Category: 1 Corinthians

Podcast: Passing on a Legacy of Faith

For Mother’s Day, I preached from 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 on the subject, “Passing on a Legacy of Faith.” Just as the apostle Paul and Susanna Wesley both passed on a legacy of faith to others, we can do the same for those within our circles of influence, including our families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. Here’s the audio of last Sunday’s sermon —  

Communion Sermon: You Should All Eat Together

world communion sunday

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, June 1, 2014. The point of the sermon was to address an issue in the way we were observing communion. Our children were downstairs in Children’s Church, and when communion was served, they all wanted to participate. I thought that parents should be involved in deciding whether or not their children took communion. So, in this sermon I address the history of communion from the early church in 1 Corinthians 11 through the Reformation and the formation of Baptist congregations. While I believe that you can make a case from Scripture for including children at the Lord’s Table, my point is that this decision ultimately is up to parents. If you prefer to listen to the sermon, the podcast is here

A Problem With Our Practice

This morning, if you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. This is not the lectionary reading for today. But, I want to address a concern that I have because an issue has come up in our observance of the Lord’s Supper here. It particularly has to do with our children. I’ll explain more about that momentarily. But, let me tell you what has prompted this message, and why we’re having the children join us for the communion portion of the service today.

As you know, our practice has been that we do not have a children’s time on communion Sunday because Communion takes an extra amount of time in the service. In the past, our children have stayed downstairs during the entire service, where they have their own Bible study, activities, and snack. [However, the result was that both children and workers missed communion.]

A couple of years ago, our deacons started taking Communion to the nursery and to the adult workers there — which I thought was a very good idea. And, because we had older children in children’s church at that time, the deacons would also serve communion to those children who had been baptized, per our Baptist tradition. And that seemed to work for awhile.

However, Erica came to me several weeks ago with a concern. She said the problem they were having was that all the children wanted to take the bread and the juice, too, along with the adult workers.

I remember when our granddaughters were younger than they are now. Maggie and Vivian were in the service sitting with Debbie one communion Sunday. Maggie was about three years old at the time, and as the bread passed her by she wasn’t very happy. Then, as the juice passed her by, she looked at Debbie and said, “Little children like juice, too!”

So, the issue of whom to serve communion to in the nursery became a very difficult issue for our deacons. And they did what I would have done — they did not refuse anyone who wanted to partake of the bread and the juice when they served communion downstairs.

But it concerns me that our children are not involved in the worship context of communion. It is one thing to have a quick, standup distribution of the bread and the cup, as a deacon reads from First Corinthians. But, it is another thing altogether, I think, to be here with the full community of faith as we go through the ritual — and I use ritual here in a very positive sense — as we go through the ritual that we observe, very carefully handling the elements and distributing those; and, singing; and, reading the words of Scripture; and, then reading responsively the litany during our observance of communion.

That’s the issue that has brought this to our attention in the service today.

After this message about communion and after the choir sings, all the children will join their families here in the sanctuary. And, together families will decide what is appropriate for their children as we take communion together. That is the bottom line that I’m coming to this morning.

Celebrating Communion The Wrong Way

Let’s read what Paul says about communion in his letter to the church in Corinth:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. 18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!

23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together.34 Anyone who is hungry should eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.

And when I come I will give further directions. — I Corinthians 11:17-34 NIV

 We have these words of the apostle Paul, giving instruction about how the Lord’s Supper is to be conducted. This is, for all practical purposes, the only glimpse we have into the New Testament church about the manner in which they conducted and received communion.

Paul is making two points, I think. The first point is that the Lord’s Supper is a communal experience. The second point is that they aren’t observing it in a worthy manner.

Apparently, in the first century Corinthian church, they bought more than just bread and wine to communion. Paul said they brought the equivalent of a covered-dish lunch. Because the Corinthians were primarily pagans before they became Christians, they had not come out of Judaism. They had no shared history of the Passover meal. They did not understand the symbolic nature of that meal, and consequently when they came together for communion, they brought a lot of food.

Obviously, Paul says rich members were bringing more food than those who were not wealthy. Some of the Corinthians apparently brought nothing because they were poor. Then, rather than sharing, every family had their own little picnic lunch. One group had a lot to eat, while other groups had nothing, as they are celebrated together the Lord’s Supper.

Paul said, “That’s not right.” And he says, if you do that, you are eating and drinking the Supper in an “unworthy manner.” When we take the Lord’s Supper, we think of examining ourselves, and we often think that means examining our own life and understanding our shortcomings.

But, primarily what Paul is talking about here is their relationship to each other. He is concerned that they were not aware of each other. When Paul writes about not recognizing the body of Christ what I think he means is not recognizing each other in the communal context with which they were taking the Lord’s Supper.

This whole passage in 1 Corinthians 11 is about taking the Lord’s supper by recognizing that the individuals gathered are the body of Christ. To take the Supper in a worthy manner is being aware of others, so that everyone has equal access to the table of the Lord.

Communion Foreshadowed In the Gospel of John

With that backdrop, I want to talk a little bit about communion. You know from reading Matthew, Mark, and Luke — the synoptic Gospels — we have pretty much the same picture. The Last Supper that Jesus shares with his disciples is the Passover meal. It reflects the Old Testament record of God’s deliverance of Israel. When Jesus celebrates the Passover, he does so as a Jew, as a participant in the Jewish heritage he shares with the disciples.

But then, during that Passover meal he does something different, very much like he did when he talked about the law. Jesus would say, “You have heard that it has been said…” and he would talk about whatever commandment that was. Then he would add, “…but I say to you…” and he would have them look at it in a new way.

Jesus is doing the very same thing with the physical elements of Passover. He reinterprets them so that the bread becomes his body, and the wine becomes his blood. It is a symbolic re-imagining of what this Passover meal will mean for those who are his followers.

The Gospel of John has a very different take on the Last Supper than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John does not record any of the “Eucharistic words” that the other Gospels have. He doesn’t have Jesus breaking the bread and saying, “This is my body, take and eat.” Nor does he have Jesus say about the cup, “This is the new testament in my blood. As often as you drink this, you show forth my death until I come, again.”

John doesn’t record any of those details. What John does is very interesting, however. John’s Gospel was written after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is the latest gospel written, just as the Book of Revelation, also written by John, is the last book written in the New Testament.

