25 March 2018

The Hour of Crisis

John 12:12-36

Palm Sunday

Do you know what time it is?  He knew what time it was.  In John’s Gospel, we find that Jesus was always conscious of the time.  For him, timing was everything.  Do you remember what Jesus said to his mother at the wedding in Cana, when she said to him, “They have no wine”?  Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come” (Jn. 2:3-4).  To the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus said, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (Jn. 4:21). To his fellow-Jews inquiring after his message, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn. 5:25). In fact, Jesus said, “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice” (Jn. 5:28). John tells us that there was at least one attempt to arrest Jesus, “…but no one laid hands on him, because his hour had not yet come” (Jn. 7:30).

And then, in our text this morning, in John 12, we hear Jesus announcing, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). It was his arrival in Jerusalem, the ancient city of God and the prophets, that signaled to Jesus his hour was quickly approaching.  We know the story of the palm branches and the shouting, “Hosanna!” Meaning, “Save us!”  The crowds gathered around him as he processed on a donkey through the city. John tells us that the disciples who were there that day had no idea what was going on around them.  They had no idea what Jesus was doing or why.  Perhaps they were just caught up in the moment, lost in the spectacle of it all.  The city was buzzing with energy, excitement, and expectation, for it was Passover.  It was only later, John tells us, “when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written, ‘Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt’” (Jn. 12:16, 15).

On this Palm Sunday, I don’t want to dwell long on the procession and the palms.  They’re significant, of course, and make for good liturgical theatre.  In John’s Gospel, the entry into Jerusalem is significant because it leads Jesus one step closer to the defining moment of his life.  It brings us one day closer to that day of days when the Son will be lifted up and glorified.  His entry into the city brings us to the hour—the hour that Jesus knew, all his life, was coming. It’s the hour when he would take on the powers of death and be crucified.

And we need to make sure the waving palm branches don’t obscure a significant detail that only John gives us about the entry into Jerusalem.  In the previous chapter, we have the raising of Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-48). According to John, that was the event that turned the religious authorities against Jesus.  The fact that he demonstrated this kind of power, power over death, the power to extend life, all of this was a threat.  “So from that day on they planned to put [Jesus] to death” (Jn. 11:53) and Jesus had to walk in secret, in fear of his life. Six days before the Passover, Jesus had dinner at the home of Lazarus and Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair (Jn. 12:1-8). When the religious authorities knew that both Jesus and Lazarus were together, they planned to put Lazarus to death as well (Jn. 12:10).  Then we learn, and this is unique for John, that the crowd that was with Jesus when he called Lazarus out of the tomb was with him in Jerusalem, and that they continued to tell everyone about the power Jesus has over death.  Word spreads.  Soon Greeks in town for Passover want to meet the famous Jesus.

And it’s in his conversation with the Greeks that we learn that the hour has arrived.  “I solemnly swear to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (Jn. 12:24-26).  Jesus is obviously alluding to what is coming and the meaning of the impending “hour.”

The prospect of what was coming troubled Jesus to the core of his being.  “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour” (Jn. 12:27).  Everything in John’s telling is leading to this hour. And what is this hour? The hour is the cross.  And what is the cross?  In John’s Gospel, from his perspective, the cross is where Christ is glorified, “lifted up.”  In John 17, at the end of his Farewell Discourses, we’re told that Jesus, “looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you’” (17:20).

Glory, glorify, glorified are words we find through John, they are special words used to describe Jesus’ death on the cross.  But they can sound so antiquated today.  Jill Duffield, editor of the PresbyterianOutlook, says these words are “churchy.”  We use them in the church, in worship, in our hymns. 

