by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 2.21-25 (click to see Scripture text)
One Wednesday night, Ian Bedloe wanders into a storefront church in Baltimore. The makeshift sign in the shop window reads “The Church of the Second Chance.” Ian is the main character in Anne Tyler’s novel Saint Maybe.
Having grown up in a superficial Presbyterian family that worshipped on Christmas and Easter only, Ian wasn’t what you’d call a churchgoer much less a Christian. Nonetheless, one weeknight Ian stumbles into the Church of the Second Chance, drawn by the sound of the hymns being sung. Ian wasn’t sure why wandered into this odd, unimpressive church with folding chairs and not a few homeless people. He certainly hadn’t intended to say anything. But then during the prayer request time, Ian stands up.
“I used to be…good. Or I used to be not bad, at least, but lately I don’t know what’s happened…Pray for me to be good again” he told the worshippers at the Church of the Second Chance. “Pray for me to be forgiven.”
Ian’s partial confession had to do with the death— the suicide— of his brother. Ian’s brother Danny had married a woman with two children from a previous marriage. Even though he had no proof, Ian had come to suspect that his brother’s wife was unfaithful. Then one night, in the midst of a petty argument with his brother, Ian blurted it out, told his brother his wife was cheating on him. Unable to bear such a betrayal, Ian’s brother responds by taking his own life. Stricken with guilt, Ian’s sister-in-law, Danny’s wife, numbs her pain with sleeping pills. And then one day she takes too many, leaving behind two kids with no other family but Ian’s parents who were getting too old to raise children.
“Pray for me to be good again,” Ian requests, “Pray for me to be forgiven.”
The awkward but intense pastor of the Church of the Second Chance, Reverend Emmett, asks Ian in front of everyone, “What is it that you needed forgiven?” Though such piety strikes Ian as an intensely private and personal matter, the urge to confess comes over Ian and, sitting there on a rusty folding chair, he summons up the courage fess up.
When he’s finished Ian says: “That’s why I’m asking for that prayer. And I honestly believe it might have worked… don’t you think, pastor? Don’t you think I’m forgiven?”
And Reverend Emmett smiles and says briskly: “Forgiven? Goodness, no.”
“I thought God forgives…everything,” Ian stammers, confused.
“God does forgive everything,” Rev Emmett agreed, “but you can’t just say “I’m sorry, Lord” or “I forgive you.” Anyone can do that. Forgiveness takes more than words.”
Ian asks the pastor what that means, and the pastor replies: “For you to forgive- forgive yourself or someone else- it requires you to take steps to heal what’s broken.”
God forgives everything, yes.
But God forgives so that you’re set free to repair what is broken.
Ian can’t imagine what those steps might be, but the pastor was more than ready to tell Ian what he must do.
First, Reverend Emmett says, Ian will have to confess his secret to his parents.
And then, Rev Emmett tells Ian he’ll have to drop out of college, get a job, and raise his brother’s stepchildren as his own.
Ian tries to laugh off the preacher’s demands off, “What kind of crazy religion is this?”
“It’s Christianity. It’s the religion of atonement and complete forgiveness. It’s the religion of the Second Chance.”
So Ian does just that: drops out, joins the little storefront church, adopts his brother’s kids, becomes a carpenter, steps into a life completely different than the one he expected or even wanted, and, in the process, he learns to live as a forgiven sinner.
God forgives everything, yes.
But God forgives so that you’re set free to repair what is broken.
In the middle of his instructions to the elect community— instructions for how they are to embody publicly the messianic revolution begun by cross and resurrection— the Apostle Peter pauses, pivots, and quotes from the prophet Isaiah:
“He was despised, and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom others hide their faces…
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth…
Although he had done no violence,
there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain…
he makes himself an offering for sin.”
No doubt, you know these lines from Handel’s Messiah. The Suffering Servant Song in Isaiah 53 is the fountain and the foundation for understanding the death of Jesus Christ as a substitution; that is, in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ the incarnate God suffers and dies in the place of— as a substitute for— those who truly deserve to die, namely, all humanity.
In our stead, God the Son bears the verdict of the just sentence of God the Father. The Judge, as Karl Barth says, is judged in our place. Jesus Christ undergoes the the righteous wrath of God as the expiation for sins, offering his perfect, innocent, and sinless life as a vicarious substitute for your own. As Barth puts it, “Our turning from God is followed by God’s annihilating turning from us. When it is resisted, God’s love works itself out as death-dealing wrath. Jesus Christ follows our way as sinners— in our place— to the end which our sinful way leads, into outer darkness.”
