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Monday, March 19, 2007
(11:38 PM) | Stephen:
Were You There II

Part one here.

My previous post established the physical presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, and therefore with us as we partake of it. We then went on to see how our presence with Christ at his crucifixion is accomplished through the sacrament of baptism. Paul is quite precise with the words in his letters, and we can be sure that he intentionally chose the present tense to refer to our "dying and rising again" with Jesus in the rite of baptism. Those who are baptized were there, and are there, when Jesus was crucified, there when he was pierced in his side, there when he was laid in the tomb, and there when he was raised to new life by God the Father.

But there is another level to this question. This is the troubling level, the one that is hard to answer. "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" we are asked, and suddenly we understand that to mean as onlookers, as Roman soldiers and Jewish religious leaders. Was I there among the disciples who fled? Was I there, taunting and mocking Jesus?

One way we can answer this is by looking at the doctrine of Original Sin, the idea that all human beings are tied together by the same failing, the same "bent" toward evil and sin. This doctrine is usually tied with the story of Adam and Eve in Eden, which can be quite problematic depending upon the way in which their story is interpreted.

We can be sure that Original Sin, or the original sin, was not eating an apple or any other type of fruit. The original sin wasn't even in the disobedience to God's instructions. Rather, it was giving in to the desire to "be like God," to usurp God's place in not only our own lives but Creation itself. That was the problem with what Adam and Eve did.

Emphasizing a historical Adam and Eve makes a doctrine of Original Sin quite difficult. It pushes us to locate the problem within their actions rather than their attitudes, and leads us into believing that "original sin" is something that is passed from parent to child, generation to generation. Many Christians have sexualized this transmission, believing that Jesus was born to a virgin so that sexual intercourse between her and Joseph would sully neither Mary nor her son. Without a human father, Jesus was able to be born without original sin.

This obviously makes original sin a substance, a thing that we either have or we don't. Within the American Holiness tradition, this has led to the Doctrine of Eradication, which claims that upon being "entirely sanctified" and receiving the Holy Spirit, God removes original sin from the believer, making them totally whole, pure and able to (in theory) resist temptation and not sin.

This perspective of Original Sin makes us cosmically culpable for the death of Jesus, but absolves us of personal guilt insofar as his passion and death are concerned. Those of us who live now, while benefiting from the Gospel, are also on the raw end of things: we are mortal and inherently sinful because of two people that lived 6,000 years ago (ha ha). In terms of a Calvinistic reading of the heilsgeschicte, our "salvation history," this makes sense. All of history has been predetermined by a sovereign God for his pleasure and greater glory. If some of it doesn't look good to us, that's because we're not God.

Well, I'm not a Calvinist. So I'm not satisfied with the idea that I'm only cosmically guilty for our sins against God. God doesn't offer a cosmic redemption, but a personal redemption. And our sacraments are quite personal, with the personal presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and each believer's personal presence with Jesus on the cross.

Putting Jesus on the cross was just another example of the Original Sin rearing its head. The people in Jerusalem who conspired to arrest him, who called for Jesus' death, who decided it would be better to kill this Jewish peasant rather than that Jewish peasant, all of these people took upon themselves the role of God, in this case deciding who was to live and who was to die. It could be said that all sin is just an expression of this Original Sin, this idea that God is keeping from us our rightful inheritance and therefore we must appropriate his role for our own.

This idea is the beginning of how we can personally, literally identify with those present at Golgotha who did the work of the historical crucifixion. We commit the same sin, all of us. For all the variety we think we see in this world, we are depressingly the same. For all our history, we have only been able to come up with one sin - though obviously we've been rather creative in the ways we express it.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is provocative on this issue:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Hebrews 6:4-6, NIV)
"Crucifying the Son of God all over again." This idea, only part of which is expressed here, has found expression most clearly within the Roman Catholic tradition and its artistic use of the image of Jesus upon the cross. It is significant within the tradition whether the image of Jesus is one with eyes open or closed; it portrays a suffering Christ or a dead Christ respectively. But the crucifixion of Jesus which happened historically 2,000 years ago happens symbolically every time Christians celebrate the Eucharist, the ritual consumption of bread and wine that corresponds to the body and blood of Jesus.

If Jesus' crucifixion is not only a historical event but also a continuing reality - which we must believe, as has been shown, if we take seriously the nature of symbols, the institution of the Eucharist by Christ himself and the theology of the Church regarding the eternal nature of the sacrifice of Christ - then the fact that we all commit the Original Sin coupled with the fact that this Original Sin is what placed Jesus upon the cross in the first place means that yes, I was there when they crucified my lord.

I'm not just cosmically guilty of sin because of my DNA, I'm personally guilty - just as much as Pilate, Herod and the crowds - of the death of the Son of God. The message of Christianity is that each one of us was there, taunting him, beating him, pounding the nails in, running away, denying him. But as the Negro Spiritual says, we also were there when the stone was rolled away, and we were there at the empty tomb.

The greatest possible sin, murdering the very Son of God, is upon all of us. That's what makes God's subsequent actions so incredible. He turned this horror into the way that he would forgive all of us, accept all of us, not only for this life but for all eternity.

That's what grace means.

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