What John does is present Jesus and the Supper in a different way. That last encounter with Jesus and the disciples goes on for several chapters. Their last time together included the Passover meal. What Jesus does there, though, is talk about the place he is going to prepare for them in John 14. Then, he talks about the coming of the Spirit in John 15. Then, he prays for their unity in John 17. And in the midst of all that, he washes their feet and talks about servanthood. So John gives us a very different picture of what happens in that Passover meal.

But look back at John 6, where John does several things that are interesting. The sixth chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000. John 6:4 says, “the Jewish Passover feast was near.” I’m convinced that the Gospel writers say things intentionally. I don’t think John just was telling us what day it was on the calendar. I think John connected the feeding of the 5,000 to the Passover meal.

In effect, what Jesus does when he feeds the 5,000 is a Passover meal for common people. He takes the elements that God has provided of the five loaves and the two fish in the little boy’s lunch. Despite the lack of faith of the disciples, and the puzzlement of the 5,000-plus who were gathered there, he breaks the bread and blesses it.

Then, the disciples distributed the bread and fish to the congregation gathered on the hillside. And you know the story: everybody had plenty to eat. Afterward, they gathered up 12 full baskets of leftovers – one basket for every disciple who said he had no idea how to feed that many people.

That is a picture the abundance of the kingdom of God, the provision of God, and the feeding of God’s people by God. It is not explicitly communion, but many biblical scholars believe it prefigures the experience of communion.

The Christian church would understand this idea contained in the feeding of the 5,000 because John was writing later in the first century after the Church was established. They would understand that it was about Jesus being the bread of life, and they would remember that at their own observances of the Lord’s Supper.

Later, in John 6:26, Jesus and the disciples went to the other side of the lake, and the crowd followed him. Jesus answered them in verse 26: “I tell you the truth, you’re looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for that which spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life which the Son of Man will give you, on whom God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

In John 6:32, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who was giving you the bread from heaven which was manna, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. So they said, ‘From now on give us this bread.’ Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life…” You can read the rest of that passage where Jesus said those who eat this bread have eternal life. John takes us to communion by way of the feeding of the 5,000, which in addition to men, included also women and children.

Then, Jesus says in John 6, “Unless you eat this bread and drink this cup you have no life in you.” That is a very important symbolic act.

Communion Changes Over the Centuries

By the second century in the New Testament church, however, communion has become something very different. It has become what one of the theologians will call “the medicine of immortality.” The elements are transformed from being symbolic to being supernatural. They are believed to really become the body of Christ and the blood of Christ. Roman Catholic theologians call this transformation of the bread and wine, transubstantiation — a kind of a mystical alchemy. They believed that even though the elements still appeared to be bread and wine, but they were supernaturally transformed into the real body and blood of Christ.

From that change the church decides that it must limit those who can take the body and blood of Christ. Church services where communion is offered become exclusive. The priests eliminate those who are not fit to receive communion, whether they are Christians or not. Those who have violated church law in the judgment of the priest, are banned from the communion rail.

Eventually communion is restricted even further to the point where the priest alone takes the wine and distributes to the worshippers only the bread. That is done to avoid accidentally spilling the blood of Christ.

Now back to us Baptists. Baptists, after the Reformation, took a different tack. Baptists decided that in addition to the reforms the reformers brought, that only believers could be members of a church. Baptist further believed that each church was separate and independent. So Baptists believed that once a person was baptized, then that person could take communion. But every Baptist church was an entity unto itself and was not answerable to any other church. That’s where the idea of closed communion came from. Communion was closed because each Baptist church believed that you should only take communion with your own congregation. They literally would close the doors of the church to keep out anyone, including other Christians, who were not members of that particular congregation.

In the 20th century, some Southern Baptist churches continued to practice closed communion, but most moved toward open communion. In open communion, anyone who was a baptized believer, whether from that church or not, could receive communion. Ultimately, many churches like ours, invited all to the Lord’s Table. That’s a very brief history of communion.

Children and Communion

So then, what should be said about children and communion? There is ample evidence in the history of the ancient Church that children participated in communion. Saint Augustine said of babies, “They are infants, but they are His members. They are infants, but they receive the sacraments. They are infants, but they can become participants at His table so they may have life in themselves.”

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, infants have long received communion. And Pope Innocent I said that little children should be given the Lord’s Supper. He even tells them how to do it: “in a liquid form of the Lord’s blood or in the form of bread crumbled and mixed with water.” (These historic examples are from the book, Take Eat, Take Drink: The Lord’s Supper Through the Centuries by Ernest Bartels.)

That sounds very different to us because Baptists have said historically that only those who have been baptized should receive Communion. That, of course, usually excluded our youngest children.

However, I think there are a couple of things we need to remember about communion. First of all, it is meant for community. We talked about the manna that Jesus referred to from the Old Testament. That was God’s gift to the whole community of Israel. Secondly, the feeding of the 5,000 included men, women, and children. I’m sure they fed the boys and girls because the lunch came from a little boy.

After Pentecost, when the early church met together there were no nurseries or preschool departments. I’m sure their children were with them when they “broke bread.” Many scholars believe that “breaking bread” meant sharing communion. I believe, although I can’t prove it, that because children were considered part of the family of faith they shared in communion. If households converted together, like the Philippian jailer’s household, I believe they took communion together.

In Conclusion

In closing, there are three things I want you to remember about communion. First, it is a community experience. While it has meaning if taken individually, it is primarily an experience for the church gathered together.

Secondly, communion is supposed to focus on Jesus, not only whether the elements become something or not. The focus is on the elements as representative of the life and death of Jesus Christ.

Third, I think the intention is to include rather than exclude people. Two things lead me to that conclusion. First, Jesus’ practice of table fellowship when he ministered was inclusive.

Communion originates directly from table fellowship at the Passover. But in Jesus’s earthly ministry, he was accused by the religious leaders of his day of having table fellowship with those who were unrighteous and unclean. Jesus ate with the sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, and the outcasts of society. His table was open to everyone.

