Why the Cross of Jesus?

And why the cross of Jesus, you ask? Because you and I are addicted to glory.

Not true glory, mind you, but the kind of glory we see around us. Like Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton, from the National Football League to would-be hopefuls of America’s Got Talent, our culture is possessed by a desire for what the epic poet Homer called kleos aphthiton: “imperishable fame.”

This is, admittedly, a little bit unfair. In every sphere of our life and labor, the school or the workplace, the home, the theatre, or the internet, there are standards of evaluation to maintain quality and push us to excel. In a technocratic age, measures to quantify our progress and assess our profitability are increasingly demanded. If one is wary of the excesses of these demands, we nonetheless seek recognition for a work well done—lest our names become victims of historical amnesia.

The desire that excellence should be recognized in a healthy society; and that we should leave some advantage of reputation to our children and families—these are natural goods. Fame of a variety of dimmer sorts ought to accompany the life well lived, when both self and society are ordered rightly. But whatever fame is, it is critical and sometimes difficult to remember that this is not glory, as the Christian tradition speaks of glory. And when society, moreover, loses its moral compass, and thus, its ability to recognize true admirability from false admirability, fame may even become a positively deceptive tool, a beguiling sign pointing out a road to a country no one ought to be seeking. In the hands of devils and sophists, Fame (or as the Romans called her, Fama) is revealed as the chief Distractor—a goddess and an American idol of another sort.

When the Apostle Paul first set foot in Corinth, he discovered a people open to hearing the story of Jesus. They were, most likely, a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, God-fearers and pagans, mystery-rite initiates and idol-worshipers, soldiers and civilians. They were, moreover, like us a people obsessed with glory. From the Julio-Claudian Caesars down to the lowliest slave or prisoner, the Roman world in the time of Jesus and Paul was one orchestrated by honor and shame. Surveying this group, Paul asked himself this question: “how should I present the story of Jesus to these people?” Earlier in his pastoral career in Greece, Paul had emphasized the Resurrection of Jesus as the decisive event (1 Thess 4:13–18). Taken back, perhaps, at the pretentions to importance and wisdom in Corinth—“the thinking man’s or thinking woman’s church” of his day—Paul takes a calculated risk: to emphasize Jesus’ shame and folly. “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Messiah, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). We can well imagine that many who heard this version of the story were underwhelmed by this marginal, crucified Jew.

Paul, however, got stuck on the cross. Toward the end of his life, he wrote from a Roman prison cell to a group of Christians in the colony of Philippi that the center point and pivot of Jesus’ incarnation was not his infant flesh but his willingness to die in that flesh—“even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6–11). To miss this point, writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer (an imprisoned apostle of more recent memory)—to insist on the Resurrection without the Crucifixion—is tantamount to “cheap grace,” and not reflective of the life true Christian discipleship.

Martin Luther, when he was still an Augustinian monk (1518), puts it this way: “The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil; the theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. . . . He deserves to be called a theologian who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross” (Heidelberg Disputation, Theses 20–21).

Does this mean that Incarnation and Epiphany, Resurrection and Ascension, have no place in our talk about God and in our spiritual disciplines? By no means! Whatever Martin Luther meant (and I am no expert), Paul’s point is that the whole of Christ’s mission hinges on the historical event of the crucifixion; only as such is God’s peace and reconciliation possible. The crucified Jesus, moreover, is the one we are to imitate. One cannot skip to a discipleship of glory without walking the way of the cross. The Diocese of Dallas has long recognized this in its Latin insignia. Sub Cruce Veritas: “Truth beneath the cross.”

There is, as the late American songwriter Rich Mullins puts it, “such a thing as glory!” “We have seen it” (John 1:14), we receive it, we proclaim it, and through the contemplation of Jesus’ image, we are being transformed “from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18). But where better to find that glory than “beneath the cross” and beside the manger, in the woman who stood there weeping and lived her life within the shadow of the cross, but around whose shade Christ’s rays irradiated in all directions and pierced her soul itself with a brighter darkness. From Bethlehem to Golgotha, from the Myrrh to the Vinegar and Gall, Mary who had no earthly glory, no name and no genealogy, the lowly handmaiden, beckons us to walk with her in the via dolorosa, which is also the via gloriosa. If we do, we may experience this year the paradox which T.S. Eliot (as often) puts best: “And the rose and the fire are one.”

