Every now and then I get an email lauding something like the newest Eucharistic Prayer used in homeless ministry. In fact, I got one the other day, and from what I could gather from the string of emails attached to this prayer there is a perceived need for “simpler language” (their words, not mine) to be used at these services. I read on, and what struck me was not that the language in the prayer had been simplified – in fact, I’m not sure it had. There remained words like “nomad,” as well as this particularly troubling sentence: “He [Jesus] died in our place, making a full atonement for the sins of the whole world, the perfect sacrifice, once and for all.” Even if you know what the word “atonement” means, I don’t believe it gives you a window in substitutionary atonement theology – a dubious concept at best – or the ability to understand what even theologian have argued about for seventeen hundred years.
I’m not picking on this particular group of people. My point is that we do nonsensical stuff like this all the time when we don’t stop to consider the audience we are trying to reach. There was, for example, a reference to God in this particular prayer as the “owner of all things.” Is that supposed to comfort the homeless in some way, I wonder, because I’m not sure it would. What’s more, I’m not sure how comforting the concept of “Jesus’ death on the cross for your sins” is to someone who has very little, who may well be suffering from a serious mental illness, and whose prospects may well be bleak.
In fact, in our contemporary times I have to wonder how helpful the idea of substitutionary atonement is for anybody who is struggling. Even if we accept the proposition that Jesus had to die to appease an angry God who was so outraged at our sins He felt someone had to die [I don’t accept it, by the way], how precisely does that help someone who is about to lose their home, or can’t feed their family, or faces a serious illness? I can’t imagine too many of us would be callous enough to overtly say, “Well, Bob, I know your son has been given six months to live, but – hey! – the good news is Jesus died for all of our sins so don’t worry, be happy!” Why, then, are we interested in saying the same thing in a covert way in our liturgies?
There are as many explanations offered for the implosion of mainline Christianity as there are people offering explanations, and most of those explanations probably have a shred of truth in them. I can’t help but wonder, however, if any of those shreds would matter if Christianity as presented by institutional religion was relevant to the lives of real people living in the real world. Even if Jesus did buy everyone a “get out of hell free card” with his death, that isn’t a fact relevant to anything that happens before my death! I can’t help but believe it would be far better to say to the homeless, “You are children of God and you carry God within you. Your circumstances right now aren’t the best, but you can tell from our actions that we love you and stand with you.” I believe that if we could show that was true through our actions we could leave the grape juice and crackers at home, we could use whatever language worked best in our conversations, and we would transform lives so far beyond the ability of most of our current practices that we would abandon them immediately.
Then again, that kind of engagement involves personal risk and abandoning our self-declared positions of superiority. Unless we have worked on our egos for some time, that may be a blow they are not willing to bear.