Jesus died for our sins. He died for the sins of mankind.
These phrases are familiar to me. I was raised with them. I am sure I parroted these words when I was as young as 4 years old.
I hate them now.
I want to flip this phrase. I want to reorient the main focus of those ideas. Those phrases are not helping us out.
Jesus lived for love. Instead of him dying for sins, what if we said he lived for love. It’s the same thing, right? It is the same thing, except it totally is not; and I sure do love my paradoxes. I do not know why we are so obsessed with sin and death. I thought the whole point of Jesus was that those two things became moot.
The exceptional thing about Jesus was the overwhelming love, right?
Jesus lived for love. He came to love all people.
What if we all said that instead?
I was recently speaking to an old friend about my thoughts on a specific interpretation of one of the ten commandments. I was raised with a very shallow, and theologically appalling, understanding of the commandment. I was raised that to say, “Oh my god!” was taking the Lord’s name in vain. After doing some in depth study, I found that scholars over the centuries interpret this commandment in a different way. One breaks this commandment by representing God in a way that is completely contrary to God’s character. English is such a thin language. It seems like the original Hebrew meant something like, “You better not slap God’s name on or put his reputation at risk for things things that God does not stand for.” That interpretation is terrifying- as it should be. It has a weight and depth that I respect. It also is a really good example of what I hate about traditional Christianity.
I loathe flimsy rules, based on terrible theology, that hinder us.
My friend took a familiar stance and reminded me that both interpretations could be true and we all have to be careful not to sin.
Christians sure do love to talk about our sin. We have to be careful to be aware of all the ways we sin.
But don’t we always know?
Don’t our short comings always eat at us?
I don’t think any of us need to be reminded of our sins. I think we need to be reminded that we have inexplicable value and can tap into an unending source of grace and belonging. But that isn’t a message you hear from Christians too often- or often enough to overcome being drown by sin.
That makes me weep.
This small verbal interaction reminded me of when I worked in a drop-in clinic for homeless men. I would fill small foot spas with disinfectant and eucalyptus essential oils. I used cold water from the sink and boiling hot water from huge coffee makers to create the perfect temperature for soaking tired feet. It was never natural for me to grill the men that visited the foot clinic on their personal faith life. We did keep medical charts on them. We liked to know where they slept, if they were homeless, or if they were diabetic. We handed out hygiene kits when we had them. Toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, and underwear were the most requested items. We gave out vitamins if we had any.
I would pat the the foot rest on my manicurist bench that I perched on. It was covered with fresh towels and my gloved hands were ready to start the foot care ceremony. I trimmed nails, filed down calluses, and tended to blisters. I liberally applied antifungal creams and powders to tender feet. Sometimes their shoes were in such terrible shape, I would ask one of our friends at the center to go find a pair that had been donated. I learned that it was common for homeless people to keep their shoes on 24/7 to keep them from getting stolen.
I had a captive audience while I was providing foot care. I was giving the gift of first aid and touch and tenderness. I could have pummeled my guest with questions. I could have prodded them about their faith. I could have grilled them about their life and failures and told them they were sinners.
But I was not cut out for that. I never was.
I was an open book. They knew I was working at the clinic and I always told them about myself and my faith and about how I wanted to learn to love my neighbor like Jesus said to do. I never claimed to know how to do it, but I told them I wanted to live a life with that agenda. We played music for them. We sang them songs/made them listen to us sing songs. We chatted about foods that can be hard to eat when you don’t have that many teeth in your mouth. I was humbled to learn so much from these kind men who visited us every week or so.
I had so many wonderful interactions with the guys- they wanted to know more about my life and faith. They were always so honest about their religious upbringings. They all knew of God. They all knew of Jesus. They knew the Bible better than I did. No one needed me to preach. No one needed a lesson or my proselytizing. But that was what so many of my friends from home thought I should be doing. That is what they thought we should always be doing. They had to win souls for Christ. They had to convince the world that it needed Jesus. They had to show the world its sin and then show them that Jesus was the answer to that sin. They had to warn everyone- it was their duty as disciples.
Disagreeing with this approach has lost me more than one friend. I have never cared to live my faith out in this way. I did when I was younger and I didn’t know better. I grew out of that really quickly.
One man at the clinic always stood out to me. I have mentioned him before, I am certain. He spoke of going to church as a young boy. He remembered, sweetly, all the churches on every other street corner in Oakland. He knew all the stories and the verses. He knew that Jesus died for his sins. But he spoke to me with a heavy sadness. He said to me, “If you knew what I have done in my life, you would not love me. You would never forgive me.” His eyes were full of shame. I continued to touch his feet and he stunned me to silence. Every bone in my body knew he was right. I had no idea what he might have done in his life, but I figured that if I knew the atrocious things he had done, I probably wouldn’t want to touch his feet or be gentle and kind to him.
At the end of every pedicure, we always offered to pray for the men. No one ever declined. We would ask for specific prayer requests and if the men didn’t have any, we just prayed for general things. For this man I prayed that he would feel the love of God and that he would believe that he was loved, worth loving, and worth forgiving. I prayed that he would be able to understand these things in his lifetime. That night, at home, I prayed for myself. I prayed that I would someday be able to love people like him- people that did awful things.
It struck me that this man did not need anyone to tell him he was a sinner. No one needed to remind him to be mindful of his sin. He was fully aware that he was a fuck up and that he was fucked up. He carried his shame everywhere. He already bore his own cross. I am certain he would have climbed up on it himself. He was heavy with regret. He would not return to the church. He already knew what the church would say to him, “Sinner, most unclean, you have fallen short of the glory of God.” And he would say, “I know.”
He needed to be reminded that he had value in spite of his actions and his choices. He needed to be told that Jesus came and lived for all people and for love.
It is a simple emphasis change. And in that moment I knew that I could not live a life where I helped people put their lives under a microscope to find every speck of damning sin. That is not my job, and if it was- I wouldn’t take it.
I wonder if saying that Jesus died for our sins is dancing dangerously closely to taking his name in vain. Is it slapping Jesus’ name on something he doesn’t stand for? He didn’t stand for death. Jesus was opposed to death. He opposed it with his very being. He overcame it. He brought more abundant life. He stood for love. I don’t really give a shit about the semantics of it all. But there are a lot of people who do.
I just wonder.
And I hope that on this Easter, someone out there feels overwhelmed by the idea that Jesus came to love them in spite of themselves. And that on Easter, Jesus didn’t die for our sins. On Easter Jesus lived for love. On Easter Jesus lived for people.