Sitting in my living room, at the ripe old age of 35, typing on a laptop while the winds howl and the rain dances upon the metal cap of our fireplace–somehow all of this compels me to the full assurance that I know what the theological task is for this generation. (Ok, the fact that I’m and INTJ might have something to do with my confidence, but bear with me.)
In the post-conservative Christian circles in which I run, people have often experienced a shift. From an entry into Christianity that is all about Jesus dying for my sins, people later discover a Kingdom of God that demands active engagement with the world.
Within the world of Pauline studies a parallel distinction is sometimes highlighted. On the one hand, there is Jesus dying “for me,” with its concomitant substitutionary language of justification and the like. On the other hand, there is my “dying with Christ,” with its concomitant participatory language of co-crucifixion, co-glorification and the like.
And over the past century in Western Christianity, I would say that different parts of the church have held on to different halves of this story. The conservative evangelical types have grabbed hold of the atonement as the gospel, while the liberal mainline types have grabbed onto the world-changing life of Jesus as the gospel.
I see the ask of our generation to overcome this false dichotomy by (1) insisting that it’s not a dichotomy after all; and (2) articulating atonement in such a way that action and transformation are inherent to the saving story of Jesus.
There are many ways to put the question we must answer.
At the Institute for Biblical Research this year, Tom Wright put the question, “What does the Kingdom of God have to do with the cross?”
Or, as I put it in my Mark class, “What does Mark 1-8 [the wonder-working, healing, cleansing, parables, feeding, stilling] have to do with Mark 8-16 [the road to the cross, the disruption of the Temple, the prediction of coming suffering, the Supper, Garden, arrest, trial, and death]?”
It seems to me that we are going to have to step back and reconsider how we tell the story. We are going to have to find fresh ways to articulate what the death of Jesus is all about, so that it wraps up a life of transforming power.
We are going to have to find fresh ways to tell the story of Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom of God, so that we are not left, like Peter at the transition point in Jesus’ ministry, wondering why on earth death of the Messiah is the logical culmination.
In fact, I might suggest that until we can so tell the story of Jesus’ life that the death is not only the inevitable (from an earthly point of view) but necessary (from the divine accomplishment point of view) outcome, that we have not yet comprehended the Kingdom of God.
And, until we can so tell the story of Jesus’ death such that his life is not only an anticipation (in a preparatory sort of way–you know, like keeping Jesus free from sin and all that) but inseparable from his atoning death, that we have not yet comprehended what it is to say that Jesus died for our sins.
I don’t think we’ve done it yet.
But I believe we can.