Crossfunction: 2007

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Preaching Christ crucified

A Christian friend who describes himself as "non-denominational" mentioned that Protestant churches usually display a cross, not a crucifix, and that some Protestants "have a problem" with Catholic churches displaying a crucifix. 'After all, Jesus isn't on the cross any more, is He? He rose from the dead. That's the whole point, isn't it?'

Now wait just a second. How does a crucifix -a cross with an image of Christ crucified- deny the resurrection? A crucifix doesn't deny the resurrection any more than a bare cross denies the crucifixion. Clearly neither is the case. So why do some Protestants object to a crucifix, which preaches visually what words often struggle to express about the depth of Christ's love? I'm at a loss to find a good reason to object to an image of Jesus dying for my sins.

Saint Paul didn't seem to think it inappropriate to point to the historical event of the crucifixion as a central reality of the faith. In his words,

"we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."
-1 Corinthians 1:23-24 RSV

Paul acknowledges that "Christ crucified" is indeed a cause for offense, but not among "those who are called", not among those willing to accept "the power of God and the wisdom of God" on God's terms.

During that same conversation, my friend expressed reservations about the idea that God may use created objects as instruments of transmitting grace. Take for example, the woman who was healed of a hemorrhage upon touching Jesus' cloak. Or, those who were healed upon contact with Paul's handkerchief or Peter's shadow. Or Naaman's healing from leprosy upon bathing in the Jordan -despite his complaints about having to submit to such a ritual (cf. 2 Kings 5). Don't these incidents suggest the participants were swayed by superstition, wrongly attaching spiritual significance to material objects? Don't such things take our eyes away from God and toward created things?

Come on. If this is the case then the cross of Christ is a distraction that takes our eyes off Christ, and Christian churches should refuse to display crosses. But Saint Paul wrote,

"...far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."
-Galatians 6:14 RSV

It is not wrong to glory "in the cross of our Lord", for God made the cross to be an instrument of our salvation. Drawing near the cross we draw near Christ,

"...and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me."
-Matthew 10:38 RSV

Jesus did not despise the lowliness of His wooden cross, this key instrument of our salvation. He could have saved us without the cross, but in the wisdom of God even the lowliest and most despised elements of creation take on huge importance in the economy of salvation. In His desire to unite us to Himself, He not only condescends to man, but teaches man to condescend to receive help through the vessels He has chosen. This truth reflects the humility and glory of our Savior:

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: 'The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?"
-Matthew 21:42 RSV

Does Paul confuse Christ with the cross, or attribute the power of God to the cross itself? Of course not. But nor does he fail to recognize that God has incorporated into His plan of salvation the material universe which He Himself created. He has used and continues to use created things as instruments of salvation, conduits of grace, and vessels of honor. This is what He made them for! And this is how we should regard them... and use them.

Similarly, people whose faith was great enough to recognize God's eagerness to involve His own creatures in the salvation of the world overcame any pride or hesitation they may have felt, and reached out for contact with that cloak or handkerchief, that shadow, or that river... and through these things encountered the divine. And thousands were healed both in spirit and flesh.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Exodus 4: Why God almost killed Moses

Exodus 4:24. And when he [Moses] was in his journey, in the inn, the Lord met him, and would have killed him.

4:25. Immediately Sephora took a very sharp stone, and circumcised the foreskin of her son, and touched his feet, and said: A bloody spouse art thou to me.

4:26. And he let him go after she had said: A bloody spouse art thou to me, because of the circumcision.

God set out to kill Moses evidently because Moses had neglected to circumcise his son as God had commanded. Genesis 17 says of males that circumcision grants entry into the old covenant, and failure to be circumcised results in breaking the covenant and being “cut off” from God’s people. Circumcision was efficacious, and its efficacy was founded upon and guaranteed by God’s Word.

In the present case God holds Moses, not the son, responsible for ignoring this solemn command. Perhaps the son was not yet old enough to understand or ask for circumcision. In any case God’s anger falls upon Moses. Moses is to blame not for failing to be circumcised, but for failing to bless his son with the visible and efficacious rite commanded by God. He neglected to mediate to his son the benefits which God promised to those who were circumcised.

Moses’ sin of omission is so grave that God is prepared to punish him with death. Not only has Moses failed to obey God, he has also failed in his responsibility as a father to protect and bless his son: the life and covenantal status of his son hang in the balance.

But why does this incident occur now, on the way to Egypt? Moses is about to deliver God’s command that Pharoah free the Israelites from their bondage so they may worship the true God. The life of Pharoah’s son –and ultimately of Pharoah- depends upon his father’s obedience to God’s command. Yet Moses, God’s messenger, stands convicted by that very message: he has failed to obey God, and failed to liberate his own son –through circumcision- in order that both Moses and his son may be counted among God’s people.