The second reason is Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about children. At one point, parents brought their little children to Jesus to have him bless them. The disciples were trying to keep them away because they thought Jesus was too busy for children. But Jesus set the disciples straight, and I think there is no getting around Jesus’ attitude toward children. He said, “Allow the little children to come to me, and do not stop them, because of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)

So, where does that leave us? I think that leaves us right back where we started earlier. I think we ought to celebrate communion as an entire church. So the boys and girls are going to join us after the choir sings in just a moment. I believe it is up to your family, not to a tradition, which may or may not — depending on how you read Scripture — have a biblical basis.

I see the table of Christ as inclusive, not as exclusive. Boys and girls may not understand everything we are doing. But, by inviting them to that celebration, they feel included. And, they grow up knowing that they are a part of God’s family, the community of faith.

If that is not what you believe, that’s fine. That’s why I want to leave it to the families of our children to decide whether or not they want their children to participate. I am not going to keep a child from taking the bread or the cup. But, you as parents may have very good reasons for wanting your children to wait. That is a question that I think we must experiment with and try out together.

So, today this is an experiment. If you have strong feelings about this, please talk to me later. But we’re inviting our children to join us today. And during this service, parents, that will be your decision as a family as to how your children participate. They will be in here participating with us, but it will be your decision as to how they will participate.

Let’s pray together.

Podcast: “You Should All Eat Together”

The Apostle Paul criticized the church in Corinth for the manner in which they observed communion. Last Sunday, I preached from Paul’s letter by reading I Corinthians 11:17-34 in which he accuses the Corinthians of failing to be aware of the body of Christ around them while they took communion. In this sermon, I also address the issue of children taking communion. How does your church practice communion, and what are the theological and historical assumptions behind your tradition? Here’s the sermon —

Easter Sermon: Thinking About The Resurrection

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow at my church. In it I reflect on the illness that has put me in the hospital for the last three weeks. But I also reflect on the resurrection, and how the resurrection itself makes possible Kingdom actions today.

Thinking About The Resurrection

John 20:1-18 NIV

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18 NIV)

An Unexpected Lenten Journey

To say that the past five weeks have been unexpected is an understatement. On February 21, I went to my primary care physician with what I thought then were a couple of minor complaints for someone who is my age. Along with those issues, I also remarked that my legs were aching and burning, like when you have the flu, except the discomfort was just in my legs not my whole body. Both the doctor and I thought this was a minor issue which might be corrected with a little physical therapy if the symptoms did not disappear.

Well, they didn’t. As a matter of fact they grew worse. On Monday, February 25, I made the first of what were to be three trips to a hospital emergency room. Because I showed no signs of heart problems or stroke, the emergency room physicians all sent me home to follow-up with my primary care doctor, and they suggested that I see a neurologist.

By March 7, which was my first appointment with a neurologist, I was experiencing increasing pain and difficulty walking, so much so that I had begun using a cane. To add insult to injury, during the two weeks from February 25 until I was hospitalized on March 9, I was not sleeping. At first I was able to sleep 3 or 4 hours per night, but this gradually decreased to my complete inability to sleep at all on the Friday night before I was admitted to Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro on Saturday night, March 9.

During the week I was at Moses Cone Hospital, doctors ordered several MRIs, CT scans, blood tests, and a spinal tap. In the meantime, my symptoms grew worse, and I was losing the ability to walk. All of that was a very uncertain time, as you might imagine it would be.

By Friday, March 15, with the encouragement of friends and the help of my neurologist, I was transferred to Duke University Hospital. At Duke, doctors performed additional tests including a muscle and nerve study, and a PET scan. The muscle and nerve test indicated that the sheath around my nerves — called myelin — was being attacked, probably by my own body. The PET scan revealed several lymph nodes that “lit up” more than they should have, according to the doctors.

I began a regimen of plasma pheresis treatments. In those treatments they draw all your blood out of one arm, remove the plasma which contains the antibodies that might be attacking my nerves, and then return the freshly laundered blood to my body through the other arm.

Thinking About The Resurrection

During all of this time, neither Debbie nor I were afraid or distressed. Both of us seemed to be at peace with whatever was happening, and both of us had faith in God to do the right thing. Your prayers sustained us and your love gave us strength.

But I never thought “Why me?” because I was in a hospital full of people sicker than I was. I do not believe in a capricious God who metes out suffering randomly just to see how people react.

I also did not ask, “What is God trying to teach me?” because, while I did learn some things in the hospital, I do not believe in a God who teaches us by inflicting pain and suffering on us. As a father, I tried to teach my children a lot of things, but I never hurt them in order to teach them a lesson. I don’t believe God does that either.

I do believe that all things work together for good to those who love God and live according to his purpose, but that’s a far cry from believing that God is the author of suffering and pain.

Actually, here’s what happened. One day in the first week of my stay at Duke, Debbie had gone home to get a good night’s sleep, and to get some things we needed. Alone in my room, after the doctors had told me that the PET scan showed some possible cancer sites, I was just sitting and thinking about my illness.

Without focusing on anything particularly spiritual, the word “resurrection” popped into my head. I thought about it for a moment, and then I realized “That’s it!” This journey I’m on is about the resurrection.

Let me explain.

Jesus Announces and Demonstrates The Kingdom of God

Often when we gather on Easter Sunday, we think about the resurrection as making it possible for us to go to heaven when we die. That certainly is true. But what about the resurrection in everyday life? Does the resurrection of Jesus Christ have anything to say to us in times of illness, sadness, joy, or celebration? I think it does, so follow me as I explain why.

First, Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The time has come,” he said.  “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV)

Now the kingdom of God isn’t heaven. The kingdom of God contains the promise of heaven, but it contains so much more. The kingdom of God is generally thought to be the unhindered rule and reign of God, when things are as they should be. That’s why the reading in the Old Testament for today says this in Isaiah 65:17-25 (NIV) —

17 “See, I will create

   new heavens and a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered,

   nor will they come to mind.

18 But be glad and rejoice forever

   in what I will create,

for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight

   and its people a joy.

19 I will rejoice over Jerusalem

   and take delight in my people;

the sound of weeping and of crying

   will be heard in it no more.

20 “Never again will there be in it

   an infant who lives but a few days,

   or an old man who does not live out his years;

the one who dies at a hundred

   will be thought a mere child;

the one who fails to reach[a] a hundred

   will be considered accursed.

