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Take up your cross and follow

November 11th, 2013 No comments

“Take up your cross and follow” (Mark 8:34-36)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 29, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

When we were in Israel and Palestine, on our last day before going to Jerusalem, we visited Caesarea Philippi, clear north of Galilee, at the foot of Mt. Hermon. Patty, our leader, said to us, “Here begins the way of the cross, the via dolorosa, the way of suffering.” Here Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, and here Jesus speaks for the first time about his death, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again.” Here our minds move from human thoughts to divine thoughts. Here our eyes begin to open to who Jesus truly is, and who we are called to be.

It’s like what happened in the village called Bethsaida, just before Jesus went on to Caesarea Philippi. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus, and Jesus laid his hands on him and asked, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up, and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus had to lay his hands on the blind man’s eyes a second time, and then he could see clearly. At Caesaea Philippi, Jesus’ disciples begin to see, though not yet clearly.

I’ve often thought I have an idea how the partially blind followers of Jesus must have felt. Without corrective lenses, I have very poor eyesight. Without glasses or contacts, I can see, but it’s all fuzzy and blurry, like opening your eyes underwater. As a matter of fact, once when I was in high school playing summer league basketball in Hesston, I lost a contact lens during a play. And even though I still had one good eye, so disorienting was it that I actually passed the ball directly to the other team without even knowing it. And I stood dumbfounded as everyone started rushing to the other end of the court! It’s actually enough to make a person’s head hurt. Would that I had lost both contacts instead of just one and knew well enough not to pass the ball!

Well, my namesake Peter’s head was hurting, all right. He’d been with Jesus almost since the very beginning when Jesus overcame Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. He had seen, with his own two eyes, the amazing works of power: casing out demons, healing a leper, restoring a paralytic, calming the storm and the seas with the word of his mouth, healing a woman who was sick for twelve years, raising a girl from the dead, feeding over 5000, walking on water, healing a deaf-mute man, feeding over 4000 more people, and restoring sight to the blind man at Bethsaida. And Peter’s eyes have seen it all.

Jesus has been going toe-to-toe with Satan, with sickness and disease of all kind, with the powers of evil, with death itself, and he as not blinked, but has emerged victorious at every turn. Here at last has the power and glory of God been revealed. Here at last has come the redemption of Israel, of the world. Here at last is the dawn of the victorious kingdom of God on earth. Here at last, for anyone with eyes to see, has come God’s Messiah, the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth!

Anyone who can do all that will get quite a following, and Jesus did. Jesus’ works of power are so amazing that Peter has left his family fishing business. He has left his home. He would even later say to Jesus, “Lord we have left everything to follow you.” Peter has staked his whole future on the hope that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the anointed, the long-awaited Messiah.

“You are the Messiah,” Peter exclaims! And he is right. Of course he his right. Jesus is the Messiah. But Peter’s vision is yet blurred. He cannot see Jesus clearly. He’s pointing in the right direction, but he can’t see the person at whom he is pointing. Technically correct, but practically wrong.

Jesus rebukes them all for their completely correct yet woefully wrong answer, saying that “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days, rise again.” The Messiah isn’t supposed to suffer and die, he’s supposed to put an end to all that! It’s like suddenly Peter gets a glimpse of perfect vision in one eye, and it’s so disorienting it’s making his head hurt.

Well, you know how the story goes. Peter actually rebukes Jesus, and Jesus says, in one of the most striking lines in Scripture, “Get behind me, Satan. For you are setting you mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

He then goes on to say to the disciples and the crowd around them, “If anyone wants to become my follower, let that one deny oneself and take up one’s cross, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

What a complete headache! It’s enough to make anyone’s mind go in circles. Should not faith protect us from suffering? “The Lord is the stronghold of my life, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. He will not let your foot be moved!” (various Psalms)

Should not responding in faith draw us into the fortress of God’s protection and the victorious kingdom of God? Should it not be our life, our success, our abundance, our comfort, our help? Is there not enough suffering and rejection and alienation in human life without all this? This isn’t how you win the world and gain followers! Suffering, bearing crosses, losing one’s life – that’s not a recipe for success. Only people with the most warped minds would find that invitation appealing. Safety, refuge, protection, and a modest measure of success and blessing, is that not what we want and expect from God? It’s completely disorienting!

Jesus knows that only those who follow him to the cross will be able to see clearly who he is and what his kingdom looks like. If his disciples stop before getting to the cross, they will have only a blurry, distorted understanding of Jesus. Other miracle workers, other exorcists, other authoritative teachers, other political leaders, others claiming the title “Messiah” have come and gone.

Jesus spends three chapters in Mark’s gospel trying to get his disciples to see who he truly is and what distinguishes him as uniquely God’s son. Three times he predicts his death and resurrection. Three times it makes his disciples’ heads spin. The next time Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, his disciples immediately start arguing amongst themselves about who is the greatest. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus replies. More headaches.

The third time, immediately after Jesus foretells his death, James and John actually come up to Jesus and have the audacity to request to be seated at his right and at his left when he comes into his kingdom.

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The disciples just cannot see. It’s such a backward idea.

In Mark’s gospel, no human being truly sees Jesus until he dies on the cross, and then it is one of his executioners, a centurion, who finally and truly sees perfectly, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Only at the cross can anyone truly see who Jesus is, as the suffering Son of God who gives and gives and gives even his life to wrest the many from Satan’s grip.

That’s the only way to see, to truly see. I got glasses when I was in sixth grade. It had gotten bad enough that I could not even read the chalkboard when I was sitting in the front row. And I remember that, as we drove home from the eye doctor, I could look out the window and see branches and leaves on the trees. I could see rows in the fields and clouds in the sky. When those lenses dropped in front of my eyes, I could finally see. The cross is the lens, the glasses through which we can truly see who Jesus is, indeed, who God is, and who Jesus is calling us to be.

Philip Yancey, in his book The Jesus I never Knew, writes about looking upon life through these glasses. He says that in his career as a journalist, he has interviewed famous people: NFL football greats, authors, actors, politicians and such – the people who dominate the national attention, but he found this group to be tormented by self-doubt and worse. He also spent time among those he calls “servants.” An Ivy League graduate who runs a hotel for the homeless in Chicago, relief workers across the globe, and ordinary people who care for one another. What he found was that these “servants” possessed qualities of depth and richness and even joy that he found nowhere else. People who work for low pay, long hours, no applause, often “wasting” their time and talent on the poor and hopeless. Somehow, though, in the process of losing their lives they find them. And so will we.

Only in denying ourselves, Jesus says, in taking up the cross, and following after the path Jesus has cut do we find the freed and abundant life of Jesus. Yes, it does mean leaving aside human thoughts of security, even survival, and even our ideas about justice. And it does mean facing a ghastly death, if necessary. But you see, Jesus foretold not only his suffering, rejection, and death, but also his resurrection. “The cross is a way of living, not just a way of dying.”1

If you read through the New Testament, you’ll find that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament are constantly talking about following Jesus, or waking in his footsteps, or taking his example, or being transformed and conformed to his image, or imitating him, or letting him rule in our hearts, or making his life visible in our own life. . . the list could go on and on and on.2 But what all these have in common is being joined with Jesus, sharing his life, his death, his resurrection.

