Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Stumbling Block or High Hurdle?

I’m from Alabama. I grew up in Fairhope. I suppose technically I was born in Georgia, but I moved to Alabama when I was 6, so I claim it as my home. Like many Alabamians, I grew up going to church. It was assumed that my family and I would be in church every single Sunday. In fact, I honestly cannot remember a single Sunday morning when my family was at home that we did not wake up and go to church.

For those of us who grew up in the American south, going to church every Sunday, it’s hard for us to accept just how unacceptable the Christian story might be to others who were not submerged in it from an early age. But the central message of our faith—that the savior of the world was executed on the cross in order that we might go with him to heaven—is pretty hard to get our minds around.

I’m not talking about the challenge of understanding the mechanics of salvation. One needn’t be expected to understand the differences between substitutionary atonement (Jesus took our place) and incarnational salvation (Jesus took on our nature so that we might take on God’s). I mean the simple fact that, at the end of our story, our hero died. Now, of course, for Christians that isn’t the end of the story. There’s Easter. Jesus rises from the dead. But we Christians who have known this faith for our entire lives can’t separate those two aspects of our faith—cross and resurrection. But I think the rest of the world has a hard time getting to the third day. I think they’re still trying to figure out why the son of God died on the cross.

Paul’s ministry was exercised in a very different time and place (of course). Whenever he was preaching the gospel or writing letters to churches, he was doing so in a context that didn’t accept as given that the savior of the world would be crucified. In fact, he was dealing with the exact opposite. “Wait, you mean you’re asking me to believe that the messiah was crucified? That’s silly. God doesn’t let his chosen one be crucified. The only people who end up with that kind of punishment are those who really ticked God off. He must have deserved it—at the divine level.” In other words, what we don’t realize is that the cross was a really, really hard thing to accept back then. And I think it still is today.

In today’s epistle lesson (1 Corinthians 1:20-31), Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified—a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Paul knew his audience. He knew it would be hard to convince people that salvation came through shame and torture and death. But he also knew that that was how God worked. God’s ultimate expression of his identity came through a message of selfless, sacrificial love rather than through a message of amazing, unequaled power.

We preach Christ crucified. But I don’t think we do a very good job of it. I think we’re still under the impression that people just want to hear that message. I think we’re scattering the fact that Jesus died on the cross around on the ground as if the chickens will gobble it up. But that’s a hard pill to swallow. “You want me to associate my concept of the all-powerful with an agonizing death? Then how is God supposed to still be God?” But that’s precisely who God is.

I think the church (including yours truly) needs to do a better job of bringing the message of the cross to a place where people can grab hold of it. It’s too counter-intuitive to expect people to be attracted to its paradoxical beauty. (It’s hard to worship a paradox.) We need to tell the world that we have the most wonderful news to share, but we need to admit that that news is a little weird. In order to believe it, one needs to let go of his expectations about God (power, majesty, might) and start with the love of the cross. Then we can get to Easter. Then we can get to resurrection. Then we can get to true life.

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