Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sermon -- 30 January 2011 -- 4 Epiphany

St. Paul’s, Durant — 9:00 a.m.

Micah 6:1-8 | Psalm 15 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 | Matthew 5:1-12

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

This verse is the first verse of the Epistle reading this morning, from 1 Corinthians 1.18. You may recall that it was also the final verse of the Epistle reading last Sunday, from the previous verses in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians. But what is this — “the message about the cross”? (More literally the Greek says, “The word of the cross.”) What is this “word of the cross,” this “message about the cross”? When we read on a little further this morning, we hear Paul say, “we proclaim Christ crucified”; and that may make it a bit more specific but I don’t know that it clarifies it all very much. Oh, I suppose it means something to us — something like “we believe and know that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins” — although even that is not as transparently clear a statement as we may assume it is — but we have, most of us I think, a lifetime of context in which to hear that phrase. The folks in the Greek city of Corinth — a big, raucous, multiethnic port city — had no context at all in which to hear it. Not only were they new converts to Christian faith, the Christian community itself was brand-new. What can the words “a message about the cross” possibly have meant to them? For us the “cross” may have an important symbolic significance. We may wear a decorative cross, perhaps even jeweled, around our neck. We hang a cross on the wall, or in church we place one above the altar, or embroider it into our church vestments and hangings, as a sign of our faith. Sometimes that cross may even be sort of realistic, showing the body of Jesus hanging on it. But pretty dainty “realism,” compared to the coarse, cruel actuality of Roman crucifixion. And the actuality of Roman crucifixion is the only context the new Christians of Corinth knew. And they probably knew it pretty well, and had seen it firsthand often enough. Crucifixion was horrible. It was meant to be horrible. It was excruciating. (That’s where we get the word “excruciating.”) It was degrading and humiliating beyond description. It was arguably the worst possible thing one could do to a human being. The Romans didn’t waste it on petty criminals (they just sent them off to the salt mines, or whatever) — crucifixion was reserved for Public Enemies, for revolutionaries, for terrorists, for traitors. Crucifixion of these malefactors was the way Rome said to the rest of the community, “Don’t even think of ever being like these people, or this is what we will do to you!”

And this was the Gospel that Paul and his companions were proclaiming — God’s Messiah as crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” — oh, you bet! — “but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Okay, let’s hold that right there for a moment. We’ll come back to it.

The Gospel today is the Beatitudes, from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, so-called, in the Gospel of St. Matthew. A well-known and popular passage, I think. But I wonder if we don’t tend to see the Beatitudes as some kind of lofty ethical or moral ideal that Jesus is holding before us. (Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if I could live like that! But of course, I can’t…) Well, I’m not so sure that Jesus is holding up a lofty ideal. I don’t think Jesus is into idealism. Jesus is always thoroughly realistic, thoroughly practical. He tells the truth. He tells us how it really is. Our problem is not that we fail to live up to his ideals, but that we don’t really believe him. We will not accept the reality that he proclaims and shows us. Jesus says, “Do you want to know what blessedness, true happiness, true joy, fullness of life, really is like? Well, it looks like this: Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who can mourn. Blessed are the meek (actually, a better translation might be “the gentle,” or “the considerate”). Blessed are those who hunger for righteousness. This is what true life really is. Not an ideal to be striven for, but a reality to be accepted and embraced.

Here’s the thing, I think. We human beings are entranced by power. We want power. Oh, I don’t mean that any of us really want to be King of the World, or anything like that. Oh, there are people who want that kind of power — we’ve seen them in human history, both ancient and modern — but I assume none of them are in here today! But we want power over our own lives. And there is an important sense in which that’s not only valid but necessary. Our psychological health requires that we have a real sense of our power over our own lives. But how easily our concern for power over our own lives spills over into a grasp for power over those around us, over our circumstances! And at that point, as St. Luke makes clear in his take on the Beatitudes, our blessedness turns into woe.

“The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ proclaims that things really are not the way we and the world generally assume they are. It is the cross that is how things really are. It is the Beatitudes that are how things really are. And if we can make the act of faith and trust, to abandon our own false realities and enter the true reality of God’s kingdom — to believe and embrace the truth, seemingly so topsy-turvy, that we do keep by giving away, we do preserve by sacrificing, we do live by dying — then the Beatitudes, and the cross of Jesus Christ, will become the character of our lives.

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