MBC

The Rev. Dr. Michael Cover grew up in South Dallas, where he and his family attended both the Church of the Good Shepherd in Cedar Hill and St. Anne Church in DeSoto. He was a graduate of Duncanville High School, and a Pathways to Ministry College Intern at St. Michael and All Angels in Dallas. He is currently Assistant Professor of New Testament at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, and priest associate at Trinity Episcopal Church in Wauwatosa, WI.

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A Christian Theology of Creation

The universe began with a bang – of some sort. However and when it all happened, scientifically, we assume there was a “first mover,” God, who made it all happen. Science and theology have not always been able to share a place at the ‘who are we and where did we come from?’ table, but they need to. The Christian Scriptures begin with a theological answer located within a larger narrative to one of the great and historic ontological questions. Properly posed, we need to ask not only from whence we came, but what accounts for or what gives meaning to our being personal (our ability to love, our sense of justice and fairness, moral claims, enjoyment of beauty, music, taste, recognition of evil, etc.) vs. impersonal (being strictly made of material with no cognitive function), and our being diverse with particular traits while recognizing some universals. In short, how do we account for being finite and personal, while simultaneously accounting for some sense of unity and diversity? A sound Christian theology of creation located within the Bible’s pages offers a comprehensive understanding of the world, its creatures, nature and human origin. It gives significance to our existence, and answers necessary queries of metaphysics, morality and ultimate Hope.

The question of human origin is posed throughout the ages in Western thinking, and philosophers’ answers have varied from water, wind and fire from the early thinkers like Thales, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus, to Darwin’s theory of evolution – which, on their own do not account for the aforementioned and necessary complexities we humans experience and need explanation of. Included in the question of a Christian perspective of creation is the theology of the fall. Most of the Christian story is located in the “post fall of humanity,” where Creation is affected, and therefore warrants mention within the discussion.

God’s nature is understood in the Triune God: The Trinity, made up of three co-equal, co-eternal persons, and shapes a theology of creation. Although God the Father was Creator, he was in community with the God the Son and God the Holy Spirit before creation. This is where the Christian recognizes the example – in fact the origin - of personal unity and diversity in a created order; a pre-existent community in the Trinity: they loved and communicated with one another before creation. Since God is infinite, personal, creative, loving, and communicative, we - being made in God’s image - are innately personal beings (as opposed to impersonal beings made strictly up of atoms, neurons and molecules) have the capacity to love, to create, to celebrate, and to express goodness. We (as non-God, finite, created personal beings) cannot only recognize beauty, we know it is meaningful because we are created in the image of an infinite, personal God who is the source.

In Genesis 1, we see all of creation occur over the course of six days. Light, land, water, days and nights, the sky, all plants, trees and seeds, fish, birds and animals and human beings are all created. God provided everything Adam and Eve needed – there was enough of everything. We don’t see any disharmony between Adam and Eve and the creation. There was perfect order, no discomfort, sickness, natural disaster, or strife. There was a community – God, Adam and Eve, who talked to each other, and had a relationship that could be characterized as close. However, there was also free will: God had created them with the freedom to make choices. And, in the middle of God’s perfect order, Adam and Eve chose to go against God’s one request that they not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They ate the fruit and everything changed: human sin and the need for redemption was born.

At this point in chapter 3, everything changes: the Fall of Man commences and Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden. God is angry, and we read from v.16-19 that from that moment on life would be harder for Adam and Eve: there would be pain, suffering, and brokenness of different kinds, including the natural order. Even the ground is “cursed” through this expulsion in v. 17. God’s “pre-fall” creation in Genesis can be characterized as peaceful, ordered, and plentiful. The relationship humanity had with God was whole, and nothing separated humanity from that intimacy with God. God’s “post-fall” creation contains chaos, hardship, scarcity (the opposite of “plentiful”), various suffering, and separation from God. Add to this what we have and still experience: sickness, natural disasters, death, and other realities that amplify our need for redemption and wholeness.

So, who are we and where did we come from and what does it mean? Our lineage comes from the opposite nothingness of an empty and impersonal universe: an infinitely powerful and creative God who has and always will be in a coeternal triune love community, who made us like him and to know him, and to know and love fellow humanity. We have the capacity for love, for good, and beauty, and to know that we and the rest of creation has true significance and purpose. Also, we have the freedom to choose. We hurt – ourselves and others - get sick, suffer and experience great need, only to recognize our separation from and need for God. This frames the human story, condition, and our relationship with our Lord Jesus who has saved us, and upon whom we wait once and for all.

The Rev. Oliver Butler is Associate for Youth and Young Adults

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