This month’s posts are by Don Carlson, Assistant to the Bishop in the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Pentecost 3B – June 17, 2012
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 – Samuel anoints David and the Spirit falls mightily upon him.
Ezekiel 17:22-24 – I will dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. The high tree will be brought low, and the low high.
Psalm 20 – Some take pride in horses and chariots, but our pride is in the name of the Lord God.
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15 – The righteous shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon. (Ps. 92:11)
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 – We walk by faith and not by sight, at home in the body and away from the Lord.
Mark 4:26-34 – The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which so small, yet grows and provides branches for the birds to make nests.
Artwork: “The Sower”, “The Harvest”, and “Angelus” by Jean Francois Millet.
Sometimes when you get to the end of a story what has come before begins to make sense; and so a jump to Mark 15. It’s not the end of the story; but its close.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
When I read this passage, I am always struck by the request of James and John in Chapter 10: “And Jesus said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking.'” Ah, that’s the rub. Often, with regard to being disciples and communities of faith, we don’t know what we are asking when we ask to go along with Jesus.
Josephus wrote about the siege of Jerusalem and what was done to any that were captured outside the city’s walls while foraging for food….
“[they] were then crucified before the wall of the city. This miserable procedure made Titus greatly to pity them, while they caught every day five hundred Jews; nay, some days they caught more: yet it did not appear to be safe for him to let those that were taken by force go their way, and to set a guard over so many he saw would be to make such as great deal them useless to him. The main reason why he did not forbid that cruelty was this, that he hoped the Jews might perhaps yield at that sight, out of fear lest they might themselves afterwards be liable to the same cruel treatment. So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.” – The Jewish War, Book 5, Chapter 11
As I said last week, Mark wrote “at the end of the world.” With the world coming to an end, of what use is a messiah – a “King of the Jews” – who winds up crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem just like so many others? That was Mark’s question. I think it’s still our question.
Mark’s Gospel has an interesting structure. Along with some teaching and travel narrative, the first 8 chapters are crammed full of examples of Jesus’ power and authority: demons are cast out, people are healed, storms are calmed, crowds are fed, and a girl is raised from the dead. After all that, Jesus asks, “What’s the word on the street? Who do people say that I am?” Peter gives the right answer, “You are the Messiah.” And then Jesus tells them to tell no one. And the rest of the Gospel is about Jesus telling his disciples what’s going to happen to him in Jerusalem: the same thing that happened to thousands outside the walls of Jerusalem. And Jesus teaches them what it will mean to follow a crucified Messiah: “Take up your cross and follow. Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Following a crucified Messiah will be a journey to new life; however, the only way to get to new life is to journey to and through the cross. It will be a journey of backwards Gospel foolishness. As Paul wrote, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” And, as Douglas John Hall wrote in The Cross in Our Context, it will be a journey where: “faith is not sight, hope is not fulfillment, and love is not power.”
Listen! “A sower went out to sow.” Hear! Yes, sometimes it looks like most of it – maybe all of it – is going to yield nothing. Sometimes it looks like it’s all going to die. But it will not. Be faithful, and there will be even a hundredfold.
Listen! “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground…” Hear! It grows. The earth produces all by itself. How? Who knows how it works?
Listen! “The kingdom of God…is like a mustard seed…” Hear! The seed is so small. The mustard tree is so big. How can that happen? It just doesn’t seem plausible or even possible.
I hear them as parables of mystery; the mystery of the kingdom of God. It will happen. It will come to be. It will come in its own time. As Luther wrote in his Small Catechism, “The kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, of itself; but we pray in this petition that it may come unto us also.” And from Isaiah 55,
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
And so we wait. And so we work faithfully while we wait. We know that it’s God’s mysterious work; but we also know that it’s our very human hands that need to be working. Our journey following a crucified Messiah is a mysterious journey to and through the cross. And this has implications for congregations.
When I was looking up the above quote from Hall, I came across another quote; also from The Cross in Our Context.
“At the present time, there are 52 large magnificent Roman Catholic church buildings in Montreal up for sale because they are no longer viable as churches. Even in the face of such physical evidence of the humiliation of Christendom, however, it is hard for churches to entertain alternatives to the Christendom model.
“We are at the beginning of a period in which many things will have to be tried. A few will work; many will not. But the place where the courage to attempt something different begins – something by way of participation in the worldly suffering of God – the place that courage begins is in thinking critically about the theology that has accompanied Christendom and asking for another theology. Not asking for a new strategy, or greater commitment to social programs, or more exciting liturgies, or more sincere spirituality – no, asking for a different theology of what it means to be the church”.
I think the truth is that Christendom (even the Lutheran corner of Christendom, in which I was raised and in which I was ordained in its gathering twilight years) was largely accompanied by a Theology of Glory. There was a lot of talk about the cross; but – as Bonheoffer said – talk is cheap.
What does a “Theology of the Cross” suggest about what it means to be a “cruciform church”? (Hall: “Ecclesia Crucis”) What will congregational life look like when it’s a journey together to and through the cross; a journey into the suffering of the world; following a Messiah that “…came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many?”
How can new life – life in Messiah – come from a journey that seems only to lead to chaos, suffering, and death? It is a mystery. We know not how; as in the theses of the Heidelberg Disputation :
19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor. 1:21-25),
20. he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.
24. Yet that wisdom is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst manner.
Truly, “we walk by faith; and faith is not sight, hope is not fulfillment, and love is not power.”
Songs for the Day: “Aramos nuestros campos”, #680 ELW; “We Plow the Fields and Scatter”, #681 ELW; “Seed That in Earth Is Dying”, #330 ELW; “We Walk by Faith”, #635 ELW; “As the Grains of Wheat”, #465 ELW.
Until next week, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”