“Why the Cross?” / 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 / 29 January 2017
“The message of the cross is foolishness to some,” Paul says. “It’s a stumbling block to others.” Some people just want the universe to make sense. Other people just want the universe to be filled with wonder, beauty, love. The cross doesn’t satisfy Mr. Spock or Pollyanna. “And yet, it is somehow the power of God and the wisdom of God.” It’s a horrible thing when you think about it. A cross is a gruesome thing to hang on a golden chain around your neck. It’s an ironic thing to plant at the graves of loved ones. It’s a symbol of torture, cruelty, death. Why the cross? What is its wisdom? How is it power? Ah, but you’ve got to admit: You don’t really know this world until you’ve seen it from a cross. And you don’t know yourself till you’ve born its splintery weight on your back. The cross is one of those things that doesn’t make sense…until it does. As a concept, it’s ridiculous. As an object, it’s unwieldy. But as a parable for how to live your life and how to face your death…it is the wisdom and the power of God.
There are so many things in life that don’t make sense until they do, like driving a stick. Can you drive a manual transmission, a “stick-shift”? I find that most people my age and older can do it. And most people ages forty and below cannot. I used to think that I had really pulled one over on the universe by sneaking into adulthood without ever having learned to drive a stick. I hate to drive under the best circumstances. But when our old car’s engine finally burned out, the only thing that fit our used car criteria happened to be a little white Kia Soul, only 10,000 miles with a warranty still intact, less than a year old. The only problem? It was a stick.
Now Michelle loves to drive a stick. She glories in it. She’s one of those people who loves constant movement and interaction with her environment. It helps that from the age of three, her father had her steering the tractor while he got out to throw hay bales onto the wagon in back. Me? Well, I like stillness. I like to gaze out the windows and see the world. Reflection is more my thing. Besides, when they sat me down in the driver’s ed. car in Canton, Ohio, that was the first time I’d ever been behind the wheel. And it was not a stick. Until we bought this new car, I’d only ever driven a stick on one occasion: when a friend from Germany flew to Texas to marry his American sweetheart, he asked me to drive him to the wedding in his father-in-law’s pickup truck—since he didn’t have an American driver’s license. When I protested that I couldn’t drive a stick, he said in his broken English, “Easy, I teach you!” He sat in the passenger’s seat in his tuxedo, and whenever it was time to shift gears, since he didn’t know the word “clutch,” he would shout, “Left voot now!”
But that was one occasion in the flatlands west of Dallas. This! This was a new way of getting from place to place here in hilly, congested Pittsburgh. And now, just before my forty-seventh birthday, a lifelong deficiency had caught up to me. I finally had to learn to drive a stick. It was scary. I stalled the thing dozens of times, twice in the middle of the road while making a left turn. How do you know when to let off the clutch and give it more gas? How do you know when to change gears? How do you drive in all this South Hills stop-and-go traffic without stalling the stupid thing every time you brake? One of you jokingly called it, “jerkin’ for Jesus” and “lurchin’ toward the Lord.” My real trial by fire came when I had to hurry in to Presby Hospital in Oakland at morning rush hour. I hated it. Stalling out in front of hurried commuters in their Audis, all the honking and glaring. Driving a stick was horrible. Why would anyone choose it? It didn’t make sense…until…until it did. I’m still not as proficient as I ought to be. But wow, once you get the hang of it, driving a stick is fun.
Now, driving is like a real life video game where you have to think about your next move. Instead of just applying the brake, you get to strategize. It engages most of your body. Now, when I drive somewhere in a regular automatic, I feel like I haven’t earned the right to be there; the driving was too easy. Driving a stick doesn’t make sense until it becomes a way of life. (Still, you might want to stay out of my way for a few more weeks.)
