Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"While we were enemies"

Message preached March 3, 2002
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Romans 5:1-11

Order of Worship

"...while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son..."

            His name was Philip Payne, and I tell you, he was a real "pain-in-the-neck" to me when I was 15 years old. My family had just moved to another state the summer before my 10th grade year in school. A whole new place ... brand new friends ... a new high school to find my way through ... and then there was Philip Payne. He was a rather large fellow who took particular delight in hazing me.

            More than any other place, I recall his pestering as being the worse in that anything-but-a-sanctuary called the "boysí locker room." Itís bad enough that this place always stinks to high heaven - do you know what Iím talking about? Add to that the raging hormones of teenagers who havenít a clue what is happening to them. I mean, stuff is changing all over the place. Do you think, amid all that stink, and all those hormones, and all that change, that a fellow could get a little privacy? Guess again.

            Loud mouth Philip, as I remember it (and memories are a tricky thing, you know, making some things bigger than they may have really been) he was on my case all the time - just picking on me as the new kid on the block. I hated gym class because of him. He was my #1 enemy. I despised that guy, who was a pain in more places than my neck.

            Aside from school, there was one other place I faced Philip on a regular basis. Every Sunday in the Fall, after church, Iíd grab lunch and head down to the football field. I loved those pick-up games of touch football. Mind you, I wasnít very good - though I did discover that if Mark Wilkerson was going out for a pass I could make a half decent quarterback. All I had to do was toss the ball in the air and heíd somehow catch it.

            Usually, however, my job was to hike the ball and block the guy trying to rush in to get the quarterback. Can you guess who that often was? You got it - Mr. Philip Payne. He earned his name on those days. He did an awful good job of intimidating me. You see, when you hike the ball, youíre in a difficult position already - head way down, hands on the ball ready to send it flying back (accurately) to the quarterback before you get a chance to get yourself ready to block. Now, in those games, rushers were suppose to count to three before taking off - but those three counts never seemed to be enough to get ready for Philip. I usually found myself on my rear end, much to his delight. Man, I hated that guy.

            Then, one day, a certain tactic dawned upon my feeble brain. Instead of trying to push him back, which was well-nigh impossible, why not let gravity do the work? So, after hiking the ball, I just fell at his feet. Like Goliath, he came tumbling down. It was one of those slow motion moments, afterward, when you get up and everyone looks at you in a different way. "Howíd you do that?" they asked. "I donít know, but I think Iíll do it again."

            After that day, Phil looked at me differently. The teasing stopped. And, amazingly, when I looked at him, I no longer saw an enemy. No, we didnít become "bosom buddies," but that hatred had ceased. A form of friendship began.

"...while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son..."

            Back in Seminary, when I was learning about being a pastor, we had these "make-it-or-break-it" exams we called "middlers." For them we studied individually and in groups. I recall preparing with some other students for a question that might be asked about the "atonement"- the reconciliation of God and humanity through the death of Jesus Christ (i.e. what Jesus did and how he did it in making peace between God and those who had become - in effect - Godís enemies).

            Now, our childrenís message this morning presented one way of seeing the atonement, what Jesus Christ accomplished upon the cross. If you recall, in relating with the children Mike brought out a yard stick and spoke of punishment. I asked him to do it because he is one of the most friendly guys in our church, who knows these kids by name and loves them dearly. I was afraid the yard stick and my beard (along with the dark brow I inherited from my father) might really frighten certain little ones - especially Alice - if I were to have done it. Mike, on the other hand, is a big "teddy bear" kind of a fellow, right? (Are there bald teddy bears?)

            Anyway, in this understanding of the atonement, Jesus stood in our place when he was crucified. He substituted for us - that is, for all of humanity. He took our punishment. We, because of sin, deserved to die, but he came along and died in our place - taking our death sentence upon himself. The life-blood he shed in the course of it all was not a waste. Because he died, therefore we live. This was no last minute reprieve from the governor that stopped our death sentence, but sent us back to our cell for life in prison. No, the "power that is" - God - became fully like us (incarnation) and stepped into the death chamber in our stead. God in Jesus Christ, who did not deserve to die, who was innocent of any charge, without sin - Jesus took our penalty. The long and short of it is that we have been released from the death sentence, as well as from prison, as those who lay claim to this legal judgment. "He died for me. I, then, am set free."