Remarkably, God’s anger relents not as a result of Moses repenting of his sin, but upon Sephora’s wise and decisive action in circumcising her son. She did what Moses had failed to do, and by blood and decree associated Moses with the obedience of her righteous act, as far as she was able. Sephora’s action is truly remarkable, and evidently was acceptable to God. In a single moment she supplied what her son vitally needed, rescued her husband from condemnation and death, and placed herself in a position of humble, loving, and profound obedience to God’s will. If Sephora had not circumcised Moses’ son, Moses would have remained unfit to carry out his mission, and would not even have survived the trip to Egypt.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

1 Peter 4: Following Christ means suffering with Christ


Revised Standard Version my paraphrase
1 Christ therefore having suffered in the flesh, be you also armed with the same thought: for he that hath suffered in the flesh, hath ceased from sins:
2 That now he may live the rest of his time in the flesh , not after the desires of men, but according to the will of God.
1 Just as Christ willingly suffered in the flesh, You should expect to imitate His suffering. For he who has willingly endured suffering has turned from sin,
2 so that he may live the rest of his life not according to the will of men, but of God.
3 For the time past is sufficient to have fulfilled the will of the Gentiles, for them who have walked in riotousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and unlawful worshipping of idols.
4 Wherein they think it strange, that you run not with them into the same confusion of riotousness, speaking evil of you.
5 Who shall render account to him, who is ready to judge the living and the dead.
3 You have had enough of living according to the will of the Gentiles, of them who have lived wild, drunken lives of impurity and idolatry.
4 Yet they condemn You, for You no longer live as they do.
5 But in the end they too must render an account to Him who shall judge both the living and the dead.
6 For, for this cause was the gospel preached also to the dead: that they might be judged indeed according to men, in the flesh; but may live according to God, in the Spirit.
7 But the end of all is at hand. Be prudent therefore, and watch in prayers.
6 This is why the gospel was preached also to the dead: that they –like all men– may be judged in the flesh according to the gospel: yet by God’s will may attain eternal life in the Spirit.
7 But final judgment is imminent for all. Be wise, therefore, and remain watchful in prayer.
8 But before all things have a constant mutual charity among yourselves: for charity covereth a multitude of sins.
9 Using hospitality one towards another, without murmuring,
10 As every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another: as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
11 If any man speak, let him speak, as the words of God. If any man minister, let him do it, as of the power, which God administereth: that in all things God may be honoured through Jesus Christ: to whom is glory and empire for ever and ever. Amen.
8 First of all, You must love one another, for love repairs a multitude of sins.
9 Be hospitable toward each other, without complaint.
Serve each other as faithful stewards of the abundant grace You have received from God.
10 If any man will speak, let it be according to the words of God.
11 If any man serve, let him do so according to the power of God: so that in everything God may be honored through Jesus Christ: to Whom belongs all glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
12 Dearly beloved, think not strange the burning heat which is to try you, as if some new thing happened to you;
13 But if you partake of the sufferings of Christ, rejoice that when his glory shall be revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.
14 If you be reproached for the name of Christ, you shall be blessed: for that which is of the honour, glory, and power of God, and that which is his Spirit, resteth upon you.
15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or a thief, or a railer, or a coveter of other men's things.
16 But if as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.
17 For the time is, that judgment should begin at the house of God. And if first at us, what shall be the end of them that believe not the gospel of God?
18 And if the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?
19 Wherefore let them also that suffer according to the will of God, commend their souls in good deeds to the faithful Creator.
12 Beloved, don’t be surprised at the fiery trial which You will undergo, as if this were unexpected.
13 If You willingly share in the sufferings of Christ, You also will share in great joy when His glory is revealed.
14 If You are reproached for the name of Christ, You will be blessed, because the power and Spirit of God rest upon You.
15 Let Your sufferings be those of Christ, not those of a murderer, thief, or coveter.
16 So do not be ashamed to suffer for being a Christian; rather, glorify God in the name of Christ.
17 For it is fitting that judgment begin within the house of God. And if we believers are already facing judgment first, what shall be the verdict against those who reject the gospel of God?
18 If the just man shall barely be saved, what lies in store for those who reject God and persist in sin?
19 So, those who willingly accept sufferings from God’s hand, should with good works entrust their souls to their faithful Creator.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

1 Peter 3: "Baptism now saves You..."

1 In like manner also let wives be subject to their husbands: that if any believe not the word, they may be won without the word, by the conversation of the wives.
2 Considering your chaste conversation with fear.
3 Whose adorning let it not be the outward plaiting of the hair, or the wearing of gold, or the putting on of apparel:
4 But the hidden man of the heart in the incorruptibility of a quiet and a meek spirit, which is rich in the sight of God.
5 For after this manner heretofore the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their own husbands:
6 As Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters you are, doing well, and not fearing any disturbance.
7 Ye husbands, likewise dwelling with them according to knowledge, giving honour to the female as to the weaker vessel, and as to the co-heirs of the grace of life: that your prayers be not hindered.