The prophet Isaiah’s suffering servant song is at the center of the tradition’s interpretation of the atonement as a substitution. From the earliest days of the Church, Isaiah 53 informed Good Friday liturgies. The ancient Church Fathers quoted Isaiah 53 lavishly in their preaching and writing. Mel Gibson inscribed his 2004 film, the Passion of the Christ, with a quotation from Isaiah’s suffering servant song.
For many Christians, this particular way of understanding the death of Jesus Christ (the New Testament uses a variety of motifs to interpret the meaning of the crucifixion), rooted in Isaiah 53, that in Christ Jesus God dies the death you deserve, that Christ dies for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins— for many Christians this particular way of understanding the death of Jesus Christ is itself the Gospel. When people complain that preachers should steer clear of politics in the pulpit, avoiding public issues or current events, and instead stick to proclaiming the Gospel, they usually have in mind as the Gospel this particular way of understanding the Gospel.
“I don’t want to hear about politics in church just preach the Gospel,” I’ve heard more than a few folks gripe over the course of my ministry. Indeed many in the black Church have directed warranted criticism of the often exclusive focus on substitutionary atonement in the white Church for the way it severs the Gospel from social justice.
But it’s odd—
It’s odd that we would reduce the good news of the Gospel to the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for sinners, and its odder still that we would make that version of the Gospel incompatible with the Church’s social and political witness. It’s a strange given that the only unambiguous use of Isaiah 53 to interpret the death of Jesus Christ, in the entire New Testament, comes here in the Apostle Peter’s epistle. As crucial as Isaiah’s suffering servant song has been in the Christian tradition for understanding the death of Jesus Christ, the only instance of the New Testament using it is in today’s passage from Peter.
And notice the context of today’s text.
Peter’s preaching politics.
Peter here is in the middle of exhorting the elect community about their public witness to the world: about how they resist the empire by imitating the Lord who became Servant of all, about how servants and slaves are free, right now, to imitate the cruciform way of Jesus, and about how husbands and wives, through the character of their marriages, are called to point apocalyptically to the sovereignty not of Caesar but of Jesus Christ.
Peter is preaching politics. Even today, there is no claim that is more political than the claim Peter makes at the top of his letter, telling the Church they are to live within the nation as resident aliens. Peter is preaching politics. And here in the middle of it, Peter pauses and turns to the prophet Isaiah to set before us the pattern of the messianic revolution: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross…”
Again, this is the only use of the suffering servant song in the entire New Testament.
Peter uses it to stress not simply that the death of Jesus Christ is the substitute for our sin but that his death is the archetype for our way of life in a world of Sin. For Peter here, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is not only vicarious, it is exemplary. Peter attaches a “so that” to the Isaiah’s song about Christ our Substitute: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.”
The Greek word Peter uses for righteousness, δικαιοσύνη, is the same word used to translate the words justice.
By bearing your sins in his body on the tree, Jesus Christ has set you free from the Power of Sin NOT so your soul can go to heaven when you die but SO THAT you might live for the sake of— for the cause of— δικαιοσύνη.
Grace is not an end in itself.
Grace serves the purpose of righteousness.
Substitution serves the so that.
Consider this “so that” in the context of what the Apostle Peter said at the outset of his letter that God elected you in Jesus Christ from before all of creation. Before the Big Bang, God chose not simply for you to be in Christ but for you to be in Christ so that you might live for justice.
Election is for vocation and vocation is for justice.
Again, Jesus Christ is King of Kings not Secretary of After Life Affairs. Right now, he’s Lord of heaven and earth not your heart, and Christ our Lord wants not decisions for him but disciples of him.
Jesus does more than deliver us from our sins; Jesus delivers us into a life of justice-seeking that he is himself the exemplar and enabler.
The death of Jesus Christ is not merely substitutionary.
The death of Jesus Christ is exemplary.
Pay attention to the way Peter puts it. The death of Jesus Christ— not just the life of Jesus Christ— is paradigmatic for our work of witnessing to the righteousness of God.
Jesus waged his revolution without ever resorting to means contrary to the Kingdom of God. That’s what Peter means by telling us that Christ’s death is exemplary for our way of life in the world. Jesus rejected taking up the tactics of all the other would-be revolutionaries who came before him and nearly all the ones who have come since. Instead Jesus obediently bore witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God, turning the other cheek and forgiving his trespassers and loving his enemies all the way to a cross, all the while trusting God the Father to vindicate his faithfulness.
