5 lessons from the Cross

crucifixWe’re in the middle of the Lenten season, a time when Christ followers reflect on the sacrifice of our Lord.

Isaac Watts in 1707 penned the immortal lyrics to “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The first verse reads:

When I survey the wondrous Cross

On which the Prince of glory died;

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

His invitation is fresh today, challenging us to ponder again the meaning of that sacrifice outside Jerusalem’s walls.

What are the lessons of the Cross?

  1. No good deed goes unpunished. Christian do-gooders, beware! There are forces who are invested in the status quo. Shine your light, but don’t be surprised when lots of people would prefer to douse it. Jesus said to Nicodemus: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19, NIV). Some things haven’t changed.
  2. Christianity was never meant to be a feel-good faith. Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted: “When Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It’s no accident that prosperity preachers rarely feature the Cross prominently in their sanctuaries or sermons. The Cross is a bloody instrument of torture, a reminder of what awaits every person who would follow in the footsteps of the Master.
  3. God doesn’t treat sin lightly. Sin is a tear in the moral fabric of the universe, one that isn’t easily mended. Hebrews 9:22b (ESV) reminds us that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” When Jesus came to be baptized by his cousin, John cried out: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, ESV). The severity of sin is underscored by the costly nature of the sacrifice necessary to atone for it.
  4.  Non-resistance is a powerful force. This is the paradox of the Cross. Jesus, who could have called a legion of angels to his defense (Matthew 26:53), chose the much more difficult but infinitely more powerful course of non-resistance. It was his chance to practice what he had taught his followers: “But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39, NLT). Our instinct is to meet force with force, like Peter who drew his sword and lopped off the ear of Malchus when he came with the soliders to arrest him (John 18:10). Jesus shows us a better way.
  5. Love is stronger than hate. Michael Card poetically asks: “Why did they nail his feet and hands, when his love would have held him there?” This is the most amazing of all spiritual insights at the foot of the Cross. The sacrifice of Christ is a demonstration of God’s love, and not because we earned it. Paul writes: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV, italics added). Perhaps Paul was thinking of the Cross when he wote to the Romans: “Do  not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV). In the Cross, we have a picture of God’s love for us, a love that was willing to die that we might live.

These are just a few lessons of the Cross. These lessons are radical in an age when we’ve convinced ourselves that God exists to serve us and not the other way around. May the Cross remind us of the Cause we serve, One far greater than ourselves. May we cherish the promise of the eternal life reserved for those who dare follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha.

The Jesus question

768px-Circle-question-blue.svgThere are many intriguing questions in Christian theology, but one matters most. It’s the question Jesus asked his disciples:

Who do you say I am? (Matthew 16:15, NIV).

Simon Peter replied that Jesus is the “Messiah,” the “Son of the living God” (v. 15, NLT). This simple fisherman saw in Jesus of Nazareth the One anointed by God, the Christ. This confession of faith – Jesus as the Son of God – is the rock upon which Christ builds his church (v. 18).

It’s the Jesus question.

In math class, our teacher taught us to simplify fractions. Instead of 4/8 – she patiently explained – find the largest whole number that divides into both the numerator and the denominator. The anwer is 4, and when divided by that number, 4/8 becomes 1/2. It’s easier to work with simplified fractions.

What is true for fractions is true for theology. The Jesus question keeps us from getting lost in a maze of valid but ultimately less important questions; it simplifies things.

The Jesus question is helpful both corporately and individually:

Corporately — It’s a church, but is it a Christian church? Look past more complicated issues and determine what they think about Jesus. If a given church teaches that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, if they believe that he is the Savior of the world and is himself God, that he died for our sins and rose again to reconcile us to God, then they clear the minimum bar. But if Jesus is in some way demoted or held to be a great teacher or prophet but not himself God, that church may be many things, but it is not Christian.

Individually — The Jesus question confronts each of us. Jesus wasn’t content to just know what the crowds were saying about him. He turned to his disciples and to us:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” (v. 15, NIV)

We must decide who exactly this Jesus is, not only for others, but for us. Peter concluded: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Then he moved beyond words to action. He continued to follow Christ. For many of us, to respond positively won’t be a continuation of a journey but the beginning of a new one. To us and to all, Jesus says: “Follow me.”

Christian theology asks many questions. Theologians offer a wide variety of answers, but on the question of Jesus, voices unite. Only he is God’s eternal Son, God’s anointed, our hope for this life and the life to come. How have you answered the Jesus question?


 

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The counterintuitive God

clockCounterintuitive: different from what you would expect (Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary). Like a clock that runs backwards, there’s little doubt: God is counterintuitive.

Take the incarnation, the eternal Christ clothing himself in human flesh. If the choice had been up to us, we might have chosen huge and flashy. Instead, to bear Emmanuel – “God with us” – the LORD chose someone humble and unknown.

Luke 1:28 (NIV) tells the story:

Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.

Who was this “highly favored” person? Mary was a young Jewish girl. There was nothing noteworthy about her. She had no powerful connections, no high birth to commend her. Yet God – who has a habit of doing the unexpected – chose her to bear the Christ child.

