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.”