21 They will build houses and dwell in them;

   they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

22 No longer will they build houses and others live in them,

   or plant and others eat.

For as the days of a tree,

   so will be the days of my people;

my chosen ones will long enjoy

   the work of their hands.

23 They will not labor in vain,

   nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;

for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,

   they and their descendants with them.

24 Before they call I will answer;

   while they are still speaking I will hear.

25 The wolf and the lamb will feed together,

   and the lion will eat straw like the ox,

   and dust will be the serpent’s food.

They will neither harm nor destroy

   on all my holy mountain,”

says the Lord.

This was the prophecy of the prophet Isaiah. His message was directed to the Jews who would return to the land of Judah after the Babylonian captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem. But it wasn’t just to them, because while God might make Jerusalem a delight and the people a joy again, the new heavens and new earth, the wolf and the lamb eating together, the lion eating straw like the ox, and the absence of harm or destruction of any kind would have to wait for another day.

Jesus came announcing that God’s plan to put everything right was being implemented with his presence. Remember that John says “They (the disciples) still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.” (John 20:9 NIV)

It is the resurrection, with its defeat of death, that becomes the foundational event making possible the new heavens and the new earth, the wolf and lamb eating together, and the lion eating straw like the ox. Let me explain.

Jesus not only announces the kingdom of heaven, he demonstrates what life will be like in that kingdom. So, how does he do that?

Jesus demonstrates what life will be like when God puts all things right by performing miracles. The point of the miracles is to demonstrate that in the kingdom of God everything is as it should be. That means that no one is hungry, so Jesus feeds people. He feeds 5,000 at one time, 4,000 at another. But a miracle that we overlook sometimes is the miracle of his sharing table fellowship with tax collectors, prostitutes, and others of ill-repute in that day. Why does he do that? Because in the kingdom of God all are welcome to God’s banquet.

Jesus also demonstrates that in the kingdom of God there will be no more “death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4 NIV)

So, Jesus heals people. Let’s talk about healing people. In various places the New Testament tells us that Jesus healed everyone who came to him. And because of his healing power, vast crowds flocked to Jesus.

The sick came to Jesus because in the first century if you were lame or blind or had a skin disease, you were an outcast. You were reduced to begging for food, or anything to keep you alive. Your family abandoned you, your friends avoided you, and there was no hope because the practice of medicine, if it existed, often did more harm than good to the sufferer.

But in the kingdom of God, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and lepers are made clean. There are no diseases in heaven, because the Great Physician heals that which has gone wrong.

The Resurrection Makes Kingdom Life Possible

Okay, let me tie all this together for you. So, if Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, and then demonstrated what it would be like by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and raising the dead, then how does that affect our daily lives now?

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead makes all of that possible and more. The resurrection is the pivotal event in which God exalts Jesus, and makes possible kingdom events then and now.

In the resurrection, God demonstrates his power over sin, death, and the grave. God forgives sin because Jesus has given his life to put God’s people right. God has power over death and demonstrates it by raising Jesus. God’s power over the grave means that not only are the dead promised eternal life, but those who mourn shall be comforted.

The resurrection of Jesus, Paul says, is the “first fruit” of God’s kingdom. The indwelling Spirit of God is the down payment, assuring us that God is going to make good on his promise.

So, as I was thinking about the resurrection and my illness, I realized that the hospital I was in, the doctors and nurses who cared for me, the healing that was done, was all a direct result of the resurrection of Christ. Healing is kingdom work, and any who do it are participating in the work of God in this world.

In Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV) Jesus details what those who are welcomed into the kingdom of God will be doing;

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

In other words, those who feed the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, befriend the stranger, clothe those in need, care for the sick, and visit those in prison are doing the work of the kingdom of God. It is to those Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. We do not create the kingdom of God by what we do, nor do we ourselves bring in that kingdom. That is God’s doing. But we can pray that God’s “will would be done on earth as it is in heaven” and we can actually do the work of the kingdom of God because the resurrection of Jesus Christ has made that possible.

Paul sums up the significance of the resurrection this way:

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26 NIV)

On this Easter Sunday, I want you to know that the resurrection of Christ has opened the door for the kingdom of God to be demonstrated, and one day fully realized. But until then, those who do what Jesus did — who feed the hungry, who care for the homeless, who heal the sick, who reach out to the stranger, who minister to those in prison, who seek justice for the most vulnerable in our society and care for them — those people are demonstrating the values and the vitality of the kingdom of God here today, whether they know it or not.

The resurrection does matter. It matters to us when we approach the door of death, and it matters to us each day of our lives. Where there is healing, God’s kingdom is present. Where there is care for the hungry, the needy, the outcast, God’s kingdom is present. The resurrection matters because it is our guarantee of God’s power, presence, and providential care — now and all the days of our lives.

So, I’m not afraid of this illness I have. I’m not angry because I can’t walk like I used to. I’m not fretting that parts of my body are numb. I’m not questioning why this happened. And I’m not anxious about the future, because I know that the God who can raise the dead is a God who can do all things. Amen.

Sermon: I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body

I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body
I Corinthians 15:35-44

35But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.  — I Corinthians 15:35-44

Do We Believe in The Resurrection of the Body?

We have now come to the next to last affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed — I believe in the resurrection of the body.  But, do we?  Or do we really believe in something else altogether?  And, is it necessary to believe in the resurrection of the body because don’t we go to heaven when we die anyway?  And, what about those whose bodies are lost or destroyed in fire or battle or a horrendous accident?  Will they rise on the last day too?

Who knew that so few words could create such controversy and uncertainty.

Let’s begin to sort out what the Bible says about this business of the resurrection of the body and why that’s important to us.

Our God is a Flesh-and-Bones God

From the very beginning of Christianity, even during the ministry of Jesus, there was the tendency to spiritualize everything.  Here’s an example — when Jesus meets the woman at the well and begins to talk with her, she attempts to change the subject to an old conflict over where one should worship.  She was trying to shift the conversation from the reality of her own life, to the less-real, more spiritual conversation about an esoteric idea of worship.

We encounter the same problem when it comes to talk about living and dying, and eternity.  We had much rather spiritualize this conversation because we find it hard to do otherwise.

