Wednesday, August 12, 2015

My Talk on the Atonement: Jesus' Life As the Most Important Element

When we talk about the Atonement, we often use analogies or explanations that make sense to us. For example, we hear about the parable of the bicycle - or the weak student who is going to get whipped for his actions but a stronger student steps in to take his punishment - or someone who is in overwhelming debt who has his debt paid by a rich benefactor - or any number of other examples. We want to understand the Atonement more deeply, so we create these explanations - and we pick whichever one resonates most deeply with our own personalities and experiences.

While I also like to try to understand the mechanics of the Atonement (how it works in practical terms), I think obsessing over exactly which explanation is "true" is an example of something Elder Maxwell said in General Conference in 1988 - that the dimensions of the cross are not as important as what happened on it. Therefore, I am not going to talk about my understanding of the practical details of the Atonement; rather, I am going to talk about what the Atonement means to me - how it resonates most deeply with my own soul.

I start by comparing how the Atonement is addresses within mainstream Christian thought and within Mormon theology.

The traditional belief in Christianity about our ultimate end can be summed up as the wicked or unsaved suffering forever in Hell, while the righteous or saved live forever in the presence of God (generally focused on Jesus). In essence, this belief says that some will be punished with eternal torment, while others will end up in the condition we teach existed in the pre-existence. Framed differently, in Mormon terms and not focusing on the differences in physical condition to the resurrection, mainstream Christianity teaches that all people will end up in either Outer Darkness or the Terrestrial Kingdom. It's not that we reject their concept of Heaven and Hell; it's that we see more eternal conditions than that - and, importantly, we teach that most people will end up being more blessed than what is believed in most other denominations. For example, the generically wicked will be rewarded and blessed with a degree of glory, and those who strive to live the best they understand will be blessed with a much greater reward than the Terrestrial Kingdom, no matter their religious affiliation in this life.

That concept of an "extra reward" is the heart of the difference between how we view the Atonement - and I have to chuckle a little whenever I hear someone say that Mormons believe they are the only ones who will make it to Heaven. They simply don't understand our theology - but I also think it's important to point out that this misunderstanding sometimes occurs because of how we talk about "the world" and "others".

That is part of the intellectual aspect of the Atonement that means a lot to me, but the intellectual is not the most powerful to me. I believe strongly that, in the Church, we so the Atonement a disservice (that we actually devalue it) when we focus exclusively on the Garden of Gethsemane and Golgotha. Those are incredibly important aspects of the Atonement, but the ultimate goal of our existence is NOT to be saved from sin and death and return to a terrestrial existence (equal to the pre-existence, except with a resurrected body). We are told that the purpose and measure of our creation is to become like God - and it is Jesus' LIFE that provides the blueprint for how that can occur. His suffering and death are said to free us to pursue exaltation, but it is his life that teaches us how to "become like God"; thus, his life is an integral part of his Atonement.

To state it differently, someone can lack an intellectual understanding of Jesus and the Atonement (and not even have heard of either in this life) and still become like God, while others can study Jesus and understand intellectually the Atonement and not become anything like God. Understanding Jesus and the Atonement to the best of my ability is important, but actually striving to live like he lived and become like him is FAR more important in the end.

How can we do that?

We can read his words and emulate him. We can read the Sermon on the Mount and strive to acquire the characteristics of blessedness it lists and describes. We can see whom he served and look for ways to serve those same people (the publicans and sinners in our own society). We can stop focusing on serving those whom it is easy to serve (like each other here in this chapel) and reach out to those we naturally would avoid, despise and reject. We can try to love as he loved, knowing all the other commandments hang on love.

Brothers and sister, we need to acknowledge Jesus' suffering and death (and we generally are pretty good at that), but I believe we need to be much more intentional and dedicated to changing the world around us than we generally are. My only New Year's Resolution this year is to find a way to help the publicans and sinners around me - those people who I naturally see as "unclean" - not just to check off something on a to-do list, but to develop more fully the type of character and loving nature that Jesus said in Matthew 5:48 is the full measure of perfection.

I hope we all can do so, together and individually.

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