Besides using the unknown Mary as Christotokos – the mother of Christ –  another counterintuitive element of Christmas is tactics. Christ’s coming to earth was hardly the Powell Doctrine. The former American Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that – as a last resort – if the military must be used, then go big. Amass huge quantities of soldiers and equipment, then overwhelm the enemy. But on Christmas, God didn’t get the memo. He didn’t dispatch an army of angels (though an angel choir did sing for a handful of shepherds). Instead, God parachuted an infant Jesus quietly behind enemy lines, like a single SEAL in camouflage. In a world under the destructive thumb of the devil and his sinister band of brothers (1 John 5:19, Ephesians 6:12 ), this underwhelming response seemed counterintuitive.

Besides choice of people and tactics, a final counterintuitive aspect of the incarnation is love. For a creation that had hatefully snubbed its Creator, one might expect in return well-derserved wrath, God paying back hate with greater hate. Yet to our utter amazement, this “SEAL” sent by God came armed with only one “weapon.” Hate could never overcome hate; only love could do that:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…

Paul in the cross discerned heaven’s jujitsu, writing to the Romans: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21, NIV). The cross is a counterintuitive demonstration of God’s love for us sinners who despised him (Romans 5:8). While God’s self-denying modus operandi makes little sense to human calculus, love is the powerful magnet that for twenty centuries has drawn people to their knees at manger, cross, and empty tomb.

Humble Mary, baby Jesus, love – These are three indications that we worship a counterintuitive God. The LORD acts differently than what you would expect. For the sake of our world, may we as Christ’s followers recommit ourselves to doing likewise.

Incarnation and holiness

mangerIt’s a persistent theme across the centuries. Spirit is good; flesh is evil.

Some of the ancient Greek philosophers taught the exaltation of the soul and the denigration of the body. Plato extolled the immortal soul while Gnosticism later picked up the theme, infecting early Christianity with the notion that salvation is achieved only when the soul is liberated from the prison house of corrupt flesh. Augustine never escaped the lure of this view, implying the dirtiness of the body by teaching that original sin is passed down through the procreative act.

The negative Greek view of human flesh is what makes the reaction to Paul’s teaching in Acts 17 understandable. He met with a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosphers at Mars Hill in Athens (17:18). At first, they gave him a polite hearing as he attempted to build a bridge to them, speaking of the altar he had discovered which bore the inscription “to an unknown God” (v. 23). But then Paul lost his audience as quickly as he had gained it. What did he do wrong? He affirmed that God had raised Jesus from the dead (v. 31). Nothing bespeaks the value and goodness of the human body like God’s willingness to restore one to life. The philosophers would have none of it.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of the story. Long before Easter comes Christmas. While Easter is the feast of the resurrection, Christmas is the feast of the incarnation:

The Word became flesh and made his home among us. We have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, CEB).

The eternal, Triune God who had made all that is and pronounced it “good” (Genesis 1) tabernacles among us as Emmanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:23) thereby dignifying humble flesh. If the Gnostics were correct to believe that the pure spirit of divinity could never stoop to inhabit a corrupt human body, then the incarnation becomes a non-sense. Yet we are not Gnostics and should resist their false teaching. Christian orthodoxy affirms that whatever the disobedience of Adam and Eve may have done to the human condition, God still sees in our body something already very good, something worth saving and perfecting.

Christmas as the moment when the Word became flesh is the celebration of God’s good creation as symbolized by the tiny body of a baby boy. Our body was never meant to be viewed as a brake on our spiritual progress, as something that weighs down our escape from this world. Far from a hindrance to our relationship with God, the body – properly viewed – becomes an instrument of praise. For every follower of Christ, our body becomes the very temple of God’s Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). Our body – what God already pronounced “supremely good” (Genesis 1:31, CEB) – we give back to the Lord so that it may be purified and set apart for sacred use (Romans 12:1-2). We worship God with our body. In so doing, our body becomes a vehicle the Lord can use for holy purposes.

The next time you are tempted to think of your body as an obstacle to fulfilling God’s mission in your life, remember that the eternal Christ never spurned a body. Instead, he saw the incarnation as necessary, a human body as essential to fulfilling his divine calling. This Christmas, let us thank God for the body he has given us, and with joy give our body back to him for his sacred use.

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Image credit: Tou Logoi Logou

 

Just who do you think you are?

lllJesus was used to people asking him this brazen question. In John 10:24, some Jews gathered around asked him: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (NIV).

The Lord replied that he had already spoken openly about his Father, and that his miracles attested to his divinity. They got the message and angrily picked up stones to throw at him.

The Lord has a way of turning questions back on us. He did so with Simon Peter and the disciples in Matthew 16:15, asking: “But what about you? Who do you say that I am?” Famously, Simon answered: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (v. 16).

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis popularized the “Liar, lunatic, or Lord” argument, sometimes called “Bad, mad, or God.” The passage in John 10 cited above is an example of Jesus’ claim to be God. If Jesus claims it, then there are only three possible ways that we can respond. Either we call him an evil blasphemer for making such a claim, we deem Jesus insane, or we acknowledge that he is who he claimed to be, the only Way to God (John 14:6).

Answering this question is the most important thing a person can ever do. If Jesus is God’s son, then we can have confidence that the wrong things we have done (our sins) can be forgiven because of what Jesus did for us at the Cross, dying as a once-for-all sacrifice.

Make no mistake. Deciding to follow Christ as his disciple will not be easy. At times, it will be excruciatingly difficult, yet it is a commitment that gives deep meaning and joy to life, confidence that in this life and after death, we are and will remain part of God’s family.

They said to Jesus: Who do you think that you are? He turns it around, and asks you and me: Who do you think that I am? Is he a liar, a lunatic, or Lord?

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Image credit: Bendigo Presbyterian Church