The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 2/24/08
Text: Romans 5:1-11
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Atonement. Nice, three-dollar theological word that might be expected to make the eyes of all but the most devout glass over, at least any year but this year. After all, the movie "Atonement" (1) is up for an Oscar as Best Picture of the Year at the Academy Awards ceremonies tonight.

Knowing that the theme for this third Sunday in Lent would be atonement, Christie and I went to see the movie last week at the Library Theatre. The story opens in 1935 in England where the precocious 13-year-old Briony Tallis lives on her family's country estate with her mother and sister, Cecilia. Cecilia is home for the summer from Cambrige where she had been studying, as had also the housekeeper's son, Robbie. She and Robbie have one of those uncertain relationships of emerging maturity - there is a certain unquestionable romantic chemistry between them, but neither one is willing to act on it.

One day, Briony sees from her bedroom window an argument between Cecilia and Robbie at the fountain. Robbie accidentally breaks an antique vase and a piece of it falls into the fountain. Angrily, Cecilia strips down to her shear skivvies and dives into the fountain to retrieve it. She comes up from the water and climbs out of the fountain soaking wet with fabric clinging to every curve. The look between the two is hot, but nothing is done. Briony is watching all this from afar and is confused and a little bit angry about the sexual tension because she happens to have her own crush on Robbie.

Later that day, Robbie is invited to join the family for dinner. Embarrassed by his behavior earlier, he tries to write a note of apology to Cecilia. A first draft includes a sexually charged declaration of his love for her, but he thinks better of it and then writes a more formal expression of regret which he intends to hand deliver. Then he thinks it might be better if someone else carries the note, so he enlists young Briony and accidentally entrusts her with the WRONG note. When he realizes what he has done, he tries to retrieve it, but Briony is now out of earshot. Before delivering it to her sister, she reads the missive and is scandalized. She finally gives the note to Cecilia but later confides to her cousin that she believes Robbie is a dangerous sex maniac.

To make a long story short, Robbie is later accused of rape based on Briony's trumped-up charges which are buttressed by the sexually-explicit letter. He is convicted and sent to prison only to be let out on condition that he join the army to go to France and fight the Nazis.

Briony knows that she has done something awful and wants to make amends. Robbie's life is ruined. Cecelia's life is ruined. The rest of the movie details, in often rather confusing fashion, Briony's attempts to put things right. If you have not seen it, I will not give away anything more.

As Christie and I walked home from the film, we talked about it. One quick conclusion was that if this is nominated for Best Picture, the pickin's this year must have been slim - we found ourselves totally confused more often than not (although I sometimes think the reason people vote for confusing films is that they presume the confusion is "art" and no one wants to admit that they do not understand "art"). As to how it relates to this morning's text, what I can say is that there does appear to be something within each of us that says evil deeds must be atoned for - things that are wrong must be made right. Atonement. Yes, that will preach.

The Apostle Paul, who wrote the Epistle to the Romans, understood that. He had a rather deep and abiding understanding of human sin. In another letter, he even called himself the "chief of sinners." (2) It was his conviction that in our lives, sin is so pervasive that there is no way we can make things right. Nothing we can do would compensate, nothing we might offer would balance the scale. There are sins of commission, things we do that hurt others; there are the sins of omission, things we fail to do that ought to be done. Paul goes on about this at great length in the beginning of this remarkable letter culminating in his insistence on the universality of the problem: "for ALL have sinned and come short of the glory of God." (3) We learned that in Sunday School.

But then Paul begins to shift gears as he talks about Abraham, perhaps the most important character of the Hebrew scriptures outside of God Almighty. He writes of Abraham's relationship with God that had nothing to do with the patriarch's prodigious accomplishments but rather his faith. He insists that Abraham's faith is what made the relationship right, not anything that the man did. For that matter, Paul would insist that nothing Abraham might DO would possibly suffice.

Now we encounter our text for the day and the soaring phrases that became the hallmark of the Reformation: "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ..." Justification by faith - our relationship with God is not established by anything we do, but rather in faith in what has already been done, the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. You scholars will remember question 33 of the Shorter Catechism, "What is Justification?" And the answer, "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein God pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone."

Now wait a minute here. Did we not already acknowledge when we were talking about the movie that there is something in us that understands evil deeds must be atoned for, some price must be paid to make things right? Indeed. And the word of the gospel is that your evil deeds HAVE been atoned Calvary. "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us...we have now been justified by his blood..." That is the atonement. That is what has made things right.

Calvary stands at the crossroads of human history. All the divine paths of the past led to it. All those of the present and future lead from it. At the cross, all the sin of the ages was placed on the sinless son of God, as he became the representative of the human race in paying the price that justice demands. Ezekiel had laid out the penalty: in the measured cadence of King James English, "the soul that sinneth, it shall die." (4) It should have been us up there. By God's grace, it was him.

