around us. We want to be loved by them -- so that we can love ourselves. So that we can understand ourselves to have value in the eyes of someone else. We therefore try to do things which please these persons to earn their approval -- which is what we call salvation by works -- trying to be ourselves by what we do rather than by what God is doing in our lives, holding us in existence. Works rather than gift, grace.

It feels like we are held in existence by the approval and acceptance of other persons.

But other persons, not being God, let us down. Even with the best of intentions, which they seldom have, they let us down. They cannot help it. They are not God. We are worshipping the creature rather than the Creator, a bad bargain. And they, like myself, may be trying to get their sense of worth from my approval of them. So we have each other in a mutual hammer-lock. We need each other in a way that neither of us can supply. My neighbor, unless it happens to be Jesus, cannot supply my power of being or my reason for being, they cannot replace either the Hand of God or the Voice of God. So I am leaning on broken reeds, standing on quicksand for my ontological and moral stability. And so are they.

Then, because I am unable successfully to earn my worth, my status as a somebody, from the world around me, I feel guilty. I feel as though something is wrong with me, not with just my behavior, but with myself. It feels as though I am inherently unworthy of relationship with other persons, that they will not like me because of this deep inner fault. And there is no way of eradicating that feeling.

So I may build up walls and defenses to hide my guilt, my dark fault, or I may try to dominate and control, to overpower that feeling of unworthiness. But there is no solution for ontological guilt, which is always false guilt, other than a renewed relationship with my real Creator who in fact gives me my being -- and thus also my reason for being. That is a part of what we mean by the need for salvation.

In that unhappy state of self-rejection, I cannot fully give myself to another person. It is too dangerous, it makes me too vulnerable. What if they reject me?

A world of people like that, a fallen world, does not have persons who can freely and with love, give themselves to each other. We are too distracted by finding ourselves to give ourselves. And then our behavior slides downhill the more we feel unworthy about ourselves. We become more defensive.

So it is not hard to understand the sense in which the guilty cannot die for the guilty. It is our ontological guilt which is the problem. I cannot love you in a way which can set you free in your being if I am defensive and distant with my own being. I will only confuse and hurt you. You will not feel loved, you might feel betrayed.

St. Paul makes a curious statement in Colossians 1:24, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church..."

Something is lacking in Christ’s afflictions? He needed to suffer more?

That, of course, is not the meaning of St. Paul’s words. Now that Christ has risen back to sit at the right hand of the Father, and now that the Holy Spirit dwells in the Church, we are the Body of Christ on earth. We are the ones who carry the Good News that the Kingdom is among you to lost souls. It is among you through us!

But that can be true only to the extent that our own relation with God is secure enough so that we know who we are, that we are secure in the Hand of God, so that we are no longer relying on the world, or even each other, for our sense of selfhood. The true Body of Christ is the fellowship of those who are relying on God for their ontological and moral stability -- those who know who they are and where they are going, who know whose they are and the road to relationship with Him.

The true body of Christ are those new creations in Christ, those whose original goodness and original innocence have been restored by their relationship to God through Christ. Those are the persons who have died to the false self, gotten through dependency and obedience to the world, and who now receive their whole selves from God alone.

None of us will do that perfectly until the return of Jesus, but we can be moving well down that road here and now. Especially as we work together in a community of persons walking that same road, we can become a community where strangers can come in and find a welcoming, loving spirit, where there is a sense of uninhibited unity among the people, a togetherness which the world cannot give, the kind of unity for which Jesus prayed in His high-priestly prayer in John 17.

As we find ourselves, our ontological stability in Christ, we will be set free to confess and renounce our sinful behavior. In the light of Christ, in the light of reality, our temptations will lose their attraction. As with Jesus’ temptations in the desert, they just won’t work any more. The temptations will cease to tempt. We will have died to self-in-the-world so that we can now share ourselves in Christ.

In some cases that might mean physical death, we literally die for someone. But in most cases it will mean simply being open and vulnerable, undefended, all the walls and suits of armor being cast aside, becoming real people -- the kind only God can create, the kind who can love their enemies.

It will mean ourselves following Jesus on the road to calvary as in our approaching Holy Week, like the disciples discovering their own faults, their own betrayals, their own deep inner, hidden sins, and having them exposed in the light of Christ. We will have our own Good Fridays where our sins are nailed to the cross, where we allow Jesus to crucify that in us which is not of Him. And then beyond, to resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost empowerment.

That is the narrow road the world will not travel, but it is the way to which Jesus points, no matter how few go down it. That is the road to which the children of God are called, and we here at St. Luke’s. |

Only the innocent can die for the guilty. Only those who have had their original goodness and original innocence restored are set free to die for the guilty.

Lord, we pray for that restored goodness and innocence -- whatever it takes. It took Your death on a cross - so that - we can accomplish our own death to self -- our resurrection in You -- our ascension in heart and mind to the heavenly throne -- and our Pentecost receiving of the power of the Holy Spirit -- to be your witnesses in the world.

Audio Version

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Date Posted -  3/21/2010   -   Date Last Edited - 09/15/2012