On Thursday, I took two assemblies at our children’s school for the first time – one with Key Stage 1 (a.k.a. ‘infants) and one with Key Stage 2 (‘juniors’ to oldies like me). I am doing this as part of a team from two or three local churches. We are taking incidents from the life of Jesus this term. Last week’s speaker, Helen, used the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. I couldn’t get anything together on the visit to Jerusalem when he was twelve. So, with the aid of Scripture Union‘s rather decent Big Bible Storybook, I looked at his baptism. I also purloined a doll of Rebekah’s, which Debbie dressed in the very christening robe she and her sister had worn as babies.
Further, I borrowed a portable font from church. It was interesting to hear the children’s answers when I asked them what I thought it was. Some thought it was an urn (wrong end of life, I guess). My favourite wrong guess was from the child who thought it contained tombola tickets.
Without going into the whole of my talk, I got to the point where Jesus asks John to baptise him and John protests, only for Jesus to say it’s what God wants. I took that as an early sign of Jesus identifying with sinful humanity (it’s OK, I didn’t use that level of language). Therefore, I said, it was a sign of what Jesus would do in his death on the Cross.
Thus I asked the children how they would feel if they had done something naughty and a friend offered to take the blame for them. In both assemblies, the answer was the same: ‘Kind.’ No worrying about whether it was just or ethical for an innocent person to be condemned in place of the guilty, they saw the heart of such an approach was love.
I couldn’t help thinking they might be further on than many of us who discuss the atonement as adults. There are crude statements of substitution that sound like Jesus was placating an angry God, that overlook the rôle of the Trinity or that forget the Resurrection. Some fail to see that the word ‘sacrifice’ is about more than a sin offering in the Old Testament. There are other images of the atonement in Scripture. (I owe use of the word ‘image’ to George Carey, who prefers it to ‘theory’.) Yet you cannot completely expunge some form of substitution.
And these primary school kids got the fact that it’s about love. Great.
For a more nuanced discussion, Tom Wright’s article for Fulcrum two years ago is always a good starting point. He is glad the church has not defined the theories of the atonement too tightly, yet he rejects both those who caricature and dismiss substitution and also those who hold onto it in a severe way.