The folly of the cross...

In a small class I am leading for adults in my faith community, we spoke of Jesus last week. Specifically, the Jesus of incarnation - Word made Flesh - God within and among us. It was a tough class - mostly because I started with the statement: "Most times a reflection on Jesus starts with his teachings, but let me suggest that his teachings take on their deepest meaning when we start with the Cross. So, rather than explore the ethics of Jesus as a wisdom teacher, like the ancient Church, we will start to wrestle with the folly or foolishness of the Cross." St. Paul, in encouraging the community in Corinth to learn how to love and practice compassion with one another, began with the Cross, too. In I Corinthians 1 he puts it like this (using Peterson's The Message.)

I have a serious concern to bring up with you, my friends, using the authority of Jesus, our Master. I'll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common...

God didn't send me out to collect a following for myself, but to preach the Message of what he has done, collecting a following for him. And he didn't send me to do it with a lot of fancy rhetoric of my own, lest the powerful action at the center—Christ on the Cross—be trivialized into mere words. The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hellbent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works, and most powerfully as it turns out. It's written,

I'll turn conventional wisdom on its head,
I'll expose so-called experts as crackpots.


So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—preaching, of all things!—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation.


While some clamor for miraculous demonstrations and others go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Some treat this like an anti-miracle—and others pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks and others, too—Christ is God's ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can't begin to compete with God's "weakness."
 
Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don't see many of "the brightest and the best" among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn't it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these "nobodies" to expose the hollow pretensions of the "somebodies"? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That's why we have the saying, "If you're going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God."

Three quick ideas are at work here for 21st century people of faith:

+ First, if we're going to start with the Cross, then we're also going to embrace doubt and questions as being at the heart of faith. This is not a call to a rigid doctrinaire theology but rather one that welcomes the hard questions, fears and uncertainties that come with the Cross, yes?  There are many ways to talk about faithful doubt - from the Via Negativa or apophatic theology/spirituality to simple humility - but one thing is clear by starting with the Cross of Jesus:  living into the questions of Thomas is an honored and respectable path that must never be shut down by uncertainty or the arrogance of orthodoxy.

+ Second, the Cross forces us to consider the "paschal mystery" that Paul affirms:  namely, how God can take even what is broken and filled with death and transform it into something of living beauty.  Not that all things ARE good, not at all.  And not that there is an automatic equation about the Sacred will in the world.  Just, that if we wait in the presence of the Cross God can take even Good Friday and transform it into Easter.  Death into resurrection.  Fear into trust. Obsession with self into tender compassion for others.

+ And third the Cross asks us to get out of our own way and center our prayers and hopes on God.  Not that our lives are irrelevant - they are not.  But if we always start with ourselves we are setting our hopes and vision too low.  The Cross invites us to
 let God be God. We are small and often foolish - sometimes socially irrelevant and always broken - so why not embrace a spirituality that says God can work through even our small and broken lives rather than fight it?  "Thy will be done..." is the starting place of this mystical path.

Increasingly, I find solace and hope in the folly of the Cross.  (To be sure, I also find that the way the Cross has been used to be mean-spirited and cruel. See James Carroll's, Constantine's Sword, for a clear and damning historical analysis.) Because the Cross is yet another part of Christ's upside down kingdom where the first become last, losers find a way to win, the lost are welcomed home, the least are restored to the status of beloved, children serve as rabbis, women are no longer marginalized and the powerful practice humility with joy.  It is a way of entering the mystical wisdom of Jesus.  Leonard Cohen calls it the "staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount which I don't pretend to understand at all."

credits:
1) carrying the cross @ liamjonesfineart.com
2) mccarthy @ foundationstaart.org
3) roualt @ edithosb.wordpress.com
4) roualt @ mcguirehimself.com

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