on jesus’ blood

This week, I found myself in a conversation, an interesting conversation with lots of potential, a conversation that really didn’t get the time it deserved, because I was between meetings. The conversation was about blood, about spilled blood, specifically about the blood of Jesus. Way back, when the Jesus movement was new, before the “new testament” was even scripture, some people expressed their hopes and longings, as well as their experiences and perceptions, in stories they told aloud, and in letters to groups of people forming around the Jesus movement. They told the stories in ways that were truthful and faithful. Sadly, over the course of not too many generations, followers of Jesus got lazy and contentious, and the movement got co-opted (see also “Constantine,” “imperialism,” “political oppression”), just as religion always does by people who have a stake in systems remaining intact. These days, we find ourselves too often parsing – or reciting – ancient language rather than telling our own stories of faith about the world and its Creative Source.

That doesn’t really accomplish anything, except draw lines around who’s in and who’s out. And I’m so pleased that my new congregation, Woodside Church, has committed itself to a wider theological lens. Woodside is American Baptist and United Church of Christ, and committed to living in the tension.

I’m pleased, but I’m also challenged by Woodside’s wider approach. Spending our time in groups of people who think exactly like we do is easier, of course, but it makes us dull, soft. We start to speak in shortcuts, in a language that we assume needs no examination. Which is how the language of “blood” became a conversation this week.

One of the things church has said for a long time is that Jesus’ blood was shed for us. It’s in the bible; we say it in communion; we sing it in myriad hymns new and old. It’s worth asking, not whether it is true necessarily, but what we mean when we claim that. And this week, I was compelled to think about it again.

I don’t take lightly the proclamation I make whenever we share communion: the body of Christ, broken; the blood of Christ shed. I believe it, even as historical truth. Jesus of Nazareth, who for me is Christ chosen of God, was beaten and killed. His body endured torment, he bled and died. The rub is the next part of the sentence. What do you say next? Body broken, blood shed “for you”? “as a payment (expiation, we like to say) for our sins”? “to satisfy God’s ledger book or thirst for blood”?

In the broad theological spectrum at Woodside, (and perhaps in your place too) there are folks who cringe at this language as well as those who take comfort in it. Personally, it is not the language of my faith. If Jesus’ death was God’s plan, then the people who killed him should be celebrated as faithful, obedient saints, I think. If his blood was a payment for my inability to live as God imagines, that suggests to me something about God: that God requires a settling of accounts by human sacrifice. That’s not something I am willing to claim, although I respect those who do, and I’m so glad there is room at Woodside for all of us. When I think of Jesus’ bloody death, I think more about Jesus’ rebellious life: he was crucified for insurrection, for trying to change the system, for believing and teaching that power was in the wrong hands. That’s not about deb, except as deb is part of humanity, suffocated by those with misplaced power, at the same time enjoying extraordinary benefits from sharing in that power. I am part of the system, part of the problem, so yes, Jesus’ death was about getting me, getting US, out of that and onto a new path. Jesus’ blood was spilled for me, not because I was his target for individual redemption, but because the whole of creation is dying a slow death from an unsustainable system and he saw it and tried to tell us there is something better, if we’d only be willing to open our minds to God’s imagination. So, I claim that bloody death as a grace to me because I need what he was trying to bring – a world of peace and justice for all its inhabitants. The blood of Christ for me? Yes.

I’m telling you this because it is Lent. During this season particularly, as we Christians head toward Good Friday, we ponder “atonement,” the reconciling work of God in Jesus. We’ll sing hymns with language that makes us squirm and hear scripture readings we’d prefer to clip out and toss. My hope is that in the discomfort, we’ll examine anew just what we believe about Jesus, how we relate to God through him, and why we continue to claim a place in the movement that bears his name.

Happy Lent. May the conversations always be so uncomfortably enriching.

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About Deb Conrad
I’m Deb Conrad, pastor, teacher, photographer, writer, antique-lover, cat-mom, wine-drinker and old-house-seeker. I have a bike by Burley and knees by Stryker. I play guitar marginally, bowl when I can. I live in Flint, Michigan, with previous lives in SC, NJ, PA, MD, Washington DC, TX, CA and KY. I founded and still help run UrbanSpirit, a poverty education center in Louisville (link below), where I meet interesting people and try to do what I can to change the world. I'm pastor of Woodside Church in Flint, a groovy place if ever there was one.

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