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March 8, 2015, 12:00 AM

Lent 3 - Year B


Lent 3

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

 

Great things Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

 

    One of my best speech-writing teachers, Toby Ziegler of the West Wing, warned me from using Pop Culture references, as they drastically reduce the half-life of your remarks. Seminary professors echoed those sentiments, reminding students that that will so quickly create an insider/outsider dynamic than by preaching on a movie perhaps only a fraction of your congregation has seen. 

    And while that advice is well and good, I will share with you that I was struck by one of the central lessons in the movie “The Imitation Game” which I saw last night. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the premise of the movie, it is about Allan Turing, a British Mathematician who invents a computer to break the German Enimga Machine in WWII. While the course of the movie follows his war-time efforts, the movie is interspersed with vignettes from Turing’s childhood. This arm-chair diagnostician would probably place Turning on the Autism spectrum, and his brilliant mathematical mind often made him the target of classmate’s pranks. One scene in the movie has him trapped underneath the floor boards, with his classmates furiously nailing down the boards, sealing him in a coffin like space. 

    What the adult Turning reminds the audience is that Violence is gratifying. That, in some sense, violence is fun. But violence is ultimately hollow, as well. In the movie, as soon as Turing stops fighting the bullies, stops giving them the pleasure of his pleas for mercy, they quickly bore and move on to something else. 

    And Turing’s observation here is a brilliant way to understand this morning’s epistle. 

    The majority of biblical scholars believe that that the Epistle to the Romans is Paul’s best work. And it clearly is representative of the culmination of Paul’s earthly ministry. It is the most consolidated and refined eccliesology Paul offers the Church. But Romans isn’t Paul’s best work. In my opinion, it is here in Corinthians, where Paul’s best theology lies. More specifically, it is in this morning’s lectionary where we find the very heart of the Christian message.

    

    “The message about the cross is foolishness...but we proclaim Christ crucified.” I think it is hard for modern-day Christians to recover just how scandalous Jesus’ death was. We are the products of two millenia of art and music which glorifies Christ’s act of self-sacrifice upon the cross. But in the First Century, there was no honor in the cross. The cross was Rome’s most potent symbol of death and humiliation. It was considered so cruel, torturous way to die, that the Senate declared that no Roman citizen was ever to be crucified. Crucifixion, then, was Rome’s way of showing the conquered peoples of the world who was in charge. The cross was an instrument of death, but it was also an instrument of humiliation. Those crucified were helpless to save themselves. Their friends and family subjected to the horror of watching the one they loved ultimately die by suffication--their exhausted bodies too weak to fill their lungs with air. Occasionally, the Romans would grant the crucified the mercy of breaking their legs--speeding up death by rendering the dying unable to push up off their feet to help them gasp for air.

    And Jesus’ death upon the cross was the ultimate humiliation. When we remember Christ’s passion, we must remember how the Romans tried to humiliate Jesus at every turn. They dressed him in a royal purple robe as they pushed his majesty towards his death. They wove a crown of thorns, and hung a sign “King of the Jews” above his head. Rome, Pilate, and the local Jewish authorities wanted to scatter Jesus’ followers by making such a mockery of his death that no one would dare to follow him. 

    And it almost worked. 

    Jesus’ followers did flee in fear. The Jews who did witness Jesus’ death all questioned whether God would save his so-called Christ. While it could either be mocking or honest curiosity, those who watched Jesus on the cross wondered if he would call out to Elijah to save him. And when Jesus breathed his last, the witnesses were left with one of two possible assumptions: either this was not God’s Christ, or, if he was, he was abandoned by God. Jesus, like the writer of Psalm 22 might proclaim; “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”

    For someone in the First Century Mediterranean, the simple fact that Jesus died on the cross was proof that he was not God’s Christ. When the fledgling group of Jesus followers tried to spread the Good News, they were often greeted with incredulous looks. For the Jews, such a humiliating abandonment by God at the hour of his death by the Romans was the sign that he was not the Christ. The Jewish Messiah would not be, could not be, so defiled at the hands of an occupying force. The idea that God would sacrifice his own Christ was a stumbling block to Jews anxious for God’s anointed one to free them from the occupation by foreign powers.  

