Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Call of the Cross

Black Crucifixion, Fritz Eichenberg
And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.
On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, 
As though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.
  ("The Coming," R. S. Thomas)

There is something familiar about the story of Palm Sunday. Crowds gathered to cheer a likely candidate, one of their own who could draw a crowd, who could take back Jerusalem from the evil empire, who could promote their agendas and ensure their safety.

It’s easy to picture the crowd. The palm fronds might be different, but the energy is the same.

It’s not so easy to picture Jesus, riding the donkey through the crowd. Luke says, "as he approached Jerusalem he wept.” Did the crowd notice? Did they wonder why?

With the cheers of the adoring crowd echoing in his ears, Jesus went on to the temple, where he upset the economic order by throwing over tables: money changers, merchants of sacrificial doves, commerce sent scrambling. The accommodating religious leaders were enraged: how dare he?

From there, he went on to tell a series of stories meant to alienate the insiders, the holders of power, those most convinced of their own righteousness.

Then the Passover meal, with talk of sacrifice and death, and the embarrassing scene with the bowl and towel.

There’s nothing in the story that sounds invented. In fact, it’s told in each of the gospels with a sense of quiet amazement, with a raw honesty unexpected in religious text. Facts outlined, dialogue sketched, strange stories reported as the best candidate for coming king deliberately dismantles the grand expectations of friends, followers and crowd.
Christ Dying between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses
Rembrandt van Rijn, 1653
Vinoth Ramachandra, a Sri Lankan who has written and lectured extensively about pluralism, world religions, and the uniqueness of the Christian faith, notes in The Scandal of Jesus: Christ in a Pluralistic World:
"If you wanted to convert the educated and pious people of the empire to your cause, whatever that cause may have been, the worst thing you could ever do would be to link that cause to a recently crucified man. To put it mildly, that would have been a public relations disaster. And to associate God, the source of all life, with this crucified criminal was to invite mockery and sheer incomprehension! This was indeed the experience of the first Christians.
"This message, if true, subverted the world of religion. For it claimed that if you wanted to know what God is like, and to learn God’s purposes for God’s world, you had to go not to the sages, the lofty speculations of the philosophers or to the countless religious temples and sacred groves that dotted the empire, but to a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. The world of the first Christians was every bit as pluralistic, if not more so, than ours- culturally and religiously. But for the Jews a crucified Messiah/Saviour was a contradiction in terms, for it expressed not God’s power but God’s inability to liberate Israel from Roman rule. For pious Greeks and Romans, the idea that a god or son of a god should die as a state criminal, and that human salvation should depend on that particular historical event, was not only offensive, it was sheer madness.
"This message, if it were true, also subverted the world of politics. It claimed that Rome’s own salvation would come from among those forgotten victims of state terror. Caesar himself would have to bow the knee to this crucified Jew. It implied that by crucifying the Lord of the universe, the much-vaunted civilization of Rome stood radically condemned. The Pax Romana was a sham peace. Like all imperial projects, it was built on the suffering of the many. And God had chosen to be found among the victims, not the empire-builders. Little wonder that the Christians’ ‘Good News’ (‘Gospel’) was labeled a ‘dangerous superstition’ by educated Romans of the time.
"Now, it is the madness of this ‘word of the cross’ that compels us to take it seriously. I am a Christian today because there is something so foolish, so absurd, so topsy-turvy about the Christian gospel that it gets under my skin: it has the ring of truth about it. No one can say that this was some pious invention, for it ran counter to all notions of piety. And nothing was gained by it. All who proclaimed it suffered as a result."
White Crucifixion, Marc Chagall, 1938
Ramanchandra goes on to explore further the subversive nature of the cross: it subverts not only our ideas of religion and political power, but of self, autonomy, family, tribe, national identity:
"When illustrating what it means to belong to the kingdom of God, Jesus takes as his
paradigmatic examples those who had least status in his contemporary society. In a world where children had no legal rights, economic possessions or no social standing, he makes them the model for those who receive the kingdom of God (Matt.18: 1-4; Mark 10: 13-16). When, on the eve of the crucifixion, he washes the feet of his disciples like a household slave, and requires them to do the same for each other (John 13:3-15), he makes slaves the paradigms for leadership in the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God belongs to people such as slaves, the poor, and little children, then others can enter the kingdom only by accepting the same lack of status. The cross brings all human beings, men and women, rich and poor, religious and irreligious, to the same level before God. It is at the foot of the cross, that all human beings, without exception, are revealed as the objects of God’s forgiving and re-creating love. This is the egalitarian politics of grace."
Jesus doesn’t invite us to Palm Sunday, to a triumphal politics of power, a proud exclusionary religion of exceptional righteousness.

He invites us to the cross, to the foot of the cross, to align ourselves not only with him, but with every marginalized, forgotten, condemned person who ever lived.  He calls us to set aside status, entitlement, self-justifying argument, self-protective agenda, and find a new home in his family of grace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, struggling to understand the call of the cross in the face of Nazi fascism, wrote: “The Cross is not the terrible end of a pious happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (from  Discipleship and the Cross )

Come and die. Jesus said “greater love has no one than this than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. . . This is my command: Love each other.”

Christ's Body is Removed from the Cross
Anna Kocher, 2006
The Christian faith is more than words, buildings, organizational structures, theological frameworks, philosophical exposition, like-minded people sharing like-minded values. At its core, the Christian faith is a community of deeply broken, deeply loved people, knit together by allegiance to a dying friend on a distant hill, choosing each day to sacrifice personal preference and self-fulfillment for the needs of a deeply wounded world.

Come and die. Not great ad copy. Not a catchy campaign slogan.

Yet that call sounds across the centuries, and we can trace the outlines of history through the lives of those who have understood and answered that call.

On a drizzly April morning, sipping tea to ease the fever and sore throat shared by some kids I’ve been spending time with while their single mom works evenings, I picture the globe, the son holding it gently in his hands, the people with thin arms still waiting to hear the echo of good news, and I wonder: can we go there? Where will the call of the cross be leading me today?

This is the last in a seven week Lenten series:

     Looking toward Lent
     Lenten Sorrow : Lament and Nacham
     Lenten Silence: Charash, Be Still
     Lenten Sweetness: Tasting Towb    
     Lenten Submission: Rethinking Hupotassō
     Lenten Song: Remembering Ranan

For more about the cross and its meaning and significance: Thank You for the Cross

As always,  your thoughts and comments are welcome. Click on the   __ comments link below to post.