Begin by singing or playing “The Coloring Song” by Petra https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPDoFhAMkBw
Petra’s Coloring Song was hugely popular in the early 80s when I was attending Pioneer Girls – an evangelical Christian equivalent to Girl Guides – and my friend’s Baptist youth group. Then, I sang it with enthusiasm – after all, it’s got a pretty catchy tune! Now, I cringe at the bloody language, just as I have trouble singing parts of “How Great Thou Art” or old Gospel Hymns like “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”. Perhaps my ability to visualize is just too strong, but – ICK!
Over the years of my ministry I’ve observed quite a spectrum in United Church belief – that likely won’t surprise you. One of the professors of theology at Vancouver School of Theology, Rev. Dr Janet Gear has been doing a study of that diversity and we’re going to explore it together in the next few weeks. Many in the United Church are perfectly comfortable with the language of sacrificial atonement, in which blood red is clearly the colour of God’s love. In the traditional language of evangelical theology, God the Father sent the Son Jesus to die on the cross as an atonement for our sins and as a substitute for our own deserved punishment. Many of the hymns United Church people love to sing reflect that theology – especially the old Gospel hymns so beloved of the War-time generation. That understanding of Jesus’ cross is heavily influenced by the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews we just heard.
The writer of this letter is trying to explain how dependence on Jesus replaces the sacrificial system in the Jerusalem temple. Such a replacement would be essential for early Christians, as many were Gentiles and not connected to that system, and for Jewish Christians the temple itself had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. – so there was nowhere to offer those sacrifices. This writer uses the imagery of the temple system of animal sacrifice – especially the ram sacrificed on the Day of Atonement to symbolically take away the people’s sins – as a way of understanding how Jesus’ death makes a difference for humanity. It is a metaphor, but as is often the case, we human beings literalize our metaphors and what was imagery becomes fact in our minds. For this writer, Jesus is both the high priest offering a perfect sacrifice, and the sacrifice himself. He both makes the offering – the most effective offering possible for the forgiveness of humanity’s sins – and IS the offering – the perfect, unblemished, blameless sacrifice.
Out of this passage and others in the New Testament, as well as some Hebrew Bible passages as well, comes the later doctrine that is held by many, many Christians today. This is the doctrine that brings us movies that dwell on Christ’s suffering – like The Passion of the Christ; it’s the doctrine that puts Christ on the cross at the front of many a church sanctuary; it’s the doctrine that insists that the main thing wrong in the world is human sin – human error and deliberate wrongdoing and evil – and that the only way to make the world clean of that sin is to “wash it in the blood of the lamb” – Jesus. It is the proclamation of Billy Graham, Youth for Christ, World Vision, and many other very well-known Christian evangelists and organizations.
In this understanding of the cross we are wholly dependent on God to clean up our lives and set us straight. Without the cross of Christ, we would be completely lost and without hope. Those who have experienced such despair, have wandered in the shadows or lain at the bottom of a deep pit with seemingly no way out – many have found in the cross their hope, a new life transformed by God’s intervention. The colour of redemption is not just red for the blood of Jesus, but red for the loving heart of God who cared enough to send Jesus to renew our lives.
This understanding of the cross is deeply meaningful to many, many people. Personally, I find it problematic for a number of reasons – the main one being the age old question of “What kind of Father would send his Son to be tortured and killed, whatever the reason? How can this be a God of love?” We here today stand outside the sacrificial system. Most of us don’t even kill our own meat, much less sacrifice animals as a form of worship. We live in a country where capital punishment was abolished years ago, and where child abuse is seen as the terrible crime it is. In the light of all this a Father sending a Son ON PURPOSE to die a horrible death seems a horrendous thing to do. But perhaps if we take our own teaching of the Trinity seriously, our understanding of the cross might shift a little.
The tradition of the church is that while God is One, there are three relationships within the one God – The Father/Creator, who gives life to the Son/Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, who issues forth from both the Father and the Son. If God is entirely one, then it was God himself, herself, themself (in the modern non-binary sense) on the cross on that day. God was not separate from the suffering of Jesus – God WAS the one suffering on that cross. God gave the gift of Her own life – as a way of redeeming sin, perhaps, but perhaps instead as both a shocking testimony to just how far humans will go to silence the call of God on their hearts and minds, and also a testimony to just how far God will go to let us know that we can never be separated from God’s love. Maybe the cross is not about salvation from punishment (after all, why would an unconditionally loving God want to punish us?) Perhaps instead it is about the saving power of love against violence, hatred and indifference.
For me, the colour of redemption is more the gold of the sunrise falling on an empty tomb at Easter. It is the warmth of being wrapped in God’s love. It is the light that shows us the way forward, step by step, day by day. What is the colour of redemption for you? We’ll explore more in the coming weeks. May God guide your thoughts and your prayers this week.