We comfort ourselves during our grief at funerals by saying that the body that lies in the casket is not the person we knew.  It’s only the physical shell and their spirit, their soul, has gone to be with God.  That is true, and Paul said,

We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. – 2 Cor 5:8

So, there is the sense in which we are right.  If we are absent from this body, we are indeed present with the Lord.  But, our presence with God is not at that time the presence of a disembodied spirit.  We have a spiritual body immediately upon death.

The story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus — not the Lazarus he raised from the grave who was the brother of Mary and Martha, but the Lazarus who suffered at the hands of a rich man called Dives for many years.

They both die, and Lazarus goes to God, but Dives goes into the underword where he is in great torment.  Apparently, Dives can see beyond the divide, and can recognize Lazarus, and Dives himself can be recognized.  Both Lazarus and Dives have recognizable, distinguishing features very much like they had while alive in their physical bodies.

In Hebrews 12, Paul follows his great chapter on faith where he names Abraham, Isaac, and a host of others, by beginning chapter 12 this way —

1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

The picture is of a racetrack with the stands filled with spectators, like the Roman arenas and our modern track and field stadiums.  A great cloud of witnesses, not disembodied spirits, is looking on and cheering us as we run our race.  These witnesses have names and faces, and they are recognizable and known by God and others.

Finally, we do not know about the body of Jesus between the time of his death and resurrection for our encounter comes at he bursts forth from the tomb.  But he is recognizable in his resurrected body — he looks like he did, and yet there is something different about him.  He cautions Mary not to touch him because he has not yet ascended to the Father.  He can pass through locked doors, and also offer Thomas the opportunity to touch his pierced hands and side.  He is real, corporeal, and recognizable, yet different at the same time.

So, our first lesson is that God is a flesh-and-bones God.  He created us from the dust of the ground and it is to that dust that our physical bodies shall return.  But, we then receive a spiritual body with correspondence to our previous physical body, but changed in ways we do not understand.

Why A Body At All?

Paul, as were the other apostles, was fighting a philosopy called gnosticism.  Gnosticism, among other things, said that the material world was evil, corrupt, and irrelevant.  All that mattered was the spiritual.

So, if all material things are evil and irrelevant, then the body is included in that list.  And, if the body is irrelevant, then it doesn’t matter what you do in or with your body. So, you can live it up, sin to your heart’s content, because the body is going away and we’re all going to become super-enlightened disembodied spirits.

Gnosticism also said that Jesus was not from the beginning God, but that the spirit of the Christ — the messiah — came upon him at his baptism, and left him before his physical death.  Gnostics denied the role of the body.

But the point of the resurrection is to defeat sin, death, and the grave.  And, to do that, you must have a body that crosses over the threshold of death, enters that dark door, but then returns in greater power, strength, and presence than before.

In other words, for God to prove that God has defeated death, he has to have a body to show for it.  So, Jesus is raised from the dead to do two things —

  1. To prove that he is indeed the Messiah;
  2. To demonstrate that death is a defeated foe.

That’s why we celebrate the resurrection of Christ.  Because the resurrection, not the cross, proves that God has defeated death.  In the cross God sacrifices to himself his son Jesus in payment for our sin.  In doing so, God could have stopped right there.  God does what he had asked Abraham to do — God gives his only Son as a sacrifice to himself.

To forgive our sins, God could have stopped there.  But forgiveness of sin was not all that God was up to on that day Jesus died.  Sin was settled, but death still roamed the earth.  Death which entered the world with the sin of Adam and Eve.  Death which was the scourge of mankind.  Death which shattered dreams, took loved ones, cut down the young, and stalked the old — death still had the last word.

But, as some preacher said, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”

On Friday, sin has been given a pink slip.  Sin has been dismissed as the great guilt-inducer.  Sin has been neutralized as man’s most persistent foe.  For there is now permanent, lasting, forever forgiveness.  Hebrews 1 says:

1In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

“After he provided purification for sins, he sat down…”  The high priest only sat down when his work was done.  The high priest only sat down after the sacrifice was made.  The high priest only sat down after the blood of the sacrificial lamb had been sprinkled on the mercy seat.  The high priest only sat down when sin was done for another year.

But, Jesus sits down once and for all because the sin problem is done, settled, paid for, over with, canceled, no longer able to beat us.

But, death is another story.

Death rears its ugly head, prances over the cosmos, and defies anyone to stop it from doing its destructive work.  Death is still loose. His running buddy Sin is no longer at his side, but Death is on the move.

One might imagine that sometime late Saturday night, Death marches into the throne room of God, and says, “You may have solved the problem of Sin, but you can’t stop me.  Jesus may have paid the penalty for all sin for all time, but it cost him his life.  Come with me, I can show you the body.”

And so Death and God go to that garden tomb where Jesus body is laid.  And Death points to the seal placed on the tomb by the empire; Death points to the sleeping Roman soldiers posted by Pilate; Death pounds the stone sealing the grave, a stone that a single man can’t move; and, Death stands back to admire his handiwork.  And Death says, “That tomb contains the body of Jesus.  I put it there, I’m keeping it there, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

But Sunday’s coming.  And without a word to Death, God does what he has always done — God gives life.

Somehow, in ways too mysterious for our own understanding, Jesus was raised from the grip of Death.  Raised to new life with a new body.  Jesus who had given up his life willingly on the cross was vindicated by God.  God’s vindication, God’s “Amen” to Jesus’ sacrifice, was new life.

And so the ground trembles, the angels rush from heaven to earth, the stone rolls, the death clothes no longer cling to the corpse for Jesus lives.  He is alive.

He who walked willingly through the door of Death, now walks back again.  No one had ever done that because Death would not allow it.  No one had ever done that because Sin barred the way.  No one had ever returned from the grave, untouched by decay, to live forever.  No one.  Until Jesus.

That’s why the resurrection of the body is so important.  That’s why Jesus had to rise again.  That’s why we believe in the resurrection because we know that we live now, we live beyond the door of death, we live in eternity, we will return with Christ, we will live in the presence of God on the new earth, in the new Jerusalem, beside the River of Life, shaded by the Tree of Life, where there will be no more tears, and Death will be finally and forever defeated.