The horror of the crucifixion serves as an effective reminder that our religion is not something wispy and ethereal. It is more than pretty pictures of Jesus among flowers and singing birds, moving with a smile among simple people. The gospel is more than the Golden Rule and the Christmas story. Christianity deals with reality, with life as you and I experience it. It recognizes that this is not always a pretty world, it is a world in which dreadful things can happen. The most dreadful event in all of history is at the center of our faith.

If that does not sound like particularly good news, neither would it be good news to preach that there was no sin in Jesus Christ, therefore we should be like him. It is not good news to say that he did no wrong, therefore we too ought to be perfect. It is not good news to say that he left us an example that we should follow. These things are true, but they are not gospel. Christ did not come into the world merely to proclaim a new morality, or a code of ethics, or to set up a new social order. He did not show us how to work out our own salvation by good deeds, by charities or by trying to lead respectable lives. No! He came, he said, "to seek and to save what was lost." (5)

He gave the example of the sheep that had strayed. "What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?" (6) There was no condemnation in him for the lost one, only the desire to bring it back. The journey to the cross was the ultimate search in the mountains. The Crucifixion was the cost of the trip.

How could the crucifixion atone for the sin of all humanity? In only one respect - it was God in human flesh, the perfect one, nailed to that tree. If all that were required were a crucifixion, the other two there with him would have been sufficient. But the ancient Law required that the sacrifice be without spot and without blemish. The only one who could possibly have qualified was Jesus Christ - God incarnate. He died in our place.

Our good friend Bill Carter, began a sermon on this text (7) by saying, "I have an announcement to make. Today's sermon is not for everybody. It was not planned for a general audience. It was not written to whom it may concern. No, today's sermon is intended for people who have a hard time feeling forgiven. The rest of you can listen in.

"Once in a while, I run across somebody who has difficulty feeling that the good news of the gospel is for them," he said. "They don't have any problem believing all the outrageous things that church takes to be true, like God becoming a human or the resurrection of Jesus. They may generally go along with, even enjoy, the church's commitment to mission in the world. They like church people, and choose to spend time around them. But when it comes to accepting God as a positive and joyful presence in daily life, well, it simply doesn't come as good news.

"At the heart, this seems to be a matter of forgiveness. The heart of the gospel is the news that God in Christ forgives us. 'While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.' It's one thing to go to church, sing the hymns, say the prayers, stand and affirm this truth. It's another thing to know in your veins that this is good news for me."

As Bill went on, he recalled hearing another minister who served a small church in a sleepy little town on the Susquehanna River. A college professor had retired and moved back to the town, back to the family homestead. He was well-educated, well-traveled, and the minister found him to be a breath of fresh air. He had a strong speaking voice, and when he was not assisting in the worship service or singing in the choir, everybody could still hear him when the congregation would say some words together.

"Every Sunday, they would say the Lord's Prayer together. When they got to 'Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,' the retired professor would say, 'Forgive us our trespasses." With his strong voice, everybody could hear it. The minister confessed that it used to annoy him.

"Forgive us our debts ... Forgive us our trespasses."

"One day during coffee hour, he moved over to the man and said, 'I notice that you say, 'Forgive us our trespasses,' even when the rest of us say, 'Debts.' I know you grew up in this church, and people around here have always said, 'Debts.' I'm curious about that.'

"The retired professor said, 'My father was the town banker. He always taught us that debts must be repaid, not forgiven. Every dime must be repaid. It was irresponsible to let a debtor off the hook. And so, our family has always said, 'Trespasses.'" OK.

Truth be told, there are lots of folks who believe that, regardless of what words they say in their prayers. Everybody has to repay everything, just like Briony Tallis in the movie. But one thing that old banker and his son were not aware of is that the questionable translation in the Lord's Prayer is not "debts" or "trespasses," it is "forgive." From the Greek, the word is better translated as "cancel," as in, "cancel our debts, cancel our trespasses, cancel our sins." That is what Jesus did on the cross. That is atonement.

At the end of the movie, we see Briony Tallis once more, no longer a silly 13-year-old but now an older woman near the end of her life. She is being interviewed following the publication of her twenty-first novel which is titled "Atonement," and she confesses that it is an effort to make right the wrong she had done so long ago. Sadly, it does not work.

What Jesus did on the cross DOES work, and that is why we call it good news. Gospel. The gospel is not something to do but something done. It is not something you can do, but something that has been done for you. And it happened at a certain point in time on the brow of a hill shaped like a skull. It was done for me and for you, simply because he loves us.

Hail thou once despis-ed Jesus
Hail thou Galilean king!
Thou didst suffer to release us;
thou didst free salvation bring.
Hail thou agonizing Savior,
Bearer of our sin and shame
By thy merits we find favor;
life is given through Thy name. (8)


1. Working Title Films, directed by Joe Wright, screenplay by Christopher Hampton from a novel by Ian McEwan, 2007

2. 1 Timothy 1:15

3. Romans 3:23

4. Ezekiel 18:20

5. Luke 19:10

6. Matthew 18:12

7. William G. Carter, "Still Sinners, Still Forgiven,"Sermons for Sundays: After Pentecost (First Third), (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2004)

8. Attributed to John Bakewell (1757) & Martin Madan (1760).

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