    When the Jesus movement spread beyond the Jewish culture, they were greeted by a largely Greek culture just as suspicious of these early Christian claims to Jesus’ identity. For the Greeks, death by crucifixion just wasn’t logical. So much of the Eastern Mediterranean was influenced by the the Stoic movement of Greek philosophy, that the early reaction to Christianity was simply dis-belief. The Greeks, which Paul means those who value Greek Philosophy and culture, not just residents of the Greek city-states, valued wisdom. Wisdom would predict that God would be forever immortal. So to hear about the death of God’s son was foolishness. And so there was no wisdom in the cross--only humiliation and foolishness. 

    When seen against this backdrop, it makes sense as to why Paul is having such difficulty recruiting followers to the cause of Christ. There is nothing happy, nothing reassuring about the supposed Good News of Jesus Christ. A man who was killed by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans wasn’t only a poor choice in a poster image for a new faith, the image was scandalous. Jews decried the crucified cross as the ultimate symbol of spiritual uncleanliness, a dead body hanging from a tree, the victim of foreign occupiers. No Jewish God would foresake his own annointed one, His own Christ, to such a deplorable death. Gentiles saw the crucified Jesus as what the Romans meant it to be: a humiliating death exposing this person’s ultimate powerlessness at the hands of the almighty Roman Empire. It was a fools’ errand to think anyone could preach about a new world, a new kingdom, when the Romans were so intent on making a show of anyone who challenged their supremacy. 

    But Paul knew two things: God is God, and God doesn’t have to make sense to us. 

    Paul is rightly convinced that God’s kingdom does not have to play by humanity’s rules or expectations. The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.

    The power of God does not, is not, can not, be limited by humanity’s limitations. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.While the lectionary cuts Paul’s full argument short, he continues: Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.

 

    God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. From these two simple postulates, we can extrapolate a wealth of theological data. 

    The first, last, and most important fact that these two rules attest to is that God is a God of transformation. God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God Chose the lowly things of this world, the despised things, the things that are not--to nullify the things that are. The lowly, the despised, those without...these are not the final state of affairs. Those things that are being cast down will be raised up by the Lord. Those who have grown old, God will make new. Those who have died in the Lord will be raised to new life with Christ. All things, the good, the bad and the ugly, the weak, the strong, and the forgotten are being brought to their perfection by Him through whom all things were made.

    I have on two previous occasions preached the curious message of Christ crucified. They were at the baptisms of Abby and John. On both of those occasions, like today, I preached my most heartfelt belief that Christianity doesn’t make a lot of sense. Christ crucified is foolishness. There are a lot of people who find the death of God to be a stumbling block. 

    But the cross wasn’t the end of the story. 

    There is good news on Good Friday, but it is not for the feint of heart. Christianity asks a believer to see not what is, but what will be. It is hard to argue with the cold facts of despair, of agony and entropy. But the message of Christ crucified is to believe in transformation. To see the end as the beginning of God’s transformative love and action in the world. 

    Returning to Turing for a moment. Christianity must stand in stark contrast to violence of any kind and in any form. Violence, as Turing reminds us, is ultimately hollow—there is no real power in committing violence against another human being, that is pure weakness, not strength. Strength, real strength, real power transform that violence into peace. 

    But relying on the foolishness of God takes courage.     

 

 

    Put simply, we are asked to become God-like: To become agents of transformation; To share the good news that bad news isn’t the end of the story; to proclaim Christ crucified, and to live as resurrected. To, at the last, observe the two rules about God: God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, but, Rule Two: no matter our weakness, our strength in God will make lighter the load of transforming this realm into God’s kingdom. 

    Two Rules.

Amen.


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