This is how I read the Bible:
Jesus lived a remarkably honest, powerful, joyous, revelatory life. Through Jesus, people who were considered sinners—people who thought of themselves as sinners and outsiders—experienced acceptance, inclusion and empowerment in his lifetime.
People who did not experience approval from other places experienced acceptance from Jesus: poor people (poverty was considered a consequence of sin; it often still is), tax collectors (who were especially hated and despised; they sometimes still are), people—especially women—who were considered sexually sinful, those considered unclean for physical reasons, people considered possessed by demons, people who did not follow the religious laws and practices very well if at all, people who were ethnically different, Samaritans and gentiles—people not used to knowing grace and inclusion from religion or society—experienced grace, acceptance and affirmation from Jesus.
One scholar has said that the one statement in the Gospels that no scholar ever has or ever could question as to its factuality is the statement that Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners (Matt. 9:11). Jesus was “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matt. 11:19).
Through Jesus people who were considered unacceptable and outcast experienced acceptance and inclusion and empowerment. Jesus once said a women people considered a “prostitute” was forgiven much because she loved much and he also said that a rich Pharisee, a religious leader, who looked down on the “prostitute,” had never really known love because he lived his life too guardedly (Luke 7:36-50).
All this was so threatening to the religious authorities that they colluded with the civil leaders to arrange Jesus’ execution. The way that people who threatened the social, religious, and political order in those days were executed was on a cross.
Here’s one meaning of the cross: Jesus, who didn’t want to die at 33 years of age, the way any of us would not want to die, would rather accept death on a cross than accept a religious and social order that said goodhearted prostitutes could be treated like scum while priggish religious hypocrites were esteemed and honored. It too deeply offended his understanding of God.
So the cross became a symbol of what Jesus stood for—he had turned the religious and societal rules upside down. He had called those who considered themselves pure and holy and better than others hypocrites and windbags, and he had lifted up the poor and the outcast and the marginalized and the disdained and those with supposedly questionable moral lives and said that the kingdom of God belonged to them.
The cross was the symbol of a teacher from God who taught and lived the teaching that people who were considered outside the circle of decent company—the poor, the diseased, the unclean, the morally suspect, ethnic minorities, and anybody else who was not part of the moral elite—were inside his and God’s circle; Jesus accepted death rather than giving up living and teaching that way.
This is why the cross felt like love to prostitutes and tax collectors and the poor and despised. Jesus would rather die than turn his back on them.
Then something else happened. After his execution, Jesus’ followers experienced Jesus still alive in their midst; they experienced his acceptance, inclusion and empowerment in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup the way he used to do when he was physically with them.
A new movement of grace and inclusion for people who had experienced themselves as rejected by God and humanity was born. Still today, when we gather, we experience acceptance, inclusion and empowerment in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup and we are energized to work for the inclusion and empowerment of all people in the world.
They killed Jesus on the cross but he rose again. His was a truth they could not kill.
Eventually some followers of Jesus came to an even bigger conclusion. They wrote some poems about it.
Let me read you some of the poems. Here’s a poem:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. … The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a parent's only child, full of grace and truth.
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
That poem is from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. It says that the Jesus who would rather go to the cross than turn his back on the poor and the outcast, tax collectors and sinners, prostitutes and Samaritans; it says this same Jesus is the one through whom the universe came into being. This same Jesus is the source of life itself. It is poetry, but it is great poetry. The one who would not let the rich Pharisee diss the “prostitute”—all things came into being through him—and without him not one thing came into being. What came into being in him was life—the guy who wouldn’t let the Pharisee put down the prostitute—he defines life the way it has always been meant to be lived.
Here is another poem. It is a poem. Listen to it as a poem:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
Things visible and invisible,
Whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers –
All things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and
In him all things hold together …
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell
And through him God was pleased to reconcile to [God’s]self
All things, whether on earth or in heaven,
By making peace through the blood of his cross.
That poem is from Colossians. It says the person who chose to bleed on the cross rather than turn his back on his friends—tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes—that person is really the image of the invisible God. All things in heaven and earth were created through him and for him. The whole universe is held together by him… that guy who ate and drank with poor people, and unclean people and Samaritans and tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes.
We once thought we were losers in the game of life because we were poor and we didn’t keep the religious laws and people told us our sexuality was perverse and we were the wrong race and the wrong religion and we were freethinkers and we asked questions and we were revolutionaries; we thought we were losers, but it turns out that the one who bled on the cross because he liked us and chose to be one of us—that guy is the very image of God. The entire universe is held together by him.
It is poetry, but it is great poetry, and one of my firm convictions is that poetry is true.
Our topic for Lent this year is the question of what happened on the cross. Not what happened factually but what happened cosmically, what happened in the heart of God, what happened that matters in our lives and the world today?
We are looking at different New Testament theologies of the cross and asking how they might still speak to us today. There is not just one theology of the cross in the Bible. There are maybe 10 or 11, maybe more. There are different theologies of the cross because there is not just one that spoke to everybody.
Today we are looking at a theology called by theologians a theology of the “Cosmic Christ” or the “Universal Christ.”
And the question at stake in this theology is what kind of world we think we live in. Do we think we live in a world where crosses win? Or do we live in a world where the ugliest thing the people in power think they can do to us ends up as jewellery we wear around our necks or on our ears? Does the threat of a cross make us cower and fill us with fear, or do we think God laughs at crosses? What kind of world do we think we live in? It makes a difference in the way we live depending on what kind of world we think we live in.
A group of Foundry folk made a study trip this past year to the US border between us and Mexico. They brought back this most amazing picture of a wall. A tall wall between the US and Mexico. It just goes on and on. It cost $3 million a mile to build. Three million dollars a mile.
So here is the question. Do we believe we live in a world where walls work? I’ve been wondering if any of the Christians in America still read the Bible because when I read the Bible it seems to me that when we build walls God laughs. What kind of world do we believe we live in?
Most of us by now have heard the story of Mildred and Richard Loving. They were residents of Virginia where a law called the Racial Integrity Act outlawed interracial marriages. They were married in Washington, DC in 1958. Police invaded their home hoping to find them in bed having sex. All this eventually led to the case Loving v. Virginia in which the United States Supreme Court, by a 9-0 vote, declared Virginia's so-called "Racial Integrity Act of 1924" unconstitutional, ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.
What kind of world do we think we live in? Do we live in a world where laws can tell people who to love? Or when we try to pass laws that tell people who they can and cannot love, does God laugh? What kind of world do you think we live in?
Do we think we live in a world where school districts can outlaw the teaching of evolution? Do we think we live in a world where ignorance can be mandated? Where truth and curiosity can be crushed to the ground? Or do we think that when people try to repress truth God laughs?
There was a group of people who experienced grace and inclusion and empowerment in Jesus Christ. The cross became for them—for us—a symbol of God’s refusal to allow us to be disdained or humiliated by the world because we were different or poor. The cross became a new definition of the nature of the universe, the bias of the universe, the nature of truth.
The Christ of the cross, they believed, we believe, is the Lord of the universe, the Lord of the cosmos, the Lord of nature, the Lord of history.
Martin Luther King said: Truth crushed to the ground will rise again. He said “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
What kind of world do we in our heart of hearts believe we live in? Is it a world where the cross wins or where the cross is transformed into an earring?