SHADOWS OF THE CROSS

I  Corinthians 2: 2

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus  Christ and him crucified.”

A  New Way of Doing Theology

Luther  called for a new way of doing theology.  Luther was by training and  vocation a professor of the Bible.  As a twenty five year old student  Luther wrote in a letter that “the only theology of any real value is what  penetrates the kernel of the nut and the germ of the wheat and the marrow of the  bone.”  After he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in  Wittenberg (1517), he travelled to Heidelberg to hold a disputation with his  fellow Augustinian monks (1518).  There he asserted: “The only theology of  any real value is to be found in the crucified Christ” — a clear echo of the  verse we read from I Corinthians 2: 2: “For I decided to know nothing among you  except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

For  Luther the only theology true to the gospel is what he called a “theology of the  cross.”  He contrasted that to a “theology of glory” that was being taught  in all the schools at that time.  Popular theologians, not unlike many  modern ones, were trying to get to God through a variety of other ways, teaching  that people can come to know God through philosophy, mysticism, and morality, by  means of reason, religious exercises, and good works.  All of these ways  lead heavenward to a glorious God of majesty, a God who wouldn’t be caught dead  on the cross of that afflicted man of sorrows, in whom there was no “form or  comeliness.”  (Is. 53: 2)

Luther  was a follower of the apostle Paul’s theology.  Luther said:  There  are two ways of doing theology, the way of the philosopher Aristotle who defined  God as the First Cause of all things, an Absolute who could not care less about  what is going on in the world, and then there is the way of the apostle Paul who  decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  The two  ways of doing theology are the way of glory and the way of the cross.  The  way of glory rises up to meet God at the level of God in heaven.  The way  of the cross looks for God in a down-to-earth manner, in things that are as  lowly, weak, poor, and naked as the suffering man who died on a hill outside the  gate.

God  in the Flesh

The  cross of Christ involves not only the death of a human being, one Jesus by  name.  Rather, it is a God-event.  The person dying on the cross is  not a mere man; he is God in the flesh.  This equation results in a  strikingly new concept of God.  The very idea that God would allow himself  to be crucified among criminals — it’s unbelievable!  The great religions  of the world teach that God cannot suffer; God cannot bleed; God cannot  die.  Because God is God he has no feelings at all; he has no passions; he  has nothing in common with the suffering of human beings, in sharing their  anguish, despair, and sickness unto death.  What happened to Jesus on the  cross was something that presumably happened to Jesus only in his human  nature.  This is what the theologians of glory taught, in order to exempt  God from human deprivation and degradation.

For  Luther the reformer and Paul the apostle what happened on the cross happened to  God.  It is right to say that God himself is crucified, because Jesus is  not only man but also God.  The crucified Jesus is “very God of very  God.”  That is exactly what the Creed of Nicaea also says.  God is  hidden in the cross of Christ.  Theologians of glory flee from the hidden  and crucified God in favor of the omnipotent God of majesty.  Ashamed to  find God in the cross of Christ, their pride tells them to look for God in  loftier places, in  peak experiences, in which people scale the heights of  their own human potential, their reason, creativity, and  imagination.

What  do we normally think of when we think of God?  Do we think of power, glory,  wisdom, and majesty?  Of course, that is one way, the broad way, but Paul  chose the narrow way, where God meets us in the cross of Christ.  Let us  listen to some of Luther’s own words:

“We  Christians must know that unless God is in the balance and throws his weight as  a counterbalance, we shall sink to the bottom of the scale.. . .If it is not  true that God died for us, but only a man died, we are lost.  But if God’s  death lies in the opposite scale, then his side goes down and we go upward like  a light and empty pan.  But God would never have sat in the pan unless he  had first become a man like us, so that it could be said:  God is dead;  here in Christ is God’s passion, God’s blood, God’s  death.”

Such  a theology of the cross is revolutionary in the history of religion.  When  it comes to the nature and attributes of God, we are to think about Jesus Christ  and him crucified.

Four  hundred and fifty years later, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyr who died on  Hitler’s scaffold, was saying the same thing as Paul:

“God  allows himself to be edged out of the world onto the cross.  God is weak  and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which  he can be with us and help us. . . .Only a suffering God can  help.”

Only  in Christianity do we find this idea that God and the cross go together.   In other major religions, God is high in his heaven and far away.  We  humans are supposed to go there on the wings of our own reason and experience,  our religious rituals and good deeds.  Against this Luther said, “We should  not try to penetrate the lofty mysteries of God’s majesty, but we should simply  be content with the God on the cross.  Anyone who tries to find God outside  of Christ will find only the devil.”

The  Happy Exchange

Of  what use is this theology of the cross for you and for me?  In his Letter  to the Romans, Paul answers this question by expounding his doctrine of  justification by faith apart from the works of the law.  The cross of  Christ and justification by faith are not two separate things; they are two  sides of the same coin.  Without the crucified Christ there can be no  justification of sinners in the sight of God.  In the Lutheran tradition  the doctrine of justification has been called “the article by which the church  stands and falls.”  In light of this doctrine of justification, Luther  found much to criticize in the church and theology of his day, from the Pope in  Rome to the peddler of indulgences in his parish.  He claimed that they  were teaching salvation by the merits of works and not by faith in Christ and  the benefits of his cross.  “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the  soul from purgatory springs.”  So said John Tetzel, the popular preacher,  while selling certificates of indulgence to raise money to build St. Peter’s  Cathedral in Rome.