8 And in fine, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, being lovers of the brotherhood, merciful, modest, humble:
9 Not rendering evil for evil, nor railing for railing, but contrariwise, blessing: for unto this are you called, that you may inherit a blessing.
10 For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile.
11 Let him decline from evil, and do good: let him seek after peace and pursue it:
12 Because the eyes of the Lord are upon the just, and his ears unto their prayers: but the countenance of the Lord upon them that do evil things.
13 And who is he that can hurt you, if you be zealous of good?
14 But if also you suffer any thing for justice' sake, blessed are ye. And be not afraid of their fear, and be not troubled.
15 But sanctify the Lord Christ in your hearts, being ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you.
16 But with modesty and fear, having a good conscience: that whereas they speak evil of you, they may be ashamed who falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.
17 For it is better doing well (if such be the will of God) to suffer, than doing ill.
18 Because Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust: that he might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit,
19 In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison:
20 Which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe, when the ark was a building: wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water.
21 Whereunto baptism being of the like form, now saveth you also: not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the examination of a good conscience towards God by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

22 Who is on the right hand of God, swallowing down death, that we might be made heirs of life everlasting: being gone into heaven, the angels and powers and virtues being made subject to him.

When Noah entered the ark, he was saved from the flood as a result of his obedience to God in building and entering the ark. His family members likewise were saved by following Noah into the ark, although we are not told whether at the time these relatives had faith in God or understood the disaster to come. In order to be saved from the flood it was sufficient that they merely board the ark and remain there until the water subsided.

It's interesting that Peter does not say that these individuals were "saved from the water", but rather "were saved by water". His interpretation -the interpretation of the New Testament- is that Noah's passage through the water is a prefigurement of Baptism. Just as the flood was sent by God to wash away sinners and sin, and the only sinners spared were those who submitted to God's plan of passage through the water, so in Baptism the water washes away sin and the baptized begin a new life.

In neither case -Noah's ark, or Baptism by water- does the water play a magical role. In both they are instruments used by God to transform the world and individuals, to end sinful lives of darkness and begin new lives as children of God.

It wasn't Noah's building of the ark that saved him. Rather, he was saved by God's fulfilling a promise in response to Noah's obedience: an uneven exchange in which a man offered simple obedience and in return received salvation from the flood for himself and his family.

Similarly, it isn't either water or the action of any human person which accomplishes the salvation that Peter attributes to Baptism. Rather, this salvation is granted through God's superabundant fulfillment of a promise in response to our obedience in submitting to His command to be baptized. Saint John Chrysostom (349-407, Bishop of Constantinople), said, "God does not need our work, but He does need our obedience." (Homilies on St. Matthew's Gospel, 56)

Note that circumcision and Baptism both require a visible human work. But the resulting profound change in one's spiritual status -entry into the old covenant, and entry into the new covenant, respectively- results from God's simultaneous action, performed in fulfillment of His divine promises.

Therefore Scripture teaches that the efficacy of Baptism rests on the bedrock of God's new covenant with man, just as the efficacy of circumcision rested on the old covenant.

Peter's teaching stands against any attempt to dilute the significance and power of Baptism. He does not say that Baptism is a 'figure' of Noah's ark, but the opposite: Noah's ark is an 'antitype' ('anti-tupon' in Greek) of Baptism. That is, the stupendous event of Noah's ark and the flood points to something even greater and more important. God's ultimate intention is not just the preservation of natural life in a world tainted by sin. Through Baptism God performs a far greater miracle: He actually washes away sin; He actually regenerates man from death to a new and eternal life; He grafts man into Christ; He does for man precisely what He desired to do ever since before the beginning of time: to make man a new creation and a true son of God.

Therefore Peter says "baptism now saves You".


What happens when we are Baptized?

-what does Scripture explicitly teach?

We are saved:

"he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit." Titus 3:5 RSV

"Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 3:19-21 RSV

We put on Christ:

"For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Galatians 3:27 RSV

We are incorporated into Christ's Body:

"For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -Jews or Greeks, slaves or free..." 1 Corinthians 12:13 RSV

We drink of the one Spirit:

"...and all were made to drink of one Spirit." 1 Corinthians 12:13 RSV

We are united with Christ's death and burial, and we are raised with Him:

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" Romans 6:3 RSV

"We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" Romans 6:4 RSV

"In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ; and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses" Colossians 2:11-13 RSV

We are washed and regenerated:

"he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit." Titus 3:5 RSV

"Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word," Ephesians 5:25-26 RSV

Our hearts are cleansed from an "evil conscience":

"let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." Hebrews 10:22 RSV

"Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 3:19-21 RSV