Clover and I meet every Monday afternoon to discuss what is going on around here. Often we also talk theology and bible and personal faith. We laugh a lot – at our own jokes – we think we’re funny!
Last Monday, Clover raised something that wasn’t funny at all: like the Christians in Syria, if a jihadist put a sword to your neck and said “are you a Christian?” what would you do. Is there anything about the faith we claim that is worth living for and possibly dying for?
What is the Christian message? St. Paul gets right to it – he gets to the heart of it all – about Jesus who died to show us who God is.
As Paul was wandering around the Mediterranean Sea he was coming to realize what it meant that Jesus Christ died and that Jesus Christ arose – what it meant to live in community (messy community with people) in an increasingly hostile world;
I think what Paul writes is true; an amazing unique way to look at the world, a spectacular way to look at God, a radical way to look at myself and you, an earth shattering way to interpret reality. There is no male or female, no Jew or Greek, no slave or free – In Jesus Christ, God reconciling ALL creation to the Divine self.
Everything else is derivitive. It is truly radical, unique – copied but never trumped. The most avowed atheist-humanist echoes Paul. Why should we treat each another humanely? The difference in Christianity is, of course Jesus.
From Paul I catch a glimpse of how powerful it is to claim Christ – and to seek to walk in his path, and be identified as a Christian… not “spiritual but not religious,” but Christian – a follower of Jesus. It isn’t about doctrine or dogma – it is about world-view.
And for Paul the way of looking at the world starts at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ – yes the message of the cross that, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
It is interesting to me that Paul doesn’t begin with the resurrection – why would you start with the cross and not the empty tomb; A happy, triumphant story instead of a horror story? Well perhaps because it would be expected that a divine figure would rise from the dead – Julius Caesar himself was declared a God. But Paul didn’t want you to worship a super hero – but follow a savior – a God in the flesh, in the dirt, the blood, in the suffering, the worst that humanity can come up with.
What is this message of the cross? For centuries after the crucifixion the church wrestled with this – there was no one answer. What developed (I think unfortunately) and has stuck in our age is that what happened on the cross was an act to appease an angry God – somehow Jesus was trying to change God’s mind … God had every right be angry and destroy all of us because of sin – but Jesus paid the ransom, and God HAS to love us – well only those who say the right formula, or do the right thing – the rest will perish.
But, I think the brilliant 12th century theologian Peter Abelard nailed it (“so to speak”). Abelard believed that it wasn’t God’s attitude that needed changing, but our attitude.
“Christ did not die on the cross to change the mind of God…but to reveal the love of God to us. The cross is this revelation, this epiphany of the love of God that needs nothing from you or me except our existence.” (Carroll, 294)
God’s mercy trumps judgment every time. Nothing separates you, or anyone else from the love of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. No favoritism! That is the message of the cross!
OK, I grant you “those who are perishing” is strong language. But I am pretty convinced having grappled with this thing called the Bible for 40 years, that Paul is using the well-known Hebrew/Greek rhetorical style of using contrasting words to make a point: Perishing doesn’t mean “going to hell.” It means not getting “it”, the power and liberation of the good news of Jesus Christ. “Perishing” means wasting time in cynicism, or skepticism, or believing that you can figure it all out, or using techniques that give you some spiritual experience, or being too critical, too “me” centered, too self-conscious…. Paul also uses other opposites like “wisdom” and “foolishness” and “strength” and “weakness.”
Don’t get too hung up on one word.
But to some extent what Paul writes is self-evidently true – because folks who over intellectualize everything, those of us (and sometimes it is me) who thinks that the world revolves around them, to those who believe they have power to control, and grasp tightly and suspiciously wonder why someone else seems to be getting “theirs,” lose perspective.
Those who think that wealth is the mark of a prosperous life, or that promiscuity is the mark of freedom; those that judge the poor for their condition, and those that think science alone, or those who reject scientific fact, or cling to fad or ideology – political or religious – certainly are not getting Paul, and not getting what being a Christian means.
Christianity is about soul, about ground of being, about identity – it is about trust, and freedom – about taking a deep breath and maybe for the first time accepting that you are loved just as you are – quit struggling to have every question answered.
I know from my own life that when I begin to feel as if it is all up to me – the world becomes small, and I get suspicious, and jealous, and judgmental. Damn, sometimes it even feels as if I am indeed perishing, over my head, overwhelmed, lost – nothing makes sense.
And then I hear the words of scripture, I see the signs of the Holy Spirit working among you – and it is as if someone has thrown me a lifeline – I am saved again, for the first time. I can breathe again.
Paul was writing to an age – not very different from our own. He breaks it down between Jews and Gentiles. The Romans broke it down between themselves and the barbarians. We break it down between Americans and everyone else
And the same skepticism remains – show me. We have all these philosophies, and diets, and exercises and techniques that keep us in control. God, what have you done for me lately? And then when we do experience community, love, compassion, justice – we forget to give thanks to the one from whom all blessings flow!
Reminds me of the woman who fell off a cliff but grabbed on to a tree limb and was hanging there. She prayed to God – “HELP ME.” God said: “Let go, I will catch you!” And the woman replied: “Is there anybody else up there?”
God’s love is not something to be figured out or proven but accepted just like the love of another person – sacrificial, forgiving, empowering… truthful… – sees through all our stuff and still loves us. I hope you have experienced that somewhere in your life. Now that is liberating power. Paul says: the cross shows the extent to which the Creator of the Universe will go for you!
Love gets the final word. Love wins. That is quite a proposition.
You can debate until you are blue in the face. You can seek signs and proofs but it will never be enough. You can be hyper-critical and claim that Christianity has started all the wars (which is wrong of course!) and is judgmental and stupid. But sooner or later you have to give your heart to something;
Jesus and his cross may be utter foolishness. But it is foolishness that has power to change hearts and minds. A foolishness that people still scoff but it is the power of God that invites you and me to come a little closer into the mystery of love! You would be a damn fool not to pay attention! It is certainly something to live for… it may even be something to die for.