What  is so great about this salvation that we receive through faith alone on account  of Christ alone?  What hangs in the balance is the issue of bondage or  freedom.  Freedom is the very essence of salvation.  In his wonderful  treatise On Christian Freedom, Luther wrote:  “A Christian  is free. . .and in bondage to no one.”  Yet, at the same time, he said, “A  Christian is a servant, and owing a duty to everyone.”  Radical freedom was  purchased for us by the cross of Christ and it means to be in bondage to no one,  yet free to serve everyone.

The  righteousness of God is revealed from heaven.  It is not something we  render to God but what he gives to us.  “Lord Jesus,” cried Luther, “you  are my righteousness, just as I am your sin.  You have taken upon yourself  what you were not and you have given to me what I was not.”  This what  Luther called the good news of the “happy exchange.”  God in Christ takes  our sin, and we get his righteousness.  We are free, free at last, and off  the hook.  Justification by faith alone means freedom from the way of  works, which requires us to sweat for every inch of our stature in the face of  God.  The cross is God’s way of shattering the way of works to make way for  faith.  That is to let God be God who is in the business of saving  sinners.  This frees us to receive his salvation as a gift and to live life  to the hilt.

Luther  wrote a letter to his friend, Philip Melanchthon, who was worrying about a  dilemma:  If he did what he felt he had to do, he would be committing a  sin, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it.  Then Luther said to his  friend, “Pecca fortiter,” which means, “Sin boldly!”  Go ahead and  do what you have to do, and then he added these words of qualification, “. .  .believe in Christ even more boldly still, for he (Christ) is victorious over  sin, death, and the world.”  Luther was assuring Melanchthon that Christ  did not die for fictitious sinners, but for real sinners.  If it were  possible for humans to be perfect on their own and avoid all ambiguities, then  Christ would have died in vain.

Living  Under the Cross

Finally,  we must ask, what is the meaning of the cross for the daily life of ordinary  believers in the world?  The cross is not only a way to be saved but a way  to live.  Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”  To be a  Christian is not only to believe in Christ but to follow Jesus.  To follow  him where?  Into the world in solidarity with the least, the lost, and the  last.

The  cross is not a symbol for pious people meditating on things religious.  The  people of Christ live their lives under the cross, in school, on a farm, in a  family, in a business, at city hall, in the every day secular world, doing what  needs doing at the moment.  That will sometimes entail suffering,  humiliation, grief, disgrace, and maybe even martyrdom.  Not many of the  disciples or apostles died of old age.  Bearing the  cross of Christ  aroused conflict and opposition.  Christians ought to expect that they may  be dealt with as sheep for the slaughter.  In Greek the word “martyr” is  the same as the world “witness.”  Martyrdom means being a witness to the  truth, willing to pay the price that one unavoidably pays in doing hand-to-hand  combat with forces of evil in the world.

We  confess in the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one holy christian and apostolic  church.”  Those are the four marks of the true church of Christ.   Luther placed on the par with these four marks the additional mark of the cross,  of suffering, and martyrdom.  A church that wants to be great and glorious  in worldly terms, that wants to be vocal and victorious in political terms, is  deeply suspect.  Something is profoundly wrong with any church that wishes  to be identified with the rich, beautiful, and powerful people.  That is  the way of the theology of glory.  The church seeking glory tends to  worship its own growth, success, popularity, and to peddle cheap grace to those  who can afford to pay their way.

The  reason that the Christian life under the cross brings suffering is that those  who are set free by Christ go into the world to set the captives free.   That means to work for the liberation of the captives, to widen the range of  freedom in every respect — in terms of freedom of the press, freedom of worship,  freedom of assembly, and freedom of opportunity.  Almost every American  will agree with that.  But it also means freedom from want, freedom from  war, freedom from ignorance, and freedom from oppression. The way of the cross  in the world — in political, social, and economic terms — means to liberate  people from the prisons of class, race, wealth, ideology, and anything else that  keeps people down.

Just  as Jesus was nailed to the cross for setting people free, those who claim to be  his followers will go the way of the cross in setting people free from suffering  and degradation, from poverty and hunger, from ignorance and  superstition.

All  of these ideas flow from Luther’s theology of the cross.  Luther carried  this theology to his death bed.  His friends asked him if he was prepared  to die in the faith he had preached.  Throughout his career Luther had  said, “Preach one thing: the wisdom of the cross.”  Now on his death bed  Luther answered, “Yes.  We are beggars.  That is  true.”

It  is to be hoped that we will learn from Paul’s theology of the cross how to be  faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ and him crucified;

that  they might teach nothing but a theology of the cross;

they  they might preaching nothing but the crucified God;

that  they might trust, not in themselves, but solely in the benefits of the  cross;

and  that their mission will take shape in the form of the cross of Christ.   Amen!

 

A Message from Rev. Carl  Braaten brought to you by Grace Lutheran Church, Web and Park Street, Mountain  View, Arkansas.  For prayer or more  information, contact Pastor Kenneth Taglauer by email: [email protected].  A Pass it On  Project

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *