Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Atonement (Invited to Speak In Church)

[I was asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting on Easter Sunday. I usually do not write out my talks but usually work off a list of ideas and try to speak more directly to the congregation. In this case I was not feeling very sociable and so I wrote this out and read it. Some people loved it while others probably thought it was too far outside of the rote oral tradition of LDS discourse. Edited some for publication.
-Todd 05/28/08]

The Atonement
Sacrament Meeting Talk
April 23, 2006

At some point in the Church’s history we understandably tired of serving up so much doctrinal meat and began preferring milk. Again, here is a little meat.

Adam, upon leaving the Garden of Eden was commanded to offer sacrifices to the Lord.
Moses 5:6 And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer bsacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me.

Over the years those sacrificial offerings took on many forms throughout the world, including human sacrifices, ritual cannibalism, and myriad blood related liturgical practices.

Because of our exposure to the Old Testament we are familiar with some of the Jewish sacrificial practices. The Egyptians, with whom the predecessors of the Jews lived for over 400 years, also offered sacrifices. When Moses and his followers left Egypt they sacrificed a cow and sprinkled its blood on themselves as a sign of their entering a covenant with God.

The day of the Atonement was the most solemn day of the year for the Jews, more solemn than the Passover celebration which was an entirely different occasion. On the Atonement day the priest would enter the Holy of Holies, only once per year, to the symbolic presence of God who was sitting on the Mercy Seat. The priest sprinkled blood on various things to purify them. The people were not allowed into the symbolic presence of God but were kept without the veil. When Jesus died the veil was torn open, thus exposing God to all men.

In Jesus’ day, the Jewish system of sacrificing had apparently strayed too far afield and Jesus demonstrated his displeasure by cleansing the temple in a somewhat violent fashion for which, in part, he was soon crucified.

About 40 years later (70 CE), when the Romans put down the Jewish rebellion, they completely destroyed the temple in Jerusalem which ended Jewish sacrificial practices. Today, some orthodox Jews look forward to the day when sufficient peace in the Middle East will allow them to rebuild their temple and again offer sacrifices to God.

The first Christians, who of course were also Jews, infuriated their Jewish brothers by claiming that Jesus’ crucifixion was the last sacrifice ever needed to be performed under the Mosaic law and that there never would be any need to offer animal sacrifices again to atone for sins. These early Christians tried to explain that Jesus was the, ultimate or last sacrifice, the grand finale sacrifice. Hereby Christians consoled their Jewish brothers for the loss of their temple. Understandably many Jews were infuriated by what they considered to be an unabashed co-opting of their Jewish Law into a new religion, because in their minds they never did make any connection between their sacrificing and the literal sacrifice of their long awaited messiah.

How could so many Jews be so wrong for so long?
(Moses 5:6 adapted) And after many days [ the Christians asked the Jews,] Why dost thou offer bsacrifices unto the Lord? And the [Jews] said unto[ the Christians: We] know not, save the Lord commanded [ us].”

It is amazing to me that God allows all human beings—not just the Jews—to labor in ignorance for so long.

There is an old saying in France that, “50,000 Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” But the benefit of hindsight confirms that, indeed, 50,000 Frenchmen can be wrong. The Jews have also been wrong. Indeed all people since the beginning of time have always labored with erroneous ideas, sometimes for very long periods of time. Surprisingly, our loving Heavenly Father has allowed these errors, or erroneous ideas, to run their courses among all societies of people since the beginning, including his covenant peoples both ancient and modern. Unfortunately for us mortals we tend to cling to our comfortable status quo understanding of things, even erroneous ideas, and resist the greater light and knowledge that could be ours for the taking.

What else might we have wrong with our views? No doubt many things.
Jesus said (John 6):

53 … Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.
54 Whoso eateth my aflesh, and drinketh my bblood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
55 For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
56 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.
60 Many…of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is a hard saying; who can hear it?
61 When Jesus knew that his disciples murmured at it, He said unto them, Doth this offend you?
63 It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing…
66 ¶ From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.

