Rethinking the place of atonement…
“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.” So says the Apostle Paul. If we take this statement at face value, how might we go about interpreting it?
Reconciliation in Jesus
- That God was at work throughout the life of Jesus doing the wonderful, mysterious work of reconciliation. With every step Jesus took; in every conversation; in each embrace. God was at work in Jesus working the wonderful work of reconciliation – the work of welcoming humanity back to God, back to humanity’s true and restful home.
- That God was at work in every detail of the death of Jesus working the mystery of reconciliation. In his arrest; in the beatings; in the humiliation; in the abuse; as the nails pierced his hands and feet. God was at work reconciling the world to Himself. As the religious authorities and the imperial soldiers mocked and yelled up at Jesus, ‘If you’re the saviour of the world, come down from the cross and then we’ll believe in you.’
- That God was working the wonder of reconciliation as He expressed His never-ending love in the resurrection of Jesus from death.
God was working in Jesus to bring about the reconciliation of humanity to Himself. But, how was he doing this work of reconciliation? What was God’s strategy?
Friend of sinners
Now, there are many names, titles, and ascriptions given to Jesus – by the prophets before his birth, by people – including Jesus himself – during his life, and then by the apostles after his resurrection from the dead. But of all the names given to Jesus perhaps one of the most moving, and beautiful is a name intended as an insult: ‘Friend of sinners’. Throughout his life Jesus became friends with sinners. Friends with people who were on the outside. Friends with those who were ‘not good enough’; people who didn’t fit in; friends with those who had done wrong, knew they had done wrong, and lived in the deep pool of their shame. Jesus became friends with such as these. And Jesus became friends with others too. People who wanted his friendship; people who were lost; people who were lonely; people who needed loving. God worked reconciliation as Jesus made friends.
The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes movingly about friendship in his recent book, The Living God and the Fullness of Life.’
- Moltmann identifies friendship as ‘a personal relationship that makes no claims.’
- Friendship ‘means accepting and respecting … just as they are.’
- Friendship ‘is the promise to walk together side by side’ with ‘no prejudgement that pins the other person down, and no ideal picture that has to be lived up to.’
- ‘Friends open up free spaces for one another, for personal development.’
- ‘Friendship is enduring and is aligned toward permanence.’
These descriptors are, I think, beautiful assessments of the true nature of friendship. And they describe the friendship of Jesus.
Jesus forgives because that’s what a friend does. When he is mocked, and insulted, when he is beaten and crucified, Jesus cries out to God, ‘Father forgive them’, because that’s what a friend does.
Reconciliation. Friendship. This is the beautiful work of God in Jesus Christ. The response of humanity was brutality and hatred. God’s activity in the death of Jesus was forgiveness…the on-going work of reconciliation. This work of reconciliation is not isolated to the death of Jesus alone, but is true for the whole of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Resurrection is the most powerful demonstration of the love of God: Love that breaks through any barrier; Love that raises the dead; Love that is faithful and true; Love that is not weakened by death. Resurrection is the unbreakable friendship between Father and Son.
Here is atonement. Here is where God brings about the reunion of humanity, and all creation, to Himself:
The Book of Love Charlie Mackesy.
 Jürgen Moltmann. The Living God and the Fullness of Life. Geneva : WCC. 2016. p.118-119.