Reconciliation in Christ

Below is an English version of my sermon on the 9th of January. It is based on parts of my PhD thesis.

According to Matthew 3:13-17, Christ was baptised by a reluctant John the Baptist “to fulfil all righteousness” (3:15). And He fulfilled this through death, by giving His life for us. And un Romans 6, St. Paul notes that those who “have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” and that they “have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so [they] too might walk in newness of life” (vv.3-4). By allowing Himself to be baptised with a baptism of a sinner, Christ obediently took upon Himself the mission that would lead to the Cross. As we read in Philippians 2:7-8, He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” As a human being “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” And thus, He ‘fulfilled all righteousness.’ It is significant, I think, that, as we have seen from today’s Gospel, after the baptism, St. John the Baptist declares, when seeing Christ: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Through His baptism, then, He took upon Himself the mission to take away the sin of the world. And for us, it is precisely through baptism that we participate in His death and receive new life, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 6:5-11: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

We see the same with the Eucharist. When Christ instituted it, He did so as a ritual enactment of his impending Passion. The Passion consummated it, made it count. It started in the Upper Room, not just through the institution itself but also Christ’s high priestly prayer (in John 17), where he prayed for the unity of the Church and Her unity with Christ.[1] When Christ instituted the Eucharist, He said “this is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19) and “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). For the institution of the Eucharist is oriented towards, and participates in, the Cross. And when we celebrate the Eucharist, we participate in Christ’s institution, in His ‘once for all’ sacrifice, and in His eternal celebration.[2] But at the centre, we find, then, the Cross, where Christ gave ‘once for all’ the sacrifice in which all other sacrifices participate. As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” This key act was the place where Jesus reconciled us with God. It was “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).[3] Christ taught the people like a rabbi and healed them like a physician but His salvific and redeeming act is first and foremost the act of a priest. Christ’s transforms His death into an offering and allows us to partake of it, through the Eucharist.

But this finds its basis in the Incarnation itself. This is the ultimate act of God in history, by which the fallen world, with humanity at its centre, is reconciled with God through Christ, the high priest.[4] For the ultimate act of a priest is to act as a mediator between God and humanity, reconciling the two.[5] This must not be understood as God the Father ‘punishing’ Christ as if He was guilty, as we see in certain forms of Calvinist theology, but as Christ giving God something more. He gave what we could not (and did not want to) give. He gave Himself in obedience.[6] Defining sacrifice, the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas notes that “whatever is offered to God in order to raise man’s spirit to Him, may be called a sacrifice.”[7] Aquinas adds that sacrifices are offered to atone for sins, preserve humans in their state of grace, and unite the human spirit perfectly to God. He argues that in Christ, God embraces the world, and particularly humanity, in order to reconcile it with Himself and achieve real unity.[8] St. Paul notes that God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3). God was not in need of reconciliation but the world was.[9] Christ needed to be fully human to reconcile humanity to God, which included experiencing death, which is the conclusion of life.[10] As St. Gregory of Nazianzus phrased it: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”[11] This means that in order to save us fully, through becoming a human being, God had to experience all that we experience, from conception to death. And the point of this is reconciliation; that the entire world, the entire cosmos, not just humans, should be reconciled with God.

For, in Christian theology, as we can see daily in the news, the cosmos as a whole is fallen. There is a brokenness to the world, to us. We all need salvation, we need a redeemer. But that’s exactly what we got. For in Christ, God descended to redeem the entirety of creation, as a human being.[12] This follows from Christianity’s emphasis on humanity as the centre of creation. This does not mean that humanity is the most important or highest part of creation, but that humanity, as its microcosm, uniquely incorporates all its aspects, visible and invisible, physical and spiritual. Humanity is, in the words of the Psalmist, made “little lower than God” (Psalm 8:5). Or, in the words of the Russian Orthodox theologian St. John of Kronstadt, humanity is “the crown of creation.”[13] We do not reject that the world or the cosmos is, in some sense, theophanic, that creation bears witness to its Creator.[14] The world has a lot of good in it. But this is rooted in humanity as the microcosmic centre of creation, whose priestly task it is to offer the world back to God.[15] But Adam failed in his task, and the world fell with him. And we all fail to do this. Therefore, reconciliation is only possible through Christ, who according to 1 Corinthians 15:45 is ‘the last Adam’: “‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.”

Through the union of divinity and humanity in His person, as the true high priest, Christ has reunited the cosmos with God.[16] Through Him, the incarnate Word “all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:16). In Him, “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17) and in Him, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).[17] The zenith of His work of reconciliation was His death on the Cross, the “once for all” sacrifice in which all other sacrifices participate (Hebrews 7:27).[18] The sacrifice on the Cross consummates other aspects of Christ’s mission and draws them together, particularly the Baptism and the institution of the Eucharist, as they are all oriented towards the Passion.

