Reformation 4: Theology of the Cross, October 22, 2017
1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2, Psalm 9:7-18, Mark 15:33-39
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
So there was this centurion, a Roman soldier, one of many occupying Jerusalem. Like all the Roman soldiers, he was there to do what the Romans called “maintaining order,” but which really mean keeping the boot on the neck of the Jews so that they would never get any funny ideas about freedom or anything like that. His job was to protect Roman interests, keep their puppet Herod on the throne despite how much his own people hated him, and kill anyone who protested the established order.
One of the people he killed, or helped to kill, was a guy named Jesus of Nazareth. Now, Jesus had the rare distinction of being counted a threat to both the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities. And he was crucified, which was about the cruelest way the Roman Empire knew how to kill someone. It was gruesome, bloody, and horrifying, and it took a long time. Days, sometimes, if the so-called criminal was really healthy to begin with. Jesus died in just a few hours. And the centurion was there for every bloody, agonizing minute of it. Just as he’d been there for the executions of other bandits, freedom-fighters, protestors, and anyone else who dared to oppose Rome. And the centurion, he looks up at the mutilated corpse of this backwater preacher who was executed for the crime of daring to speak out against the way the world works, and this centurion says, “Truly, this man was God’s son!”
Really? We know he was right, of course, but be honest with yourself: if you didn’t already know that that’s how Jesus died, if you had been there on that day two thousand years ago and been told “somewhere in this crowd is God made flesh and come to live among us,” would you pick the criminal who was brutally executed for disturbing the peace as the one? Really? I don’t think so. Very few people, then or now, agreed with him. I mean, the vast majority of both Jews and Gentiles for the next several centuries looked at Christians and said, “you want me to believe that God came to earth and suffered? He died? How weak is that.” It makes no sense. The cross of Christ was a stumbling block and a foolishness to most people. And even after Christianity became the dominant religion, most Christians never stop to think what it really means that Jesus died on a cross. We talk about the power of God, the might of God, but not the weakness of God. Not the pain of God.
There’s a saying that Americans love an underdog, but that’s only partially true. We like winners. If an underdog wins, great! That makes their victory all the sweeter. But it’s a general human trait to be attracted to power, to justify power, to assume that power and glory and beauty means goodness. We want stories in which the good guys win. We want stories in which bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people … and so, in real life, when bad things happen to someone we try and find some reason they deserved it. Especially if they’re poor, or different than us. We want to believe that what happened to them could never happen to us because we are good people and we don’t deserve bad things. We want to rejoice in the star quarterback’s skills, we don’t want to hear about how he beats his girlfriend. We want to look up to that prosperous businessman, we don’t want to hear about how he cheated his partners or his customers or his contractors, and we don’t want to hear how he abused his employees. We want to support and honor our police officers, not hear about the bad apples who use their power to bully and hurt people. We want to hear stories in which everybody sees evil for what it is, good triumphs over evil, and evil gets its just deserts. We don’t want stories where the bad guys lose, and we especially don’t want stories where most people don’t even recognize evil for what it is. Yet that’s the story of Jesus’ death: a good man challenges evil where he finds it, and gets roundly condemned by most people around him, and gets killed, and the empire that put him to death goes on about its way unchanged and victorious for centuries afterwards.
As Christians, this is something that’s very hard to come to terms with. Our savior—God made flesh—was not a hero. He didn’t have a heroic Hollywood victory. He died in pain and agony. And that’s what God came to earth to do. He came to earth in the last place anybody would think to look. He didn’t choose to be born as a prince, and he didn’t choose to amass earthly power or wealth. In fact, when he talked about power or wealth, he was pretty much always critical of it and of the people who had it. He didn’t raise an army, he didn’t create a new government, he didn’t make a big splash—only a handful of people in the entire world remembered him when he was gone, although he transformed their lives and their telling of his story transformed others. All the glory, all the wealth and power and control of society, all of that came later. What came first, was death. Death on the cross.
Our God comes to us in the form of a crucified man, a man who suffered and died. God could have become human anywhere in any place and time, and he chose to be born as a poor man and get killed? What does that tell us about God?
Well, it tells us that the best place to find God is in the last place a sane person would look. In pain and suffering. The cross is God saying “no” to power, “no” to wealth, “no” to greed, “no” to ambition. The cross is God saying “you know all those things you humans care about and worship? All the glory and feel-good self-justification? They’re all wrong.” The cross is God taking the established order, the way we think the world is meant to be, and turning everything on its head.
The cross is God saying “yes” to all those who are abandoned and abused. God says yes to the suffering of Jesus in the crucifixion, and so God says yes to those who are suffering now. God will be present when you suffer. God goes to places of hell on earth, the places where we are afraid to go, even the hells we create for ourselves, and sets us free. And if, in that moment, freedom or physical salvation is not possible, God stays there, in the midst of suffering and evil. It’s not that it’s okay that people suffer, but that God will not abandon those who do.