As the church spread and grew and told the stories of Jesus over and over, it discovered that the symbol that captured the very essence of Jesus’ passion, his life, his heart and mind, was the cross. It was and is a symbol of incredible self-giving love, radical forgiveness, faithfulness unto death, trusting God even in suffering for the kingdom, humbleness and care for the least among us, the triumph of love over hatred, violence, and death, and the ultimate victory of God. Jesus told his followers, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”

The rest of the NT echoes this foundational invitation of Jesus himself.

“Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and walk in love, as Christ loved you and gave himself up for you, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph. 4:-5:2)

“If you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:20-21).

“God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atonement for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:9-11).

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you as in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God. . . emptied himself. . . And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him” (Php. 2:3-11)

When we take up the cross of Christ, we not only accept suffering for the sake of the Kingdom; we also join Jesus in trusting God’s ultimate vindication. We join Jesus in living a life not of retaliation but of costly, redemptive love. We join Jesus in forgiving even those who do us the most harm. “When reviled, we bless. When persecuted, we patiently endure. When slandered, we speak kindly” (1 Cor. 4:12-13). We join Jesus in placing ourselves completely into the hands of God. We join Jesus in proclaiming and demonstrating the good news, and living the servant’s life.

Because we join with Jesus, we find perseverance in renouncing selfish sinful passions and preoccupations. Because we join with Jesus, we experience fellowship in his body and blood across racial and ethnic and social lines, and whatever walls previously divided us.

Because we are joined with Jesus in the cross, we find reconciliation with God. Because we are joined with Jesus in carrying his cross, we are also joined with Jesus in experiencing resurrection life both now already and in the everlasting age to come.

This is the sort of Kingdom this suffering Messiah brings. Paul once famously said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me!” (Gal. 2:20).

We can’t purchase it. Indeed, what can we give in return for our life? But we can receive it, and we can find that there are unending stores of it. We can yield to the Spirit’s transforming work in our lives and accept the cross of Christ. We can be followers, not by our own power, but by God’s.

The night he was arrested, Jesus prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” Because when we join Jesus in accepting the cross, we experience God’s forgiveness and grace, and we can join Jesus in saying yes to God and obediently yielding our will to God’s will and ways, no matter what the cost, no matter what the cross.

If you have denied yourself, if you’ve given up human thoughts to seek after divine thoughts, if you’ve identified yourself with Jesus by taking up your cross, then the cross you take up isn’t exactly yours. If you want to be Jesus’ follower, you are realizing that the truest, fullest life, the true goal of all human striving, is not your life but his. We don’t go seeking for our “true self” as the teachers of this age opine.

It’s not really about living life as an ascetic, and it’s certainly not about senseless suffering; it’s about denying one’s self as the “controlling center”3 and seeking first Christ and his kingdom as our center and chief loyalties, and receiving our “self,” our life, from him. We no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ. Selfish human thoughts become transformed into the divine thoughts of costly love, joyful obedience, and unimaginable reward in glory. If we take up his cross upon our own shoulders, he will carry its weight.

Truly it is no longer we who live, but this Christ who lives within us and who promises us new life in him. When we are joined with Christ in the cross, we put to death our slavery to sin, we leave behind the old self and old ways of thinking and living, and we rise to newness of life in Christ Jesus, joined with him as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

What that means to me is that whenever I meet someone whom I may consider to be an enemy or an outsider or a stranger or when someone speaks impatiently or unkindly to me – whether that person is a part of my family of faith or not – I am called to have the very same mind as Christ Jesus, who emptied himself even to the point of death on the cross. I’m called to participate in the divine nature (as Peter put it) – the nature of God revealed first and foremost at the cross, where we see the primary means of God’s dealing with enemies (and outsiders and strangers): by absorbing hatred, violence, injustice, suffering, slander, and even death itself by death on the cross.

Because I know that, though I fail often, utterly, and miserably, if there is ever any victory I can win, if there is any barrier or wall I can climb over, if there is ever any enemy I can overcome, if there is ever any stranger or alien I can embrace, if there is any tense or hostile situation I can diffuse, it is not by my will (and perhaps not even truly of my desire), not by my power or strength or wisdom or abilities or any argument I could muster, nor by any carnal weapon made of human hands I could ever wield against any enemy –

But if I ever overcome anything, it is only by the word of testimony to Jesus Christ, and by the blood of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 12), the blood through which we have all been brought near to God (Eph. 2:13), the blood which I trust courses through my own veins by the power of Christ who lives within me (Gal. 2:20), the same blood that I myself am called not to keep to myself but to pour out for others as I also seek to carry in the body the death of Jesus, that his life may also be made visible in me (2 Cor 4:10) in reconciliation, in welcome, and in embrace.

It is the Christ who lives within me through whose death God seeks reconciliation with God’s enemies, and through whose life God saves (Rom. 5:10). It is this Christ who tears down hostile walls and who is himself the cornerstone of the household of God, in whom we are all joined together and grow in the Spirit into a dwelling-place for God by the boundless love – even of enemies, strangers, outsiders, and aliens – of God, and by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

This is the Jesus who calls, “Come, follow me.” This is the Lord who is great because he was least. This is the Savior who has ransomed us from Satan’s grasp. This is the Christ who lives within us and with whom our lives rest secure. It is his cross that we are called to bear in joyful, humble obedience. May we all be conformed more and more to the image and likeness of Christ, that in us, his life may be made clearly and plainly visible. Amen!

Notes:
1. Timothy Geddert, Mark, 211.
2. E.g. Mt. 5:44-48; Mt. 6:12, 14-15; Mt. 16:24; Mt. 18:32-33; Mark 8:34; Mark 10:42-45; Mark 11:25 (undivided as God is); Luke 6:32-36; Luke 9:23; Luke 11:4; John 13:14-16; John 13:34-35; John 15:12-14; John 17:22-23; John 20:21; Rom. 5:5; Rom. 6; Rom. 8:11; Rom. 8:29; Rom. 15:1-7; 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 1 Cor. 11:1; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Cor. 4:10; 2 Cor. 5:14-21; 2 Cor. 8:7-9; Gal. 2:19-20; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 4:20-24; Eph. 4:32-5:2; Eph. 5:22-28; Php. 1:29; Php. 2:1-11; Php. 3:10; Php. 3:21; Col. 1:24; Col. 2:12; Col. 2:20; Col. 3:1; Col. 3:9-10, 13; 1 Thess. 1:6-7; 2 Tim. 3:12; Heb. 12:1-3; 1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 Peter 2:21-24; 1 Peter 3:14-18; 1 Peter 4:1-2; 1 Peter 4:12-19; 2 Peter 1:4-7; 1 John 1:5-7; 1 John 3:1-3; 1 John 3:11-16; 1 John 4:7-10; 1 John 4:17; Rev. 12:11
3. Geddert, 205.

