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A reflection on Mark 10:35-45 by the Rev. Alisdair Smith

Thank you Marnie for inviting me to preach again here at St. Brigids. It is good to be back with you all.

For me the issue in tonight’s Gospel is about substitutionary atonement. That’s a very big theological term, that frankly I only learned about in university. It is right up there with terms like ‘inextricably linked’ and another of my favorites, ‘psychoanalytic philosophy.‘

Here’s the last line of our Gospel again. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” For some Christians, this text says that instead of punishing you with death for all of your sins, God kills Jesus as a substitute, and brings Jesus home in glory. The only choices you should make now then are to be as good as you possibly can be, because somebody else, Jesus, took the hit for you. That, in a nutshell is what ‘substitutionary atonement’ means. I like to call it guilt trip theology.

The God of Love, described so carefully by Jesus as Father, Abba, puts a gun to Jesus head and says, “Right, you people have made me so mad, I’m going to kill him, and then love Jesus to the end of time, and you are going to feel so badly, so guilty that you’ll be good all the time and I’ll then love you more, like I love Jesus. And remember, if you feel like doing bad things, remember you owe Jesus a big favour cause he died for you.” This sounds like a giant guilt trip to me. Have you ever had a relationship, maybe even in your family of origin, where guilt was the main game of power? “You hurt me, so now I’m going to make you feel bad about that for the rest of eternity?” It’s one thing for me to feel guilty about my behaviour, it is an entirely different thing for you to try to make me feel guilty; especially, as substitutionary atonement suggests, until the end of eternity.

I do appreciate that for some of you, what I am saying is very, very provocative. I pray it is.

The God of the Gospels is not a guilt trip God.

Jesus died because of human fears, human desire for power, human weapons of terror. Perhaps that’s what Mark means by using the term “Son of Man” (which is frankly an odd term, and the meaning of which gets debated regularly by academics) Perhaps Jesus is in this sense one of us; a human being, a symbol for the rest of us. Each one of us could be the victim of fear, desire for power and terror, and each one of us could be the bully, the powerful, the terrorist (state controlled or not).

Jesus steps into our world not as a hero, not as someone who will slay the dragons of fear, power and terror for us, but as someone who serves to show us how we ourselves can push past fear, the powerful and the terrorist. Jesus does not die to make us feel guilty, he dies to show us that nothing, not even fear, power and terror will defeat Love.

When you love someone, really love them, you do things for them, you seek their happiness above your own. You stick up for them in public, you forgive them their mistakes, you make sure they are comfortable, you talk with them about your relationship and you work with them to make it better. You laugh with them and enjoy their company. You would even stand between them and danger and death.

The final phrase in this last sentence of the reading is one that gets trotted out to support the idea of substitutionary atonement. The phrase goes is “…to give his life a ransom for many.” There are a couple of interesting turns away from guilt trip theology possible here, though. One, and we only have time for one this evening, is that if more of us stood up against fear, power and terror, the one person who stands up,like Jesus does, might not die. Imagine if every single person living in Jerusalem under Roman occupation stood up beside Jesus that day? Many, many would have died, guaranteed, but it is when the many stand up that the revolution begins. Jesus likely knew that he was not to be surrounded by his disciples standing before Pilate’s power and ability to wield terror, he would be alone. He would be the ransom in that sense, the lone giving his life for the many. In that sense, Jesus knows that it won’t be God who will kill him, it will be humans. One group of us by nailing him to a cross of wood, and another group of us by being more worried about our own lives, and livelihoods than about justice and love.

For we humans to be at our best, for healthy and safe environments for all living things, we need to serve each other, we need to love each other, even to the point of giving ourselves up to death so that others may thrive. Jesus is not about a giant guilt trip, Jesus is about a path through the violence, the pain and terror of the world.

Tomorrow any of who have a vote have an opportunity to stand up to power and fear. You have an opportunity to move us all towards a better place in this country. In a place and time where there is so much fear, unbridled power and terror in the world, you and I each have a voice to move the world a little closer to love, communion and connection for all people, everywhere. This time, you have an opportunity for your voice to be added to the voices of justice everywhere calling for justice for the planet, justice for indigenous people, justice for the poor, and justice for each and everyone of us. Don’t let someone else speak for you, speak up for yourself. You will not be alone, of that I am sure.