What is glorification?  It’s not the praise of the world or recognition or adulation, it’s not even the “Hosannas.”  Instead, glory is the manifestation of God’s power in and through the life and death of Jesus.  When Jesus manifests this power, God is glorified.  In his life, in his ministry, Jesus glorified God by being a servant of the liberating power of God, which what we saw in the raising of Lazarus. That’s why it’s significant that the Lazarus crowd is with Jesus in Jerusalem, because they saw—first-hand—the power of God at work in him, they know his power over death.  And now Jesus is about to fulfill the destiny of his life, demonstrating the power of God’s love by taking on the forces of death, himself.  He will enter into the tomb himself.  He will give his life over to death, wrestling with death, taking it on, defeating it, redeeming it.  And he will enter death in order to put death to death.  By death, I don’t mean physical, biological death, but death as a force, a force that struggles, fights, and wages war against God’s determination to be creator, force that undermines God’s desire to yield life, to grant life, for come alive in us.

The word that John uses to describe this deadly force, this force that resists and wages war against God’s resolve to grant life, a force that is within us, within our psyches or soul, within our relationships, in our family histories, a force that is operative all around us in politics, in the halls of government, in economic systems, and the history of nations, in oppressive ideologies that shape us and enslave us and sometimes even kill us, the one word John uses for this deadly force is kosmos.  The Greek word kosmos is often translated “world,” which is what we have in most English translations. But kosmos must not be confusion with creation or the natural world, as in “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”  That’s not what John is talking about.  Therefore, it’s best that we not translate it from the Greek and just leave it as kosmos, preferably with a “k” to set it apart.  I’m grateful for David Bentley Hart’s new translation of the New Testament, because he doesn’t translate kosmos as “world;” he retains the word kosmos, although it’s spelled with a “c.”[1]  

Why am I stressing this? Because when Jesus says the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, time for the power of God to be manifest in him on a cross, taking on death, entering death, losing in order to gain something greater, like a seed dying in order to yield a great fruit, when Jesus manifests the power of God, the power of life in the domain of death, he is wielding his redemptive power in the domain of the kosmos—taking it on.  The “hour” is the cross. It’s the moment, the time when the love of God judges the forces of death and destruction in the kosmos.  It’s all there in John 12:31, where Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of the world….”  Now is the judgment of the kosmos; now the ruler of the kosmos will be driven out” (Jn. 12:31).

And the Greek word for judgment here is krisis.  This means that the cross is the hour of glorification, and we also discover the cross is a time of judgment.  The cross in John is not Christ taking on the judgment of God for us.  Instead, the cross itself is doing the judging and, thus, causing a crisis!  And what is being judged?  The death-dealing forces of the kosmos.

The kosmos is a powerful force within the created order, within creation, a force that is at odds with God’s hopes and dreams for creation, for us. The kosmos is working against God’s vision of love and grace and justice and healing. The New Testament scholar Walter Wink called it “the Domination System;” it’s a destructive force in society; it’s everything that binds us, holds us back, that alienates us from God.[2]  Those who are being shaped by this anti-God force belong to the kosmos, they are “in the kosmos.”  Jesus wants us to be “in the kosmos” but not belong to the kosmos (Jn. 17:14-15).

So, what is the crisis?  The kosmos realizes that its time is up. This was the reason Jesus was sent to us, for this hour, to take on the kosmos and to free everyone and everything in its death-grip. The cross is the crisis-hour for the kosmos.

The cross is always a moment of crisis. But it’s so easy to forget this.  Karl Barth (1886-1968), the magisterial theologian, discovered during the First World War, which was a crisis for Western “Christian” Europe, that the gospel is always crisis because it judges us. The cross is always judging the kosmos.  The light of the gospel exposes the darkness of the kosmos; the truth of the gospel exposes the lies that destroy our lives. “The Gospel is not a truth among other truths,” Barth said.  “Rather, it sets a question-mark against all truths.”[3] What is revealed in the cross is a “crisis that breaks into general time.”[4]  The cross judges the kosmos not to destroy it—and this is significant—the kosmos is judged in order to save it, to redeem it.