And since, at least, the time of the destruction of the Jewish temple, Christians have ceased performing animal sacrifices, and instituted the ritual practice of partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ as a way of feeling at one with Him. That is why we think of Him during the sacrament. The sacrament is one, ritualistic way that we remember Him.

Now let’s turn our attention to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus Christ began in the instant that someone said that Jesus had risen from the dead. The gospel is the news that Jesus Christ is alive. The news spread and congregations were established in the Mediterranean. According to one scholar (Bart Ehrman) the rate of growth of the Christian movement was about as rapid as the growth of the LDS Church since 1830 to the present time. However, those ancient congregations 2000 years ago were dissimilar to us in many ways. They did not enjoy the many facilities of communication and travel that we enjoy today, nor was their membership literate, nor were written materials plentiful, nor were they gathered in one place. Consequently those congregations quickly developed divergent views and operated with a high degree of autonomy from centralized authority. They didn’t have canonized scriptures like we do today. Some congregations used only the gospel of Matthew, for example the Ebionites, and they developed a branch of Christianity that believed that Jesus Christ was a fully human person that God so loved that He personally adopted Him and thus Jesus became the Son of God. The Marcionites, on the other hand, used the gospel of Luke and they believed that Jesus Christ was divine, not human, not half human, but an illusion of a person. And there were other groups, including the Gnostics who believed that the resurrection was real, but spiritual, that Christ’s body never literally rose but his spirit did. And then there was a compromise view advocated by a man named Ireneous which finally emerged as the victorious orthodox view. And thus the early Christians debated the meaning of Christ and even to this day the scriptures beg the question, “Who was Jesus?” (Matt. 22:42, 2Nephi 33:11 “And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye…”) Later generations of Christians, at least since the time when the bible was first compiled and canonized, have conflated the gospels and glossed over difficult and contradictory passages and for a long time, in a way reminiscent of the Jews, Christians have labored on the Question, “Who was Jesus?” That is the question.

Joseph Smith died abruptly and unexpectedly and left the church with new scriptures, journals, writings, sermons, the King Follet discourse, an unpolished temple ceremony, and some writings by his associates under Joseph Smith’s name. Because of many hardships in the early days of the Church, the Church has taken many years to streamline its theology. Indeed, the effort still goes on.

In 1915 Elder James E. Talmage wrote a wonderful book which he titled, Jesus the Christ, which quickly became a classic in the Church. In this book, Elder Talmage tried to reconcile all of the early teachings about the godhead with the canonized scriptures. The Church was thankful for the clarity that this wonderful book shed upon the scriptures. Elder Talmage also wrote two other classics, namely, The Great Apostasy, and The Articles of Faith.

Clearly these were master works that were very important for LDS theological development, however, the theology is not yet finished. Article of Faith number 9 says, “…we believe that [God] will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” And, indeed, since Elder Talmage wrote his books, the world has received much new revelation:
1. Natural selection has been proven as a scientific principle,
2. The human genome has been sequenced
3. The Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi has been discovered, including the Gospel of Thomas
4. And recently in the news headlines, The Gospel of Judas has been discovered.
5. And much else.

During the 20th century so much light and knowledge has been poured out upon the earth that there is hardly enough room to receive it. There has been so much revelation that we don’t even try to canonize it. It’s just so much, so fast. Now, regarding emerging Gospels, I hope that we, of all people, do not cry, “A Gospel! A Gospel! We have got a Gospel and there can be no more Gospel!" Though we have a “fullness” of the gospel, there is certainly much more light and knowledge that Heavenly Father has for us as soon as we “study it out in our mind[s].” To say otherwise is to say that “all is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well…” and thus we are cheated out of greater light and knowledge. (2 Nephi 28:21) The canon that we call the “fullness” can be added to, subtracted from, or changed at any time by common consent. Such has happened in years past. Such will happen again. As Latter-day Saints we believe, in theory, in an open cannon.

When Elder Talmage wrote his classic books he relied upon the writings of the proto orthodox writer Ireneous who had negative things to say about his Christian rivals, including the Gnostics. Ireneous was among the first to promote the dream of a united Christian Church, a universal Church, a Catholic Church. His dream was realized after his death around 300 CE when the Christian churches were united by a decree of the emperor Constantine. During the 4th century the Christians grew from around 7% of the population to 50%, in one century.

