A Good Friday meditation on kings and pirates

By , 10 April 2009 7:20 pm

There are a lot of things I could talk about this week, but it is Easter. And I have been preaching once a month at our church in a series broadly based around Christ in the Old Testament. Last Sunday evening I got round to Christ as King and it fitted in very nicely with the Palm Sunday theme. In truth, I find preaching something of a labour because I spend a lot of time preparing but it is extremely helpful in that it forces me to think through things. Anyway this is something that that emerged from my sermon preparation and you may find helpful.

One argument of the sceptics of traditional Christianity centres on the issue of how one man’s death can atone for others. Their argument is simply that what we dignify with the phrase ‘substitutionary atonement’ doesn’t really make much sense arithmetically or morally. Well, the arithmetical side can be dealt with by pointing out that as God, Christ has infinite merit but that still doesn’t really explain how one man can stand in for millions of others. So how do we answer this?

The first point to say is that to a large extent this is a problem that we have brought on ourselves in western Protestantism. Our celebration of the individual means that we tend to see ourselves as solitary figures isolated effectively from all others. Yet other societies operate on a different basis. Certainly in the Middle East, at least, the family is the fundamental element of society and an individual is always part of a family. One bizarre side-effect of this was that at AUB we had to make students taking the English entry exam display their identity cards, as it was all too common for the fluent Rami to stand in for his much weaker brother Amir. (We are now adopting this policy in the UK: it may be for similar reasons.)

The fascinating point was that, if caught, neither of them would have seen this as being fraud: for them substitution is one of those things that families are all about. So one answer to the problem of the cross is along these lines: as our ‘elder brother’ Christ is fully entitled to stand in for us. Another answer – and this may be more satisfactory – is to remember that in many cultures, a King is not just the ruler of his people but also their representative. As monarch he embodies all that they are. And on this view, Jesus as our Lord and King is of course perfectly entitled to stand in our place. His death on the cross was also his people’s death. (And in some way his resurrection is also ours.) Anyway, that was one spin-off from my talk last week: if it helps, you’re welcome to it.

There was actually an interesting little sideline on the news today which made me think of a third analogy. As I write this, Capt Richard Phillips of the ship Maersk Alabama is being held hostage by Somali pirates. As the story stands at the moment, apparently Captain Phillips offered himself as a hostage in order to save his crew from the pirates. It’s a nice Good Friday metaphor and we must pray it ends up well for the captain. I notice that the French – familiar with the area and untroubled by Protestant niceties – have just launched an armed raid to rescue some of their own citizens held hostage and inflicted a good deal of damage on the pirates in the process. (As an aside, this dramatic incident, which seems to have escaped from the series West Wing, is being seen over here at least as President Obama’s baptism of fire.) And incidentally, if anyone is at all interested, I must sometime tell you about my own modest role in contributing to the Somali civil war and the current state of our piracy. It’s not something that one boasts about…. 

In the meantime have a blessed Easter.

One Response to “A Good Friday meditation on kings and pirates”

  1. Bill D. says:

    A few quick thoughts on the Somali pirates…

    It’s been fascinating, and a bit troubling to listen to the discussion of the demise of this small group of ocean-going free-booters at the hands of US Navy snipers. In the general public, the response hs been “it’s about time!” The troubling aspect is that the response is virtually the same among those in a Bible study I attend here in Colorado. No thought for the eternal consequences – not one. Was justice done? Perhaps. Was this the only forseeable outcome? Perhaps. But ought we not, at least for a moment, feel some loss for the souls of these boys?

    As to this being Obama’s baptism of fire. It’s being spun that way here too. But from what we’re hearing, the orders were a bit more nuanced than that – apparently, the Navy Captian was told to exercise his judgment as to whether the captive’s life was in danger and take appropriate action. Seems to leave things open for a politically strategic distancing by the President if things didn’t go well. hardly the “speak softly and carry a big stick” approach that anotehr President took a century or so ago.

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