Where do we see the kosmos today? It’s everything that resists God’s redemptive love and mercy.  Everything that is evil, destructive, and demonic.  Everything that breeds hate and fear.  Everything that threatens the safety of our children.  Everything that divides and alienates us from ourselves, one another, and from God.  Everything that dehumanizes us.  Everything that oppresses us and enslaves us.  Everything that kills, and tries to kill us.  Everything that hinders mercy and grace and forgiveness and healing.  Everything that tries to resist resurrection.  All this is the kosmos.  The kosmos is everything that questions or denies or pushes against the power of God’s love.  It’s everything that requires redemption.

Because Jesus is generous and loving he shares his “hour” with us. The cross was not only an isolated fact of history, it’s also a present-day experience for those who walk in the light of Christ.  We share in the cosmic crisis of the cross.  For whenever the cross is preached today it’s always crisis-hour for the kosmos. The cross judges the kosmos in order to free us from its death-grip.

Do you know what time it is?  Jesus knew what time it was.  Do we?  Is this not our “hour”?   The children that led yesterday’s March for Our Lives in DC, they certainly know what time it is.  Some of us were there yesterday along Pennsylvania Avenue—it was moving, tearful, powerful, prophetic, inspiring, convicting.  I was crying my way down Pennsylvania Avenue.  Similar marches were held here in Baltimore and around the country.  I don’t know if the organizers had any idea that for many Christians it was Palm Sunday weekend, but they couldn’t have picked a better weekend for a procession through the streets of a city wielding enormous power, led by children effectively saying, “Hosanna!  Save us!”, taking death-dealing power of the kosmos, saying, “Enough is enough!”   Those bold, courageous, honest speakers were preaching, they were effectively saying, “Now is the judgment of the kosmos….”  That’s what I heard, that’s how it felt being in the crowd, that was my experience.  If you didn’t follow the march on television, I encourage you to go and find them online.  And—my God—Emma González’ speech, which lasted six minute and twenty seconds —the time it took the gunman to kill her seventeen classmates at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL—ended with a prolonged period of silence, offering perhaps the loudest silence in the history of social protest.  She was screaming in that silence and judging the kosmos, exposing its lies, holding it accountable, dismantling its hold over us.  There was a lot of truth-telling in those speeches, and what was shared was ultimately done with and for love.  For, you see, we all need to be saved from the kosmos. 

And on this Palm Sunday, the threshold of Holy Week, we need to remember that Jesus didn’t take on the kosmos with “thoughts and prayers,” but with action, with his body, with his life, summoned by the power of God’s redemptive love.

In fact, it all comes back to love.  Jesus judges the kosmos, in love.  For as we know, “God so loved the world, the kosmos—meaning, all that which is against God—“that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have life eternal life,” that is, life touched by eternity, God’s life in a new age (Jn. 3:16).  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the kosmos to condemn the kosmos, but in order that the kosmos might be saved through him” (Jn. 3:17).  

The kosmos has been saved—it just doesn’t know it yet.  The kosmos has been saved and is being saved.  That’s the good news!  So, Jesus sends us out to wage love in the kosmos!  As the women discovered at the tomb that first Easter morning, his “hour” leads to resurrection. For God’s will is that all of it, including the kosmos, shall be redeemed. For even the kosmos is worthy of God’s love.

[1] David Bentley Hart, The New Testament: A Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).
[2] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 37ff.
[3] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1980), 35.
[4] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1980), 68.

11 March 2018

A Scandalous Word

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Fourth Sunday in Lent

As I shared in the March Messenger, this text in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth never ceases to amaze me—amaze and offend.  “For the word of the cross,” Paul wrote, “is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Amazement might make more sense than offense.  So why offense? 

The answer is embedded in the Greek.  Paul says that the cross of Christ is “foolishness,” from the Greek moria, meaning “folly, absurdity.”  Several verses later Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). The words “stumbling block” is not strong enough, for behind the English is the Greek word skandalon, as in “scandalous.”  The cross is not merely “foolish” and absurd, it’s also scandalous, offensive, a shock to one’s notion of order and propriety, an assault to reason and sense.  It’s shocking and disturbing and astonishing that a cross—this Roman instrument of brutal torture and unspeakable pain, and, from a Jewish perspective, an instrument of death, of extreme humiliation and disgust (both for the victim and for the one forced to look at a crucifixion)—yes, it’s shocking that a cross, of all things, should somehow, some way be a source of life and power and hope.

