Sunday, March 8, 2015

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Jews were longing for a messiah, a leader anointed by God to restore their freedom from their oppressors. Now there was a great deal of flexibility in the Jewish tradition who that anointed leader could be. In Isaiah, the Messiah is proclaimed to be Cyrus the Mede, who wasn't even Jewish, but whose defeat of the Babylonians ended he exile and allowed the people to return to the promised land. The stumbling block about Jesus is that the one critical feature of a messiah is that he's supposed to win! He's supposed to deliver them from the oppressors, not get killed by them.
Now the Greeks were looking for a philosophy: prudent rules to live by, a consistent moral code. This enemy love thatJesus preached sounds like foolishness: it sounds like utter suicide in the face of hostile forces that want you dead.
And the Romans? They proclaim Christ crucified, although the opposite of the Christian message! They did it, after all. They crucified him. This is what the Pax Augusta is all about: peace through strength. If you stand up against their law and order and they will make an example of you to keep the peace
Paul didn’t write about Jews and Greeks as “them”. They weren’t the other. Paul’s community was made up of Jews and Greeks. Paul himself was a Roman citizen! When Paul sets the cross against the expectations of Jews and Greeks, he shows us how our own expectations resist the message of the cross. We are the Jews. We are the Greeks. We are even, all too often, he oppressing Romans at whose hands Jesus died. In each of us is a resistance to the radical, absurd love of God witnessed by Jesus’ passion. But, by the grace of God, we can receive the message about the cross. As we fear danger, we cling to wisdom and power, but the cross of Jesus offers another way: a way of fearless nonviolence, of powerful powerlessness, of foolish love.
Jewish tradition teaches that the Torah, the law, contains six hundred thirteen commandments. And yet there are ten that hold a particularly special place in our memory. The first lesson we heard today isn’t known as “ten of the commandments”; we call it “The Ten Commandments”. As if these ten were so special that beyond them, there are no others. What’s so special about these ten?
There’s a long rabbinical tradition of trying to summarize The Law, and perhaps the ten commandments do that. They start by recalling God’s relationship with the people: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
And then continue:
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol.
You shall not bow down to them or worship them.
You shall not make wrongful use of the Name of the Lord your God.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.
We sometimes divide the commandments, saying that those are about the relationship between God and humans, and the rest are about the relationship among humans: Honor your parents, do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not covet.
But they aren’t in neat categories there. When we covet things that do not belong to us, we both hurt our fellowship with our neighbor and reject what our God has blessed us with. When we do not allow those who work for us to keep the Sabbath, we defile God’s holy day and we exploit our neighbor. And what more wrongful use of the name of the LORD is there than to invoke the name of God to oppress our neighbor? To use the holy name to gain power over others?
When Jesus was asked to summarize the law, continuing in that rabbinical tradition, Matthew 22 tells us that he said
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with 
all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great 
commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt 
love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments 
hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Hear that transition: “The second is like unto it.” We’re not talking about two completely different things. Our relationship with God shapes our relationship with our fellow humans. Our relationship with our fellow humans is a necessary consequence of our relationship with God.
Love the Lord and love Humankind – these are two sides of the same coin. And this love was brought to its fulfillment in the cross. Jesus doesn’t abolish the law, he fulfills it. The Law, the 613 commandments, the ten commandments, the two commandments – the cross of Jesus demonstrates their most full expression. But the message about the Cross is indeed foolishness to those who are perishing.
The wisdom of the world says protect yourself. The wisdom of the world says be strong, to fight off your enemies. The wisdom of the world says hold back from helping others, and be sure you can take care of yourself first.
The message about the cross is foolishness to those who embrace worldly wisdom.
The commandment to love others as much as you love yourself resists seeking of power for self-preservation. The commandment to love others as self says the impulse to help oneself – to save oneself – is only to be embraced as a part of the helping and saving of all humankind. And there in the heart of the summary of the law is the message of the cross.
The Christian message about the cross is that the ultimate manifestation of power and strength is to totally empty oneself. To lay down one’s life in resistance to evil – not by fighting it, but by bearing witness to the power of God. Love God with every fiber of your being, and love yourself as a part of loving all humankind.
The Roman message about the cross is that power can bring order. The cross itself was a tool of Roman subjugation. Put down rebellions, quell dissent, keep calm throughout the known world.
The power of the cross, to the Romans, was in fear. People who dared to defy them were hung up on display, so everyone could see them very painfully die.
But the Christians embraced the cross as their own symbol. The cross became not something to fear or be ashamed of – look, your movement’s leader was tortured to death here – but rather a source of strength. When Jesus died on the cross, and yet rose from the dead, he showed that the ultimate symbol of violence, the ultimate symbol of peace through strength, the ultimate claim that “power over others makes you strong” was, in fact, powerless against him.
Without fully loving, hoping, believing in the power of God, Jesus could never have embraced the cross. The first of the great commandments makes the second one possible. We have the courage, and grace, and power to serve others only because we are first fed by our God. We go forth into the world to serve only in response to the abundant grace that God first gives us. We can engage in the crazy, foolish, subversive act of loving neighbor as self only when we are animated by the love of God.
But where are we today? Which side are we on? Are we Jews, longing for someone to effectively deliver us from our oppressors, and looking for signs of hope? Are we Greeks seeking safe prudent dictums to live by? Are we Romans, living out the creed of peace by strength, shock and awe, and law and order? Or do we dare to embrace the cross, the strength of weakness and the wisdom of foolishness?
On Thursday February 10, Dr Randy Beckum, the chaplain of MidAmerica Nazarene University preached to the university community on the message of the cross, on love for enemies, and challenging American militarism as another Pax Augusta and how patriotism and Christian faith were not always complementary. He pointed out the the movie Selma might be a better Christian witness than American Sniper, and that the higher revenues the latter earned compared to the former might indicate that as a society, we worship the empire more than the crucified one. There was much outrage that he might suggest that, and less than two weeks later, he was removed as chaplain of that university.
Which side are we on? Are we Jews, Greeks, Romans, or Christians? Do we dare to embrace the utter foolishness and weakness of nonviolent servant leadership? Do we dare to embrace the cross?
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. Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.