Thursday, January 26, 2017

Stumbling Block and Foolishness


In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul writes about the foolishness of the cross in a way that continues to challenge me. I have been a Christian for my whole life. I have written and preached about the cross more than any other subject, and still I am perplexed. Paul reminds us that the proclamation that Jesus Christ died on the cross is "foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." I know those words. I believe those words. But I still don't really understand them. And I don't know whether Paul did either.

Last night at the dinner table, my seven-year-old son asked, "Who invented peanut butter?" His mother and I agreed that we thought it was George Washington Carver but we weren't sure, and then our almost-five-year-old son said, "Maybe it was God." A few seconds later, the older boy asked, "Who invented jelly?" and, before we could think of any sort of answer, his brother said, "Maybe it was God." I remember those days--when it was fun to explore the awesome, limitless, creative power of God in my mind and in playful conversation. Can God make a rock so heavy that God cannot lift it? If God knows everything, what is God's favorite color? I may have given up those childish questions, but the same pursuit is alive in me in other ways. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then why did he create us with the capacity for such evil? Why doesn't he intervene and make everything right? Why does he allow terrible things to happen? If we're talking about God, is there a difference between allowing them to happen and causing them to happen?

Why the cross? It didn't have to be this way. Sure, I can trace the theology of sacrificial atonement through the Bible and see why it happened. I am familiar with the different atonement theories. I recognize humanity's capacity and predilection for evil, and I see that the cross is the only possible outcome when God takes on human nature in the incarnation. But it still didn't have to be this way. God is God. If God can invent peanut butter and make rocks too heavy for God to lift, then surely God could have made the world another way. But God didn't.

The power of God is found in the death of God's Son. That is how God and God's power work. God did not send a superhero into the world to do battle with evil and win. God's Son is not faster than a speeding bullet. God's Son is the crucified one. He does not have a kryptonite, but he dies anyway. And that isn't a sign that Lex Luther has won. It is a sign of God's victory. And it doesn't make sense.

Paul writes that the cross is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. What does that mean? It means that Israel did not await a crucified messiah. Of course they didn't. Why would they? Sure, I understand how the "servant songs" of Isaiah have been reinterpreted to identify Jesus, but no one waited for a savior to be executed on a tree. That's not possible. (But it is.) And Gentiles reject the crucified savior for the same reason--that he was crucified--but with a different perspective. How can Greeks, who seek wisdom, philosophy, and understanding, make sense of something nonsensical? You just can't wrap your mind around it. It is foolishness. (But it's not.)

God offers salvation to the world in the cross of Jesus, and the world says, "Salvation by way of a cross? What sort of salvation is that? How is that supposed to work? No, thank you. We'll take our chances on our own." But, when you are the one being saved, it makes perfect sense. We need a God who is immune from our chaos, but we need a savior who knows our troubles. That's Jesus. That's the cross. I don't understand it, and I don't think I ever will. But it isn't something to be understood. It's ability to save me not only exceeds my capacity for understanding, but it is efficacious precisely because I cannot understand it. For that, I give thanks.

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