One of the displays you will find in church this afternoon explores an idea which has become central
Christian faith; the atonement. Atonement is a word which was invented
around the time of the English Reformation by those who first translated the
Bible from Latin into English – translators like Wycliffe and Tyndale. They
couldn’t find an exact match for the Latin “reconciliare” – reconciliation
wasn’t a word that was used then – so they had to think up something new. The
word they came up with was as obvious and literal as they could make it.
Atonement is really “at-one-ment” . It is something that brings things, or
people, together, something that makes them “at one” again.
|The twig cross was made at Messy Church in the morning.|
We added purple ribbons as our prayers of sorrow or concern
and gold ribbons for our thanksgiving.
The word was new, but the idea wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. “At-one-ment” is a very basic human desire, whether we have any religious belief or not. We all know what it feels like to be “at one” with someone, that deep sense of peace when we don’t have to explain ourselves, when we know that there is no unfinished business, no hidden agenda, that we are pulling in the same direction.
And we know just as well, perhaps even better, what it feels like not to be “at one” with people – to be at odds with them instead. We know about ruptured relationships and broken promises and that dreadful sense that it’s all gone wrong somehow. It’s not just other people we might feel at odds with. We can feel at odds with ourselves, knowing that all is not well within us. We can feel at odds with creation, beset by illness, baffled by natural disaster. And we can feel at odds with God, distant from him, angry with him, or afraid that he is angry with us.
The first followers of Jesus knew the difference between these two states just as well as we do. They suffered the same kinds of problems as us, and a whole lot more of their own too. They lived under the rule of Rome, and they knew that the occupying forces they saw around them every day would be brutal to those who opposed them. They lived in a world where life was fragile and often unfair, a world where power, strength and wealth bought you security, but where the weak and the sick had very few safety nets to sustain them.
But into their world, with all its brokenness, came Jesus. And throughout his ministry he brought about atonement, making people “at one” with themselves, with each other and with God. He did it as he healed and as he taught. He did it as he welcomed and loved those whom no one else noticed or cared about. He did it as he declared God’s forgiveness and set people free from the burdens that weighed them down. He did it as he showed them a new way of life and made them part of a new community, helping them to become the people God had wanted them to be. When he was around they found themselves made whole again – that’s another way of describing at-one-ment.
But then, because of the message he preached and lived, he was crucified. The brokenness of the world broke him, as he knew it would. You didn’t have to be a prophet, let alone the Son of God, to see it coming. Real at-one-ment – putting things back to rights - means change, and change is threatening, especially for those who have the most to lose, those at the top of the heap, those with the power. So Jesus, who had come to make us “at one” found himself broken apart; broken physically, broken from those he loved as his friends betrayed and deserted him. Even his relationship with his Father seemed to have been broken as he cried out “why have you forsaken me?” It seemed as if death had had the last laugh, the final word, as if all the at-one-ment he had achieved through his ministry had had been a cruel lie.
George Orwell, in his novel 1984, described a totalitarian and deeply hopeless society, where the state exercised absolute control and dedicated itself to eradicating joy and love from the world. “If you want a picture of the future,” says one of the government agents in the story “imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
If the Christian story stopped at Good Friday, that would be the image we’d be left with too. No life, no light, no future. No is the word that echoes through Good Friday. The message that Jesus had brought seemed to have come to nothing. Love had come to nothing. Hope had come to nothing.
But of course, the story doesn’t end there. We should never hurry through this day and the day that follows it. We should never brush away the reality of despair and suffering that Christ and his disciples felt as he hung on the cross or lay in the tomb. We need to keep this time of desolation, because at some point in our lives we will all feel that sense of utter hopelessness. If it hasn’t happened yet, it one day will, and knowing that Christ has been there too can be the only thing that gets us through.
But we can’t tell the story of Good Friday without an awareness of Easter Sunday, just around the corner, out of sight at the moment, but still there. And Easter Sunday proclaims that however all-enveloping the “No” of the cross seems to be, in the light of Easter it becomes part of God’s great triumphal “yes”. We see in it not just the death and the pain, but the commitment and the love which led Jesus to it, commitment and love which were not given in vain. It is this “yes” which truly has the last word.
As St Paul put it, “In Christ every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’ For this reason it is through him that we say the ‘Amen’, to the glory of God. “(2 Corinthians 1.20 ). In the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus – and they all go together in the end – we hear God’s ‘yes’ to us; his ‘yes’ to the possibility of life when all seems dead, his ‘yes’ to the possibility of change when all seems stuck, his ‘yes’ that gives us hope when everything in our lives seems to be screaming “no”.
In a moment, the choir are going to sing an anthem which picks up this message. It is a prayer for God’s help to increase our faith, to change our lives, to bring us the “at-one-ment”, the wholeness which is not only our deepest desire, but also what our world needs most. “Sweet Jesus, say ‘amen’” it ends. “Say yes” – that is what ‘amen’ means. And we make that prayer in confidence, because we make it to Christ whose whole being and life, whose death and resurrection, are God’s atoning “yes” to us.
O Lord, increase my faith, often attributed to Orlando Gibbons, but probably by Henry Loosemore. The youtube clip here isn't of our choir, of course, but we made a good sound too!