Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Cross of Christ

Galatians 2:15-21, 6:11-18

“See what large letters I write with my own hand!” (Galatians 6:11). Some see this as a reference to a vision problem. It is probably, however, a reference to a common letter-writing tradition in the first century in which a professional secretary would transcribe the dictated letter and the author would finish it off in their own handwriting, adding a more personal word (Hansen). In that case, Paul would be referring not to a problem with his vision but to the emphasis he gives as he closes out the letter and summarizes his theme – the cross of Christ. Like an email in all caps, like bold type and underscores, like multiple exclamation points, Paul is emphasizing. “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” (Galatians 6:14).

For Paul, everything is about the cross. When there is a dispute in the church, Paul goes to the cross. When he struggles with sin in his own life, Paul goes to the cross. When the hot button social issues of the ancient world dominate the conversation, Paul goes to the cross. When he longs for more of God in his life, Paul goes to the cross.

How do you exercise authority in the church? The cross.
What about the Spirit-filled life? The cross.
I can’t stand my next door neighbor. The cross.
Life is trouble on trouble, pain after pain. The cross.
What about diversity in the church? The cross.
How do I demonstrate credibility as God’s messenger? The cross.
Right now, I am so excited that I can barely stand it. The cross.

Whether a personal matter or a public one,
whether personal holiness or what the Wesley’s called “social holiness”,
whether the justice of God or the justification of mortals,
whether our relationship with other people or our relationship with God,
it all comes down to the cross.

You meet parents of a newborn, and every conversation turns, at some point, to that beautiful baby. You go to New Orleans during last year’s football season and you’re gonna hear “who dat?” You hang around someone with a passion in life and you’ll hear hunting or recipes or fishing or flowers or cars or stamps or soccer or music.

Paul is a man with a passion, and that passion is Jesus and his cross. Before Paul met Jesus, he was a man with a passion, and that passion was purity for God. He lived it, he breathed it, and whenever he found people who didn’t follow God the way he did, he persecuted that. He arrested and killed Christians, so sure that they had missed out on God’s perfect way. On the long road to Damascus, Syria, to round up more Christians, Jesus met him in blinding light and voice: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Paul’s life and passion were completely transformed.

Karl Barth offers reflections on the cross that resonate with Paul in Galatians, that the cross is not just about Jesus dying for us, but about our death as well.

Barth quote #1: What does it mean to live as one whose conversion to God took place in [Jesus] death? (290)  Can the reconciliation of the world with God accomplished in Him consist in anything but the dissolution of the world? (293)  If God in Jesus Christ has reconciled the world with Himself this also means that in Him He has made an end, a radical end, of the world which contradicts and opposes Him . . . . (294)

Paul: “If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I am a transgressor” (Galatians 2:18). What did he destroy at the cross? His life aligned with the law. His new life, out of the death of the old, is a life aligned with the gospel. It is inconceivable for him to rebuild that life of alignment with the law. It transgresses not the law but the gospel. (See G. Walter Hansen, Galatians, IVP New Testament Commentary Series.)

Earlier in the chapter, Paul tells the story of confronting Peter in Antioch over this very matter. Peter, when he first arrived, was eating with Gentiles, though that was forbidden by the law. When strict Jewish believers arrived, they refused to eat with their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters, and Peter joined them in the hypocrisy. Paul confronted him publically, because integrity to the gospel, a life aligned with the gospel, demanded (Hansen, 71) that Jews and Gentiles share the table together, that enemies and others be reconciled. The Galatians are dealing with a related matter – the question of circumcision – and Paul reminds them that the gospel is the center of our new life, that the old life, the old definitions, the old barriers, is done away with. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Barth quote #2: That Jesus Christ died for us does not mean, therefore, that we do not have to die, but that we have died in and with Him, that as the people we were we have been done away and destroyed, that we are no longer there and have no more future. (295)

Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live” (Galatians 2:20). Because of the cross, we are DEAD. We are dead to
the power of abusive relationships
the tyranny of the “almighty dollar”
bad habits and addictions
disparaging remarks of our teenage peers
dominion of prejudice and exclusion
self-righteousness
goodness (and Paul had boatloads of that!)
Paul wrote to the Philippians that, in his old life, he was “faultless” as regards “righteousness under the law” (Philippians 3:6). Even that is dead in the cross of Christ, so that we can begin a new life in the power of the gospel.

Walter Hansen observes (76) that living in the reality of the cross is a lot like new US citizens taking the oath of citizenship. When they stand before that judge and raise their right hand, they are choosing to live in the reality of something that happened on July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania “in congress assembled”. Which brings us to . . .

Barth quote #3: His death was the death of all: quite independently of their attitude or response to this event . . . . (295)  It is here that we come face to face with the real problem of decision. (293)

Paul: “I bear in my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). “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” (Galatians 6:14).

The Greek word for “marks”, stigmata, has been classically defined in church tradition as expressing the wounds of Jesus, in the hands and feet. We can ask Paul about that some day. Paul certainly bore scars of his many beatings for the cross of Christ. The literal reference to the term, in the culture of Paul’s time, was to the branding of slaves or the tatoos of a religious convert (Hansen). It was a painful and public demonstration of who you belonged to, who you followed in discipleship and worship. Paul chose Jesus. Paul chose the cross. That is his attitude, his decision. What is yours?

Easter Vigil 1966 (Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II)
. . . – Never separate people from Man who became
the body of their history. Things cannot save
what is utterly human, only Man.
. . .
Oh, Man, in whom our lowest depths meet our heights,
for whom what is within is not a dark burden but the heart.
Man in whom each man can find his deep design,
and the roots of his deeds: the mirror of life and death
staring at the human flux.

Through the shallows of history I always reach you
walking towards each heart, walking towards each thought
(history–the overcrowding of thoughts, death of hearts).
I seek your body for all history,
I seek your death.
Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), translated from Polish by Jerzy Peterkiewicz, 1979, Easter Vigil and Other Poems, New York: Random House, pp 76-77. The poems were originally published in Catholic periodicals in Poland under the pen-name Andrzej Jawien from 1950 to 1966.

Barth quotes from Karl Barth, translated by G. W. Bromiley, 1956/1992, Church Dogmatics IV.i, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

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