I am always energized by the principal liturgy for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. Attendance is invariably good, plus we combine the two best-attended services into one, so the church feels packed, and there's nothing that warms a parish priest's heart quite like a packed church. In California, we're fortunate to have access to a virtually limitless supply of palm branches (palm trees are a prevalent volunteer "weed" in my neighborhood), so we let ourselves go overboard in decorating the church; the picture at the top of this post only tells part of the story. We involve the children of the parish in some high-visual impact ways during the procession from the Guild Hall, down the sidewalk, and into the church. Our music director hired some string players to help accompany the chorus "Behold the Lamb of God" from Messiah as the offertory anthem. For some reason, the Taize chant "Jesus, remember me" that we sang during communion was particularly moving this year. I like Palm Sunday.
Of course, the power of the experience is built into the very structure of the rite. We begin in a party mood, outside of what we consider sacred space, in an atmosphere of controlled chaos. Cued by hand bells, we sing "Hosanna in the highest" several times while the palm branches are being distributed. The ancient hymn traditionally associated with this occasion, "All glory, laud, and honor" is set to a stirring tune that is easy to sing. And who doesn't love a parade? The people enter the church, still singing, but now accompanied by a majestic organ.
Then, just as our festivity feels like it's hitting a peak, we are gobsmacked by the Holy Week collect that talks about "the way of the cross" becoming "the way of life and peace." We sing Psalm 22 with the repeated refrain, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" We read the Passion narrative (from Luke this year) in a semi-dramatic fashion, with different parts assigned to different voices. The same lips that were shouting "Hosanna" a few minutes earlier are now shouting "Crucify him!" It's a case of liturgical whiplash.
So now we enter Holy Week, with our thoughts focusing on the cross of Christ. On Friday, we'll read the Passion again, this time from St John's version. Earlier today I ran across this item concerning some remarks made by the Dean of St Alban's, the Very Revd Jeffrey John. (Dr John, you may recall, was designated to become Bishop of Reading in 2003, but was persuaded by the Archbishop of Canterbury to decline the appointment in light of the controversy raised by the fact that he is in a long-term partnered relationship with another man.)
You can read the piece for yourself; I won't quote from it extensively. But Dr John challenges the notion that theologians call the "penal substitutionary atonement," which understands the death of Jesus on the cross as the offering of an innocent victim on behalf of sinful human beings, satisfying the just wrath of a holy God. Jesus dies on the cross, so those who put their faith in him are spared the natural consequences of their sins--eternal separation from God. Of this, Dr John says, "This is repulsive as well as nonsensical. It makes God sound like a psychopath. If a human behaved like this we'd say that they were a monster." He believes Christian preachers should emphasize themes of "love" and "truth" as they pertain to God, and lay aside any notion of "wrath" or "punishment."
As you might imagine, I believe it was both a theological and a pastoral mistake for Jeffrey John to make these remarks. But I also need to acknowledge that I am not without a good degree of empathy for his position. The fact is that the penal-substitutionary view is only one theory of the atonement (how it is that we are saved by what Jesus did). It draws on an abundance of scriptural imagery to flesh it out and give it heft. Its primary classical exponent is St Anselm, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the Twelfth Century, but it was picked up by the Reformers and has been a mainstay of Evangelical theology, both Anglican and otherwise.
But there are other equally biblical and equally plausible theories of the atonement, and to the extent that this may be Dean John's point, then he indeed has a point. As C. S. Lewis wisely observes in his classic Mere Christianity, none of the possible theories can alone account for the mystery of the atonement, and none have ever been declared official dogma by the Church. In fact, they need one another, even though they cannot be neatly reconciled, and appear to contradict one another in certain ways.
As for the love of God versus the wrath of God--this is just one in a long series of polarities that comprise the truth of the gospel. (Just to name a few: God is one and God is three, Jesus is divine and Jesus is human, salvation requires faith [Paul] and salvation requires deeds [James], prayer is "art" and prayer is "craft," faith is individual ["I believe"] and faith is communal ["we believe"]). The object of the game is to maintain the tension in the line between the two poles, the two ends of the spectrum. The temptation is always to resolve the apparent contradiction in favor of one and at the other's expense. This is precisely how we fall into error, into--yes-- heresy.
The wrath of God is not an appealing concept, and one can make a case that it has been overblown at some times within the tradition of Christian preaching and catechesis. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean we can cast it aside. Quite the contrary; it is the difficult parts of the faith that demand our closest attention and deepest struggle. If the historical development of Christian thought shows us anything, it is that we do the truth no service by resolving apparent contradictions too hastily or too cleanly. Deep truth--meta-truth--emerges from a sustained struggle, earnest wrestling, with notions that appear to be irreconcilable.
Jeffrey John's mistake is not in calling us to a richer understanding of the cross of Christ than the penal-substitutionary atonement, viewed in one dimension. It is in yielding to the omnipresent temptation to relax the tension between the poles. When that happens, both ends collapse.