Sometimes, when you are writing a letter, or an email, or a note to the kids and you want to emphasize a point, such as “BE SURE TO WALK THE DOG,” or “THAW THE SALMON,” what do you do? You use capital letters, you underline, perhaps, you write in a different color.
If you have been attending worship at Forest Hill Church long enough, you know that I am a big fan of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor, who died of complications from lupus at the age of 39, is recognized as one of the truly great American short story writers in history.
She is known for her characters as she explores life in the rural south in the 1950s. She does not flinch from writing about racism and poverty. She proves that the power of the pen is sometimes greater than the power of the sword. But always, underlying all her fiction is a surprising bubbling up of faith, of grace – Grace even in the ugly.
One time she was asked why her characters were so grotesque and so over the top sinful and O’Connor responded, “Well, when your sight is dim, you have to write big!”
I think Paul felt the same way when he wrote the concluding paragraph of his letter to the churches of Galatia; “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand.” If he were on the computer it would be 36 font, bold, italics and underlined!
Paul is a little bit frustrated with these Galatians so he is going to make himself clear. “I am going to write big now. So pay attention.”
The Galatians are beside themselves trying to figure out what it means to be a Christians, and whose Christianity to follow. Those who are more rules based and worry about their private parts, or, those following Paul, called to be free in Christ and live into that ambiguity, transformed by an experience, living in community, set free for freedom. It is the age-old quandary still being lived out in Christian churches across the world. Liberal and conservative.
Which Christianity do you follow? What is the right interpretation? Where do you set the boundaries? When have you crossed a line where you are no longer in Christian territory?
These are really interesting questions. People have left this church because they think we are not Christian enough (they may be right.) And some who attend this church, won’t join because they don’t know what being a Christian means, wondering “Do I have to believe the virgin birth?”
But I am going to stand with Paul this morning as he writes in BIG LETTERS – “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor un-circumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!”
The only thing that makes Christianity different and, frankly, any use to anybody, is Jesus Christ and that cross. The cross that stands as the divider of history, that stands as the bridge and connector between the horizontal of human life and the vertical of divine revelation; the cross that reveals just what kind of God we believe in and what kind of Savior we have; the cross that identifies who you and I are.
The cross – that symbol of failure, futility, and suffering. Being crucified is a dismal way to die. And even before Paul, Christians professed that Jesus – the one we call the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed – spread his arms and revealed the true nature of God, and for that matter, the true nature of humanity.
So I really don’t care if you think circumcision matters, or if the virgin birth is all that important (although I do not diminish the historical and theological significance of what Luke, Matthew and the early church sought to express by giving Mary that honorable servant designation. Mary had control over her own body!) You can be a Christian and have doubts and disagreements about just about everything.
We can discuss what it means that Jesus is divine…but you have to say something about Jesus. We can disagree about what happened on the cross…but at least we identify the centrality of it. We can wonder about the experiences at the empty tomb…but it is the empty tomb we are talking about.
Every act of social righteousness that we take as a church starts at the foot of the cross, because that’s where we see a God who is a suffering servant, God bleeding and dying because of the injustice of an Empire and its institutions.
Every time we open our doors in hospitality, and open our minds, hearts and hands to others, we reflect the God whose arms got nailed open so that the divine arms would be extended to include everybody!
Every time we feel guilty and overwhelmed and at a loss, the cross stands as a beacon of forgiveness, proclaiming that truly nothing separates you from the love of God. NOTHING! BIG LETTERS!
Every suffering that you carry, the cross proclaims that your suffering is not outside the redemptive possibility of God. That may not make you feel better in any one moment; suffering is suffering – but at least it saves you from thinking that God is punishing you; at least it offers a hope that there is something beyond the moment.
Now the cross has been misused. It has at times become the spear of oppression and Empire. At times the sign of the in-group, of those “saved.”
The cross has been set aflame and stuck in front yards by people too pathetic to show their faces.
Some use the cross as the big stick of guilt, by preachers who want you to feel bad, worthless, and miserable because they think that is the way God is. “You have to feel bad before you can feel good!” Kind of perverse!
But Paul didn’t believe this. In Colossians (1:19-20) he writes about Jesus: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him, God was pleased to reconcile to god’s self (him/herself) ALL THINGS (Big letters!) ALL THINGS – whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.
God revealed just what kind of God she is on the cross. Whatever we say about the cross, don’t forget that Christians believe that God was hanging on it.
And whatever we say about Jesus and his divinity, it has to include a divinity of suffering, a divinity that raises humanity, what is fully God is revealed in the desperate last breath of a broken person.
When we profess that Jesus was fully God and fully human – it doesn’t mean that Jesus is a superhero who may have (almost) lusted in his heart… as if being human means being depraved and divinity means being perfect … on the cross the human and divine intersect and become one – the fully human is divine and the fully divine is human.
Confused? So am I! But frankly, only when we are knocked off our certainty, can we be open to the God who comes. You want proof? Go someplace else. You want a new life? Stick around!
And so this world we live in may try to seduce you to think that wealth, and power, and status, and credentials really matter, but the cross stands as a check to all of that. Your worth as a beloved child of God didn’t begin at the cross, that was at your creation, but what it means to be a beloved, empowered, free, forgiven, creative, child of God is expressed at the cross – IN BIG LETTERS.
And you may think that faith is about following rules, and knowing the right vocabulary, doing the right thing, but it isn’t. Faith is more about standing slack-jawed in the face of a mystery so bodacious and radical that it knocks you to your knees, where only dumb silence, or inappropriate laughter, or tears will do. So you join up with others who are in the same state, but who have arisen through the last 2,000 years and are drawn to the claim that of all the ways you can choose to look at the world, of all the ways you can interpret the matters of the heart – there stands these connected, transversed pieces of wood that were used to kill – that is now the mark of life and freedom.
The cross changes everything…. and we get the resurrection too! How wonderful is that?
Thank you Paul! Thank you!