Dying and Rising with Christ

November 10th, 2013 No comments

“Dying and Rising with Christ” (John 19-20)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
September 22, 2013, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

It is accomplished
Jesus’ mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and the unnamed disciple whom he loved all stood near the Roman cross upon which their teacher and friend had been crucified. The taunts of the soldiers and religious authorities and crowds and even the insurrectionists crucified with him echoed in their ears with bitter precision:

“Hail, King of the Jews!” “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!” “He saved Lazarus; he cannot even save himself!” “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe!”

Their teacher, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the bread of life, the resurrection and the life, the way, the truth, and the life, the fulfillment of God’s promises, the very revelation and incarnation of God, bows his head upon the cross upon which he has been so publicly shamed and so cruelly executed. The hope and truth once pulsing so strong in his flesh and bone have finally been beaten out by the corrupt powers of the world. These women and the other disciple watch in horror, as the hymn puts it, “the hands that formed us from the soil were nailed upon the cross; the word that gave us life and breath expired in utter loss.”

“It is accomplished,” Jesus says. And he gives up his spirit.

What a foolish thing to say at such a time: “It is accomplished.” Maybe when he turned the water into wine, or restored sight to the man born blind. Those were accomplishments. Or when he raised Lazarus from the dead. “It is accomplished!” Absolutely!

But from a Roman cross?! During Jesus’ boyhood years, Rome crucified en masse some 2000 Jewish insurrectionists who rebelled following king Herod’s death. What did they ever accomplish? The cross wasn’t some nice symbol to wear around one’s neck; not some ornate design to be affixed to buildings or inked onto bulging biceps. The cross was state-sponsored terrorism, plain and simple. What did terrorism ever accomplish, besides fear and foreboding and more terror?

Mark’s gospel records a more fitting final speech: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” Numbered with the violent, the transgressors. Thought by onlookers to be stricken by God. Mocked, abhorred, derided, deserted by friends, shamed, stripped, laughed at, beaten down and broken and dead. He gives and gives and gives until he is reduced to nothing but a sad spectacle of a world ruled by dominating, death-dealing powers with nothing to show for it, save a small cluster of weeping, heartbroken disciples, the few who are left, that is. What a foolish time to speak of accomplishment!

Foolishness
But that is precisely what Jesus and all his followers since have always been. Fools. Fools who bother to feed the hungry, to relieve the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to tend the sick and visit the prisoner, even when there just keep being more hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned people. Fools who are so bad at math they think last place is first place. Fools who resist evil with love and patience and hope. Fools who pretend that Christ’s armor of truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, word of God, and prayer are a match for the evils of this world. Fools who sleep with the sword of the Spirit under their pillow and think that’ll protect them from the evil lurking at the bedside. Fools who fight bullets and flames by quoting Scripture and praying and preaching peace. Fools who think that the only way to truly live is to die.

For a thousand years the church has tried to turn foolishness into reason, to turn scandal into sound logic, mystery into mechanics and models and plans and propositions. But there is no way around its foolishness, its utter nonsensicalness, its deep mystery. “You should become fools if you want to be wise” (1 Cor. 3:18). The New Testament describes what happened on the cross in scandalous words of utter nonsense:

“Through death God destroyed the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb. 2:14-15).

“He made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness [the justice] of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

“Through the cross, he killed enmity” (Eph. 2:16).

“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross” (Col. 2:15).

“Though he was in the form of God. . . he emptied himself. . . and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Php. 2:6-8)

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:12).

The very height of human sin: the complete, bald, unrepentant, intentional violent rejection of God and God’s ways becomes somehow – in the redemptive mercies and mysteries of God, in the grand and unsearchable depths of God’s justice and steadfast love – the destruction of sin itself, the freedom of those enslaved to sin’s power, the forgiveness of rebellious action in service to Sin for those who will turn from the world and return to God.

Jesus defaced ugliness. He held captivity captive. He bound bondage. He disarmed violence. He held dominion over domination. He killed enmity by loving it to death. He destroyed death itself.

In a telling moment, as Pilate taunts the chief priests, “shall I crucify your king,” the chief priests, who plotted to have Jesus killed for fear that Rome would destroy the nation because of Jesus’ fame, reply, “We have no king but the emperor.” These same priests would sing that very week at the Passover, “From everlasting to everlasting, you are God. Beside you we have no king.”

In the cross, God destroyed the power of violence by refusing to be drawn into it, and exposed those who hide behind it as fraudulent. Rather than fight his enemies, Paul said, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son” (Rom. 5:10).

As the women and the other disciple gazed upon the cross, they beheld the worst of humankind’s rebellion, wickedness, plotting, violence, shame, domination, distortion, slavery and service to Sin, death, and evil all come to focus on God’s own son. But though they could not yet see it, they also beheld the accomplishment of God’s plan to finally deal with all of the above. In short, these witnesses beheld God-in-Christ triumphing over the cross and everything it represents through the Cross.

It is complete foolishness. It is ultimate mystery. It is justice beyond what is just. It is grace upon grace, wonder upon wonder, amazingly, suprisingly good news, and the only response befitting those who may gaze upon it is awe, gratitude, wonder, repentance, and joining with the heavenly host in singing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!”

The cycle of vengeance, of domination, of plotting, of sin, is now broken. The body of Jesus, the Lamb who takes away the Sin of the world, was laid in a tomb nearby the place. And early on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene ventured back to the place. While the other disciples were seeking their safety behind locked doors, she had ventured out into the dark shadows, and had returned to this place of death and decay.

Weeping with Mary
Mary had come again to this place where the King of Love had been broken by the Princes of Fear and hatred, where the forces of darkness had finally extinguished the Light of the World, where all that is chaotic and void had finally canceled out the very last remnant of the grand promise of those very first words, “Let there be light.”

Mary had come to this garden hidden in Golgotha’s penetrating shadows. Mary Magdalene stood by the tomb, and she wept. Had she come to perform the burial rites of spices and ointments, only to find no body to care for? Had she come to grieve the death of Jesus, since there could be no funeral for a man executed for treason? Had she come in the secrecy of the night’s shadows to say goodbye, only to find no one to bid farewell?

Had she come to this place because in the depth of darkness, the true light, which enlightens everyone had sparked something in her soul and had driven her to come back to this place where all was lost, but all was accomplished at the same time to find something, some hope?

But she found nothing. The stone was rolled away, and she feared the worst. And she wept. Mary’s tears find themselves again and again in our own eyes and in the countless eyes of God’s weeping children. We weep Mary Magdalene’s tears of grief when we lose a dearly loved one. We weep Mary’s helpless and hopeless tears over a broken and shadowy world seemingly devoid of light, when we consider the persistent callous resignation and indifference we show to the vulnerable and powerless, or the countless acts of outright gruesome violence we do to one another.

