Lent is a season in which stock in honest confession goes up, and I have a confession to make. Ever since I was a little boy I have wondered how on earth to make sense of the common Christian statement that Jesus died for our sins. Long before I was thinking abstractly, I couldn’t figure out how a death in the past had anything to do with the wrongdoings and missteps I was racking up two millennia afterwards. But, good little boy that I was, I accepted what preachers and teachers told me, and like probably every one of you, I grew up thinking that the whole point of Jesus’ death was to wash away my sins and get me ready for eternal life in heaven.
And then one day in sixth period Bible class my senior year in high school I said something to that effect and heard for the first time that eternal life was not a future reality but a present one. I suppose I could date my theological education to that moment. That one sentence altered my entire perspective. I didn’t immediately toss my boyhood understanding of Jesus’ death and its relevance to me, but it didn’t take me long to begin wondering why he had to die. I didn’t know at first that I wasn’t the only one who’d ever asked that question or who thought that there must be something about the death of Jesus I was missing. It wouldn’t be stretching the point too much to say that I’ve been grappling with that ever since.
I know of few places in scripture where the issue of appropriating Jesus’ death comes in for quite so stunning a commentary as the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. Listen again to St. Paul:
18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
19 For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.
22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,
23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,
24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
If we read the entire argument, we find that Paul is explaining how it is that the ego is incapable of grasping the mystery of the cross. So is the rational mind applying the normal rules of logic. In his characteristic way Paul frames his argument in terms of “boasting.” And that is one of the chief earmarks of our ego: boasting. “I did it all by myself,” we learn to boast as little children. So we did, or might have done. Not so with the cross. The cross, the death of Jesus, blasts the categories that we normally operate with. We can’t get to the meaning of the cross by figuring it out.
So if the message about the cross is not that it’s the necessary means for getting us into the afterlife, what does it mean to claim that “to us who are being saved, it is the power of God”? Notice that salvation is a process. It is not that we have been saved or that we shall be saved but that “we are being saved.” And take a look at what “saved” means. What do you think? That it means being spared “hell”? Take a guess at how many references to hell (in the English Bible) there are in the entire book, including the Aprocrypha. Hundreds? Dozens? There are fifteen. Interestingly, not one of them appears in St. Paul. Now, you’d think that if Paul thought—or knew—that salvation had anything to do with not going to hell he’d at least have mentioned it.
No, salvation is about being made whole, which happens through living the life of Christ. It is about being reconciled to the Creator and Source of all life, not living at odds with that Life. Salvation is about transformation from conformity to this world [Romans 12:2] to quite literally having the Mind of Christ in us [Philippians 5:2]. And if, in sober moments, we think about what the Mind of Christ acted like during that short period of time when Jesus was among us as a human being on this planet, we are bound to see that almost nothing he did was according to the rules by which the world operates.
The story of the cleansing of the temple is a case in point. I once had a student in a Bible study who said, “Jesus shouldn’t have done that. You don’t start a riot with an act of violence. If he didn’t like the money-changing going on in the Temple, he should have called the police.” Jesus did not play by the world’s rules. That is what the temptation story is about. The temptation was for him to do exactly that. Be spectacularly secure! Give people the bread and whatever else they want! Play political games and amass as much power as you can! If you think about it, every temptation that human beings have ever experienced falls into one or more of those three types. And that, by the way, is why the poor are blessed. Not that the poor don’t experience temptation—they do, we all do—but that poverty in the truest and deepest sense of the word is the state in which a person is less encumbered with the things that create the illusion of self-sufficiency.
|Jesus Is Stripped Of His Garments|
Are you beginning to see what the cross is about? It is about letting go. Just last week we were hearing that stunningly difficult saying of Jesus: “try to save your life, and you’ll surely lose it. But lose your life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, and you’ll save it.” It doesn’t work to gain the whole world if it means losing your soul. Interestingly, death in the terms of the New Testament is never just the dying of the body. Real death often dresses in the garb of all those things that dazzle us into thinking that they are life-giving when in fact they are anything but. Money, possessions, wisdom, intellectual accomplishments, professional advancement, status, prestige, and all those sorts of things. But the things that look perilously like surefire death are often the very things that make for life: divesting ourselves of what we’ve accumulated; risking everything to follow the path of the soul; profligately giving away money and possessions; taking on the status of servant; remaking our lives from the ground up; becoming as little children who can laugh and play and trust and learn new things; accepting suffering as a teacher and grief as a friend; staring death in the face and seeing that there is nothing to fear but fear. Such is lifegiving, and totally counter-intuitive.
That is the way of the cross. That’s it. And it looks awfully foolish. It takes no time at all to dismiss it as folly, lunacy even. But if we look about creation and observe how other forms of life actually live, we can see that the wisdom of God, written across all of Nature, turns out to be simply living in accordance with a few basic things, like acceptance, openness, and giving. To live that way is salvation, for it is to be whole.
And it turns out to be very powerful. Unlike the signs and wonders and wisdom that various cultures laud and applaud, the way of Christ, the way of the cross, is indeed the power of God. I once knew a man who in a short space of time lost his wife, his job, his career. He later said that at that point he began tithing all that he had and giving it away. When asked how, he said, “It’s easy to give a tenth of what you have if you have nothing.” No one can wrest from you any treasure that you have if your treasure and the heart it expresses is laid up in this eternal reality of God’s life where moth and rust don’t consume and where thieves can’t break in and steal. [Matthew 6:19-21] Suddenly the weak seems very powerful, the fragile body the manifestation of an indestructible psyche, and mortality a gift to be grateful for not a threat to be defended against.
To be honest, a crucified Jesus will never be pretty, attractive, or appealing. We’ll always deal with the hard stuff by turning Jesus’ death into picturesque stained glass and the cross into a piece of jewelry. Nor will those who catch on to the difference between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of God outnumber those who cast their lot with the more accessible and understandable, not to mention promising, ways of the world. But if, by some chance, you are one who is open to living a whole new life in a whole new key, you will discover that this way of Christ and his cross, foolish though it is, is both the wisdom of God and the power of God.
A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 4, 2018.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018.