We believe in the resurrection of the body because we believe in the God who gives life.  So, those who have died before us will rise.  Those whose physical bodies have been destroyed will rise.  Those whose earthy bodies have been lost will rise.  And we will know,  Paul says, even as we are known.

As C. S. Lewis says — we will all have faces and the God who called us by name here on this earth, will call us by name again.  I believe in the resurrection of the body.  Amen.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Crucifixion: Everything you wanted to know and more

If you think you know everything you need to about crucifixion and the cross, think again.  I’m preaching a 13-week series on The Apostles’ Creed, and this past Sunday we arrived at the phrase about Jesus —

“suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…”

So, of course, my sermon was on the crucifixion, and I used the text of I Corinthians 2:1-2, where Paul says when he arrived in Corinth he was determined to “know nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Which is a very strange statement when you really think about it, which I did.

Thinking about the crucifxion and the cross led me to Martin Hengel’s small book titled, Crucifixion In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Which is an incredibly long title for such a short book of 90 pages.  But Hengel, who died this year, packs more than you’d ever want to know about crucifixion and its significance into this brief work.  Hengel was Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Tübingen, and specialized in second-temple Judaism.

He traces the use of crucifixion from its invention by the Persians to its adoption by the Romans, who continued to describe it as barbaric.  Roman literature considered the mention of this form of execution as too coarse for public sensibilities, and little was preserved in the more refined works of Graeco-Roman authors.

When crucifixion is mentioned in ancient references, the descriptions are more horrific than even the depiction in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, which was rated R because of the brutally violent acts shown.  Did you know, for instance, that….

  • Dead people, as well as the living, could be crucified?
  • Crucifixion was one of three forms of capital punishment preferred by the Roman empire.  The other two were burning and being torn apart by wild animals.  Sometimes crucifixion was combined with one or both of the other methods.
  • The largest number of crucifixions known at one time was over 500.
  • Bodies were often left on the crosses to decompose and be consumed by wild animals and vultures.
  • Jews were “scandalized” by the cross and crucifixions because of Deuteronomy 21 — anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God.
  • However, some in Judea liked the Roman system of justice because common robbers were crucified, and roving bands of robbers were a problem for rural Judeans.
  • Early Christians were ridiculed for following a common criminal who had met his death by being stripped naked and hung on a cross.
  • To wish someone a “cross” was to insult and curse them.
  • Crucifixion was reserved for common criminals, and slaves who had attempted escape.  The execution of slaves takes on new meaning when you read Philippians 2:5-11, where Jesus is said to have taken on the form of a “servant” which usually mean a slave.

Okay, enough of that or I’ll have all 90 pages summarized right here.  But the most enlightening chapter, which is also the last, was Hengel’s explanation of the Jews inability to believe Jesus was the Messiah.  Add this book to your reference library.  Disclaimer: You can get yours the way I got mine — buy it for yourself.

Sermon: I Believe in Jesus Christ and Him Crucified

Why We Need The Apostles’ Creed:
I Believe In Jesus Christ and Him Crucified

I Corinthians 2:1-2

1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The Cross in Today’s World

We have come today to the third statement out of six about Jesus in the Apostles’ Creed.  Here’s what we have affirmed so far:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
the Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,

And today we sum up our belief in the passion of the Christ — his suffering, crucifxion, death, burial, and descent into hell during the three days his body was in the grave.  We believe in Jesus Christ, who…

suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;

He descended into hell.

You may remember Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of The Christ, which hit movie theaters in 2004.  Because of the controversial nature of the film, Gibson distributed it himself, turning a $30-million investment into the highest grossing English language film ever, and the most profitable R-rated film in the United States.  The movie was rated R for its horrific and graphic violence, done mostly to the character of Jesus himself.

But despite the film’s success in America, Christians in the United States have a very different view of the cross of Jesus Christ.  We wear delicate crosses made of precious gold and silver around our necks, and dangling from our ears.  Hip hop artists wear gigantic caricatures of the cross dangling from outlandish chains, and pop artists like Madonna use the cross as a background prop in their music videos.

The cross itself has become the international symbol of the Christian religion, and of the humanitarian organization, The Red Cross.  It is an iconic symbol, but for much of the Christian community, the cross is strangely absent in our worship, devotion, or Bible study.  Seeker-sensitive churches intentionally leave all the signs and symbols of Christianity, which might be confusing to non-Christians, out of their buildings, including the cross.

As those who came from the Radical Reformer stream of the Protestant Reformation, we Baptists were offended by the crucifixes of our Roman Catholic friends, which graphically depict the Christ in agony on the cross.  Our theological position is that Christ is no longer on the cross, but is risen; therefore, Jesus should not be depicted as the suffering Christ, but as the risen Christ.

So opposed were the radical reformers to the crucifix, and the statuary and iconography of Roman and Orthodox churches, that they banned all images and statues of religious figures, including Jesus, as a form of idol worship.  Church buildings were constructed simply, and called meeting houses, to avoid the confusion with the Catholic church buildings from which they were separating themselves.

Rather than a high altar with a crucifix above it, the pulpit took center stage in the meeting houses of these radical reformers. Catholic churches were constructed with a center aisle so that worshippers entering the sanctuary could have an unobstructed view of the altar and the crucified Christ hanging above or behind it.  Baptist meeting houses were intentionally constructed without a center aisle, in contrast to the Roman Catholic church buildings.  Even in our architecture, our theology finds physical expression in the ways we configure and appoint our spaces for worship.

What About The Cross in the New Testament Church?

Paul explains his time with the fledgling church at Corinth in this way —

1When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Why did Paul make a statement like this — “…to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Why not Jesus Christ and his miracles?  Surely Paul would want to tell these non-Jewish believers about the miracles of Christ.

Why not Jesus Christ and his ethical teaching?  In the brutal world of the Roman empire, where power dominated, and military power held an iron grip on the civilized world, why not tell the Corinthians about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and loving your neighbor as yourself?

Why not Jesus Christ and him risen?  The resurrection is the hinge-pin of the story of Jesus, for if we leave Jesus on the cross or in the tomb, his story becomes the sad story of another failed revolutionary, a Don Quixote figure tilting at the windmills of the Roman empire’s strength.