Indeed, Paul wants us to see that the cross is a sermon.  “For the word,” the logos, “of the cross is foolishness….” What Jesus experienced on the cross, what was revealed about the nature of God on and through a cross, what was achieved on and through the cross, the cross as symbolic act—all of it is preaching something to us, conveying a message, extending a word.  We could say, then, that the cross is an event of proclamation.  And the cross conveys this “word” or message not once, but time and again. The cross is always proclaiming a message to us through this event that continues to encounter us.  Trying to summarize or fully articulate the meaning of this sermon, the meaning of the cross, is, of course, the work of a lifetime, the journey of faith. And often what the cross conveys (from the perspective of the world) is, indeed, foolish, disturbing, unsettling, absurd, zany, and maybe even a little crazy.  But to those who have been struck by the word of the cross, who have been moved by its message, to those who have been stirred and transformed by the deeper wisdom of the cross, it is something else entirely.  Paul says that those who have been struck by the word of the cross know it is—remarkably!—the “power of God.” 

This is what amazes me.  The cross conveys, transfers, reveals, mediates, articulates, points to and participates in the very power of God.  The Greek word for power that Paul uses here, dunamis, is related to the English word dynamite and dynamic.  Sure, it’s an “explosive” image, but it should be viewed less as an expression of violent eruption and more as intense, transpersonal, that is, non-human energy that extends to us the dynamic being of God, a force that moves us and changes us and transforms us.  Paul uses the word dunamis (power) to describe his own personal experience of Christ, as well as the work of the Holy Spirit.

All this probably sounds unusually abstract.  I’m not trying to be theologically obtuse. Instead, I’m trying to emphasize and draw out what’s embedded in the text. What I’m trying to express is very real and concrete—there’s nothing more real than the excruciating suffering of a body on a cross (especially for the one being crucified).  I’m trying to suggest that the cross was not just a one-time event in Jesus’ life; the event itself reveals something to us in our present.  It opens up something about the nature of God for us, something about the grace of God; something that was true then and true now.  In Fleming Rutledge’s recent book on The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, a magisterial study almost 600-pages in length, taking eighteen years to write, she asks an important question, “On the cross, was Jesus simply showing us something (that is, something about God)… or was something actually happening (that is, did Jesus achieve something for us on the cross)?”[1]  Probably a little of both.  However, whatever was shown and whatever meaning it has cannot be mediated to us apart from the crucifixion as scandal.  Actually, we need to remember that, “In the early days of the Christian movement the scandal of the cross was far more self-evident than its meaning.”[2]  The “meaning” took centuries to articulate—I should say “meanings,” because the Church has never spoken with one voice or with one understanding of the cross.

Almost two thousand years later, contemporary Christians are prone to talk about the meaning of the cross, and over the centuries theologians have conjured various “theories of the atonement,” attempting to articulate what cannot be articulated.[3]  We throw around statements such as “Christ died for my sins,” assuming that “understand” the cross, that we understand what Jesus was doing on the cross.  Our desire to focus on the “meaning” of the cross can too easily become an abstraction, thus moving us away from the scandalous nature of the cross.  Whenever we say what something means, we freeze-frame it, define it, domesticate it to control it, tame it.  Once we think we know what it means, we’re done with it and we move on.

