When did the good news become bad news?
That’s exactly the question my colleague Mark Stenberg asked, for somehow, the story of Christ–this outpouring of love from God–had turned into a story of wrath and violence. Somehow, for most people sitting in our pews, the story of God is the story of the vengeful, angry Father whose justice is besmirched by our original sin. The Son, then, takes the beating for us so that we can get off the hook. It is the subsitutionary theory of atonement and it plays out in churches all around us.
We have just turned the corner out of the season of Lent, into Easter. Many churches embellish, shall we say, their sanctuaries with flowers and banners and butterflies. This is a day we Christians celebrate. And yet, it is a dark and maudlin day, at best sentimental, if we simplify this story into one of sacrifice, for the violence of the Father still remains beneath our celebration. We end up cheering that it wasn’t us to take the bullet, only Jesus. The tragedy of the story remains: the Father is a bully, the Son, merely a pawn in returning justice to the Godhead. It is hardly a story of love. And more often than not, it devolves into either a moral monotheism (Christ as moral archetype) or experiential monotheism (Christ as a God consciousness).
But it is difficult to untangle the substitutionary theory of atonement from the task of preaching because the images of Christ as the sacrificial lamb are central in scripture. Yet, if we claim a good and loving God rather than a wrathful one, how is it possible to tell the story of Christ in such a way that is hopeful? How can this apparently brutal and dreary tale that lies at the center of the Christian story be good news? What was God up to in the event of the cross and resurrection?
Mark argues that in the face of “well-intentioned but distorted monotheisms, the church is called to recover the proclamation of the event of the Trinity.” The Trinity is not merely one more idea, the Trinity points to relationship. Just as all words that point to relationships such as “marriage” or “friendship” or “parenthood” are not platonic ideals, the Trinity is not either. Just as the word “friend” suggests a relationship, so should the word Trinity. The Trinity is not an abstraction, it is particular and loving and it summons us into who God is and what God gives us. How do we know this? How do we not reduce the Trinity to one more speculative thought about how God works?
It is through the event of the cross of Christ. Mark argues, “Its leading affirmation is that God is there.” Or as Catherine LuCugna writes, proclaiming the event of the trinity in the cross, the church sets forth the message that God is “essentially relational, ecstatic, fecund, alive as passionate love.”1
According to Mark, “An ultra-simplified way of understanding this is (that) the west has focused too much on person and not enough on relationship. Worshiping the majestic ‘personhood’ of God has yielded a modern God who is in one way or another, an ‘absolute subject’, a sort of great big one of us. Reflecting on the Godhead in the light of the event of the cross, what we get is ‘perichoresis,’ a living, active, circulating love that inheres between Father Son and Spirit. A love so mighty and active, like a euphoric three-year-old spilling her apple juice, it overflows its rim, creates this world, and when things go horribly wrong, works within history to counter and overcome our rebellion.”
What are the implications of preaching this relational, loving, Trinitarian God who makes Godself known in the cross? We are utterly freed; we are confronted with sheer hope. Rather than an angry God who presides over an angry, fear-based church, we find ourselves summoned into the life of God which is wildly creative and deeply loving. We find that we are called to drown in our baptismal waters to be pulled up into air and light, into a new way of being that honors both hearer and listener with the good news. We discover that we do not need to escape this world, but we can enter into it with all its loss and beauty and sorrow, for Christ has already gone ahead of us, redeeming and creating, resurrecting all lost things along the way.
1Catherine LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and the Christian Life, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991.