The Offense of the Cross
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Sunday, March 6, 2005
Galatians 5: 1-11
Matthew 27: 24-31
The Apostle Paul was worried about this: that the offensiveness of the cross would be tamed or removed. The offensiveness of the cross.
It is a reminder that the cross was an instrument of torture and of execution and of death... an offensive thing.
I think it was my old teacher, Professor Edmund Steimle, who first said that Jesus was not crucified on a church altar in front of a bouquet of flowers between two candlesticks. The cross is a symbol of humanity at our worst. It is a symbol of us at our ugliest, at our meanest. The cross is a reminder that all of our self-perceptions of human accomplishment and pride and progress really add up to very little. It is a symbol of the offensiveness of our assumption that we are good people who, if only we try hard enough, can finally save ourselves and one another. The apostle Paul was worried that people would stop understanding what an offensive symbol the cross is.
Jesus was crucified by the most sophisticated leaders, religious leaders of his day, working together with the most astute political leaders, who did it for what they thought were good reasons for the sake of the larger society. This offensive symbol of torture and of execution and death is the expression of our most sophisticated human thought and religion and politics.
In my generation
the most difficult theological problem that those of us who have spent part
of our lives reading and thinking about theology here in the
theologian Reinhold Neibuhr used to ask the question of how it could have
been that it was German culture that births the holocaust.
It is the cross again seen in all of it offensiveness in our time. The stark truth of the cross is that we cannot save ourselves – no matter how religious we try to be, no matter how intelligent we think we are, no matter how benevolent, no matter how disciplined, no matter how nice. Do you suppose that the Nazis set out to do evil? The Nazis set out to be superhuman, to be better than human. And that is how they ended up becoming evil.
The offensiveness of the cross is that it insults our best human efforts and intentions. It is a very hard thing to grapple with, and a hard thing to grapple with both on a global sense of what it means for us as humanity. But also it is a hard thing, I think, to grapple with in the most intimate places and relationships of our life.
We are holding this weekend Foundry’s first, at least the first I know of, Pre-Cana weekend. Eight couples have come together to meet with Debra, Jane and myself. They came Friday and spent all Friday evening here, all day yesterday from early morning until late at night, and they were here early this morning and are going to stay through the afternoon to prepare for their weddings, commitment services, marriages and committed relationships to one another for their lives. And I want to say that this for me has been an absolutely wonderful experience. I probably worked them harder than I should have. They are a very, very special group of couples and I have appreciated the commitment they have demonstrated in struggling with joys but also with the very, very hard questions about how it is that we manage to live and stay in love with one another. They are here with us in worship to receive communion together this morning. And I would like to ask them to stand because they are eight really, really wonderful couples. Will you please rise so that the congregation can see you? (Applause)
As we have been meeting and talking and thinking and deliberating together this weekend, I have been challenged by the way that love pushes our human pride. I have been reminded this weekend that love is not an accomplishment. Love is not an achievement. There are things we can do or not do that will strengthen our intimate relationships in life, but really we cannot work hard and accomplish love. We cannot force love. We can do things and choose not to do things that will strengthen or weaken our relationship but we cannot make someone love us. We cannot try harder and thereby make someone love us. We cannot try harder and make ourselves love someone else. All that we can do is to give ourselves and to receive another.
A wise philosopher before most of your time put it this way:
“You can't hurry love.
You can’t hurry love.
No, you just have to wait."
“You got to trust, give it time,
"You can't hurry love,
Two important philosophers: Reinhold Neibuhr and Diana Ross.
Love is not another human accomplishment. You can work hard at being a good husband, a good wife, a good partner, and I hope you do work hard at it... but that doesn’t make love. What makes love is giving ourselves, exposing ourselves, being vulnerable and open to one another: things we can’t do but need to let happen in our intimate relationships. We need to not work harder so much as surrender ourselves. Love is a gift, not an accomplishment.
Debra led us on Friday evening in a study of the 13th chapter of First Corinthians. And we went over those words so well knows.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.”
Then Debra had us substitute our own names in the place of the word “love.” So I had to sit there and read to myself: “Dean is patient. Dean is kind. Dean is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Dean does not insist on his own way. Dean is not irritable or resentful.” I was hoping that Jane wouldn’t hear me read that.
Well, the truth is that when we look at the Apostle Paul’s description of love, we all fall short. We all come into this world as babies. And have you ever known a baby that was patient, or a baby that did not insist on its own way, or a baby who was not irritable or resentful from time to time. There is that baby still inside of each one of us from time to time.
Here is the point of what the apostle Paul was writing in First Corinthians 13: that love makes us what we otherwise could not manage to be. Can I manage to be patient? The harder I try, it seems, the more impatient I become. But love, if I surrender myself to it, can make me patient with those whom I love. These things are not human accomplishments, but the consequence of human surrender to something greater than ourselves.
Look at the cross – this instrument of torture, of suffering, of execution and of death – and you will see the offensive result of our best human intentions, our most sophisticated religious practices, our most strategic politics. This is what happens when we try to do it ourselves. We cannot save ourselves. We can only let ourselves be saved by surrendering ourselves to the love of God – by giving up our self-control and becoming vulnerable and open to God and to one another. This is harder than work. To surrender is harder than work. But it is the source of life’s deepest joy and fulfillment.