Secondary Education

Jer. 15:15-21 (Ex. 3:1-15), Rom. 12:9-21, Mt. 16:21-28 (for Sep 3, 2017)

We have come to the great turning point in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary. We might think of it as the end of primary school and the matriculation to secondary school. So far the message has been the Kingdom of God but now we move to the Cross of Christ. We might summarize Jesus’ message as follows:

  1. Virtue will ultimately win (the message of the Kingdom of God)
  2. Virtue can only win by losing (the Cross of Christ)
  3. Virtue is not incremental (the process of getting better and better) but emergent.

The hard part of this lesson (the thing that makes this secondary education rather than primary education) lies in the question, “But why does evil have to win?” The answer is that it’s not precisely accurate to say that evil has to win, rather it has to reveal itself for what it is. This goes back to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. One dare not remove the tares from the wheat until they are both mature or the harvester will inevitably confuse the two. There is a catch: a tare, being a tare, will grow more aggressively and it will appear that the tare will squeeze out the wheat. In other words, it will appear that evil is winning.

With this in mind, let’s return to the third point above. Not only is virtue emergent, evil is also emergent. Prior to the most recent election cycle there was a predominant (barely predominant, but predominant nonetheless) consensus that liberalism was virtuous and conservatism was not. The conservative tendency to hold on to “outdated” ideas (and for this consensus to hold, the questionable assumptions must be made 1. that it is outdated and 2. that which is outdated is less virtuous) made it “obvious” that conservativism is mean (which literally means “small minded”). When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, there was a great deal of fear (driven by the predominant consensus) that a great deal of meanness and evil would result when (not if, but when) Hillary Clinton won the election.

We will never know whether the Republicans would have lost graciously, but what was revealed was a shocking level of malevolence and evil on behalf of supposedly virtuous liberal culture toward conservative culture. “Sore loser” doesn’t even come close to describing it. The media, rather than just analyzing the loss, began to systematically dehumanize Donald Trump and his supporters. (This is, by the way, when I canceled my subscription to the Washington Post. They had by far the best post-election coverage, but mixed in with that outstanding coverage was a malevolence and dehumanization of the perceived enemy that sunk to such depths I couldn’t read the paper without being dragged down into the muck.

This is not to say the conservatives were virtuous. Tit for tat, they were busy dehumanizing the liberals and also participating in the same evil the liberals were enslaved by and American society sunk to a new low of dehumanization and evil that has led many intellectuals to seriously wonder whether this is the beginning of the end of democratic experiment of America that was begun some 250 years ago.

And this brings me back to the Gospel lesson. In the midst of this emergent evil I try valiantly to not become a Peter. In Matthew Jesus said that he must be crucified at the hands of the religious leaders. Peter said it absolutely would not happen, and Jesus immediately and with no equivocation said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” To use a football metaphor, it’s the third quarter and virtue is losing badly in this quarter. (The leader of the apostles just got called satan!) To return to the parable, this is the quarter where the tares grow madly like weeds (which they are) while the wheat continues its steady pace. But it’s only the third quarter and the victory of losing (the victory of the cross) will only be revealed at the resurrection. The end game is not yet afoot.

But Jesus has now turned to our secondary education. We must learn that what we thought was virtue must die so that a new and even more glorious virtue can emerge. Virtue is not the good stuff we used to do made even better; virtue is a divine gift that can only be received when we recognize that the stuff we were holding on to is rubbish. The Kingdom of God is the first half of the game. The Cross is the third quarter (where we are now), but victory only comes in the fourth quarter.

This doesn’t mean that I believe the United States will come out of this stronger and better. (This isn’t about the U.S., it’s about the Kingdom of God and we ought not confuse the two!) The United States as a leader in democracy, human rights, and what we thought to be virtuous, might be in its final death throes (although I actually doubt that is the case). What we do know is that we need to let our old virtue die. We need to recognize that the whole myth of a Christian nation was not wheat but tares. We need to recognize the tares, the evil, for what it is. Only when we let go all those values we held so dearly … only when we die, will it be revealed what actual victory looks like. “Get behind me Satan!”

Commenting on God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring would be slaves for 400 years before they became a great nation (in Lecture X of his “Bible Series” on YouTube), Jordan B. Peterson observed that tyranny precedes freedom. “All people are subject to the tyranny before freedom.” The only way to throw off the shackles tyranny is to die, and so the path through is the path of the Cross. To deny this is satanic and to that Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan!” As Peterson would probably say to this, “Yeah, that’s one hell of a deal, man.” But that’s the way it is. Welcome to your secondary education.