When we focus on the cross, when we remember that God is always with those who suffer, those whom the world abandons, it changes our perspective on God, and it changes our perspective on the world. When you focus on the cross, on the God who is present even in the most hellish experiences the world has to offer, we call that a theology of the cross. When you forget that, when you focus on power and glory and miracles and all the nice lies we tell ourselves about bad things only happening to bad people, that’s called a theology of glory. And Martin Luther used to say that the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross is that a theology of glory calls evil ‘good’ and it good ‘evil.’ A theology of the cross calls a thing what it is.
Let me give you an example of the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross, and what they look like in practice. Let’s go back to that centurion at the beginning. The Roman Empire had a theology of glory. See, the Roman Empire was big and powerful and mighty, and the Roman Empire enforced a peace across its boundaries, the Pax Romana. It was prosperous: it built great buildings and great engineering products, it brought water to cities in the desert, it did so many great and wonderful things. The Emperor was called the “savior of the world.” They put that on their money: Caesar, Savior. That’s a theology of glory, to look at all the wonderful things they did and focus only on the good. A theology of the cross looks at that and asks the question: how did they accomplish all of it? And they answer is death and destruction and slavery. They established peace by slaughtering anyone who disagreed with them, and they built all of that stuff with slave labor. They had more slaves per capita than any society in the world until the 19th Century of the American South. A theology of Glory looks at the peace and the beautiful surface and goes “wow, isn’t that great.” A Theology of the Cross looks at the cost, all the lives shattered and destroyed to build that empire.
Or how about Nazi Germany. In the 1930s and 40s, most Christians in Germany supported Hitler. Sure, he had a lot of hate-filled rhetoric, and sure, he established concentration camps where millions of people were slaughtered, but at the same time he was in favor of good, old-fashioned family values. Honoring your parents, women staying at home. He was very hard on people of different sexualities. So Christians looked at him and said, “he’s a great guy, it doesn’t matter all the people who are dying because of his policies. It doesn’t matter, the people getting marched away to concentration camps, because look at the nice society he is building.” That’s a theology of glory. A theology of the cross says all of those “family values” are worth nothing if they are built on the bones of the slaughtered.
Or how about the American Civil Rights era? Many white people, including many white Christians, were absolutely against the Civil Rights marchers. They were too disruptive, too much of a threat to the established civil society. Even those who said “but they’ve got a good point! They’ve been treated unjustly,” said “but they’re too militant about it, they’re too loud, they’re disrupting things. They should be quiet and ask nicely and politely for the rights and privileges that have been denied them for centuries.”
Or how about the movie last year called Birth of a Nation, about an enslaved Baptist preacher named Nat Turner who led a slave revolt in the early 1800s. Now, if you watch many movies about the antebellum South or listen to people today talk about the Confederacy or Southern history, you will probably hear a lot about their proud heritage, the valiant and brave fighters like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and states’ rights. You probably will not hear much about the so-called ‘right’ they fought to protect, which was the right to own their fellow human beings. Or they’ll admit it, but dance around it, or try and mitigate how bad it was. This is a theology of glory, focusing on the glamour while ignoring the cost. A theology of the cross reminds us that you can’t just ignore evil because it’s accomplishing things or done by people you otherwise admire. In contrast to these other stories we tell of a glorious south, the 2016 movie Birth of a Nation shows in graphic detail just what slavery was like, how degrading and evil it was to black people, how it twisted and warped even good white people. You cannot watch that movie and keep any illusions about slave-owning society.
And there is a question that keeps getting asked throughout that movie, at each horror. Each time a black woman is raped by her owner, people ask: “Where is God?” When slaves are tortured in horrifying ways to force them to work or to keep them from running away, people ask: “Where is God?” When Nat is punished for baptizing a white man, people ask: “Where is God?” When slave-owning Christians use the Christian faith to try and convince their slaves that God wants them to quietly accept as good all the evil that their masters do to them, people ask: “Where is God?” And the movie’s answer to this question is twofold: first, that what happens is absolutely not God’s will. None of the suffering, none of the pain, none of the horrors, none of the slavery. These things are evil, and they are absolutely not God’s will. And second, where is God in all of this? God is with those who are suffering. Even though their cause is hopeless, even though they all die in the end, even though the bad guys win, God is with Nat and his family and friends every step of the way.
A theology of glory gets blinded by power and wealth and beauty and glory. A theology of the cross looks at the world from the point of view of those who suffer, and sees the consequences of human sin. A theology of glory calls good ‘evil’ and evil ‘good,’ while a theology of the cross calls a thing what it is. A theology of glory accepts Human justifications, while a theology of the cross sees the world from God’s point of view. In every society, in every age, there is always a temptation to a theology of glory. It makes sense to us. It’s easier. But it ignores God’s wisdom and presence in the world. It ignores God’s will, and it ignores those who suffer. A theology of the cross looks for God even in the darkest places. A theology of the cross acknowledges the evil that humans do to one another, even when it’s people we otherwise might look up to. A theology of the cross knows that God is there even when people suffer. May we always see the world through God’s eyes, and through the perspective of the cross. May we reach out to those who suffer, to see their pain and heal their wounds.