The Foolishness and Weakness of God

In this Lenten season we ask what is truly transformative. What practices are potent enough to dissolve the patterns of perception and response etched in the neural circuits of our brains, constantly reinforced by an environment obsessed with competition and the lure of individual gratification? This month’s scriptures suggest that contemplative practice—the art of persistent gazing—is powerful enough when the focus is Jesus, the sign of what Paul calls “the foolishness and weakness of God.” When the Crucified One is the focus of our gaze, meditation can never be for us what much of our “spiritual-but-not-religious” culture is after. All manner of meditative practices are marketed as ways to soothe stress and “bring balance” to our over-stimulated lives. These practices carry the prestige of spirituality, but may actually reinforce our conformity to what scripture calls “this age,” if they merely palliate some of its toxic effects in our individual lives. 

Shouldn’t spirituality be spurring us to address the need for systemic change, not merely helping us to cope? For radical Christians, contemplative discipline is learning to see Jesus with the eyes of the heart in ways of worship and prayer that expose us to irradiation by his way of self-giving, even to death on a cross. We take the risk of being impregnated with a new self, Jesus’ new self. This core identity in Christ imparts new instincts that enable us to decipher God’s secret solidarity with the poor, excluded, and disempowered.

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

[ March 4 ]
No One There, Only Jesus
Genesis 17:1-7; Psalm 22:23-31;
Romans 4:13-25; Mark 9:2-9

In Lent we are confronted with the risk of committing ourselves in faith to Jesus. We accept him as the ultimate model that has authority to shape our lives and as the embodiment of God’s age-old promises for the fulfillment of humanity. Mark’s account of Jesus’ transfiguration culminates in a fearful experience of disorientation for Peter, James, and John. As they see Jesus shining in glory, they also take in the reassuring presence of Moses and Elijah, who represent the Torah and the Prophets, the dual pillars of God’s covenant. But then these bastions of their faith disappear, and the three hear God insisting they listen to Jesus because he is God’s Son, the Beloved. Awestruck, they realize “there is no one with them anymore, but only Jesus” (Mark 9:8). What a terrifying risk to stake everything on Jesus, who dares to present us with claims that go beyond anything heard before!

The readings from Genesis and Romans challenge us to examine the risks of faith through the lens of Abraham’s trust in God. God’s promises to him and Sarah of a child and countless descendants are ludicrously implausible. Abraham has to leave the realm of predictability and common sense. Christians share the defiant faith of their spiritual ancestors by leaning into the seeming absurdity of the message of the cross, seeing by faith the ultimate disclosure of God in a crucified victim of imperial injustice and in the provocative announcement that he is risen from the dead.

[ March 11 ]
Creation and Destruction
Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19;
1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

There is in scripture a tense interplay between God’s creative and God’s destructive energies. Creative energy is displayed in the splendor of the universe: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). It is equally at work in building human beings into communities that are just and life-affirming, so Psalm 19 passes seamlessly from praise for creation’s beauty to glorifying God for teaching the ways of justice. Let’s read the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 in the light of doxology; God’s creative guidance for human flourishing is a thing of splendor.

In order to re-create, God must also exploit the forces of destruction. The evangelist John daringly relocates the story of Jesus’ aggressive demonstration in the temple to the start of his ministry. Jesus goads the crowd, “Destroy this temple!” All the gospels hand down his bitingly sarcastic challenge to the nationalistic Jerusalem establishment to bring their self-destructive policies to a catastrophic climax, provoking the Romans to obliterate that establishment once and for all. The fourth evangelist is completing the gospel decades after the destruction of the temple, and for him the desolation has opened up the space to recognize more clearly the new locus of divine presence in the world: the risen body of Christ, to which all are being drawn, where all belong, without distinction of race or origin.

Paul’s blazing words in his first letter to the Corinthians speaks also of God’s destructive energy. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Through the message of the cross, God undermines the validity of human philosophizing and discredits nationalistic, tribal religiosity once and for all. Neither is capable of recognizing the power of God’s vulnerability and self-giving.

These are the scriptures that can give us the courage to see God at work in the historical forces that are dismantling so many elements of traditional Christianity in our own time. Will we have the courage to praise God for the divine energies that are destroying, clearing, demolishing, and purging throughout the churches, as we fulfill our vocation of staying faithful and imaginative in the death-throes of the long Constantinian era of Christianity?

[ March 18 ]
Look To Be Healed
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22;
Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

At the heart of the third chapter of John’s gospel glows the most quoted verse from the New Testament, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son ... ” (3:16). Much less familiar is the image that precedes it, of Jesus the Son of Man having to be lifted up, as Moses had lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. The reading from Numbers recounts this legend from Israel’s wilderness wandering. Moses had a bronze snake fabricated from metal, and mounted it on a pole. While gazing on this menacing object, victims bitten during an infestation of venomous snakes found themselves being healed.

We are to trust a strange analogy with the contemplation of Jesus hoisted up on the cross. In an utter paradox, this vision for the believer is radiant with healing power. Those who gaze on it experience a burning away of all denial of human brokenness and their own share in it, and at the same time see the cross as the display of God’s limitless healing compassion. God lifts Jesus for us on the cross, and lifts him to vindication in the resurrection, and we are drawn with him into intimacy with God. The passage from Ephesians revels in this experience of being lifted out of estrangement into this new state of reconciliation.

[ March 25 ]
Mere Seeing or Real Knowing?
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 119:9-16;
Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Our voyeuristic culture revels in images and sightings of celebrities. There may be a warning for us in the coolness in John’s gospel with which Jesus responds to the desire of certain foreign pilgrims to get a look at him while he is in Jerusalem for the Passover. The disciples relay the Greeks’ request, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” But Jesus makes no arrangements to satisfy their curiosity about him. There is nothing to gain in a mere meeting. There is only one way of getting to know who Jesus is: actually undergoing the loss of self, the giving of one’s self, which is the essential meaning of his life. To meet Jesus where he is involves undergoing that inner experience of death and rebirth. “Those who love their life lose it ... Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (12:25-26).

Painting a fascinating picture of Jesus as a person is never enough to bring about a real encounter with him. But if we welcome people as companions in our own work of witness, ministry, service, and prophecy as Christians, then there is a chance that in this spending of self they will discover who Christ actually is, recognizing him intuitively by faith in the experience of service. The writer to the Hebrews teaches that even Jesus himself had to learn the true meaning of his identity through the experience of suffering and the discipline of hard obedience. Knowing comes through living. We have to live out an obscure call before we can claim to see.

In embracing an evangelism that focuses on drawing people into a lived experience of service, we play our part in ushering in the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of God’s future, when women and men will come to know the Lord through experience rather than external instruction.

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