In like manner, Christ our Substitute has set us free from our sins; so that, we might live for the sake of the justice we call the Kingdom of God. Ultimately, this justice will be God’s achievement not ours; therefore, we are not called to attempt achieving the Kingdom by taking up means contrary to it. This is what the Book of Revelation calls participating in “the war of the Lamb.” Karl Barth called the war of the Lamb “the strategy of obedience that is no strategy” for it entrusts the outcome of our obedience to the Living God. That is, when you think it’s all on you to make the world more just you will justify taking up any means necessary to that end.
Just as Christ Jesus does with his death, we bear obedient witness. We refuse to take up the weapons of the losing side. Because the tomb is empty, we trust the Living God to vindicate our faithfulness and make something eternal of our contribution to his Kingdom.
Elizabeth Bruenig is an op-ed writer for the New York Times. In a tweet that went viral last week, Bruenig commented on the national unrest over police brutality and systemic racism. She tweeted: “There’s just something unsustainable about an environment that demands constant atonement but actively disdains the very idea of forgiveness.” I couldn’t help but notice the color of the overwhelming number of people who approvingly retweeted her opinion. While it’s true that racial reconciliation— atonement, as she puts it— may not be possible in a post-Christian culture absent of mercy, it’s also true that forgiveness is not possible (or true) apart from the hard work of truth-telling that white Americans heretofore have avoided hearing about the history and reality of racism in America. Oklahoma public school history textbooks, for example, only began mentioning the 1921Tulsa Massacre this year.
White Americans have largely avoided the kind of truth-telling labor undertaken by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1995 to 1998, work that Christianity Today called “the most authentically Christian contribution to modern political life.” The chairman of the TRC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu alienated many of his fellow black South Africans, including Nelson Mandela, by insisting that the commission would hear testimony not only about the atrocities committed by the white apartheid government and police but also about atrocities committed by members of the African National Congress. On a case-by-case basis, the TRC promised forgiveness to the guilty in exchange for telling the truth. After three years of intense and public hearings, in November 1998, the commission published an exhaustive 3,000 page report that the New York Times called “the most comprehensive and unsparing examination of a nation’s past ever produced.” The TRC’s report contained stories like that of Maurice Nchabeleng, who had told the commission’s panel and the public audience how as a schoolboy he was taken to the room where his activist father had just been tortured and killed by the South African police forces. In that room he was ordered to wash his hands in his father’s blood.
Maurice offered his testimony knowing it would mean forgiveness would be extended to the police officer who had tortured and killed his father.
“”There is no future without forgiveness,” Archbishop Tutu said during one victim’s almost unbearable testimony, “but remember the war of the Lamb, the future is the justice of God. We’re on the winning side! The Lord will vindicate our faithful work!”
In January 1998, while Desmond Tutu was in New York for cancer treatment, he gave an interview about what he considered the Christian political work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “It is not enough,” he said, “to say let bygones be bygones…Forgiveness does not come easy. Believing forgiveness will come easy will ensure that forgiveness will never be. We have to look the Beast firmly in the eyes.”
Forgiveness and justice begin by telling the truth.
“We recognize the past can’t be remade through punishment,” he told the interviewer, “Instead — since we know memories of hate and oppression have persisted and will persist for a long time — we aim to acknowledge those memories. The sheer act of making the truth public is a form of justice. This is critical if we are to build a nation of self-respecting citizens. As a victim of injustice and oppression, you lose your sense of worth as a person, your dignity. Retribution belongs to God alone. Restorative justice is biblical justice, focused on restoring the personhood that is damaged or lost. But restoring that sense of self means restoring memory — a recognition that what happened to you happened. You are not crazy. Something seriously evil happened to you. And we the people believe you.”
To the mostly white Christians in South Africa who complained about the Church’s role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, complained about a preacher like Desmond Tutu getting involved in politics, Tutu responded, “We Christians want to be political to the hilt, but not determined in a partisan way by our membership in any political party. The Church must be in a position to address every group. We don’t belong to a church of this party or that party because we must maintain our ability to say all and sundry, “Thus says the Word of the Lord.””
In other words, the Church is necessarily political because the Word of the Lord today is incomplete without this so that.
God forgives everything, yes.
But God forgives so that you’re set free to rectify all that is broken.
21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22 ‘He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,* so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds* you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.