t first glance it may seem as though those who formed the lectionary did not get the memo that we are still in the Epiphany season. We seem to be moving pretty fast away from the themes of incarnation to focus on a theology of the cross. Paul invites us to ponder the cross, not being called away from the revealing of the Epiphany, but invited deeper into it’s mystery.
T. S. Eliot in his poem called The Journey of the Magi has the wise men asking, “were we led all that way for Birth or Death? Some would say ‘Yes’ to that, but it goes on…There was a Birth, certainly, we had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death, But had thought they were different; this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.” They were no longer at ease with the way things were, this birth had brought the flavour of death with it. I don’t imagine that any of them expected a death on a cross. A cross was a gruesome piece of capital punishment reserved for the most disreputable individuals, used to suppress subversion, keep the little man down and in his place.
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So for the guy who came to change everything it does not fit for those who wanted signs and wisdom, it is offensive to Jewish sensibilities and idiotic to Gentile intelligence, he was not supposed to be the little man, he was supposed to be the big gun.
Throughout first Corinthians, Paul is confronting various forms of social, theological, and spiritual elitism which have fractured the church. His appeal is for a unified perspective and purpose among those living there. By opening his letter to them with this unrelenting focus on the cross, Paul does two things; undercuts elitist perspectives and undergirds the foundation of Christian unity. He has been pretty clear that Christian discipleship is not the product of some breakthrough in human insight, not a new philosophy of lifestyle, not even a set of time tested principles that will lead to a happy and fulfilled life. At it’s heart and centre it is a historical claim about what God has done on a hill outside Jerusalem during the reign of Pontius Pilate, so trying to break it down into schools of thought or human wisdom misses the point.
Paul does not speculate on what God might or might not be doing through the cross. Instead he openly proclaims the cross as being the devise which both embarrasses and embraces humanity in an inclusive way. Paul is not advocating for a particular doctrine of atonement, and certainly not that the cross is about satisfying the wrath of an angry father. Paul seems to be more inclined to side with John’s gospel in the call to love. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” It is through us that the love of God might be made visible in the world.
In the process of the church learning how to be the church, the light continues to shine in the darkness, The power of God is revealed whenever the love of God becomes flesh. Part of the Epiphany is that light continues to shine in places of darkness which are the paradoxes of the Sermon on the Mount.
Beatitudes were not a new thing in the world of Jesus. Usually, they were common sense sayings that expressed what everyone already knew, the conventional wisdom of the day. “Blessed are those who exercise regularly, for they will be fit and strong” or something along those lines. When we read these verses through the lens of Western individualism, we end up with a collection of pious platitudes. We do ourselves and the gospel a great disservice when we spiritualise the Beatitudes and assume they refer only to mind or soul states. We end up reading the Beatitudes as something like the “Be-Happy Attitudes.” Jesus is speaking to real people who are right in front of him, and he is talking to them about their actual current circumstance.
Sarah Dylan Breuer says “These verses don’t show Jesus as pop psychologist, telling people how to be happy; they show Jesus giving honour to those pushed out to the margins of their culture.” Those people were pushed to the margins by the very fact that they were followers. In the New Testament world, if you were part of an important family, you were an important person and honoured. If you weren’t connected to others, if you didn’t have family, it made you a nobody, without honour, and without means to support yourself. Jesus gathers in all of these people who have are completely bereft, and he gives them two gifts which more than compensate for their very real losses. Jesus gives them honour, in front of all the crowds, he blesses them. Then he makes them family, by calling them children of God. They are not the least, last and lost, because they are part of a community that sees itself as family.
Another thing that is important to note is that they knew their need of God, they knew their struggle against the culture of the day. In our comfortable North American lives it is easy to loose our need of God because of the affluent culture in which we are immersed, forgetting that all the conditions of human suffering that we pray to avoid are present around us, yet for those whose lives are shaped by suffering they are declared blessed and have access to the kingdom of God.
Roger who is heading back to Uganda today, speaks of how blessed he is with the meagre life he has in Uganda, and finds that God is closer in the wanting than in the having. We who have whatever we want can easily miss the blessing of wanting. Could it be that the blessings of the Kingdom of God are not consumer goods, found in the ‘stuff’ we buy or acquire, but are found only in the light which continues to shine into the darkness of human struggle and suffering?
Again Breuer asks, “What would happen if we stopped playing all of our culture’s games for status and power and privilege? What would it cost us if we lived more deeply into justice, and mercy, and humility? And more importantly, what blessings await us on that journey? Those are great questions to think about as we like the Magi go back to our places, our Kingdoms of home, being aware of the gods of comfortableness that we are clutching to. The light continues to shine into the darkness of our world, and has the capacity to change us from being at ease with the old dispensation, should we be wise enough to come and see.