Monday, March 16, 2015

A Suffering Savior?

A Suffering Savior?
1 Corinthians 1:18-25[1]
It seems to me that we like our heroes to be larger than life. There was a time when our heroes had to conform to the stereotype of the knight in shining armor whose integrity was as impeccable as his chivalry. Or a crusader working for justice for the oppressed, who was as strong as she was caring. These days I think we’ve lowered our standards a bit. We don’t seem to mind if our heroes break the law or betray their loved ones as long as they can win the game or show us the money. I suspect that what we’re looking for in our heroes is someone who we can imagine is capable of rising above our mundane and tedious lives. It somehow makes the boredom and the frustration a little easier if we can escape by identifying a “hero.”
I don’t think much has changed about that aspect of human nature over the years—or even over the centuries. There’s a reason why the myths and legends that have inspired the human family—from the ancient world until today—featured men and women with superhuman strength, intelligence, and courage. Above all, they were usually able to face impossible odds and snatch the victory just when all seemed lost. And that’s just the way we like our heroes to be: attractive, courageous, and invincible, whether due to their incredible strength or their massive intellect. At the end of the day what matters is that they always win.
The Jewish people of Jesus’ day were no different. They were looking for a Messiah who would come riding into Jerusalem on a white horse and lead them to throw off the yoke of their Roman oppressors. They even believed at times that their prayers had been answered, and they followed certain charismatic figures and took up arms against the most powerful empire in the world of that time. As you can imagine, the results were predictable. They suffered crushing defeat. The last time they rose up to follow a so-called Messiah into battle against Rome, their country was completely laid waste and they were expelled from their homeland for over 1800 years.
So I think we can imagine some of the challenges the people of that time had when someone like St. Paul came into town. He was proclaiming the good news that God had offered salvation to all people through a man who was executed on a cross. The people of that world were very familiar with the cross as a form of punishment. The Romans used it to great effect to suppress any potential rebellions.[2] So I imagine that when Paul came preaching the “good news” of Jesus the Suffering Savior to them, a good number of them must have thought he was crazy. A Savior isn’t someone who winds up executed by the Romans; a Savior is someone who rides into battle and emerges victorious, like the heroes of old. They must have thought that Paul was sadly confused or had simply lost his mind.
But the Apostle was well aware that his message sounded like foolishness to the people of his day. In our lesson, he puts it this way: “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18). If his words seem to set up a tension between “us” and “them” that we might not find fitting in our day, I think we can excuse Paul. After all, he was greatly outnumbered by people who believed in all sorts of gods and who saw his message as quaint but misguided at best, and at worst confused and delusional. So I think we can understand why his words might have a bit of an edge that we might find misplaced.
But St. Paul also knew by experience that God’s ways are not our ways. He knew by his own efforts that salvation is not something we can achieve by our own strength or something we can figure out by our own intelligence.[3] Paul says it this way: “in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him” (1 Cor. 1:21, TNIV). And yet the good news Paul proclaimed was that God chooses to set things right in this world and in our lives by a message that seems like the ultimate foolishness (1 Cor. 1:21).[4] But what Paul understands that many can’t see is that the suffering love of God poured out on the cross is actually powerful beyond our imagination.[5]
It seems backwards, if we’re really honest with ourselves.[6] We still look to the “winners” in our world as our “heroes.” If you doubt that, just check the numbers of people who are cheering on their favorite teams on any given weekend. Or just compare the hours we spend watching our heroes on TV shows and in movies. I’m a sci-fi fan myself, where the good guys almost always win. I think we demonstrate by our actions that we still want our “heroes” to be attractive, smart, and strong. But the witness of St. Paul, joined with the witness of countless believers throughout the ages, points us in a different direction.
It points us to the apparent contradiction that a Jewish man from an out-of-the-way town who was executed on a Roman cross is the one who procures new life for all humankind.[7] Most of the people of his day thought that message was the ultimate foolishness. If we’re honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that many in our world don’t put much stock in it outside of Sunday mornings. But maybe Lent is the time for us to re-think our “strategies” for success. Maybe this is the time for us to give up all our efforts to save ourselves.[8] Maybe this is the time to recognize that our “heroes” have feet of clay. And legs. And arms. And heads! Maybe now is the time to recognize that there’s only one man who can truly make the difference in our lives. He’s the one who was hanged on a cross, subjected to ridicule, enduring an excruciating death. He’s our Suffering Savior.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/8/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 30-31.
[3] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 28-29. He also quotes from Isaiah 29:14 in 1 Cor. 1:19. In the original context it was a message of judgment against the political and religious leaders of Judah who trusted in their own wisdom by making an alliance with Egypt rather “listening to the word of the prophet and trusting in God.”
[4] Cf. Peter Lampe, “Theological Wisdom and the ‘Word About the Cross’: The Rhetorical Scheme in I Corinthians 1—4,” Interpretation 44 (Apr 1990): 120: “To connect the powerful God with the weakness of the cross, thus to announce the power as weakness and, consequently, the weakness as power (1:18, 24-25) is offensive and foolish in the eyes of the world (1:23).” This has traditionally been framed in terms of a “Theology of the Cross” as opposed to a “Theology of Glory.” Cf. Molly T. Marshall, “Forsaking A Theology Of Glory: I Corinthians 1:18-31,” Ex Auditu 7 (1991): 102: “The theology of glory seeks to know God directly in the obviously divine power and wisdom of glorious Holy Being; it presumes to be capable of perceiving clearly God’s transcendent, majestic reign. The theology of the cross, paradoxically, recognizes God precisely where God has chosen to hide, in suffering and in all that the wisdom of the world considers to be weakness and folly.”
[5] Hays, First Corinthians, 27: “God, however, has revealed in Christ another kind of wisdom that radically subverts the wisdom of this world: God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down”
[6] Cf. William H. Willimon, “Looking Like Fools,” The Christian Century (Mar 10, 1982): 261: “As Paul says, when you hear the gospel not with Sunday-morning ears but with Monday-morning ears, it can sound foolish indeed — tragically foolish or comically foolish, depending upon one's point of view.”  Cf. also John B. Trotti, “1 Corinthians 1:18-31,” Interpretation 45 (Jan 1991): 64-64: “We of the twentieth century, too, resist humiliation and vicarious suffering. We look for justice, righteousness, and peace; and lacking those we wonder if God is truly in charge and if Messiah has really come in any effective way. We, too, ask if this suffering carpenter can avail anything for us.”
[7] Cf. F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 71: “A crucified Messiah was worse than a contradiction in terms; the very idea was an outrageous blasphemy.” Cf. also Trotti, “1 Corinthians 1:18-31,” 64: “To the Jew the very term ‘crucified Messiah’ would be an affront. To be crucified was to fall under a curse (Deut. 21:23 and Gal. 3:13).”
[8] Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 69: “the knowledge of God in the crucified Christ takes seriously the situation of man in pursuit of his own interests, man who in reality is inhuman, because he is under the compulsion of self-justification, dominating self-assertion and illusionary self-deification.” Therefore, he can also say (p. 71), “The knowledge of the cross brings a conflict of interest between God who has become man and man who wishes to become God. It destroys the destruction of man. It alienates alienated man. And in this way it restores the humanity of dehumanized man.”

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