            Some call this "substitutionary atonement," Jesus "substituting" for us, taking our punishment in order to reconcile us to God, to make our relationship with God "right" once again. Justice was done - once and for all. In Christ we are, therefore, justified. His cross represents our justification. As that old hymn goes (#528) "Oh, how marvelous! Oh, how wonderful! is my Savior's love for me! ... a sinner condemned, unclean." But thatís not the whole story of what the atonement of Jesus Christ is all about.

            Thereís yet another view of the atonement, one which Gustav Aulen in his book Christus Victor called the "classical" understanding of what Jesus did upon the cross. What I just described as the doctrine of the atonement was most fully developed in the 11th century by a fellow named Anselm. But there is an earlier view that goes back to some of the early leaders of the church in the first few centuries after Jesus lived, died, and rose again. In this understanding of the atonement, the crucifixion was not seen as a legal proceeding with Jesus stepping in to take the punishment which everyone deserved. Mind you, that element was there, but to the early believers it was only just a part of the great drama of redemption.

            Back in seminary (I started to tell you earlier) we came up with all sorts of ways of remembering things for that exam. When it came to putting in the brain this additional understanding of the atonement, one of the students - a country music fan - came up with this, a tune I canít get out of my brain even today: "Drop kick me Jesus through the goal posts of life..." (Maybe it was a real song.) I canít remember the rest of it, but that much was enough to emphasize to this once-upon-a-time-Sunday-afternoon-touch-football-fanatic that, upon the cross and in the tomb, Jesus went up against the powers of evil which held humanity in bondage.

            The doctrine of the atonement is also about this great "contest," if you will, which ended with a decisive victory for Christ. He defeated the powers and the principalities, he defeated death itself - which was the ultimate weapon the devil and his minions had over humanity. How did he do it? Well, it wasnít exactly that he purposely fell down on the field in front of the attacker, thus tripping him up - like I once did with my enemy Philip Payne. Actually, "football" is probably not a terribly accurate metaphor for describing this great drama. Why? Well, because in the crucifixion it seemed like the game was won - by the other team. This was no "Hail Mary" pass by quarterback Jesus that won it all in the closing seconds. He was "sacked."

            Of course, we didnít just sing, "were you there when they tackled Christ, my Lord?" (#257) No, he was crucified, he was nailed to the tree, he was pierced in the side, he was laid in the tomb. And the rest of the team was nowhere to be found. Jesus was dead and they were gone. It was a humiliating defeat. Of course, my friends, we know the rest of the story. But that doesnít make it any less dramatic. This defeat ultimately proved to be a victory. Through his crucifixion and his resurrection, our Lord and Savior won the battle that made for peace. He defeated death, and the powers that wielded that sword. By dying and rising he broke the chains that held Godís children captive. In so doing he reconciled God and humanity, what we call the atonement.

            Now, Iíve said all this not to make you choose how you are going to see what Jesus did upon the cross. Was it a legal maneuver or a contest between good and evil (or was it something altogether different)? Actually, I believe it was all those things ... and more. I just want now to return to where we began. The apostle Paul wrote, "...while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son..." Whether we see it as taking place in a courtroom or a football field (or a battlefield), the important point is this, we werenít in the right, we werenít on the right side - at least not at the start. Iím talking of humanity here, but I also think we need to take this seriously for us personally. There was a point at which "we were enemies" of God.

            Have you thought of yourself as an "enemy" of God? Thatís a tough one. Itís easier for some of us to see ourselves that way. Paul wrote these words to folks who at one time were Godís enemies. They werenít believers, not before they responded to the good news. Think about it, this is the letter to the church in "Rome," the capital of the empire whose soldiers crucified Jesus. In fact, Paul himself fought against Jesus. He was on the opposing team. He persecuted the first believers. He was a huge pain (literally) to the church. People were killed because of him. And then the cross reached out and touched him, so to speak. The atonement became personal and Jesus won him over. Christ dropped-kicked him through the goal posts of life, somewhere along the road to Damascus. And an enemy became a friend.

            An enemy became a friend. Isnít that what the good news is all about, what it means to have peace with God? We have been reconciled to God by Christ Jesus. He took our punishment. He won the contest. Doesnít matter how you understand the atonement, the result is the same. We are set free and empowered to live as a friend, a child - to be exact, of God. Furthermore, and here is even better news for those who once were enemies of God and now have becomes friends - they become ambassadors of his reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-20). They reach out to their own enemies with the love of God in Christ, and enemies become friends by the power of the cross. "Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus said, "for they will be called children of God" (Matthew 5:9).

For commentaries consulted, see Romans

for more on the Atonement


©2002 Peter L. Haynes

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