But Paul says, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

Leon Morris, in his massive volume titled, The Cross in the New Testament, begins his introduction with these words:

“This is principally a book about the cross, since in the New Testament salvation centres [sic] on the cross.”  He goes on to say, “The atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith.  Unless we are right here it matters little, or so it seems to me, what we are like elsewhere.”

The gospel writers are not in agreement on all the details of the life of Christ.  Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that describe the conception and birth of Jesus.  So, even the event in the Apostles’ Creed that we examined last week — “conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary” — is not included in two out of four of the Gospel accounts.

The gospel writers include different miracles, different parables, and different events in the life of Jesus.  Even those dramatic times of healing, feeding the five thousand, raising the dead, and walking on water are not included in all four of the Gospel accounts.

But when it comes to the cross, each of the Gospels includes the story of the cross and the crucifxion of Jesus.

Why did the apostles consider the cross central to the story of Jesus, and why are we so ambivalent about the cross today?

The History of the Cross

Why is it then, that in our 21st century sophistication, we’re so uncomfortable with the cross?  I grew up singing hymns like The Old Rugged Cross, At the Cross, Lead Me To Calvary, Power in the Blood, Nothing But The Blood of Jesus, and Are You Washed in the Blood, and other old-time hymns which reminded the singers of the cross, and the shed blood of Christ. But, today’s praise songs seldom refer to the cross or its result, the bruised body and shed blood of Jesus.  We sing about he awesome God, the glory of God, the wonder of God, the friendship of Jesus, and the majesty of heaven — anything but the cross and the blood.  The history and setting of the punishment known as crucifixion will help us understand some of the difficulty we have with it.

Paul introduced the centrality of the cross in the first chapter of I Corinthians with these words —

22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.  — I Cor 22-25 NIV

Corinth was an outpost of the Roman empire.  It was an immoral, corrupt city even by the standards of the first century.  The reputation of Corinth was so bad, that to be called a “Corinthian” was to be insulted and slandered.  Corinth was home to the temple of Aphrodite, where over 1,000 temple prostitutes performed the rituals of the temple.  It was a wild and wooly town, but Paul visits there, Aquila and Priscilla, and plants a church.

Upon Paul’s departure, the Corinthians quickly stray both theologically and morally.  We know more about worship in the Corinthian church than any other church in the New Testament because the Corinthians were doing just about everything wrong in worship that they could do.  They were trying to out-do one another in the practice of their spiritual gifts — speaking in tongues, interrupting each other with prophecies, shouting out words of supernatural knowledge, and letting worship degenerate into a frenzy of one-upmanship.  Even when taking the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthians turned communion into a drunken, gluttonous affair.  The well-to-do brought their own food, which they refused to share with those who had none.  In short, they were a train wreck of a church.

Paul’s letter calls them back to the center, and he reminds them that when he came to Corinth, he preached the cross of Christ.  That was his central message.

If they were such an immoral people, why not the ethical teaching of Jesus?  The Corinthians knew the great philosophers.  They knew the arguments for a kind of detached morality, even in the midst of their immorality.  They lived in the shadow of one of the great temples of the civilized world, the temple to Aphrodite.  A simple appeal to “live better” would have been totally lost on them.

But, if they wouldn’t listen to the call to live life according to God’s instruction found in the Ten Commandments and in the teaching of Jesus, what about the miracles of Jesus?  Surely, they would be impressed with those?  But Roman culture had its own mystical experiences.  The oracles, mystical figures who seemed to speak the words of the gods themselves, were located throughout the Roman world.  The most famous was the oracle at Delphi, but others existed as well.  Demon-possession, magic, the dark arts, and other forms of the supernatural were as common in the first century as they are in our world today.  Just as Pharaoh’s sorcerers and wisemen counterfeited the miraculous staff of Aaron with their own, the magicians and pagan practicioners of the first century also practiced the equivalent of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Ecstatic speech, foretelling the future, speaking as the voice of a god, healing, and other dark practices were well-known in the ancient world.

But the cross of Christ was the center for the Corinthian church, and for the Christian faith Paul knew.  Why?  And why did Paul refer to the cross as foolishness, and in another passage as a stumbling block or scandal to the Jews?

From the Roman perspective, crucifixion as capital punishment was borrowed from the Persians and others.  Crucifixion was reserved for criminals, rebels, slaves and the lower-class.  Seldom were Roman citizens or the upperclass foreigners executed by crucifxion.  Slaves and robbers particularly were crucified as a deterrent to those who might either try to escape their masters, or steal from others.

Crucifixion was gruesome business.  It was one of three methods of capital punishment used in the empire.  Crucifixion, being torn to death by wild beasts, and burning were the three methods of capital punishments.  Being torn by wild beasts required a public festival and an arena, so that was more difficult and involved.   But anyone could be crucified at anytime, and in a variety of methods.

Sometimes the stake was a single straight piece of wood.  At other times, cross pieces were used either in the form of a “T” with the crosspiece on top, or in the form most familiar to us — two pieces of wood that intersected with space above the victim’s head for some type of placard identifying his or her crime.  Limbs were either lashed to the cross, or fastened with nails.  Flogging and torture most often preceded the actual crucifxion, and the condemned was required to carry his cross, if able, to the public place of execution.

Public humiliation was as much as part of the punishment as was the victim’s actual death.  Stripped totally naked, the nude body was beaten, nailed to the cross, and lifted up for all to see as they passed by.  Jeers and taunts would greet those who had been robbers particularly, because the rural Judeans were often victimized by roving bands of robbers and criminals.

Bodies were often left on crosses to decompose, or be picked apart by wild animals and birds of prey.  The denial of burial was a further humiliation, particularly to the Jews.

As if all of that were not enough, the Jews had a special aversion to crucifxion and wooden crosses because of Deuteronomy 21 —

22 If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, 23 you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

The Jews had a special aversion to crucifixion and crosses because they equated it with the Old Testament curse of being hung on a tree.  So, the offense of the cross, the scandal of the cross, the revulsion of the cross is that the Jews could not imagine that the Messiah of God, the Anointed One, would ever be hung on a tree. How could he, for anyone hung on a tree was cursed by God.  It becomes impossible for Jews to reconcile Jesus’ manner of death with his claim to Messiahship.

What of the Cross For Us Today?

