Epiphany 4A, 2011
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Matthew 5:1-13 1/30/2011
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. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 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? 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. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
A young man, so the story goes, went to his Roman Catholic priest to ask that his name be removed from the membership rolls of the parish. When asked why, the young man replied, “Because I don’t believe any of this. I don’t believe in God, I don’t think Jesus was God’s Son, I don’t believe in heaven or in hell or in the church or any of this nonsense. I want you to take my name off the rolls, because I am not a Christian and I never will be one.” The priest thought a moment, and said, “Well, if that’s what you want, I’ll do it. I need to go get the parish membership rolls so I can take your name off. But before I do that, there’s one thing you have to do.” “Anything,” answered the young atheist. “I just want out.” “While I’m getting the membership books,” said the priest, “I want you to go into the sanctuary, walk up to the front, and say to Jesus, hanging there on the cross, ‘You did this for me, and I don’t care.’ Then come back, and I’ll take your name off the parish rolls.”
The young man strode confidently into the sanctuary, walked to the chancel, looked up at the figure of Jesus in agony on the cross, and announced with a loud voice, “You did this for me and I don’t . . . You did this for me and I . . . You did this for me and . . . You. . . did this . . . for me . . .”
We would be hard pressed to act out that story here at Providence, because all our crosses are bare. In fact, I couldn’t find a single public image of Jesus on the cross in our entire building except for the icon I have on the wall in my office. Mind you, this is not a Providence Church problem – this issue is ubiquitous in Protestant church facilities. Protestants like to tell each other that they have empty crosses instead of crucifixes because they believe in the resurrected Jesus. Methinks we doth protest too much. My experience has been that Protestants like to move quickly from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, passing over (pun intended) the messy horror of Good Friday to the much happier picture of eggs, bunnies, marshmallow peeps, and, oh yes, an empty tomb. And, when something terrible happens in our lives, we console each other with well-intended but utterly unhelpful aphorisms like “Well, they’re in a better place” . . . “God has a special purpose in all this” . . . or, in the case this week of a wonderful young woman not from around here whose marriage has imploded, “Remember there’s only one perfect man, Jesus, and just trust in his perfect love for you.” All those things are true, but they’re so, so unhelpful. And, when spoken by well-meaning Christians, they miss the much more helpful and much more deeply true message of God’s love for us in Jesus, on the cross.
St. Paul was writing a deeply divided church in Corinth. It comforts me, in a perverse way, to read how utterly screwed up the Christian churches of the first century were within a few years of their founding. Every letter in the New Testament is a letter written to solve a problem in the church. Any problem we face in the church today is nothing new: youth in the first century were sitting on the back row texting each other, too, but minus the cell phones.
So Paul wanted to establish the basis for any conversation between Christians. In Corinth, they wanted to talk about spiritual gifts, and who had the better ones. No, Paul said, everything we do proceeds from the cross – not the empty cross that we’ve turned into pretty gold jewelry, but the instrument of torture and public execution on which Jesus died. We can’t bypass that on the way to Easter: no one is there for Easter Sunday who wasn’t there for Good Friday. Everything hinges on the broken body of the Son of God on the cross.
That’s a problem, Paul said, for both Jews and gentiles. It was a problem for Jews because they wanted a sign of God’s power over evil, like the Exodus. If the heavens had split and God had rescued Jesus from the cross and destroyed all the Romans, then they would have believed. The notion that God would reveal himself in weakness, death, and failure was inconceivable.
For non-Jews, the idea that the execution of an obscure Jewish carpenter could save the world from its chaos made no sense whatsoever. The notion that life could only come from death, that love was displayed in suffering, that strength came from weakness was irrational. God, the Greeks knew, was the essence of reasonableness, and nothing about this Passover horror story is reasonable.
The problem, Paul said, was that God had shown power over and over and over, and people still didn’t believe. Miracles are only good as long as the people who saw them are still around, if that long. In Exodus, it only takes a month and a half after the miracle at the Red Sea for the Hebrews to start second-guessing Moses and to suggest they were better off in Egypt. Jesus knew that the memory of the miracles wouldn’t last past his arrest in Gethsemane. As for the Gentiles, reason is a fickle mistress always in service to baser motives. It is reasonable to believe in this god or that depending on what’s good for me. When I was in high school, I suddenly discovered how much more sense it made to start attending the Presbyterian Church when I started dating a Presbyterian girl. But what sense does it make to follow a Messiah who calls you to be crucified, too?
God gave signs, and they didn’t work. God made complete sense, but that didn’t work either. So, Paul said, God decided to turn the values of this world upside down. Instead of power, God appeared in weakness on the cross. Why? Because very few people know what it’s like to be powerful. But every single person who has ever lived knows what it means to be weak, to be sick, to be hurt, or be helpless. Sooner or later, every single on of us will know what it’s like to die. So, if you want to make your love present to every creature in Creation, do you do it in power and miracle, or in pain and suffering and death?
In the same way, few of us know very much about what it is to be wise and smart and rational, especially myself. An ongoing argument I’ve had for years with my dear Baptist friends is about what some of them call “the age of accountability” or “the age of reason,” when children are eligible for conversion and baptism and church membership, because they are capable of understanding the gospel. What’s the IQ number for that, I ask? What do you do with mentally challenged people? What do you do with children who are dying? Do you completely “understand” baptism, or communion, or grace, or love, or the cross, or resurrection, or faith? Paul said it: we now see as in a dim mirror, but someday we shall see face to face; now we know in part, someday we shall know in full, even as we are fully known. If my salvation is dependent on my reason, my comprehension, my intelligence, my understanding, then I am doomed to hell. Very few of us know what it’s like to be brilliant, but every person whose ever lived knows what it’s like to be confused and lost and misunderstood. In seminary, I worked for a semester on a ward of profoundly challenged children. None of them would ever understand St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God, but every one of them knew what it meant to be held and bathed and changed and fed. If you’re going to reveal your love to the world, do you do it with a sublime philosophical treatise, or with an act of consuming love?
So, Paul says, God has turned the values of this world upside down. Isn’t that what the Beatitudes – these declarations from the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel lesson – are all about? Who is really blessed? The people in People Magazine, or on our TV screens night after night? The rich, the beautiful, the powerful, the famous? No, Jesus says, it’s the poor, the meek, the mourning, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. The others don’t need good news. They’ve got their money and their power and their machines of war and their success to keep them warm. But God has come to be with the unwashed masses who don’t have anything else to bless them. And if God is with the poor, the suffering, the dying, those whose lives and families and health and hopes have imploded, then God must be with us always. That’s the good news from the cross.
I’d love to see us hang some images of the dying Jesus on our church walls. Maybe, if we discovered that God reveals himself in suffering, we’d be more open with ourselves, and with each other, about the wounds and struggles in our own lives. Maybe, if we began focusing on the crucified Jesus, we’d spend less of our time and energies and attentions on what this world thinks is powerful and sensible, and discover Jesus among the poor and the suffering and the dying people all around us. Maybe if we prayed less to the glorified Jesus on his throne and more to the bleeding Jesus on the cross, we’d begin to see how we live and how we act and what we think is important in a whole new light. Maybe it wouldn’t take a 9/11 or a family crisis or an economic meltdown or a tragedy in the church or community to make us rethink our lives in some pretty radical ways. Because we all, you see, stand at the feet of the crucified Jesus every day, saying, “You did all this for me, and I don’t care.”