From St. Paul the Apostle: “Far be it from me to glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Galatians 6:14
It’s hard to know what to make of Jesus. If our Lord has been – and still is – one of the most influential figures in human history, it is also quite true that he is one of the most mysterious. The Gospels give us accounts of certain periods in his life, but the accounts are scattered and differ one from another and leave all kinds of questions unanswered. Indeed, I doubt that there has ever been a soul who read through Matthew or Mark or Luke or John or all four together and came away from the reading satisfied, if not somewhat puzzled. You might come away converted. That happens. But I’m sure that you would still be puzzled.
One is certainly aware from the Gospels that you are dealing with a forceful personality – someone to be reckoned with – someone attractive who draws people to himself – yet even so, Jesus remains a mysterious figure. In the Gospels his personality eludes us, and questions remain.
There have been those who tried to answer these questions for us. In the last few centuries people have written biographies of Jesus which claimed to fill in the blanks and make Jesus understandable and approachable in a this worldly way. One book written by a man named Santini in the 19th century is very, very long – seven times as long as the New Testament as a whole. It’s not surprising that the book is more imagination than it is biography. Another, which was very popular on the east coast of the United States in the twenties, portrays Jesus as the most brilliant public relations man in history. Another made Jesus into a Jewish revolutionary who plotted against the Romans. Another claimed that there was no Jesus at all, but rather his name was code for a psychedelic mushroom cult. These books sold lots of copies and people read them avidly, which shows us – again – that people are fascinated by Jesus, but they are not at all at ease with the mysterious and complicated person presented by the Gospels. They want Jesus to make sense in a worldly way, and will buy and read all kinds of nonsense in order to squeeze him into a mold that they can understand.
But Jesus doesn’t make sense in a worldly way. He never did and he never will. And there is one point, one episode in the story of Jesus where it all seems most senseless. What is that? His death. The Cross. It’s hard to know how a brilliant advertising man could have come to such an end. A strange fate for someone skilled in public relations. And if he was a revolutionary plotter, the plot got pretty well fouled up at that point. His death. It was a tragedy, an embarrassment. It must have been a terrible mistake.
And so, isn’t it odd ? Isn’t it strange ? For that – his death – is what the New Testament claims to be the most important thing about him. Not what he did, not what he said, not what he taught, though those things are important in themselves, but the most important thing, as far as Scripture is concerned, is that he died.
The earliest writings in the New Testament hardly mention his life, say almost nothing about his teaching. What they talk about is his death. “We preach Christ and him crucified. Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” ( I Cor.1:23, 24 ) That’s from St. Paul, of course, written around twenty years before the first of the Gospels. “Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Jesus doesn’t make sense in a worldly way. By worldly standards, the story of Jesus is just another tragedy, just another crime – an innocent man put to death unjustly. Happens all the time. Nothing new about that. The New Testament, though, is not about a tragedy or a crime. No, it proclaims “gospel”, and as you know, gospel means Good News. And the Good News which the New Testament announces has something to do with Jesus and his death. And what it claims is that the death of Jesus is the revelation, the showing forth, the good news of what God is all about. If you wish to know about God, then there is one place in particular to look – at Jesus dying on the Cross. There is revealed the eternal nature of God. God is like that – says the New Testament – like a man willingly giving up his life, expending, exhausting his life, a man willingly letting go of himself out of love. By this violent act of earthly self-giving is revealed the nature of divine love. For isn’t that what love is ? Letting go of oneself, giving up oneself for another. God is like that. God’s love is like that.
But Scripture goes even further. God is like that, but also God is that. The Cross, the death of Jesus is not only the likeness of divine love, it is also the action of the divine love. God was in Christ – pouring out his life, expending himself to give his own divine life to humankind. God entered into our life in Jesus to make his life available to you and to me.
And so the Good News is this: that in the Cross of Jesus, we know what God is like – and that through the Cross of Jesus and his resurrection, you and I may live in the power of the very life of God. Again, “Christ crucified. Christ the Wisdom of God and Christ the Power of God.”
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But how can this be ? Paul tells us that “God’s power is made perfect in weakness.” ( II Cor. 12:9 ) That is the ultimate mystery Christian life, and it is the ultimate mystery of Jesus and of the Cross. All those things which opposed God and nailed Jesus, God’s Son, to the Cross are overcome precisely by God’s “weakness.” God went to battle against those things that destroy human life and God’s creation – sin, death, hatred, enmity, evil. But God did not meet them on their own terms. He did not meet them with an opposing power of destruction. That would have been to be like them. No. In Jesus God submitted himself to their parody of power, and in submitting, overwhelmed them by his life and his love. For their power is indeed a parody. God’s weakness unmasks it and overthrows it. Death is no more, for God in his weakness is greater than death. Sin, evil, hatred enmity are vanquished for God in his weakness shows himself stronger than them all. Love stamps them out. Love stamps them out. God’s power is revealed in weakness.
What seemed to be a defeat, the end of God’s plan – Jesus is killed – is by Jesus’ resurrection declared to be the triumphant victory of God and the redemption of all mankind. “Now is the judgement of this world. Now is the ruler of this world cast out. And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me.” ( John 12:31 )
And so today, good people, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Cross. Paradoxical, isn’t it ? Something so brutal now called holy. And instrument of pain and cruel death now made to be the way of life and peace. But the Cross is that – holy – because it is where Christians come to know God. And is that – holy – because through it our enemies were defeated, and in it God has given us his life, his power, and his love. It is the sign of our salvation and the emblem of the grace and glory and majesty of God.
“Far be it from me to glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”