The tears of Mary’s broken heart flow from our eyes when we are confronted with humankind’s service to the powers of sin and death, defacing what is beautiful, staining what is pure, robbing the innocent.

We weep for the widows and orphans of hatred and violence, for the bereaved parents of manipulators of power, for the beautiful children dwelling in the long shadows of abuse from which we know they may never escape. We weep with the injured and the brokenhearted, who courageously seek out empty tomb after tomb, but never find hope.

We weep because the world seems spiraling back into chaos and void darkness. We weep because whatever hope there is always seems to suffer under whichever Pontius Pilate is holding the Beast’s reigns. We weep because what is good and true and beautiful in the world gets called treasonous by the Powers of this age.

We weep because we have so little power in a world of 7 billion to bring light into a land of shadows and sickness. We weep because it’s just so hard to risk hope, for fear that hope will get crucified yet again and dash our hopes. Mary Magdalene’s tears must surely be found in our own eyes as we follow the Crucified Savior in this present age of shadows and darkness.

Found in the Valley
And yet, as she wept, there in the shadow of Golgotha where Jesus had been crucified, Mary Magdalene bent over to look into the tomb, and through her tears, she saw that the tomb was empty. There in the shadow of Golgotha, through her tears of grief, of loss, of helplessness and hopelessness, through those tears she beheld the empty tomb, and with those tear-soaked eyes she would see the Risen Lord.

Maybe that’s the best way to behold the empty tomb – through tear-soaked eyes. Maybe that’s the best way to understand what the empty tomb means. Maybe that’s the best way to understand why the Risen Lord still bears the wounds of Calvary. Maybe it’s when we’ve lost all else, when we’ve lost the world, that we can bend over, look into the empty tomb, and see. Maybe it’s then that we can hear those gracious, compassionate words, “Why do you weep?” and be transformed.

Mary Magdalene turns back from the empty tomb and sees Jesus, though she doesn’t know it is he just yet. He greets her with the same question as the angels in the tomb, “Woman, why do you weep?” Jesus doesn’t chide Mary for her helplessness and hopelessness; he doesn’t chastise her for her despair, or for struggling to understand. Instead he tells her to name her grief, to look into that empty tomb inside herself, to enter the darkest valley where he is waiting for her, and says to her, “Mary!” “Mary.”

The Syrian refugee who has lost all; survivors mourning the dead and injured and captive in a mass shooting in Kenya; the grief of a parent burying a child; the shock and horror of those who suffer abuse; the persistent pains of the hungry child continents away or in our own neighborhood; the body broken by pain; the spirit crippled by despair; the aged looking on a life of regret and estrangement; the young ostracized by peers and family. All who cry out in heartache, in abandonment, in despair, do not rend their spirits before Almighty God in isolation and solitude, but there is one who has cried in solidarity with the brokenhearted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”

There is one who has gone ahead, who has braved the valley of the shadow of death, who has met the abandonment, the sin, the hatred, the betrayal and brokenness of this world head-on. And it is he. It is the Christ who weeps with us.

The one who has endured the full brunt of the darkness of the world is the one who is able to find us in the darkness as well, is the one who is able to say, “Mary,” to call us also by name, to turn us around, to enable us to see the world as it really is – not as a place utterly devoid of hope and light, not as a place dominated by the deathly powers of sin and self-aggrandizement and relentless “progress,” nor by exploitation and violence and neglect and abuse, but rather as a place that is God’s beloved creation even now becoming new in resurrection power.

God’s New World
You see, maybe Mary Magdalene’s perception wasn’t so far off when she mistook Jesus for the gardener. For there, that morning, in that garden, on that first day, the Light of the world who was in the beginning, who was in the Garden with God, once again scattered the darkness and chaos. There, in that timeless garden in the shadow of Golgotha, she was no longer east of Eden, for through her tear-soaked eyes, she beheld the Master Gardener face-to-face.

At the empty garden tomb, we see through tearful eyes that that the one through whom all things came into being in the very beginning, has now met us in our greatest darkness, has forgiven us and healed us, and is now creating again, making all things new. Paul once jubilantly proclaimed, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

Mary, in that garden, was entering that new world, a world where the powers of sin and death have been vanquished, where all things are now under Christ’s feet. Mary Magdalene had come to a cold and foreboding place of suffering, of rebellion, of violence, of great scandal and grief, and there she encountered life. It is by following Jesus, our Lord and King, our Savior, directly into the shadow of death that we find the most dazzling light. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall surely be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). It is through tears that we perceive the Risen Lord most clearly, for he wears not the badges and medallions of pomp and circumstance, but his wounds reveal his rank as King of King and Lord of Lords.

He did not enter into glory through the power of wealth, nor the force of weapons wrought by human hands, nor through careful courtship of those who hold the reigns of the beast, but rather through suffering, through self-emptying self-humbling love, and through unwavering obedience to death, even death on the cross. It was costly obedience to his mission to let the light shine in the darkness and upon those who sit in the valley of the shadow of death, to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He entered his glory through tears and suffering, through obedience unto death, even death on the cross.

That is the mind that is to be in us, Paul said (Php. 2:5). The mind that looks first to others. The mind that is willing to give all even for one’s enemies, and whose very same love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. The very mind of God.

“Go,” Jesus says to Mary. “Go from this garden, from this place of promise and hope; go back into the old order.” Having led Mary to place one foot firmly in the new garden, Jesus places her other foot back in the old order, the dark valley.

She was to be one on whom, as Paul put it, “the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11), an ambassador for Christ. Anchored in the new age, dead to sin and made alive in Christ, and joining God’s mission to bring healing, hope, and welcome to the old age.

We are sent into the world, just as Jesus was sent into the world. The message, the invitation of the cross is not, “I died so that you don’t have to,” but “Die with me so that you might rise with me.” That is the pattern of our life in this world: dying to sin, to self, to this world, and rising with Christ.

“Do you not know,” Paul wrote, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. . . So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God” (Rom. 6:3-11).

“I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me! And the life now live in the flesh I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead” (Php. 3:10)

When we respond to the Holy Spirit by accepting Christ and declaring our allegiance to him, we are joined with Christ in the cross, we yield to the Holy Spirit as it cleanses us and puts to death our slavery to sin, we let go the old self and old ways of thinking and living, and we rise to newness of life in Christ Jesus, joined with him as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

We all together are the community of the resurrection, the Body of Christ in the world. If we, like Jesus, are willing to accept the risks of our baptism, then we too may brave the valley of the shadow of death. We too may walk through the storms of life and tread the raging waters. We too may cry out to God in urgent and fervent prayer. We too may proclaim, may demonstrate, may embody a kingdom that is not of this world. And we too shall know the fullness of resurrection life in the coming age.

