Exceptional?

Every year, around the beginning of Lent, we bring a wooden cross into the sanctuary. There’s already a brass cross on the table and a subtle cross shape in the window, but for Lent, we hang a rough wooden cross above the baptistery; it helps us focus our attention on the suffering and death of Jesus; it helps us reflect on who we are as a community baptized in his name, as those who are called to love and serve in his name. Every year, we attach a couple of thin ropes to the back of that wooden cross and we pull it up, and every year, one or two of us find ourselves obsessing over whether it’s hanging straight and level and centered, and every year, we stop to remind each other that there’s something wrong, profoundly wrong, with wanting to make the cross look pretty. There’s nothing pretty about the cross. The beauty of the cross is not easily seen.

The disciples, according to the Gospels, had learned to live with the many surprises that being in the company of Jesus presented – his compassion for all people, his openness to children, his healing presence, his teachings about righteousness. But nothing could prepare them for his shameful, violent death. We read in Luke,

While everyone was amazed at all that Jesus was doing, he said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.[1]

They struggled, as all of us do, with holding together Jesus’ exalted status as God’s anointed with his shameful suffering. They struggled, as all of us do, with fully embracing the new view of the world that was at the core of Jesus’ proclamation: the new world of God’s reign in which conventional perspectives on honor and shame, power and privilege, and the meaning of suffering in relation to God’s redemptive purpose are turned on their head.

Crucifixion was a horrible form of public torture and execution, reserved by the Romans for those who resisted the authority of Roman occupation, and designed to demonstrate that nothing but complete surrender to the power of Rome would be accepted. The crucified person was often denied burial, with the corpse left on the tree to rot or as food for scavenging wildlife. The message was brutally clear: Challenge Rome’s authority and this is what you will face.

Crucifixion was an obscenity not to be discussed in polite company. In a speech defending a Roman senator against a murder charge for which the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty and was apparently suggesting crucifixion, Cicero sought to sway the jury, declaring, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.”[2]

That very word ‘cross’ is what Paul holds up for all in Corinth to see. Paul’s gospel is an insult to the sensibilities of educated men and women, an ugly interruption of any polite conversation about politics, the law, or religion. Paul proclaims Jesus, God’s crucified Messiah. To Jews, his proclamation borders on blasphemy; to non-Jews, it’s just nonsense. The word of the cross disrupts whatever we think we can know and say about God, or about justice, or power, or love.

Jews demand signs, Paul writes.We too want God to do big and spectacular things, something like a Wimbledon final where Jesus is on the court against all the forces that oppose God’s will and purpose, and he dominates the game, and the whole world is cheering; instead we must look at him on the cross, beaten and forsaken by all.

Greeks desire wisdom, Paul writes. We too want the gospel to be philosophically elegant and aesthetically pleasing; we want the TED talk that blows us away, instead we must listen for the word of God from the cross.

Where we look for power, weakness is given. Where we expect wisdom, foolishness is given. But in the community God gathers around the cross, in the community shaped by the love and obedience of Christ, deep compassion, the courage of vulnerability, and humble service are not seen as contradictions to the power of God, but as its fullest expressions. The word of the cross shatters our systems of knowledge and self-assertive power. On the cross, God is completely hidden and fully revealed. Nonsense, we say, until we see that what is so clearly the world’s judgment of Jesus, is in truth God’s judgment of the world. The cross is God’s judgment of our politics, our justice, and our religion, and it is the vindication of Jesus and the world he announced. God raised Jesus from the dead, inaugurating a world no longer under the power of sin, but finally free to flourish in love.

“Be careful of the way you live,” said Dom Helder Camara, “it is the only gospel most people will ever read.” Our life together is the proclamation of the gospel of the cross, and perhaps we must learn to walk before we talk. What might that look like? Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul is confronting various forms of social, theological, spiritual, and moral elitism which have fractured God’s church in Corinth. One of the issues the first believers had to face was dietary. Should they eat food that had been presented as an offering in a pagan temple? Serving that kind of food was common practice at dinner parties, especially when meat was part of the menu. Some believers said, “No big deal; there’s only one true God, and those idols are no competition. We can eat anything we please, for Christ has set us free.” But there were also those who worried they might fall back into pagan ways if they didn’t stay clear of pagan practices; they stopped eating meat altogether, just to be safe.

Given Paul’s own faith and robust theology, you’d expect him to side with those who act boldly in Christ-given freedom. But he doesn’t. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” he says.[3] In the community that proclaims the power of the cross, building up comes before personal liberty. We must walk together in love before we brag about the consequences of our freedom as children of God.

I read a story that illustrates beautifully what walking together in love might look like today.

The church was next door to a group home for adults. One day one of them came in and sat down before worship, uninvited. She was painfully overweight and wearing clothing that didn’t fit. She hadn’t bathed and wasn’t able to breathe or move comfortably. She wouldn’t speak or make eye contact with anyone. From the beginning, she tried our patience. More than once she forgot where she was and lit up a cigarette right there in the pew. Her medication prevented her from being able to follow the order of worship. She fell asleep during sermons. Her breathing problems escalated and became loud snoring problems. You can imagine the conversations we had at council meetings: “She doesn’t belong here; she couldn’t possibly be getting anything out of it so heavily medicated.” [One member said,] “I’m tithing to this church, and she’s just giving pennies … she shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for everyone.” Some observed that she ate too many cookies at coffee hour. They worried that she was a deterrent to other visitors. I worried about everyone.

Finally, an exasperated council member said that she’d had enough of all this talk. She announced that she would make a friend out of our troubled visitor and would hereafter be sitting next to her in church. Gentle Reader, take note: this means that after more than 25 years sitting in one pew, she moved ... to a different pew. When the snoring started, the council member gave a gentle nudge; she helped our visitor find the right hymn to sing; she reminded her to put her cigarettes away and limited her to no more than three cookies in the fellowship hall. That small act was all our visitor needed. Soon I witnessed her talking to people; she made eye contact and learned to shake my hand at the door after worship; her first words to me were “bless you.”

Some months later I received a phone call from the woman’s social worker. He told me that she had never been accepted by any group or able to sustain a single positive relationship until she started coming to our church. “Thank you for welcoming her,” he said to me. “I have never been to your church, but I know that it is an exceptional place.”

After I hung up the phone I sat for a moment. “Exceptional?”[4]

Is it exceptional for God’s people to welcome the stranger? Isn’t it simply who we are becoming by the power of God? Is it exceptional for followers of Jesus not to give in to fear and to let love build us up in community? Is it exceptional? If it is, then by all means let us be the exception.

 

[1] Luke 9:43-45

[2] The Speech In Defence of Gaius Rabirius, sec. 16, in The Speeches of Cicero, trans. H. Grose Hodge, The Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927) 467.

[3] 1 Corinthians 8:1

[4] Erica Wimber Avena, The Christian Century, January 4, 2017, 26. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/power-essays-readers

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