God's Cross to Bear?

Every Holy Week I reread a scene in Helen Waddell’s novel Peter Abelard, about the great medieval theologian famous for his love affair with Heloise. Peter is walking in the woods with his friend Thibault. They come across a rabbit trapped in a snare, and its suffering triggers a deep conversation about Christ’s cross. Thibault shares the insight that made him want to be a priest: “I saw that God suffered too.” He points to a fallen log that has been sawn through the middle. “That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ’s life was; the bit of God that we saw.” Abelard questions him: “You think that all ... the pain of the world, was Christ’s cross?” He replies with devastating simplicity. “God’s cross ... And it goes on.”

As we seek to experience the death and resurrection of Jesus again in Holy Week and the Paschal season, we ask the Spirit to rid us of the horrible misconception that the resurrection is a kind of triumphant upbeat miracle that corrects the cross, as if that had been a temporary setback that God needed to reverse. How many Easter sermons reinforce the popular misrepresentation of the resurrection as “a descent from the cross given greater dramatic effect by a 36-hour postponement,” in the biting words of theologian Donald MacKinnon? In the resurrection we see the hands of God, hands that hold us in existence, pierced by unimaginable nails.

Martin L. Smith is an Episcopal priest serving at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C.

[ April 1 ]
Self-Emptying Love
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16;
Philippans 2:5-11; Mark 15:1-47

Palm Sunday is notoriously overloaded with scriptural themes, especially when we also celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a colt to the acclaim of a great crowd of pilgrims. The passion narrative is savagely and wonderfully ironic. The one who screams in protest at being forsaken by God is—as we know from the resurrection—the one who is expressing God’s true identity as the One who can never forsake us, the God who is suffering love, willing to “descend into hell” with us.

The reading from Philippians gives us a theological X-ray image of the passion. The deep structure of meaning beneath the ferocious drama is shown as self-emptying and self-giving love in action through suffering. The passion reveals that grasping is not the character of divine creativity. Rather, the divine character is yielding, openness, solidarity with a suffering creation and fractured humanity. And the reading from Isaiah, one of the set of haunting poems called the Songs of the Suffering Servant, reminds us that the cross and resurrection verify an ancient insight into the compassionate heart of God that runs like a mysterious thread through the tapestry of ancestral faith—a golden thread of truth that stands out amid so much that has been shoddy and benighted in human religiosity, with its masochistic need to invent abusive and exploitative gods.

[ April 8 ]
Claim the Promise
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;
Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

The resurrection stories never cease to amaze us with their subtlety. They are unique. In John’s Easter stories, we sense a particular warning that the appearances of Jesus are not sensational miracles to be clutched as infallible proofs. The evangelist insists that the beloved disciple, after entering the empty tomb, “saw and believed” (20:8) without needing any actual meeting with the Risen One. The emptiness of the tomb sufficed. And Mary’s intimate encounter with Christ is defused and redirected, as Christ gently urges her not to hold on to the fleeting tactile experience but let him go to his ultimate reunion with the Holy One, “my Father and your Father ... my God and your God” (20:17). Easter faith means letting ourselves ascend with him in heart and imagination, consciously claiming the promise: “I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am ...” (John 17:24).

The bald outline of the story of Jesus that Peter told to Cornelius and his household in Acts presents a contrast. But it includes a stupendous claim: “He is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead” (10:42). The resurrection isn’t a pious secret relevant only to the circle of believers. What God has revealed in the drama of the cross and resurrection is the touchstone that tests the truth of all morality, all politics, all religion, all human experience. Unless it applies to all, it applies to none.

[ April 15 ]
God Trusts You
Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133;
1 John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

The stories of Jesus’ appearances to the disciples in the upper room on the Sunday of the resurrection, and then again a week later, are for John the opportunity to convey profound insights about mission that his church had made their own. For example, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). We can easily overlook the astonishing and enabling power of these words. Christ demands that these followers imagine the absolute trust, confidence, and, yes, vulnerability and risk with which God sent the Son into the world to save it, sent the Word to be made flesh. God is sending them, the disciples, into the world with an identical trust, faith, and vulnerability. There is no difference. They too are embodiments of God’s creative word. And they are sent to enact reconciliation in just the same way as Christ, and to be faithful too to God’s word of judgment on whatever resists and rejects the peace and mercy of God. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).

For John, this is the essential experience of Pentecost. To receive the Holy Spirit is to be aroused to this sense of God trusting us, having faith in us, believing in our ability to represent God’s own self, and God’s transforming judgment and love. Perhaps we waste our breath a lot of the time talking about the mission of the church. It is futile, unless we initiate one another into this profound experience of being directly, intimately, and personally trusted by God.

[ April 22 ]
Love and Imperfection
Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4;
1 John 3:1-7;
Luke 24:36b-48

How do we know it’s the risen Christ we are interacting with today in our own lives of faith, and not the product of our fictionalizing imagination? The stories of Christ’s resurrection appearances address this anxiety. They encourage us to recognize that we possess what Christian spirituality calls the “spiritual senses”—inner counterparts to our physical senses. Luke’s account of Christ’s appearance in the upper room gets us to “see” and “touch” his wounds for ourselves. Christ’s vulnerability is the key to his true identity. An additional proof lies in the humility with which he asks to share their meal. It is almost over, and the table is a mess. The congealing remnants of fish are smelly, flies are buzzing over the honeycomb. Jesus is content to share what they have where they are. This humanness is the guarantee that we are dealing with the real person, the one who loved to share meals with those who had only imperfection to offer.

In his letter John acknowledges that the risen Christ isn’t visible to us—he is yet to be revealed—but we can “see what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1). Resurrection faith involves faith in our own changing identity, which is caught up in Christ’s. Resurrection faith does not just mean believing in Jesus’ transformation; it means believing in our own. When we are eventually face to face with Christ we will see how, during our life of discipleship and service, he has been secretly changing us. “We will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

[ April 29 ]
Owned by the Needy
Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23;
1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

What a mistake to confuse the spirit of the Easter season with the upbeat mood that comes with the onset of springtime and warmth, to muddle up delight in the strange work of God in the resurrection with the pleasure that comes with the inevitable shift of seasons! I’m glad of my family connection with New Zealand. In the Southern hemisphere, where Easter coincides with the fall, we are less likely to be confused.

So our readings today are direct and stern. “Whoever does not love abides in death,” insists John (1 John 3:14). Resurrection faith is expressed through our actual emergence from the chronic malady of estrangement from the needy, the paralysis that causes us to hold on to the world’s goods in the face of the needs of our sisters and brothers. The work of the Good Shepherd is about the leadership that guides others through the pain of emerging from moral death, our vulnerability in coming out of the tomb where we are gripped with anxiety about our own security and can’t risk recognizing the claims on us of those in need.

No wonder “the valley of the shadow of death” is so present in these scriptures that show the image of Christ as Good Shepherd. God regards as death the social structures that reinforce the division of humanity into haves and the have-nots; proclaiming that fact will provoke people to violence. The Good Shepherd who enacts God’s way of leading will have to lay down his life in face of that reaction. Death doesn’t give up easily.

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word.

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