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Foolish to the Perishing

In the congregation where I grew up, we were not people of the cross, the minister said, we were people of the empty tomb. There was a cross in the sanctuary, but it was an empty cross. No dead Jesus for us; we were resurrection people. The congregation was not unique and as I look back on this I am struck mostly by what this says about our contemporary Christian culture. We  have so fully embraced the cross, that it has become a stepping stone on our way to the victorious Christian life.

This Sunday’s lectionary readings (Micah 6:1-8, 1 Cor. 1:18-21, Mat. 5:1-12) help put this in perspective. “For 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,” is how Paul begins this week’s epistle reading. What Paul is getting at (as is Jesus when he begins the Sermon of the Mount with Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, etc.) is familiar to us. The world’s values ought not be (in fact, they cannot be) our values. Jesus’ values are the sort of thing that, if you think about it logically, will get us into the poor house, give us diseases, and ultimately get us killed. This is no way to run a kingdom!

But we’ve heard that for 2,000 years, and after 2,000 years of repetition, the rough edges of the message have been smoothed away and, since we already know what’s coming, we give assent with a momentary horror at how utterly upside down and difficult this would be if we were to take it literally, and then we take that rough diamond of the gospel now smoothed and shaped into a lovely gem, a piece of jewelry, and go on with our life.

That’s why that minister could move so conveniently and quickly past the cross and on to the resurrection. It’s a difficult thing, but it’s a known difficulty. Yes we have to die, but after that victory!

Today, may we should simply stop after the first half of that sentence: Yes, we have to die.

The resurrection is not ours to do or not do, the cross is the part we must embrace, Once we get the hang of that, the resurrection will take care of itself. If we can actually come to a full stop and live in that manner, we are indeed blessed.

We Will Never Forget

Today, Sep 14, is the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, or as it is called in the Roman Catholic Church, the Triumph of the Cross. It could be dubbed the “We Will Never Forget” feast of the Christian Church. The origins of the feast go back to the time of persecution of Christians, and especially to Emperor Hadrian.

The pagan Roman emperors tried to completely eradicate from human memory the holy places where our Lord Jesus Christ suffered and was resurrected for mankind. The Emperor Hadrian (117-138) gave orders to cover over the ground of Golgotha and the Sepulcher of the Lord, and to build a temple of the pagan goddess Venus and a statue of Jupiter. Pagans gathered at this place and offered sacrifice to idols there.

But this attempted eradication of history was temporary and by 326 the area had been returned to the church, excavated, and the holy things recovered. This is what is remembered today on this Feast Day.

The Elevation of the Holy Cross takes on a rather different meaning for me in my current context. Presbyterianism was historically extremely iconoclastic and that iconoclasm is still strong in certain parts of the Presbyterian Church, including some of the faculty here at Chamberlain-Hunt. There is a faint drum beat of sorts reminding us always that statues, symbols, pictures, and actions in a Christian context are bad. Some of the Roman Catholic kids are quietly told that it is not necessary to cross one’s self after prayer (ie, you ought not do it). In chapel services we are reminded that the Bible is a book that reveals God (I will note that the person of Christ is not mentioned in this context) and therefore words and thoughts are what are important not pictures and actions.

At the same time pictures and actions are deeply revered on the military side of the academy. Every cadet wears their rank. Each platoon has its own flag and wears the platoon symbol on their shirts. Covers (ie, hats) are never to be worn inside and never to be off outside, except for prayer. And my list of reverential military and national actions and symbols could go on and on.

In short, there is a certain schizophrenia on this topic among some of the faculty. Christianity is viewed through a narrowly rationalistic lens while everyday life is understood to encompass the whole being, mind, soul, and body.

This was certainly true on Saturday, 9/11. A moving ceremony was held in front of the main entrance of Chamberlain-Hunt. Everybody, faculty and cadet, were outfitted in their finest. Right at the time of the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center the flag was raised and then lowered to half mast, and a moment of silence was observed.

I was facing most of the cadets and several of them had tears in their eyes. I suspect that because of the carefully orchestrated ceremony, the reverential honor we gave to the American flag and the remembrance of that day, these cadets will indeed never forget.

Three days later – 9/14 – the church around the world, in similar fashion remembers the evil of the terrible persecution of the church, the attempt to force Christians to forget all that is holy to the church – the passion, the cross, the burial, the resurrection – and in defiance of Satan and his battalions of servants, remembers the Triumph of the Cross.

As today’s antiphon for Phil. 2:6-11 proclaims: “We must glory in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It seems that the process of remembering such a glorious thing would be greatly enhanced if we took as much care to address the body, will, and soul, as well as the mind when we recall that “though in the form of God … Jesus Christ emptied himself … obediently accepting death, even death on a cross … so that now we know Jesus Christ is Lord!”

Or, as we might say, in the wake of 9/11/01, “In spite of Emperor Hadrian and his evil designs, you, Christian, must never forget.”