Today the tears we shed focus the light of Christ into the tombs of the world. Today we are all lenses – magnifying glasses of the Light of Christ – the light that has gone through the deepest darkness to win the new day, the light that burst forth from the tomb on Easter morning declaring the victory of love over fear, sharing the conquest of forgiveness over sin, proclaiming the triumph of life over death, preaching the good news of peace above the racket of violence, announcing good news to the helpless and the hopeless and calling all who weep this day by name.

For Jesus Christ is highly exalted with the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. For we have seen the Lord! And death is swallowed up in victory! It is, truly and awesomely, accomplished.

Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

Alleluia! Amen! Alleluia! Amen!

Christ is Our Peace

April 6th, 2011 No comments

“Christ is Our Peace” (Ephesians 2:11-22; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21)
By Pastor Peter Goerzen
April 3, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Boundaries: Why we build
As we traveled throughout the Holy Land this past January, we came to appreciate why Paul liked to talk so much about walls and buildings and stones. Paul saw stones jutting out of the land everywhere he turned; he passed through walls upon entering the major cities; to see a structure even a thousand years old was not uncommon.

These buildings, it seems, were enduring monuments to the legacy and values of those who built them. If you wanted to demonstrate your conquest or superiority or dominion over someone else, you’d break down their most significant buildings (especially their holy places), and build your own on the very same spot. Like everyone else, Paul knew all about the importance of building sturdy structures.

If Paul told parables like Jesus did, I’m almost certain he worked bodies and buildings into his stories. And he returns again to tearing down and building up in this beautiful and powerful passage from Ephesians 2.

Well, the first thing Paul sees here is a hedge, a fence, a wall, a barrier of some sorts. Now as a good Jew, Paul understands well how come barriers and boundaries are important. Paul knows well his people’s long and “rocky” history among the nations. He is well aware of his people’s long struggle to remain loyal to God amid the lures of neighboring deities.

He knows the story of the faith crisis of repeated exile. He even now experiences the melting pot effect of repeated occupying forces. The fact that every NT book is written in Greek and not Hebrew (the “official” language of ancient Israel) is testament in itself to the cultural mudslide of occupation.

What does it mean to be a part of the distinctive covenant people in a cosmopolitan world of occupation and foreign hegemony? For Paul and his fellow Jewish people, “One way of nurturing covenant faithfulness was to instill a clear sense of difference from those not of the covenant.”1 A letter circulated among the Jewish community over a hundred years before Paul makes it clear:

To prevent our being perverted by contact with others or by mixing with bad influences, [Moses]. . . hedged us in on all sides with strict observances connected with meat and drink and touch and hearing and sight.2

Like many occupied peoples experiencing cultural pressure to give up their distinctiveness, Paul’s people put up barriers in the form of strict observances to maintain their particularity and identity as God’s covenant people.

Today, we may laugh at some of the disagreements of our faith heritage – over whether or not men could wear ties, or appropriate hair length for women, or zippers versus buttons – but these were not mere childish quibbles. These were the presenting issues of communities seeking to maintain their distinctive identity in a cosmopolitan world of seduction. The Anabaptist tradition in particular, like Paul’s own tradition, has known the importance of being different, of “radical obedience to God’s commands. . . [maintaining] the boundaries to ensure the integrity of the community’s faith and practice.”3

Paul knows that boundary markers between what is acceptable and what is not are important, and he recommends his own fair share of boundaries for the churches receiving his letters. I think Paul would encourage us to keep our boundaries before us.

We have a need for boundaries to restrict what influences us.4 We know the reality is that we need boundaries for the well-being and safety of our children. We need boundaries within ourselves – of how far we will go, of what we will and will not do.

We too need boundaries to maintain our identity. We need boundaries between ourselves and others. I need to know the boundaries of what makes me uniquely “me,” of who I am with respect to others. Where I end and where you begin. And our community of faith needs boundaries to maintain our identity.

We even need some sort of boundary between ourselves and God, so that we bear in mind that for all our skill and knowledge and intelligence, we are neither the Creator nor the Redeemer, nor the ultimate Judge; so that we remember it is God’s kingdom to build not ours.

As a good Jew, Paul knew full well the importance of boundaries and barriers.

Boundaries: When walls become eyesores
These boundaries and barriers are important to Paul – no doubt! – but here, in Ephesians, these barriers and walls have become for Paul a real eyesore on the horizon of faith. Centuries of war and hatred had driven the walls higher and higher and thicker and thicker. Gateways from one side to the other were closed off.

[It’s kind of like the story I once heard of a pastor whose church was just around the corner from a night club. And this pastor would frequent this night club to visit with the regulars there, and started really connecting with some of these folks. Well, his congregation heard about it, and they were not happy with the pastor. It’s not that they didn’t want to open their doors to whoever might come. They just feared the pastor was sending the message (especially to their children) that what went on at the night club – and particularly what went on when people left the night club two-by-two – was perfectly OK. Of course the congregation was right to want there to be some boundaries, but perhaps they had forgotten that Jesus got himself a reputation for associating with the wrong kind of folks, because for some people, that’s the only way he could invite them to follow him.]

Paul is looking specifically at this wall separating Jews from Gentiles, insiders from outsiders, a wall that was no doubt keeping the covenant people distinct. The problem is that this wall is obsolete – a part of the old regime, the old community, the old order. Gentiles who were following Christ were being excluded from the new people of God. A new order – a new creation – has arrived in Jesus Christ, and this dividing wall must now fall.

John Howard Yoder gets it exactly right: “The messianic age has begun; Paul simply proclaims that fact. . . Because it has begun, status differences – whether sexual, ritual, ethnic, or economic – are overarched in a new reality.”5

From the viewpoint of the folks inside the wall, the Gentiles were once “without Christ” (v. 12) – that is, “without the Messiah” – because this gigantic wall excluded them from the community to which the Messiah would come. As outsiders, beyond the wall, they were “aliens to the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise,” and they were therefore without hope, and from a certain perspective, without God.

But, now in Christ Jesus,” Paul says, that has all changed. The shocking surprise of God’s grace has arrived. Paul proclaims that through the cross, those who used to be outsiders, those who were once far off, those who were once in exile,6 have been brought near. Paul nearly quotes the famous “welcome home” text to the people who were in Exile in Babylon from Isaiah 57:19: “Peace, peace, to the far and the near” (cf. Eph. 2:17). The Gentiles have come home to the family of God.

Building Up
But “by no means” does Paul underestimate the enmity that exists between Jews and Gentiles. These were not only the theological skirmishes that continue to exist between Catholics and Protestants, or between Protestants and Anabaptists, or however you want to draw those boundaries. This was the life-and-death conflict of centuries of occupation and revolt, of centuries of hatred and dominance and fear.7 The wall was its own sort of peace agreement – if you can call peace by separation peace.

Yet together, they have become part of God’s family. The ugly wall has come down, and a new and sturdy structure is emerging and growing by the dynamic and surprising power of the Holy Spirit. Again, Yoder: “The message is that Christ has begun a new phase of world history. The primary characterization of that newness is that now within history there is a group of people whom it is not exaggerating to call a ‘new world’ or a ‘new humanity.’”8 The structure of the new order is emerging on the ruins of the old, as the living Christ leads erstwhile enemies across the old walls and presents them together before God.

