Sermon: There is Power in the Blood

Selection from Hebrews 9-10

When my Mom was dying, I would sing hymns to her. Her church didn’t use the blue hymnal we use, so I would sing from the “red hymnal,” the one that came before the blue hymnal. I would start at the front and begin singing the hymns I remembered from growing up: “Holy God, we praise thy name.” And “Come thou almighty king.” She liked those front-of-the-book hymns okay, but after a few of them she would indicate, with a small flick of her finger (since she couldn’t speak by this point) that I was to continue paging through to the back of the hymnal where the “Gospel Songs” section began. 

These were the old-time hymns she particularly loved. Truth to be told, these are some of my favorite hymns, too. Please sing along if you know them:  “I know that my Redeemer liveth and on the earth again shall stand.”  And “Oh Lord, my God! When I awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made.” However, there were many hymns in that Gospel Songs section that were… less favorites of mine. These are the ones I call the “bloody hymns,” the ones focussed on how the blood of Jesus saves us. One of my Mom’s favorites was “Marvelous Grace.” I won’t sing it — although I bet some of you can — but I will read its first two verses and chorus because it summarizes so well the theology of “blood atonement”:

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt. 

Yonder on Calvary’s mount outpoured, there where the blood of the Lamb was spilt. 

Grace, grace, marvelous grace. Grace that can pardon and cleanse each sin.

Grace, grace, God’s grace. Grace that is greater than all our sin.

Dark is the stain that we cannot hide, what can avail to wash it away? 

Look! there is flowing a crimson tide; whiter than snow may you be today (that line with its racialized overtones makes me particularly uncomfortable)

Grace, grace, marvelous grace. Grace that can pardon and cleanse each sin.

Grace, grace, God’s grace. Grace that is greater than all our sin.

And then there was the hymn that seemed to be every one’s favorite in the church in which I grew up. My home congregation would sing this hymn with gusto, and I invite you to do the same right now, even though you may have some discomfort with the theology. (Congregation sings “Would you be free.”)

I can sense why this hymn was so beloved by my home church. I can feel its power. And I know why I am uncomfortable with its theology.  I long ago stopped believing that God needed the blood sacrifice of “His” own Son so that God could love and forgive what God had created — that is, us. I long ago stopped believing that we were so stained by sin that only the blood of a pure victim — one without stain or sin — could cover over our sinfulness sufficiently that we could once again be in God’s favor.  This is called the substitutionary atonement theory of salvation. And when I was growing up, it was the only understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. (For many Christians, it still is.) Christians were those who believed in Jesus as their Savior because of his atoning, saving death on the cross. We should have died because of our sin, but he substituted himself in our place. His blood covers over our sin and makes us acceptable again to God. 

Back then, I didn’t know that the substitutionary atonement theory was just one way of understanding Jesus’ death.  In fact, for the first 1000 years of Christianity, it wasn’t the central understanding. It wasn’t until 1098 that the theologian Anselm first articulated a systemic understanding of the cross as “payment for sin.” He did so by drawing upon those passages of the Bible, like the ones we heard from Hebrews, that seemed to support this understanding. But he also drew upon a cultural model from his own time and place — that of “the relationship of a medieval lord to his peasants,” as biblical scholar Marcus Borg says. “If a peasant disobeyed the lord, could the lord simply forgive if he wanted to? No. Because that might imply that disobedience didn’t matter that much. Instead, compensation must be made. Nothing less than the honor and order of the lord were at stake. Anselm then applied that model to our relationship with God. We have been disobedient and deserve to be punished. And yet God loves us and wants to forgive us. But the price of sin must be paid. Jesus as a human being who was also divine and thus perfect and without sin did that.” He paid that price, once and for all time, with his own blood.

Many theologians, including many Mennonite theologians, have critiqued this bloody theology. It makes God into a being who demands a violent blood sacrifice, which many people believe legitimates a culture of violence and punishment. These theologians have lifted up different understandings of Jesus’ death and how Jesus saves us that, while still orthodox, don’t feature a  God who demands violent blood sacrifice. I’m going to talk more about these different understandings next week — yup, you have to return for the sequel! 

Despite all the misgivings I have about “bloody theology,” it’s also true that as I sang those Gospel hymns to my Mom as she was dying, I can’t deny that there is “power in the blood.” In fact, this metaphor of blood has deep archetypal resonances for us that we would do well to understand more fully if we want to understand why this idea of the saving power of Jesus’ blood speaks so much to some people.  And so, a brief history of blood: Almost since recorded history, blood has been a powerful symbol within world mythologies and cultures. Almost universally, blood has been seen as having magical powers and as being food for supernatural beings.  And so, blood sacrifice has been a part of almost every culture at one time or another. Because blood is so powerful, the blood of an animal or human when sacrificed to a god or to supernatural forces was seen as sufficient to placate their displeasure, such that humans would not be punished for any transgressions. There’s an Arabic saying, “blood has flowed, the danger is past,” which reflects this idea that blood will ward off malicious powers or supernatural forces bent on chastisement.  Menstrual blood in every culture has at one time or another been taboo. Sometimes, this may be because of patriarchy and its revulsion toward things female. But often, scholars think this was because menstrual blood was seen as so powerful that women need to be separated out from others while it is flowing, to protect people from something so, literally, awesome.