There are better examples, though, of things that seem ridiculous and unnecessary from the outside, but which make sense for people whose lives they define. Compared to the story of the Alcock family, driving a stick into Oakland definitely sounds like a “first-world problem.” In the 1970s, when apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa, the wealthy white Alcock family went to live in a mud hut in the Zulu townships to show their solidarity with African people. They learned the Zulu ways and denied themselves all the luxuries they could have had if they’d stayed home. All they wanted to do was to walk alongside the outcast. They raised two white boys out there. The father of the family was killed, assassination style, in a tribal conflict. But the mother still lives out there in her mud hut. To some it looked like an insanely optimistic social experiment. To others it looked like an irresponsible way to raise children. But when asked if she thought that their life out there in the townships had been a failure, Creina Alcock says, “I think you will know what I mean if I tell you that love is worth nothing until it has been tested by its own defeat.” In other words, if love cannot endure loss, then how is it really love at all? If love cannot suffer, if it can only know happiness, if love cannot survive rejection at the hands of the one to whom it is offered, then it cannot rightly be called love. And isn’t this the foolish message of the cross? Isn’t it the promise that God takes into Godself all our human pain, and failure, and loss; that God endures all the rejection we undergo in a lifetime and throughout the bloodied annals of human history; that God participates in our pain and rises from death at our hands to bless the very ones who did the killing? The foolish cross. Some things don’t make sense until they do.
Here in the opening chapter of First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is dabbling in a little bit of cultural anthropology—more specifically, religious anthropology, for religion is one of the universal facets of human culture. He’s saying that to us so-called Greeks, that’s to say, to the European and Western mind, there’s nothing better than a world that makes sense. We want logic, order, precision, black and white rules laid out clearly and sequentially. Don’t give us fuzzy answers and touchy feely maybes. Give us facts. We want the immanence of God. Over and against that mentality, the eastern mind embraces mystery. Paul is calling this group Jews, just for shorthand, but he’s basically talking about the peoples of the East as compared to Europeans. They don’t need religion to be logical and sensible. Evolution doesn’t bring their religious system to its knees because they never asked their God to make sense. They want the transcendence of God. Paul himself bridges the gap between these two worlds, as a Hebrew with Roman citizenship. And he’s raising an interesting question: the cross is a scandal to both the Eastern and the Western mind; how then is it the wisdom and the power of God?
There are those who would like to replace the horrid old cross with something more appealing to represent the Christian faith. Maybe a nice chalice, a fish, a dove, a triangle. And yet, the cross is the genius of Christianity, for the truth that we bring to the table is the insistence that God, too, suffers with humanity. Suffering is not separation from God, but participation in the life of Christ. And God calls us to sacrifice, even suffer, for the sake of the world.
Some things don’t make sense until they do. In what ways does the cross never really make sense? Oh, several! The violence of it, for one thing. Time Magazine recently published a list of Top Ten Ridiculously Violent Movies. Many of them I had never heard of. But the list did include the film 300, a war flick loosely based on the ancient Persian wars. Time calls it “a frenetic, computerized gorefest that bludgeons and butchers history.” The movie Kill Bill was on the list, too. I’ve never seen it, but the name doesn’t bode well. A Clockwork Orange was on the list. I was surprised that Natural Born Killers was not on it. But strangely, there was a religious film on the list. In fact, when I saw this movie at the little one-screen theater up in Grove City, I was surprised that many local churches had sponsored its showing. Some of them even invited people to come by and talk about the violence and how it was such a necessary thing for the salvation of humankind. That movie, of course, was The Passion of the Christ. The film was called “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre” by Slate magazine. Michelle walked out of it not five minutes into the gruesome torture scenes. Whereas the gospels simply say, “Pilate had him flogged and crucified,” Mel Gibson had Jesus flayed alive then standing up and asking for more. Why? Why did the Jesus in that film ask for more torment? Because according to a certain ideology of the cross, Jesus was bearing the punishment for human sin on the cross, and so the more he suffered, the more people could be forgiven. God, according to the theology underlying this movie, was so angry and offended by human sin that it could not go unpunished. In this view, each of us is worthy of crucifixion for our sins, but Jesus, the only person in history without his own sins to pay for, stepped up to catch hell in our place.
This theology of the cross is called “vicarious atonement.” It’s the mainstay of many a hymn writer and the curse of many a preacher. In fact, I saw yet another Facebook meme, a single-frame cartoon, where someone is standing in front of a group of about four dorky-looking people, reading a slip of paper that the others cannot see. On the piece of paper are written the words, “Vicarious atonement.” And the caption above the cartoon reads, “It occurred to Ed that he would never play charades with pastors ever again.” This crucifixion theology runs subtly through some of our loveliest hymns. We get it in heavy doses in many of those serious Lenten hymns that bemoan Jesus’ death and claim personal responsibility for it. If you’ve ever waited tables, this is the theology of the little evangelistic tracts that some people left you with their tips. You’ll find it in devotional literature, and in praise songs, and in movies. But do you know where you won’t find it? In the gospels. You won’t find it in the books written firsthand about the life of Jesus. You won’t find it in Jesus’ own self-understanding, his self-image, as it’s depicted in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John? Well, we’ll talk about John in Lent.
