Parson to Person: Vicarious faith
Christian theology tells us that Jesus Christ was a “vicarious” sacrifice for our sins. I remember asking a class what they thought vicarious meant.
One student ventured protruding veins (varicose). Another thought it might be a Latin American animal raised for its fur (vicuna).
“Vicarious” actually means doing something in another’s place for his sake.
Some things you cannot do for another, however well intentioned. Having a tooth pulled or taking another’s exam for him come to mind.
In Hitler’s day, Helmut Thielicke (Tiel-i-kee) was the head of the University of Frankfurt and the best-known preacher in Germany. He had to walk a tight rope for his church not to be closed by the Nazis.
He reportedly told his people, “We worship in this church vicariously for those who have left us. Believe that one day they will return and find we have kept the altar lighted for them and prayed for them.”
This seems strange, but think: Don’t many of us go to church vicariously? County the empty pews! We attend prayerful that an erring spouse or a wayward child will someday “come to his or herself,” as was said of the Prodigal Son.
The church will still be there even for ephemeral Easter attendees who tend to be invisible the rest of the year.
Saint Paul tells us that many unbelieving spouses have been drawn to faith by a believing mate, as have many children by Christian parents. Do I mean that attending Christians were worshipping “for them”? Well, in the deepest sense, yes.
I’ve sometimes thought that were I ever again a parish pastor, as I have been, come Easter I’d lead the people through the chilling drama of Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution, like Mel Gibson, you know, and then stop and say, “If you really care how the story came out I’ll meet you back here not in three but seven days. Next Sunday.”
Do you ever pray vicariously for others? For 35 years I jogged the streets of Mt. Pleasant, praying for each house I passed. (The wonder is that I wasn’t run over). Vicarious praying puts a whole new complexion on a town. It recalls a verse I wrote long ago:
“I pray for other people,
It changes quite a few.
For when I pray for people
They look to me brand new.”
Who has not been bored in church? Has it ever dawned on you to pray for individuals around you, or the pastor or the choir, which likely needs it more?
It turns out that there are indeed things that you can do in place of another. Vicarious worship and vicarious prayer is the thin thread that has preserved the church these past 2,000 years.
I recall an old vaudeville piece of Groucho Marx. He’d sit down on a park bench by a pretty girl, twitch his famous eyebrow and say, “Hey, baby, let’s neck!” Whereupon he’d pull out his pocket watch and say, “Oops, I just remembered I have another appointment, but I’ll be right back. If I’m not back, you start without me.”
Well, we may start without you, and you, and you this Sunday. But please have the wits to tell us how our prayers affect your golf game, your fishing or bets at the casino.
The ultimate expression of “vicarious” (that word again) is Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed.”