The Way of the Cross
January 29, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian Church, Columbiana
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:23-31
As I read our passage earlier this week, an old hymn started going through my head.
In the cross of Christ I glory
Towering o’er the wrecks of time
All the light of sacred story
Gather’s round its head sublime
Bane and blessing, pain and pleasure
By the cross are sanctified
Peace is there that knows no measure
Joys that through all time abide
We will, of course, sing that hymn in a bit. But for now, consider that first line. “In the cross of Christ I glory…” Today, sitting on top of a few millennium of Christian teaching, we sing without pause – but scrub away that teaching, look at it “objectively,” and it seems absurd. Why glory in such a moment of defeat? Why celebrate Jesus’ moment of absolute failure?
The Greek culture surrounding the early church envisioned their gods as super humans – almost like the super heroes we celebrate today in comic books and movies. They were faster or stronger or sneakier; they excelled in beauty, were vicious in war and passionate in love making. Whatever happened, they always came out on top. Zeus, the lead Greek god, achieved his dominance through trickery and violence, maintained his dominance by hurling lightning bolts from the sky and celebrated his dominance by sleeping with anyone he pleased. You might find Zeus on the battlefield or in the bedroom or at a party; you would never find him on a cross, strung up by human authorities, abandoned by his friends.
Heroes don’t die on crosses. Heroes don’t meekly allow themselves to be led away, falsely accused, nailed up with out resistance and then seeking forgiveness of those who wronged them. Heroes escape from the clutches of their captures, yank the cross out of the ground, and fling it like a boomerang, killing their captors and saving the world. What fools those early Christians were; what fools we still are to worship as God a failed rebel, one of many victims of the Roman Empire, strung up on a cross between two anonymous thieves. What fools these Christians were, what fools we still are, to worship as God a man who may have worked a bunch of cool miracles, who may have offered some profound teaching, but in the end died a nobody’s death.
“Because he emptied himself,” an even older hymn says, “God highly exalted him.”
The other day, as I made my way to morning prayer, I realized that I needed to empty myself. I’d gone several nights without sleeping. I was stressing over everything from politics to finances to missing ferns. My mind was so busy, my body had been so busy, that all sense of hope, faith or connection to God seemed far away. Christ empties himself on the cross, and resurrection follows. Only when we empty ourselves, when nothing is left to separate ourselves from God, can the Holy Spirit rush in, heal what is broken, strengthen what is weak and empower and equip us for what lies ahead.
That’s why we often experience God most profoundly at our weakest moments. A friend of mine shared how, the night before her cancer operation, as she was lying in bed, at the mercy of her disease, a slave to the medical industrial complex, she felt God lift her up, reach into her, heal her and let her know everything would be okay. Lying in the hospital, she had become nothing, she was done, empty, alone. Only then could the Holy Spirit rush in.
The economic, political, religious and academic elite of ancient Rome considered early Christians fools and idiots. Paul reminds the Corinthians where they came from: “Not many of you were wise, not many of you were powerful, not many of you were of noble birth.” The more stuff we have, the more cluttered our minds and our lives, the more secure we feel, the harder it is to experience promised resurrection. Think about who God calls. Its rarely the rich or the elite. God chooses the enslaved Israelites to be his chosen people, not the rich, globe hopping Phoenicians. God calls a young man with a sling shot to kill the giant Goliath, not a trained warrior. God calls Jonah out of the belly of a whale, the Torah emerged from the humiliation of exile and Jesus is born in a stable, forced to flee as a refugee and declares a kingdom with no links to a palace.
Jesus gathers his disciples from among the fishermen and tax collectors, the demon possessed and the dispossessed. He spends his time with the poor, the disenfranchised, the unclean, the outcasts, the nobodies. Instead of marching his followers, swords and spears in hand, to seize the palace, he declares his kingdom by limping alone to the cross, emptying himself, becoming nothing. As God empties himself on the cross, the healing power of the Holy Spirit comes in with such force the hurt and the pain, the injustice and oppression, shudder and crumble before it. With nothing left to separate it from God, the world experienced resurrection.
How foolish it still can seem, when in our rushing around, in our projected egos and bolstered self confidence, we fill our emptiness with business and deny our need for resurrection. Instead of emptying ourselves before God we seek to armor ourselves against misguided fears, the other, the nothings – least they remind us too much of who we really are. Only when we become empty ourselves, only when we understand our own need for resurrection, can we embrace others who need resurrection.
Its the fools who leave water in the desert for migrants and welcome refugees into their communities. Its the fools who walk alongside those on death row and pray with those in psych wards. Its the fools who support schools for displaced Muslim children, who welcome addicts and alcoholics into church basements, who shelter the homeless, nurse the sick, comfort the aging, guide the lost and welcome the stranger. The fools know to look for God among those who have been emptied out by life, for its the empty who best hear God’s call for resurrection.
That day, earlier in the week, I was able, after some diligent spiritual work, to block the distractions and find that spot, that brief moment, of emptiness. As the noise and clutter cleared, the Holy Spirit rushed in and my true being, my God created being, clicked back into place. Out of nothingness came resurrection.
The message of the cross may be foolishness to those who seek salvation through their business, through their egos, their wealth, their power, their connections, through the accumulation of worldly praise. Yet each of those is fleeting, and their unmitigated pursuit brings death to both the self and the community. True power, divine power, resurrection power belongs to the weak, the empty, the nothings, the crucified who glory in the cross of Jesus Christ.