The church Paul envisions

is not a collection of individuals, each with their own personal peace arrangement with God. The church is the familial community of reconciled enemies. . . If true to its Lord and its calling, the church is as such always a community on the lookout for walls to breach, for enemies to befriend – with each other and with God.9

When it comes to people estranged from God and God’s family, there’s always more room in God’s household. How odd and disheartening to think, then, how often throughout the past two millennia Christians have lined up opposite each other on the battlefield, or in the courtroom, or in those verbal and emotional hostilities – instead of gathering around the table as God’s family.

Yet we are not merely reconciled with each other. Those who were once without God, Paul says, are reconciled in one body to God. The widest and highest wall is finally not between two groups. As Mennonite scholar Thomas Yoder Neufeld observes, “Enmity in the human community constitutes a violation of God’s designs for humanity, and is thus a terrible affront to the loving Creator.”10

He goes on:

All of Ephesians is one long celebration of the fact that the same God whom humanity has offended is the one who has taken the initiative to end enmity. . . God has taken the initiative to reclaim humanity through Christ. The ultimate actor in this drama of Christ as peace is none other than God.11

During his career, the famous Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder spilled not a little ink to share with the wider Christian community the centrality of peace and reconciliation to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He puts it boldly: “If reconciliation between peoples and cultures is not happening, the Gospel’s truth is not being confirmed in that place.”12

Here in Ephesians 2 (one of Yoder’s favorites), Paul so eloquently proclaims that through none other but the cross, Jesus has made peace, has reconciled both groups to God, has put hostility to death by death, has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between enemies of God and God’s family, and has created a new building, a new humanity in place of the two. Indeed, the cross reveals that Christ himself is our peace, and that just as we have been reconciled to God through the cross, so too we are given the calling and mission of reconciling others – Amen!

Christ is our Peace
In closing, you may have noticed that I find the theological intricacies of this beautiful text to be fascinating and inspiring (and you can thank me later for letting you get home in time for lunch), but this is not finally some idea to be passed around in clever books or theology classrooms. This is finally a message of joy and hope to be proclaimed and to be lived.

When I read this beautiful passage of Scripture, especially during this Lenten season when the cross so tangibly awaits us on our pilgrimage, I cannot help but to be filled with wonder and hope for this broken world, because at the far end of every broken relationship, there is the cross; atop every wall of hostility, the cross of Jesus Christ is persistently hammering in cracks; for every estranged member of God’s family Jesus speaks the simple word, “Peace, come home.” Beyond every division and distinction and far beyond the reaches of any exclusion and enmity, I see Christ gathering up the new humanity from amid the ruins of boundaries and barriers, piecing together the household of God, as the new family of God.

If you would have asked me on June 1, 2002, how many brothers and sisters I had, I would have said, “Two. My two brothers James and John.” My brothers whom I dearly love. My brothers who share my genealogy, my brothers who share with me our family’s history and story and legacy of faith. My brothers who even probably all agree 90% of the time.

But the next day, that changed for me when I was baptized into the body of Christ and the family of God. That day, as I was joined to Christ and to his Body, I gained 200 brothers and sisters in my congregation, as part of the new family of God. That day, I gained over 100,000 brothers and sisters across the nation in my immediate Mennonite family; and 1.6 million brothers and sisters worldwide. If you ask me how many brothers and sisters I have, I can no longer say that I have just two brothers; now I have over 2 billion brothers and sisters worldwide – most of whom don’t look like I do, most of whom don’t think like I do, most of whom don’t speak like I do, and most with whom I have significant differences of theology, church, worship, and discipleship.

But we’re all one family because God has said so through the Cross of Christ, whom we all believe in, whom we all trust in, whom we all devote our lives to, whom we all seek to follow in truth in life. Some spend year in contemplating the many mysteries of God. Some have devoted their lives to worship; others to service and peacemaking, to being the face and hands of Christ; others to inviting folks outside the old wall to come on in; but all of us flow together into the one body of Christ

What that means to me is that whenever I meet someone whom I may consider to be an enemy or an outsider or a stranger – whether that person is a part of my family of faith or not – I am called to have the very same mind as Christ Jesus, who emptied himself even to the point of death on the cross. I’m called to participate in the divine nature (as Peter put it) – the nature of God revealed first and foremost at the cross, where we see the primary means of God’s dealing with enemies (and outsiders and strangers): by absorbing hatred, violence, and even death itself by death on the cross.

Because I know that if there is ever any victory I can win, if there is any barrier or wall I can climb over, if there is ever any enemy I can overcome, if there is ever any stranger or alien I can embrace, it is not by my will (and perhaps not even truly of my desire), not by my power or strength or wisdom or abilities or any argument I could muster, nor by any carnal weapon made of human hands I could ever wield against any enemy –

But if I ever overcome anything, it is by the word of testimony to Jesus Christ, and by the blood of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 12), the blood through which we have all been brought near to God (Eph. 2:13), the blood which I trust courses through my own veins by the power of Christ who lives within me (Gal. 2:20), the same blood that I myself am called not to keep to myself but to pour out for others as I also seek to carry in the body the death of Jesus, that his life may also be made visible in me (2 Cor 4:10) in reconciliation, in welcome, and in embrace.

It is the Christ who lives within me through whose death God seeks reconciliation with God’s enemies, and through whose life God saves (Rom. 5:10). It is this Christ who tears down hostile walls and who is himself the cornerstone of the household of God, in whom we are all joined together and grow in the Spirit into a dwelling-place for God, a truly sturdy, beautiful, and enduring household of God, by the reconciling grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the boundless love – even of enemies, strangers, outsiders, and aliens – of God, and by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Notes:
1 Thomas Yoder Neufeld, Ephesians, Believers Church Bible Commentary, 116.
2 Letter of Aristeas 139, 142; quoted in Yoder Neufeld, 116.
3 Yoder Neufeld, 134.
4 Or how it influences us. Spending time with a group of narcotics users could influence us positively – toward greater compassion and healing presence; or negatively – toward substance abuse.
5 John Howard Yoder, Body Politics, 37.
6 Paul’s language here hearkens back to Isaiah 52:7 and Isaiah 57:19 – two texts, interestingly enough, aimed at comforting the Hebrew exiles.
7 Of course, the 16-century violence does give us a window into the persistent suspicion, fear, and hatred.
8 Yoder, 37.
9 Yoder Neufeld, 134.
10 Yoder Neufeld, 121.
11 Yoder Neufeld, 121.
12 Yoder, 38.

The Cross: A Jewel with Many Faces

February 16th, 2011 No comments

“The Cross: A Jewel with Many Faces” (Mark 15:21-41 and Reader’s Theater)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
November 21, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Scandal: “Triumphing over them in the cross”

Paul wrote to the the Colossians, “Having disarmed the principalities and powers, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in [the cross]” (Col. 2:15). This Sunday, as we continue to tell story of God’s saving purposes throughout history, we tell Part One of the climactic events of that story recorded in the gospels.