The Apostle Paul knew what we tend to forget: the cross is always scandalous. It’s an affront to reason and sense.  The “foolishness” of the cross, Paul said, preaches an unsettling word.  And its message is no less disturbing for us than it was for him.  For Paul, the scandal was and is that the power of God, the wisdom of God could be at work in the most surprising and disturbing and shocking events and people—as in a crucified body. The cry of dereliction from a crucified body is heard by the Living God, indeed, is the cry of the Living God.  Through Christ, God experiences the pain and anguish of a crucified body. Indeed, God is—can you believe it?—known, revealed in a crucified body. God’s love and judgment and grace and power are at work in a crucified body—suffering, crying, struggling, loving, dying.  This is nothing less than scandalous—and it needs to remain so.  We should be wary about moving too quickly from the offence of the cross to its meaning.  And we should always be suspicious of anyone who says this—and only this—is what the cross means. Yes, the cross has meaning(s) for us, but it’s also scandalous, and it’s the scandalous nature of the cross that we need to respect, honor, and preserve.  Because, you see, if it’s true that we discover God at work in Christ suffering on a cross, this means that we cannot run from or avoid similar “bodies,” that is, people who are being crucified today, in one form or the other.  In other words, attention given to the scandalous nature of the cross will open us up to meet God precisely in places and people and situations that scandalize and disturb us.

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree—referring to the widespread practice of lynching in American society during Jim Crow—contemporary theologian James Cone connects the lynching tree in the African-American experience and the suffering of Christ on the cross (also known in scripture as a “tree”).  Cone says, “When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.”[5] Just sit with this for a moment.

Where is Jesus in the world today? Do you want to know where Jesus is in the world today?  Wherever bodies are being senselessly crucified.  He’s not causing the pain, but sharing in, being present to the pain and suffering.  God is encountered in human suffering, not apart from it. We must not be afraid to enter the wounds of God’s people, face, share in the suffering of our neighbors. We must not be afraid to meet God in our deepest wounds.  That’s where we meet Jesus today.  That’s where Jesus always is, has always been, participating in human suffering.  God is not “up there” in the sky, distant, aloof, detached.  God is “down here,” all the way down into the depths of human suffering and pain, all the way “down” into hell itself.  This is just as scandalous for us today as it was for Paul and the early church—and it’s just as liberating for us as it was for Paul and the first Christians.

When we enter into the places of deepest suffering, such as a cross, when we share in the suffering of our neighbors, when our lives become cruciform something of God’s power and wisdom and transforming love are experienced—I don’t know how or why, because this makes no sense to me, it’s foolish and absurd, but it’s true.

Like you, I’ve been very disturbed by the shooting, several weeks ago, at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  And, like you, I’ve been impressed by the bold, courageous voice of the students.  There’s one image I can’t seem to shake, though, which was shared in the press around the world.  It’s the photo of a parent crying inconsolably, in anguish, holding a young woman in her arms, a student, also crying.  There’s so much pain in that photo.  Then you notice something else.  On the mother’s forehead is the mark of the cross in black ash.  It was Ash Wednesday.  I don’t want to read too much meaning into this.  I don’t know what it means.  But there’s something profound about the juxtaposition of the beginning of Lent, the symbol of the cross, and unfathomable human suffering experienced that day.  It’s scandalous.  I wonder (perhaps I’m being naïve or foolish) if this Ash Wednesday shooting, with its image of the cross of ash, is allowing us to enter into the suffering caused by gun violence in a new way.  There’s something different about the response to this shooting.  Something has moved.  Consider the “March for Our Lives” for gun control, in Washington, DC, on March 24, which will be led by our children.  Youth and adults from this church and other churches in the presbytery will be there; I plan to attend. Baltimore City will be sending sixty busloads of children to the march.  I can’t help but think of Isaiah…“a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 6:11). 

As we move through Lent and soon relive the drama of Holy Week, I invite you to reflect and to pray and ask and share with family and friends: consider the cross.  What is the “word of the cross” to you?  If you wear a cross, what does it mean to you?  What is the cross saying to you?  Where is the scandalous suffering of the crucified revealing the power and presence of God, leading you to act? 

[1] Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 17.
[2] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), cited in Rutledge, 17.
[3] For a helpful overview of these “theories,” see Colin E. Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement: A Study of Metaphor, Rationality, and the Christian Tradition (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2003).
[4] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016), 158.

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