Of course the Catholic orthodox views became dominate and other Christian factions were snuffed out and their writings were destroyed. Ireneous painted a very derogatory picture of the Gnostics and Elder Talmage relied upon his assessment of the Gnostics in his writings. Indeed, all of Christianity relied on Ireneous’ views of the Gnostics. However, with the relatively recent discovery of the Gnostic library at Nag Hammadi, the world has discovered that while Ireneous was right about many things, he was also polemical about other things and he deliberately mischaracterized and maligned the Gnostics, and other groups, to squelch their movements. Consequently, we have also dismissed the Gnostics and just like 50,000 Frenchmen, we too could be wrong. The Gnostics were indeed sincere and disciplined seekers of truth and perhaps they may have had some valuable truth that was lost.

Now, I am not implying that all the Gnostics’ views were correct but they do shed new light on early Christianity. And since Joseph Smith deliberately commingled orthodox Christianity with a little unorthodox Christianity and with a large measure of Freemasonry, one is left to ponder, Why the eclectic religious milieu? And, by the way, why does the modern LDS temple ceremony have obvious and admitted resemblances to Freemasonry? And who were the Gnostics and what connection do they have to Freemasonry? And what is Freemasonry?

Well, Freemasonry is a symbolic religion with wide stylistic influences including resemblances to the almost forgotten traditions that some call the mystery schools such as Pythagoreanism, the Eleusinian mysteries, Kabbala, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, Templarism, and Masonry. The common thread is symbolism.

Now I am not suggesting that any of these Mystery Schools are the repositories of God’s one truth because all groups since the beginning of time have had their blind spots. But I am saying that the LDS temple ceremonies tie directly into a style of religious observance that is characterized by non literal symbols. These non literal symbols, most significantly, are for personal reflection without dogmatic assistance. To avoid dogmatic exigesis the meanings of the symbols are not defined, nor written. The symbols act to direct one’s attention whereby gnosis, or knowledge, or revelation can be received.

To this day the world is still pondering the meanings of the Fall of Adam and the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I, also, think about these things. I contemplate the ransom theory of the atonement. And I contemplate Anselm of Canterbury’s satisfaction theory of the atonement as adapted by Elders Talmage and Packer. I contemplate the story of Adam and Eve. And about all the symbols and what they all mean and how they can possibly fit together.

The New Testament gospels are full of symbols. The events of the atonement in Jesus’ life also include many symbols--the garden, the wine press, the sprinkled blood, the flogging, the cross, the grave, the stone rolling back, the torn veil, the resurrection…all of which invite reflection. Like all generations of Adam who have gone before, we are still laboring to see Christ unveiled although we see much more today. Among other things our God has always been the master of suspense; he waits patiently for us to seek Him.

Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead and now has a resurrected body; we don’t know exactly how this was accomplished or exactly what kind of body He has. What is a body anyway? A scientist would say that a body is mostly empty space with scattered subatomic particles held together by mysterious forces. The body only appears to be solid much like a moving propeller appears to be a solid disc. A resurrected body might be similar to this. Or a body is simply energy, or light.  I find it interesting that Jesus can stand in the air and move through walls yet eat fish and honeycomb; he rose from the dead and yet his scars do not heal.

I’m really not concerned about what my resurrected body will be like. I am content with the scripture that says that it will be “…in its perfect form...” (Alma 11:43) And I don’t know anyone who has ever thought they had a perfect body in any of its mortal phases.

Jesus said he is the “light and life” of the world and that “the flesh profiteth nothing for it is the spirit that quickeneth.” Not only is Jesus the light and life of the world, he is also the truth and the way and he said, “come follow me.” So how do we follow Him?  We follow him by living the life that we imagine that He lived, a Christ-like life .

The more I learn about the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the less dogmatic I feel to be about them and, like Mary, I keep “all these things and ponder them in [my] heart.”

What a wonderful and interesting time to be a Christian!

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