Blood also represents passion and loyalty. To be blood brothers or sisters is to be closer and more passionately loyal to each other than even genetic relationship. There are blood feuds and blood vengeance, where we swear — out of loyalty to people or an idea — that we will shed our own blood, if need be, as well as that of others. Our own early Anabaptist history is bathed in blood. The full title of the book “The Martyr’s Mirror” that has been held sacred  by Anabaptists for centuries starts: “The Bloody Theater or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians” etc. Early Anabaptists talked about about a threefold baptism: the baptism of the Spirit, where you are inwardly changed; the baptism into water which follows this change; and then the baptism of the blood — which meant that believers were willing to be obedient and loyal to the way of Jesus even unto the point of spilling their own blood. In many cultures, blood and wine are interchangeable symbols. Our own communion ritual enshrines this connection: “This is my blood, which is given for you,” Jesus says, as he shares a cup of wine with his disciples the night before his blood is shed.

If we think we rational, 21st century folk are beyond this kind of fixation with blood, I invite you to think of when you were a child and you could stare for a long time at your own blood as it oozed out of a cut. Perhaps you even cut yourself on purpose so you could look at it. And then there’s the obsession with vampires that pops up time and again in our popular culture. I confess to some fascination with the vamps. Patrick and I just got done watching (for the second time) the 1990s series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In one episode, the vampire Spike articulates to a rather dense human why blood is so powerful: “Blood is life, lackbrain. Why do you think we eat it? It’s what keeps you going, makes you warm… makes you other than dead.” 

In short, blood is so powerful for us because blood is life — it represents the essence of life and the life-force. Ancient Hebrews had exactly the same understanding of the power of blood as our 21st century vampire, Spike: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood,” it says in Leviticus, Genesis and Deuteronomy.  For this reason, blood became an important part of ancient Hebrew spiritual practice in the form of animal sacrifice. But maybe not for the reason we think. The classic Christian understanding of the Hebrew sacrifice of animals is that it was done as an expiation for sin — just like Jesus’ death. A person or a community sinned, and so to atone for that, a priest would slay an animal and this animal’s blood would “cover their sins” and make them right with God. 

However, a modern Rabbi explains sacrifice in the Hebrew scriptures somewhat differently. The Hebrew word for that which was sacrificed is KOR-ba-not which means “something which draws close.” So, the purpose of sacrifice was to bring people closer to God. Sacrificing the blood of animal was seen as particularly effective, but if a person didn’t have any animal to sacrifice, grain or money could be sacrificed instead. The grain would be burned and the money donated. The idea here is that by offering something valuable to God, you would draw closer to God. So, the rabbi says, it’s not so much that God demanded blood per se. It was that the offering of something so valued symbolized a worshipper’s dedication to God — and this brought the worshiper close to God. 

Another way of understanding Hebrew sacrifice in which an animals’ blood was shed is that a worshiper would symbolically identify with the animal to be sacrificed by laying their hands on the animal. When the priest placed the blood of the animal… on the horns of the altar, where God was said to reside, it was, again, a way to ritualize the self-dedication of the worshiper to God. The animal did not die in place of killing the person… Rather, the animals’ blood goes to God and represents the life of the person who will henceforth live for God.  (This is from J. Denny Weaver’s excellent book The Nonviolent Atonement.)

I want to offer one last way of understanding why there is power in the blood. While I was in Hawaii, I was reading about the concept of mana in indigenous Hawaiian/Polynesian understandings. People or things or places are believed to possess mana or spiritual power. The island of Molokai had more mana than the other islands, for example, and royalty all had much mana. Many cultures have this understanding that certain people or things possess spiritual power. For my Mom, as well as many other Christians, Jesus’ blood possess spiritual power. (Jesus’ name also possesses spiritual power for many people, but that is another sermon.) Those of us who can no longer believe in the idea of blood atonement might still do well to reflect upon how, for many, Jesus’ blood is spiritually powerful. To say that I am covered by the blood of Jesus is a way of saying that I am bathed in the spiritual power of Jesus. To say that Jesus’ blood covers over my sins is to say that his spiritual power is greater than anything I or others might do that would separate me from God. For my Mom, as she was dying, her belief in the powerful blood of Jesus gave a kind of spiritual power to her, to sustain her though the arduous journey she was on. Despite my discomfort with the theology of the hymn “There is Power in the Blood,” I was comforted to sing this hymn to her at such a time.

Whether we are fascinated by blood or repulsed by it, whether we are comforted by the thought of Jesus’ saving blood or discomfited by it, may we each find that precious wonder-working power that sustains us in our journey, as my Mom found it for hers. Amen.