But we are just as scandalized by the cross, just as offended by the gore, the brutality, the blood, and the stench.  Just as offended by the nakedness of Jesus, the taunts of the bystanders, the ridicule of the placard over Jesus head saying, “This is the King of the Jews.”  Like passing a bad car wreck on the highway, we don’t like the cross, and we turn our eyes from it as quickly as we can, and move on to other more pleasant aspects of our faith.

I have done that myself because the cross and Jesus’ death on it seems so barbaric, so crude, so primitive, and so messy.  My sensibilities are offended, and my sophistication and education rail against this as the central story of Jesus.  I like the Sermon on the Mount, or the feeding of the 5,000, or the raising of Lazarus, or even the resurrection of Christ himself as the central story of our faith.  But, none of those are, nor can they be.

We do not follow just an ethical teacher who gave us startling instructions on how we are to treat our neighbors.  We do not follow a mystic who could somehow gather the forces of the unseen world to make blind eyes sees, lame legs walk, and diseased bodies whole.  We do not follow a rebel, or an insurrectonist, as some would have us believe, who only sought to overthrow the unjust systems of society.

No, we follow the crucified Son of God.  And, Jesus himself was well-aware of the horror, the humiliation, and the inhumanity of the cross.  And yet, all the gospel writers tell us that at the end of his ministry, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, not for the praise of Palm Sunday, but for his death on the cross.

Mythology is full of stories of gods who were punished. Prometheus was nailed between two rocks in the ancient fable of the anger of Zeus. But Prometheus was freed and resumed his place in the pantheon of Roman gods.  Even in the popular literature of the day, the equivalent of our pulp novels, the hero of the story could be threatened with crucifixion, but just in the nick of time always escaped it.

But in Jesus, we have God who dies.  Jurgen Moltmann calls him “the crucifed God” — a story unlike any that has ever been told in literature or fable.  Gods don’t die, and certainly are not killed by mere mortals.  But in Jesus, God dies.  God provides a sacrifice for Himself of his only Son, who is himself God.  It is an event so radical, so impossible, so unlikely that those who think they know the One, True God best, cannot get past it.

In the cross, Jesus identifies with the slaves caught seeking freedom.  At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus takes the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue of his own hometown, Nazareth.  He unrolls the scroll and reads from Isaiah 61 —

1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners

Freedom for the captives, the slaves, can only be bought with a price.  Release from darkness for the prisoners can only come from the one who holds the keys.  By the way, and we don’t have time to dig deeply into this, the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed —

He descended into hell

is meant to reflect Jesus preaching to the “spirits in prison.”  Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:18 — “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”

Scholars disagree on exactly what that verse means, but I believe it means Jesus did what he said he would do, what he proclaimed his mission to be — to release from darkness those imprisoned, even if they’re imprisoned in world of the dead.  That is what Jesus meant when he said “the gates of hell” will not prevail, will not stand, against the onslaught of the Kingdom of God.

Paul, in my favorite passage about Jesus says —

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

It’s all there in these seven verses —

  • Jesus willingly choosing to set aside all that is rightfully his;
  • Jesus taking the nature of a servant, a slave;
  • Jesus making himself nothing, becoming a human being;
  • Jesus humbling himself in obedience to God:
  • Jesus obedience even extends to his death on a cross — the worst, most heinous death one could die;
  • But Jesus being exalted to the highest place;
  • And Jesus being given a name above all names;
  • That at the name of Jesus every knee bows — every angel knee in heaven, every human knee on earth, every demonic knee in hell — every knee bows regardless of location or previous allegiance;
  • And every tongue belonging to the hosts of heaven, the citizens of earth, and the condemned to hell, confesses that Jesus The Messiah is Lord;
  • And God the Father is glorified.

Mel Gibson, who was both producer and director of The Passion of the Christ, used his own hands in the camera close-up of the Roman centurion nailing Jesus to the cross.  Gibson did that he said, because, “It was me that put Him on the cross. It was my sins [that put Jesus there].” — Wikipedia

But that’s not right.  Our sins did not put Jesus on the cross.  He put himself there.  He walked straight to Jerusalem knowing the death that awaited him.  He put himself on the cross to die for us, for the world, and for God’s creation.  He put himself on the cross to say to the slaves both living and dead, “I know your suffering, I endured your pain, I took your place.”

He put himself on the cross to suffer for us, to share our sorrow, our despair, our misfortune.  He put himself on the cross as though he were the people of God, the Temple and the sacrifice — as though he were the last hope of a sacrificial system that no longer worked.

He put himself on the cross as the Lamb led to the slaughter, as the scapegoat, as the fulfillment and final chapter in the broken religious imagination of God’s people.

Jesus put himself on the cross so that we would not be hung there.  He put himself on the cross so that we would not be abandoned by God as he was.  He put himself on the cross as example and embodiment of God’s love.

No, we did not put Jesus on the cross, and neither did the Jews or the Romans.  Jesus put himself there, suffered unspeakable torture, endured the ridicule of Romans and Jews alike, humiliated between two thieves.  His last act of redemption was to save a condemned thief, and ask his Father to forgive those who did not know what they were doing.

We need the cross.  Without it we are doomed.  Without it the incarnation is meaningless.  Without the cross we do not see the love of God, the suffering of God, and the sacrifice of God.  All for us.  All because of our sin.  All because we couldn’t do it for ourselves.  For even our death would not have brought us into fellowship with God, nor paid the penalty for our sin.

We need the cross, the scandal of our intellect, the offense to our sensibilities, the foolishness of preaching.  We need the cross because it stands at the center of Jesus’ story.  If all we know of theology and the Bible is that Jesus died for us on an old rugged cross, then we know enough.

Paul said, “I resolved to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

When a right-wing death squad broke into the living quarters of Jesuit priests in San Salvador in 1989, they killed six priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.  Father Ignacio Ellacuria, rector of the university, was one of the priests killed.  The killers then drug the bodies of their murdered victims back into the house.  As they did so, they bumped into a bookcase, knocking a book to the floor.

When their bodies were found the next morning, lying in a pool of innocent blood was the fallen book — Jurgen Moltmann’s book titled The Crucified God.  Thousands around the world wept for those slain.  And I am sure God must have wept that day, too, for He knew the suffering and death of the cross.