Monday, April 16, 2012

Christ Crucified

Audio file.
Palm/Passion Sunday
Psalm 118, Mark 11:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:17-25, Mark 15:1-39

On the first Sunday of Lent, we began the centrality of the cross of Christ for Christian discipleship and witness: “We proclaim Christ crucified, scandalous to Jews and moronic to Greeks”, to use the Greek roots “skandalon” and “moria” (1 Corinthians 1:23).  In the following weeks, we followed the implications of this theme as Paul develops it in his letter to the Galatian churches.  For Paul, the call of Christ was a call to the cross, and a call to a death.  First, “death to people pleasing” – If we live to please God, then we don’t have to worry about performance anxiety for anyone else.  Then, “death to self-righteousness”.  Only bad people go to heaven, only sinners are saved.  We please God not by our own efforts, but through the goodness of Jesus himself.  And, such a radical negation of self-righteousness implies a radical equality of all persons before the cross.  As Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  And, last week, “death to slavery”.  The process of transformation, the work of living out what God has done in our lives, is not energized by slavish obedience to laws or rules.  It is energized by love.  “The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

Today, we recap with a look back to 1 Corinthians 1.  Paul tells us that the cross is a counter-intuitive salvation, not simply unexpected but against the grain of what we expect and even desire.  It is, first, counter to human wisdom.  That is, it seems pretty dumb.  And, second, it is counter to human strength.  That is, it seems pretty lame.
            First, the cross of Christ seems pretty dumb.  The human religious impulse for “wisdom” – that is, for answers or enlightenment – is not satisfied by Christ crucified.  Why evil?  Why suffering?  Why?  That nauseating question of our four year olds is repeated by us.  Mind you, God doesn’t mind the questions we ask.  However, instead of getting an explanation for pain-suffering-evil, we get a Savior who suffers. 
            Second, the cross of Christ seems pretty lame.  The human religious impulse for “signs” – that is, for miracle on our terms – is not satisfied by Christ crucified.  We treasure stories of super-human strength, of deliverers who achieve greatness.  We like John Wayne and “make-my-day” Clint Eastwood, James Bond and Jason Bourne.  But there aren’t too many stories of salvation through weakness, or through death.  Clint Eastwood’s recent film, Gran Torino, is a marvelous exception; and he dies with his arms extended, his body forming the sign of the cross.  (Note to parents: It is well deserving of the “Restricted” rating.)  One other note: Over and over in history, both national histories and family systems, victims who overcome by their power become the new oppressors.  Jesus triumphed not by his power but by his weakness.  As the writer to the Hebrews says, “We do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weakness” (Hebrews 4:15).
            Dumb and lame.  Scandalous and moronic.  It is, quite simply, not the salvation we’ve been looking for.  But it is the salvation we need.

Today, we are at the beginning of Holy Week.  Jesus and other pilgrims are approaching Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover.  They are singing the traditional psalms for their pilgrimage, including Psalm 118 which we shared together at the opening of worship.  They are greeting one another with the traditional greetings: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and “Hosanna!” (Hebrew for “Save us!”).  Then, Jesus arrives, “humble and riding on a donkey”, just as the prophets of Israel described.  And, for those pilgrims who had followed his ministry in Galilee, and for others from Judea who welcomed his ministry, it seemed appropriate to focus these traditions on Jesus.  They called out “Hosanna!” and invited Jesus to be their Savior.
            Less than a week later, another crowd gathers.  This time, the crowd calls out, “Crucify him!”  Were there any of the same people in both crowds?  Or was one crowd full of Galilean pilgrims and the other full of Judean locals?  Is this a sign of fickle devotion or an indication of the dynamics of power?  We can only speculate.  What we do know, however, is that the crowds were asking for the same thing – though they did not realize it.  “Hosanna!”  “Save us!”  It is a cheer, and it urges Jesus on to the cross.  Because only through the cross can we be saved.  “Crucify him!”  It is a jeer, but it urges Jesus on to the cross.  And only through the cross can we be saved.  Only through Christ crucified do we have hope, hope for home and family, hope for a future and hope for roots, hope for a clean slate and a cancelled past.

In my preparation for this day, I kept coming back to something I read in the book of Numbers earlier this year, something I read with one of our small groups.  It jumped off the page, something I don’t think I ever noticed before.
            Numbers is written out of a cultural and historical situation very different from our own.  So, before I share this Scripture surprise, I need to give some background.  As Israel prepares to enter and settle in the Promised Land, Moses gives them some direction for dealing with murder and manslaughter.  In that ancient culture, if someone killed a member of my family – even accidentally – a member of my family would be the designated “avenger of blood”, whose job it was to kill the “slayer”.  If the slayer was arrested before they were killed, and they were found to be guilty of premeditated murder, they were to be killed – by the avenger of blood, not by anyone else.  On the other hand, if the slayer was found to have unintentionally caused the death, they were sent to one of the six designated “cities of refuge”.  As long as they stay in that city they are safe from the avenger.  Here’s what came as a surprise:

The slayer must remain in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest; but after the death of the high priest the slayer may return home (Numbers 35:28).

The death of the high priest … and the New Testament Scriptures describe Jesus in just those terms: “Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession” (Hebrews 3:1).  The death of the high priest erased the blood debt, ended the blood feud.  The death of the high priest cancelled the past, cleared the slate for a new start.  The death of the high priest opened the way home, home to family, home to a future, home to our roots.  The death of the high priest, Christ crucified.

I invite you to hear the word of the Lord, the story of Christ crucified, from Mark’s gospel.  When the reading is complete, we will wait in silence before beginning to sing.

First, join me in our prayer:
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.
            (from The Book of Common Prayer)

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