The problem with this vision of the cross—of Jesus bearing in his flesh the punishment that you and I deserve—is that it makes Jesus look heroic and self-giving. It makes Jesus look great. But it makes Jesus’ God into a petty tyrant with a twisted sense of justice. What would you say of a parent who punishes one child for another child’s misdoings? It makes God into a cosmic bully, telling us to forgive others but refusing to forgive us unless someone pays. Some have gone so far as to say that this vision of the cross, this “vicarious atonement,” is blasphemy, just a bit of medieval cruelty that made its way into the church’s hymnody and presented itself as the only explanation for why Jesus died the way he did. Often, when people die young, those who loved them will look for reasons, explanations. But to say that Jesus’ painful death satisfied God somehow? It’s senseless to Jew and Greek, to east and west alike.
Some things don’t make sense until they do, but there are also things that never make sense, and vicarious atonement really is one of them. And so, why the cross? How does it make sense? Well, can you say that you’ve known this world if you’ve never seen it from a cross? Can you say that you’ve loved if you haven’t opened yourself to risk and pain? Can you say that you’ve lived if all you’ve known of life is peace and joy? I do not mean to deride other faiths with their lotus flowers and their stars and moons for emblems; they too are valid spiritual paths, but they seem to miss out on one point that Christianity finds central: the belief that suffering is a part of joy; suffering is a part of all that is good; suffering is a part of salvation. And so, pretty things, pleasant things are not enough to encapsulate the message of God in Christ, the message at the heart of Christianity, which declares that human suffering is precious to God, that God draws near to the brokenhearted and the broken-bodied, that God too somehow gets broken with us, experiencing our brokenness on the cross, that God in the end, lifts all God’s broken children from pain and loss and refreshes them with new life? This is the story of life of Jesus, is it not? He lived for a vision of all that was right and whole, something he called the kingdom. He died, too, because he refused to surrender that vision. And after throwing his life into something that ought to be, after giving up his old life, he rose to new life. These things happened, of course, but they also become a parable for the life of faith: we too must live for the things that count. Indeed, we must give our old lives for those things. Once we’ve surrendered our power and all the things that we think will make us strong and safe, once we cast our lot with the lowly, somehow we are given a new life, a better life, a life that comes from outside of us. Indeed, can you even know what joy is, can you treasure it, if you’ve never felt its absence?
Another one-frame cartoon shows a priest in a clerical collar taking the pieces of a brand new crucifix out of the box. He’s got a troubled look on his face and a hammer in his hand because some assembly will apparently be required. On the table before him, there’s a plain cross over here, a little Jesus over there, and three nails over there. The caption reads, “Suddenly it occurred to Father Riley that he shouldn’t have bought his crucifix from Ikea.” The cross is awkward; the cross is strange. The cross doesn’t make sense until it does. But there are visions other than vicarious atonement for why the cross happened. What if, as Jesus felt his enemies closing in around him, he decided simply to face his inevitable death with courage, to stand unwaveringly on the principles that made so many hate him, and so many others love him? What if he resolved within himself to face his own death with faith, entrusting himself to God instead of running and hiding, and thereby giving us an example of how to live our lives, how to stand on the truths that he taught us, and how to face our own deaths, entrusting ourselves to a God of resurrection? What if that’s what the cross is about—a moral example for how to live, what to live for, and how to die, how to entrust ourselves to a God of new life?
Mel Gibson’s notion of the cross is actually much newer than this one. This vision of the cross goes back to the fourth century. Ah, but here’s the rub. This vision of the cross is less popular because it’s so much harder; it asks so much of you. It asks that you, too, take up your cross and follow, that you hold your own life lightly and your faith-filled principles dearly. It promises that God participates in all your suffering but asks too that you—you!—put aside your privilege and take part in the sufferings of the world. Some things don’t make sense until they do. The message of the cross is foolishness to some. But it is the power of God and the wisdom of God, for it is the way of God to stand with those who suffer. Is it your way? Amen.
“Why the Cross?” / 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 / 29 January 2017