I love Louisiana. Our food. Our climate. Our landscape. Above all our people. I grew up elsewhere, but Louisiana isn’t just where I live. It’s home.
Precisely because Louisiana is my home, I take our problems and challenges to heart. And to be perfectly honest, I take them to heart as a devoted Christian. That’s why a recent article about our prison population
caught my attention and troubled my soul.
Leaving aside our food, we don’t top very many of those lists about best and most in America. We apparently do top one that is not so flattering. We incarcerate more people per capita than any other state in the Union. One in 86 adults has a prison as a home address. That’s almost double the national average.
Since America imprisons more people than anyone else, Louisiana’s national ranking makes us number one in the world. We have the Russians beat. We put 13 times more people behind bars than do the Iranians. Twenty times more than the Chinese.
We have lots of social problems.
Crime and poverty are high. Drug addiction and alcoholism destroy lives and wreck families. Our educational system has bright spots but in many areas we simply fail our children. We have a widening opportunity gap. Our method for delivering healthcare to the indigent is uneven and inadequate. Handicapped adults and their families struggle to find the resources they need.
The data about our prison system suggests that we have doubled down on punishment as a means to make our communities a better place. Louisiana is a predominantly Christian state. So, I’ve been wondering if a common misconception about the work Jesus came to do has influenced—consciously or unconsciously—how we go about trying to set things right.
What I mean is this. Many of us think that Jesus’ death is about punishment, setting things right with punishment. But that is not the lesson of Jesus’ death.
This may come as a surprise, or even a shock, to some.
After all, we frequently hear preachers say that God became Incarnate in response to Adam’s sin. This line of thought generally leads to seeing Jesus’ death as a penalty imposed upon Christ for our moral failings. Jesus is portrayed as our substitute.
His death is said to accomplish the forgiveness of our sins because he takes the punishment we deserve. The crucifixion erases the moral scoreboard and gives us a clean slate, a kind of moral and spiritual do-over.
And yet, when Jesus himself reflects upon his impending death, he speaks in very different terms.
Just after entering Jerusalem in triumph, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
There’s nothing here about righting the scales of justice by doling out punishments that fit our crimes. Jesus talks about dying to narrower life as the path to rising to greater life. Jesus dies to bear fruit, to impart eternal life to those who open themselves to the love he bears for them.
To be fair, Jesus says elsewhere that he came to give himself as a ransom. He also identifies the cup at the Last Supper as his blood of the New Covenant given for the forgiveness of sins. Those who think of Jesus’ death in terms of punishment will sometimes cite passages like these to bolster their interpretation.
But strictly speaking, a ransom is not a penalty. It’s a price someone pays to purchase freedom for someone else who cannot pay for themselves. In others words, Jesus the ransom is doing something for us that we cannot do for ourselves. He is lifting us from a narrow, self-centered life to a life motivated by love. And yes, this new life comes at a price.
But I need to take a few steps back to make sense of all this. Let’s be clear about why God became a human being. And before we can do that, we have to remember who God is.
John teaches us that God is love. This does not mean that God is sentimental or permissive or hyperemotional. God chooses relationship. In God’s inner life, that means that God is the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in an eternal dance of self-giving.
When God reaches out beyond himself, God creates and sustains. God doesn’t have to bring anything or anyone into being. God freely chooses. And he freely chooses to sustain what he brings into existence.
Deists mistakenly believed that God the great clockmaker formed the universe and then stepped back to watch it run. We Christians see God very differently. He remains intimately and perpetually involved in the creation. In every aspect of the creation. From the tiniest subatomic particles to the vast expanse of the largest galaxy.
God’s freely given love holds hummingbirds and Red Giants, Clydesdales and crawfish, ferns and azaleas and human beings in existence at every instant.
The Incarnation was part of the plan all along. It was not Plan B that God implemented when Adam cracked the once perfect universe. Jesus was Plan A. In fact, Jesus is the very culmination of Plan A. God intended all along to embrace his creation with the greatest love possible. To dwell in its midst as our God. To permeate all that he had brought into existence with his perfect love.
Adam’s fall did not force God’s hand. It simply meant that God’s implementation of Plan A was going to be far more painful than it had to be. In Jesus, God has come to draw us into the most intimate relationship possible by giving himself away to us. He pours his life out and into our very souls.
He meant something like this when he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
By dying on the cross and rising again, the earthly Jesus became the risen Lord. He no longer merely stands next to us. He dwells within us. His life pulses at the very center of our souls. We receive this sacramentally in Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. We can experience it personally in times of prayer and contemplation.
God infuses us with himself in Christ. This is something only God can do. But we have important work to do in our relationship with God. So long as we remain full of ourselves, we crowd God out. The more we empty ourselves of our egos and our status and our demand for comfort, the more space we make for God to dwell within us.
Or, as Jesus puts it, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25)
We cannot set this world right solely through punishment. Only love will do that. And strictly speaking only God’s love can do that. God has chosen to infuse this world with his love through the likes of us.
Jesus himself calls us to let go of protecting ourselves, protecting our stuff, and protecting our status. He call us to die so that we can know a larger life. Eternal life. Here in Louisiana. A life devoted to restoring the dignity of our neighbors instead of seeking to secure our own place in this world.
This sermon was preached at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Lecompte, Louisiana.