Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Scandal of the Cross

Philippians 2:5-11


        Holy Week tends to be a struggle for this congregation. Many of you would love to hear a sermon affirming the power of God in the death defying act of resurrection. Some of you would prefer I explain why God would preordain death as solution to the wickedness of humanity.  A few of you wish we could by-pass Easter and spend more time on our moral obligations as the people of God. The rest of you just love listening to the choir. I am over simplifying the conundrum of Holy Week but Easter is complicated. Is it any wonder so many folks want to celebrate the joyous parade on Palm Sunday and skip right over to the Resurrection? The cross is a scandal, both in its horror and in pronouncing a crucified man to be the center of our faith. Preaching the cross forces one to ponder how God redeems the world through such a dark and most shameful act.

        What exactly happened in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago? We know that a man known as Jesus bar Joseph was executed by the Roman authorities. Christianity emerged from the belief that this same man was resurrected three days later. From the moment Jesus son of Joseph was declared to be alive, questions were raised within the church concerning the significance of this miracle. Our inquiries today are not all that different.

        Who was Jesus?

        What was the role of God?

        How do Judas, Peter, Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders fit into this drama?

        Who killed Jesus?

                Was it the political leaders?

                Was it the Jewish community?

                Was it the sins of all humanity?

                Was it God?

                Was it fear?

                Was it love?

                Was it us?

        For the first three hundred years of the early church disputes often became violent as the faithful tried to answer these questions. Eventually the dispute came to a head with the writing of the Nicene Creed. This document became the central faith statement for both the Orthodox and Catholic churches. But the conversation never ended.

        Recently I was attending a meeting of the Committee of Ministry with our Presbytery. We were discussing the faith statement of a person who will be teaching at Union Seminary and who desires to be a member of our Presbytery. I found it to be a beautifully written statement and was excited to welcome Dr. Vest as a colleague in ministry. One of my fellow committee members was not so thrilled. He raised questions concerning Dr. Vest’s understanding of the Atonement based an response Vest had written two years ago on his blog site. My go to answer on the doctrine of the Atonement has always been, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” I remain vague on how exactly that happened. My COM friend wanted a chance to question Dr. Vest on the details. Such is the world in which we live.

        One of the reasons we struggle with the details of our faith is because even the writers of the New Testament disagreed on what would seem to be the most basic question, who was Jesus? The answer depends on which gospel you read. The Jesus of the Gospel of John was one in the same with God from the beginning. The fate and elevation of Jesus to Godhood seems predetermined in a heavenly contract signed to assure the continuation of a covenant as old as Abraham.    In John and John alone we find the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. On hearing of his friend’s illness, Jesus almost casually tells the disciples the death of Lazarus was prearranged as a demonstration of both the power and intention of God.

John retreats from the sacramental language we find in the writings of Paul. In John, feet are washed, commanding the followers of Christ to be a servant people. There is no mention of Jesus predicting his body would be broken or his blood shed for the forgiveness of sins. John does not disagree with Paul’s assertion that God was in Christ reconciling the world.  John’s contention is that the plan was in place long before Peter or Judas or Pilate was ever born. There is no mystery in the book of John, only truth.

The story of Jesus, as told by the other gospel writers is heavily influenced by the Apostle Paul. While John proclaims Jesus without sin and incapable of sin, Paul sees a man who strives for perfection but is tempted every step of the way. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark and Luke is much more human than the Jesus found in John. Matthew and Luke contain the birth narratives, each depicting the fate of Jesus resting in the hands of the faithful. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, this Jesus is tempted in the wilderness. This Jesus is often in conflict, struggling over the path God was asking him to follow.  This Jesus constantly asked the disciples not to reveal who they believed him to be. This Jesus is the one praying in the Garden hours before he is arrested. To quote the old song popularized by the Stanley Brothers, Jesus was “A Man of Constant Sorrows.” In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the perfection of Jesus is celebrated only after the perfect life has been completed.

Paul reveals his Christology by writing, “Be like Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Jesus emptied himself and took the form of a slave. Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to death on a cross.”


In the gospel of John we are asked to look at what God did and then we are asked to respond in a similar fashion. Wash the feet of others, talk to the woman at the well, have an intellectual conversation with Nicodemus. Just make sure, in the end, you feed God’s sheep.

In the gospels influenced by Paul, the struggle of being human is acknowledged. Herod tries to kill baby Jesus. John the Baptist is arrested. Jesus is in constant conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Most importantly, stories are told about people who are hurt and lost.

The Synoptic gospels are emotional. They center on suffering and acknowledge the deep ache of human life. The message becomes, as Jesus suffered for you, so God will continue to be with you in your suffering.

John takes a more intellectual approach. God is truly found in the deep conversations. In laymen’s terms John was written for the head and Matthew, Mark, and Luke for the heart. John acknowledges the cross, while the other gospels are dependent upon it. We need all four gospels, yet it often seems the more intellectual our theological discussions become the further we move away from the scandal of the cross. And the further we move away from the cross, the further we move from admitting our dependence on the grace of God.

All of this is confusing to me. I grew up abstaining from absolutes even when I absolutely thought I knew the answers.  That said, this is what I believe.

Did Jesus die? Absolutely.

Do I believe in the resurrection? Absolutely.

Do I find the cross to be scandalous? Absolutely.

Do I cling to the cross? Perhaps not so much on a good day when my mind is clear, but when the day is dark and my way is drear, ABSOLUTELY!    For it is in the grace of God that I find hope, it is in the love of God that I find inspiration, and it is in the mercy of God that I find life everlasting.

                                        To God be the glory, Amen.

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