This is indeed a familiar story, a story so important that we teach it to our children at a very young age, and we constantly remind ourselves of it. Perhaps we have told this story so often that the scandal and folly of Paul’s words are lost on us, and they often pass by us without our notice.

It bears repeating: “Having disarmed the principalities and powers, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in [the cross].” But Jesus Christ, wholly disarmed, stripped, beaten, and executed by the principalities, was himself a “public spectacle” for all to see. Adding to the insult, it seems as though every one of Jesus’ opponents parades by the cross to mock him: the Roman authorities, the chief priests, the scribes, and even those crucified with him all taunt him as his broken body suffers and bleeds on the cross.

Aside from the women (Mark 15:40), his disciples have abandoned him (Mark 14:50). Anyone who was there could tell you how ridiculed Jesus was, how he was finally defeated. Expired and shamed on a Roman cross, the corpse of Jesus couldn’t triumph over anything.

And yet, Paul foolishly claims that it was actually the other way around, that it was actually the principalities and powers and authorities, who were stripped and put on display, that it was actually those who crucified Jesus who were defeated.

Until we start to grasp and finally embrace the true depth of this irony, we do not even begin to understand the cross, and even less the shape of God’s saving purposes throughout history.

Paul was plenty open about the cross: “It’s foolishness,” he said bluntly. Its message requires a massive shift in how we see the world.1 Paul went on, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. . . God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Cor. 1:27-28, NRSV).

A New Worldview Revealed in Jesus

That is the core of the biblical worldview Jesus revealed: crosses are mightier than swords; servants are more important than rulers; the weak are more powerful than the strong. God’s solution to the problems of the world – Almighty God’s method of dealing with God’s enemies – is an embrace of weakness, scandal, ridicule, torture, shame, and death. For in Mark’s Gospel, it is not until Jesus has died on the cross that he is recognized as the Son of God, and by a soldier overseeing his crucifixion at that.

Throughout Mark’s gospel, not a single person – not even one of his closest disciples – makes this confession (which we are told in the first verse of the gospel), that Jesus is God’s Son, not after witnessing all of his miracles, not after hearing all of his teaching, not after seeing every deed of power does anyone confess Jesus as God’s Son.

It is only when he has been ridiculed, mocked, tortured, executed, and finally bloody, broken, and dead on the cross that a despised centurion, not one of the trained disciples, looks up and says, “Ah, there’s the Son of God Almighty.” Scandalous! Foolishness! Finally at the cross we see God’s will most fully revealed. Do we really believe that’s the best way to deal with problems? Is such foolishness of bearing crosses really how we are to confront evil?

A grace that changes us all

The New Testament writers persist in probing the mystery of this great scandal. The readers’ theater shared several attempts of NT writers to make sense of this great scandal, each one a little different, some quite unique. It’s often said that the scandal of the cross is like a beautiful gem: as you turn the gem, you behold a new, unique face, and see through it differently, though the gem itself does not change.

Sometimes we think of the cross as a sort of ticket into heaven, or a “get out of hell free card,” which we lock in a fireproof safe and bury deep in our hearts, to be retrieved and dusted off on the last day. And yet, Jesus wasn’t a big fan of hiding things under jars or beds or bushels, or burying treasures in the ground. Rather, Jesus liked things that grow: light, fire, lamps, good seed, pesky mustard bushes. The cross is to be something that we plant in our hearts, a grace that actually changes us, a gift wholly consistent with God’s purposes throughout history that enables us to live a new life for God by the regenerating power of the Spirit, a tremendous and costly act of grace whose power actually transforms us to live like Jesus lived. The cross saves us and transforms us in as many ways as there are faces to a gem:2

Several of the Many Faces of the Gem

For those times when we feel crushed by the powers and principalities of our world of tactical nuclear warheads, shattered homes, global systemic poverty and disregard for God’s creation, Paul’s words that just as God brought the people of Israel out of systemic slavery, so also God has triumphed over all crushing powers at the cross bring us hope and remind us that the cross is still mightier, that the power of the cross still breaks cycles of violence and injustice (Conflict-Victory-Liberation3).

For those times when we cannot bear the load of sin and death surrounding us any longer, when we are fatigued by the world and unable to take another step, we can say with Isaiah and Peter: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24, NRSV) (Vicarious Suffering).

For those times when we just don’t know the way to God, for those times when we’re lost and hopeless, when try as we might, we just can’t find God through the fog of doubt and uncertainty, we may look to the cross and find a new beginning and a new way in Jesus, the Way, the author and perfecter of our faith, with Paul who proclaimed, “By the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19b, NRSV) (Archetypal Images).

For those moments when we find ourselves surrounded by corruption and need the courage to do what is right, yielding to God’s purposes by taking up our own crosses and enduring the martyr’s calling, we may become those of whom John of Patmos spoke, “But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (Rev. 12:11, NRSV) (Martyr).

When we cannot escape our own guilt and inadequacy, when no matter what we do or how we try to change, we cannot escape the persistent notion that we are unworthy of God’s love, we may kneel at the foot of the cross, lift our eyes, and see Jesus say once again, “Father, forgive them,” just as he said to so many people throughout his ministry (Expiation).

When we’re trapped in conflict, grieved by the violence of our lives and around our world, alienated from friends, family, church, or even God, may we hold fast to God’s initiative in Jesus Christ, that “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20), assured that the dividing wall between us has been broken down (Reconciliation).

When we feel like there’s no place we fit in, when we feel excluded by everyone, we may look to the cross and find a new identity and family in God: “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will. . . In him we have redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:5) (Adoption-Family).

Perhaps we have told these stories, quipped these platitudes, quoted these bits of Scripture so often that they have become old ideas, barely touching our lives in significant ways. Jesus often told stories to help people think about old ideas in new ways. Now of course, no parable is a perfect analogy, but hear this story:4

A baseball story

Somewhere in the middle of Kansas a while back, there was an old compassionate farmer. One day he turned 80 years old, and as some 80-year-old farmers do, he decided it was time to scale back a bit, so he began to sell and rent some of his land. But the ten acres or so around his house, he decided to dedicate to the community as a place to gather together and revive some of that good rural culture was being lost to the culture of frenzy and achievement.

So he set about moving dirt, and leveling, and planting grass, and measuring, and building, and wiring, and plumbing. And before long, he had built three beautiful ballparks surrounding his house. The old farmer excitedly went around to local schools and churches putting up posters inviting the community to his farm to play baseball, or softball, or to watch, or to visit. All were welcome, the signs said.

Now the old farmer, he gave very careful thought about how to help the community enjoy his ballpark. He could remember how he’d felt left out when he was a boy and couldn’t play ball at school with his classmates because he didn’t own a glove.

