“In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor 5:19). This is one of the most well known passages of Christian scripture. It is also one of the most puzzled-over. Atonement is a particularly knotty theological matter. While the Church canonized claims about God related to the Trinity, Incarnation, and Resurrection, no doctrine of atonement has ever been broadly adopted in this way. Perhaps this is because theologians have never been able to come to a consensus about it.
There are many different ways of understanding Christ’s atoning work on the cross, and more than one of them may be true at one time. This makes the task of preaching the atonement seem rather daunting. How can one be expected to convey this great mystery of our faith, particularly within the confines of a twenty-to-thirty-minute sermon? The best way that I have found is in a parable written by Eleonore Stump, discussed below in an excerpt from Key United Methodist Beliefs (Abingdon, 2013, pp. 81-82). I hope you find it a helpful, both for theological reflection and preaching.
The Christian philosopher Eleonore Stump tells a story that helps us to understand this. She writes of a mother, Anna, who has a young son, Nathan. Nathan, while playing soccer, carelessly destroys Anna’s much-loved flower bed, despite her admonition that he not play soccer near her flowers. He utters a hasty apology, but the apology does not restore the flower bed, nor does it restore his mother’s hurt feelings. Not only did she love the flowers, but she also feels that Nathan does not care for her feelings or wishes. As Stump puts it, “So what Nathan has done has created some distance between himself and his mother. His will and hers are not in harmony and he does not love her as he might; and her recognition of both of these facts makes her sad.”†
Now, suppose that Nathan comes to a realization of the way in which he has hurt his mother. If he is truly sorry, he may in fact attempt to restore the flower bed, but he is too young to provide any real help. He cannot undo what he has done. If Nathan had someone to ask for help such as a big brother, the two of them might be able to combine their efforts and repair the damage. Even if his brother does most of the work, Nathan’s desire to make right his wrong may restore the relationship between him and his mother. Nathan does not have a big brother, though, or anyone who can help him repair what he has destroyed.
Suppose, however, that Nathan is not sorry. He does not realize the damage he has done, and he shows not a care for his mother’s feelings. His mother, then, will have to repair the flower bed entirely herself, doing the work that Nathan should be doing, in a sense, enduring his punishment for him, otherwise, the flower bed will simply remain in ruins. Seeing his mother do this work that he himself should do, however, might just cause Nathan to realize what he has done wrong and move him to repent of his actions. At that point, he might add his efforts to hers, attempting to work alongside her in the act of repairing the flower bed. In fact, he might not help very much, but his willingness to help, his desire to make things right, and his demonstrated love for his mother would make it possible for the two of them to be reconciled. The flowerbed is thus repaired and the relationship is restored.
†See Eleonore Stump, “Atonement According to Aquinas,” in Thomas V. Morris, ed., Philosophy and the Christian Faith (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 66.