In Christ, God becomes the human head of creation by taking “sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3) and healing it, and creation with it. This sacrifice is not just a divine act in history, it is the ultimate divine act in history, reconciling the world to Go. Christ’s sacrifice, then, was necessary for our redemption.[19] Some have argued that while God could have saved us in any way He pleased, He chose Incarnation and Passion. He chose to descend into His own fallen creation, not because He was out for his ‘pound of flesh,’ but because fallenness and death had entered the world and because Christ redeemed it by assuming it all and transforming it from the inside. All of this is true but we must make sure that we do not phrase this in language that implies that God’s choice was arbitrary. We must express the utterly radical nature of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation is not just a handy choice. Without the real union between God and humans through the incarnation, we can only have an extrinsic union with God. We cannot really participate in the atonement, even passively, by being “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:19), unless this union is real. In Christ, divinity and humanity are fully united in one single person, while remaining distinct.[20] We see the divine consummation of human activity in one single person, enabling real divine-human union, finding its apex on the Cross and in the Resurrection, whereby Christ takes all of human experience, up to and including death, and transforms it from the inside. As it says in the second reading today, Colossians 1:19-20: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Or, as we read in the next chapter, Colossians 2:9-10: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.”

In Christ, we find the ultimate union of God and humanity and through being incorporated into Him through baptism, we are brought into this union, a union which is being strengthened in us when we pray, when we preached or listen to preaching but perhaps most especially when we receive the Eucharist. There, through a humle piece of bread and a little bit of wine, we receive the whole Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and for new life. We might not feel it, but it’s there. So come up later, when we celebrate the Eucharist, and receive it for forgiveness, life, and blessing.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, who was, is, and will remain, one true God, world without end. Amen.

Notes:

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, the Heart of Life (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2003), 27-41; Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, 3 vols (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2007, 2011, 2012) II, 76-144.

[2] Kjetil Kringlebotten, ““Do this in remembrance of me…” A Lutheran defence of the sacrifice of the mass” (Studia Theologica – Nordic Journal of Theology 71:2, 2017), 127-147 (esp. 130-136).

[3] Cf. John 10:18, 19:11.30.

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Hebrews 7.

[5] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q.22, a.1, corp., cf. aa.1-6. For Aquinas’s works, see Opera Omnia of St. Thomas Aquinas (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012-), which are available from the publisher’s own website (https://aquinas.cc/), last accessed 3 January 2022.

[6] Gerald O’Collins and Michael Jones, “Aquinas on Christ’s Priesthood,” in Gerald O’Collins and Michael Jones, Jesus Our Priest: A Christian Approach to the Priesthood of Christ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 105-127 (esp. 110-121), cf. Gerald Bray, ed., 1–2 Corinthians (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 247-253 (esp. 251-253). In the Calvinist doctrine of ‘penal substitutionary atonement’ (PSA), an Anselmian notion of atonement is re-interpreted as Christ ‘taking our place’ and as a ‘transfer of penalty.’ For a sympathetic take on this doctrine, see Jason B. Hood, “The Cross in the New Testament: Two Theses in Conversation with Recent Literature (2000–2007)” (Westminster Theological Journal 71, 2009), 281-295. For additional critiques, see J. Patout Burns, “The Concept of Satisfaction in Medieval Redemption Theory” (Theological Studies 36:2, 1975), 286-289; Paul Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1989), 83-111; John D. Hannah, “Anselm on the Doctrine of Atonement” (Bibliotheca Sacra 135, 1978), 333-344; Kringlebotten, “Do this…,” 132-136; Paul J. LaChance, “Understanding Christ’s Satisfaction Today” (The Saint Anselm Journal 2:1, 2004), 60-66; Andrew Sutherland, “From Satisfaction to Penal Substitution: Debt as a Determinative Concept for Atonement Theology in Anselm and Charles Hodge” (The Saint Anselm Journal 13:1, 2017), 98-108.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q.22, a.2, corp.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q.22, a.3, cf. O’Collins and Jones, “Aquinas on Christ’s Priesthood,” 112-113, 118-119.

[9] Wolfhart Pannenberg, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991, 1994, 1998) II, 421-429 (cf. 397-437); Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 171-192.

[10] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, trans. and intro. Aidan Nichols (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 13-14.

[11] Brian E. Daley, Gregory of Nazianzus (London: Routledge, 2006), 14.

[12] Romans 5:12-14; 8; 2 Corinthians 5:19.

[13] St. John of Kronstadt, My life in Christ, trans. E. E. Goulaeff (London: Cassell and Company, Limited, 1897), 230.

[14] Job 12:7-8; Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20.

[15] See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, trans. Brian E. Daley (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2003), 173-177, 207-275; Catherine Pickstock, “The Ritual Birth of Sense” (Telos 162, 2013), 33; Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, 2nd ed. (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1997), 16-18, 32-36, 91-94.

[17] Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 42-49; Hebrews 7, cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, new ed. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2004), 234-243.

[17] Cf. Colossians 1:15-20; 2:6-19.

[18] Cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Galatians 3:13-14; Colossians 1:21-23.

[19] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, q.62, a.5, corp.

[20] Colossians 1:19; 2:9-10; John 1:1-18, cf. The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, trans., introd. and notes, Richard Price and Michael Gaddis, 3 vols. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2005, 2007), II, 203-205.

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