So he got in his pickup and drove down to the closest used sporting goods store and purchased baseballs and softballs and gloves and catchers’ mitts to be on hand for whoever would need it. He didn’t want anyone to be left out just because they didn’t have the right equipment.

The old farmer welcomed everyone to use his ball diamonds, and he stated this clearly on the sign he built for his ballparks. Now although anyone would be welcome, he did also post some limitations on his sign as well. He wanted everyone to have a good time, and he knew that having too many people on a team made it worse for everyone. The sign stated that no more than 13 could be on a team. And the sign invited the community to stop by the house and visit the farmer as they left.

It seems the old farmer knew exactly what the community needed. Soon his ballparks were filled with players and fans, all having a wonderful, relaxing time. Many stopped by to visit the farmer, and some talked long into the night. Before long, the old farmer found it too taxing to go out to the field and join in all the fun, but he did love watching others delight in his ball diamonds.

As the years passed, however, he started to become worried and confused. People rarely stopped by to visit anymore, and he noticed fewer people enjoying his beautiful ballparks. Now his grandson Jesse who lived far away had just graduated college, and what an athlete he was! His senior year, he even pitched a perfect game! So the old farmer invited his grandson Jesse to come and see if he couldn’t get the games going better again. Surely the community would be drawn by his fame and character.

Well, on his way out to his grandfather’s place, Jesse stopped at the local grocery store to pick up a few items for his grandfather. As he was checking out, he asked the cashier about the ballparks, and was surprised when the cashier said rudely, “Too many rules at that place. Can’t have any fun.” Of course, Jesse couldn’t believe it: “How come? There are only a handful of limitations on the sign.”

The cashier replied, “Well, it’s not so much your grandfather’s rules that are the problem; it’s the ballpark clan and all the rules they’ve added. At first, if there were too many players, you’d just start another game at one of the other diamonds, but now they say that only the best 26 players are allowed to play at all!”

The person in line behind Jesse added, “And only the folks with the nicest and newest mitts can play. When we use the equipment your grandfather provided, they just make fun of us and tell us not to come back until we have our own, new baseball gloves. I’m not going there anymore.”

So the next day, Jesse went to the ball diamonds to check things out. At first, he thought the folks in the grocery store had been exaggerating. He had a good time playing baseball and visiting with the other people there. But then, when someone else showed up and asked to play, the first-baseman sneered at her saying, “You’re not good enough. Get outta here!”

That night, he told his grandfather, the old farmer, about what he had heard and experienced. He told him how one person had said to him, “Tell your grandpa to kick that clan off the ballpark – just like they do to us!” It hurt Jesse to see his grandfather’s sadness as he listened to the report.

The old farmer sat back in his rocker and thought for a bit. “I can see how some people around here would love it if I’d ban that clan from the ballpark – the feeling of revenge. But that’s not why I created this place. Actually, I bet it would be just the way it is now – just with a different group excluded. You see, their own way of playing the game will turn back on them soon enough. What we should do is try and show them a different way, a better way.”

So Jesse went around and invited a lot of the folks who had been excluded from the game, and they started a game on one of the other ball diamonds. It didn’t take long for the clan to start insulting the people Jesse brought, and soon they were even insulting Jesse himself. Each day, Jesse brought more and more people, and started more games, and brought more and more people to visit his grandfather. And it was really quite funny, Jesse, the all-conference athlete playing baseball with a bunch of folks who could barely swing a bat, but he did it, and he and his friends loved it, and his new friends started to get much better at the game.

And, each day, the insults got worse and worse. Jesse warned the clan that it would be much better for them if they’d stop insulting others – the only way to keep from being shunned and insulted themselves eventually.

Now this clan knew that if they’d try to kick Jesse off themselves, all his friends might turn on them and kick them off the ballpark. So they started gossiping about Jesse – how he was ruining everything, how he was a terrible baseball player, how he was just out for himself.

And finally, one day at noon, the clan started an argument with Jesse and started shouting that he must leave. “Get out! Get out!” they yelled. Most of Jesse’s friends shrank away, and some even started yelling at him. They started throwing their gloves at him, and one person threw a baseball at him that hit him in the head and knocked him out. “Bet he won’t be back here again,” they said to themselves triumphantly.

After the clan had left, a few of Jesse’s friends brought him up to the farmhouse to his grandfather. The old farmer rushed Jesse to the hospital, tears streaming down his aged face. As the old farmer sat in the waiting room, he wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper:

“People at my baseball fields have hurt the one person who most deserved to be there, my own grandson. He wanted everyone to come and enjoy my ballparks, and just as he warned, all the insults and gossip have led to pain. But Jesse, rather than the aggressors, suffered pain. This all can stop now. There doesn’t have to be more bickering, posturing, insults, and exclusion. Of course, you should all be kicked out of my ballpark, but we won’t be pressing charges. Because we forgive those who did this, everyone has an opportunity to start over. We want the ballpark to be a place where everyone can enjoy coming.”

The person who threw the ball that knocked Jesse out came to him and apologized. “I just got so caught up in it all. It was like something was pushing me to do it.” Jesse replied that he was right, and that the violent power would have grown even stronger if Jesse had responded in the same violent way. Instead, Jesse invited his friends to see that he had already suffered for them the worst sort of insulting, but it didn’t crush him.

The ballpark became a different place after that. It became fun again, though there were still some who hurled insults at other players, but deep down, those folks were even less happy than before, because their words no longer had the same effect and power they used to.

Open arms

This is but one face of the magnificent and mysterious jewel that is the cross. Which face is focusing God’s grace and love for you this day? What new faces of the jewel are calling you and all of us together to receive the gift of God’s salvation? May we continue to probe the depth of the mystery of this jewel.

Yet jewel that it is, we often forget that the cross, which we wear so lightly around our necks, is a symbol of scandal, torture, oppression, and injustice. If you’ve ever forgiven anyone something, you know that most often, it is very costly. Nevertheless, the cross, the same symbol of costly forgiveness, is also a symbol of embrace, for there on the cross, we see at the height of passion and pain, the arms of the Crucified are always open,5 wanting to enfold us, if we will but put our trust in him.

Jesus told his disciples, “Take up your cross daily and follow.” The life of our redeemer is to become the shape of our very own, trusting him fully as we put ourselves with him completely into the hands of God, for truly, he is the Son of God, the Lord of all of history, and our savior and redeemer.

For our Lord’s faithfulness even unto suffering, scandal, and death on a cross, for the depth of God’s unimaginable grace, for all these things, we give thanks this day and always. Amen.

Notes:
1Joel Green and Mark Baker, Reclaiming the Scandal of the Cross, 14.
2See John Driver, Understanding the Atonement for the Mission of the Church, for an extensive exploration of the core biblical motifs for understanding this mystery. Several examples of which follow.
3Examples of several biblical images with labels corresponding to motifs explored in Driver.
4Adapted from Mark D. Baker, “Atonement: A Beach Parable for Youth” in Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of Atonement, ed. Mark D. Baker (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).
5Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 126.

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