SERMON PREACHED AT THE WAIAPU CATHEDRALOF ST JOHN THE EVANGELIST
NAPIER, NEW ZEALAND
THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT
(8th March) 2015
Readings: Exodus 20:1-17
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
There is a form of rather self-serving Christianity that likes to see Paul as the great destroyer of the liberating teachings of Jesus. I think we should have no doubt, and our ancestors in faith had no doubt, that Paul was the great intellectual gift of God to the embryonic Jesus-movement. Paul interpreted Jesus not just as moral teacher but as event in the service of God’s salvation of the world. To the proclaimers of a shape-shifting gospel Paul destroyed the unanchored freedom of Jesus’ wind-blown words. But the kind of freedom that unanchored teaching in the wind provides is the freedom that Glover’s thistledown in the wind provides: transient good feeling followed by rampant thorny chaos.
Paul did what Jesus could not do. He anchored Jesus’ words deep in the events of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. He anchored teaching in event. He did so after nearly two decades of reflection on his own conversion experience and the insight that provided into the relationship between Jesus, Judaism, and the eternal truths of God. He did do not least by realising that whether we cite 10 or 613 commandments backwards, sideways and in our sleep, they will never and can never take us into the heart of God and the salvation God offers. He did so by recognising that the commandments point us on a journey towards God and God’s redeeming, transforming, justice-demanding love, but can never take us there. They are a signpost, not a taxi. He recognized, in opposition to the same sorts of religious hypocrites that Jesus had faced two decades earlier, (and these are not representative of Judaism but of all religious hypocrisy) that the service of God is not a burden but a joy-filled responsibility, and that our access to that joy is available only in relationship to the Creator. He saw that this relationship in turn was available only in and through and by relationship with the one who the Christians were by then proclaiming as Lord.
If we pause for a moment with traditional Judaeo-Christian teaching about God we find that the Creator of the universe is infinite and infinitely good. Less than that is less than God, and while that is a thought-choice we might want to take, it is not the choice of Judaeo-Christian teaching. If we pause for a moment with traditional Jewish relationship to the Commandments we realise that we are not infinitely good, or perhaps even not much good at all. Later, when not writing with quite as much haste as he was experiencing when he wrote to Corinth, Paul would put it eloquently: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
I suggest if we do not believe that applies to us then we know ourselves very poorly indeed. Even if we convince ourselves that we are pretty good people and do not break too many of the ten commandments, we are entrapped in a society that ensures we corporately make idols, worship them, exploit and by our nonchalance or greed murder the poor, covet that which is not ours, engage in the gossiping world that thrives on bearing false witness. By our failure to observe an economic Sabbath, leaving land or boundaries or time fallow symbolically or literally, we trap the earth in cycles of exploitation, creating dust bowls and widening the gap between the richest and the poorest nations and peoples and species of God’s earth. Paul saw that, Paul got that.
Paul saw and got, too, that this vortex to sinfulness in which we are trapped leaves an unbridgeable chasm between us and the perfection that is the Creator God. At this point in much Christian preaching it is traditional to insert images of atonement, of surrender to Jesus, of being washed in redeeming blood. Some of those images are unhelpful in a world in which blood has flowed too often in the name of Christendom’s exploitation of others. But it is babies and bathwater once more: the Cross, which Paul declares in our Corinthians reading was the sole content of his proclamation, must still be the sole content of ours. We might well find the traditional atonement imagery of washing ourselves or others in blood deeply offensive: it is. But in jettisoning it we need to make sure that we are not left with some good-time fairy god who waves magic wands and makes us all nice people. God does not wave a wand. The Cross is not a wand, oozing antiseptic blood or otherwise.
The Cross and the Cross alone is God’s entry into failure. The Cross is God’s entry into loneliness and doubt and oppression and defeat. It is not for nothing that, as black radical theologian James Cone reminds us, the Cross is a powerful symbol of hope for oppressed peoples, for the Cross is God’s entry into despair. In the little scene of Jesus in the temple we glimpse the power of institutional religion to exploit and oppress. The Cross stands in opposition to exploitation and oppression. The Cross is God’s entry into every lynching of the Deep South USA (often perpetrated by Christians), God’s entry into colonial persecution of Indigenous peoples everywhere, God’s entry into the deaths of the victims of Boko Haram in East and North Africa and Daesh in the Levant, God’s entry into the suffering and deaths of those who are victims of Indonesian government genocide in West Papua and the silence of the world’s response.
That is why we have Matthew and Mark telling us that Jesus cried out in the words of the psalmist “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Cross is God’s entry into every soul’s existence when the owner of the soul has cried out “How can there be a God?” We might almost say that the Cross means that God is closer to most genuine atheists than to those of us who cosily cuddle God in the complacency of our selfish existence. Certainly the Cross is God’s entry into the atheism that sees so much corruption and injustice perpetrated by believers that it sets out to do without a god, though perhaps not to the cosy atheism that is really “can’t be botheredism” more than a genuine decision to go without the possibility of a loving, judging Creator of All.
But to those of us who live cosily the Cross is not entirely a word of exclusion. Particularly in the so-called “liberal” churches, though, we need to recall and re-learn the language of evangelical Christianity. The Cross is something we on the powerful side of economic and ecological and sociological and intellectual and aesthetic and sexual opportunity need deliberately and self-consciously to accept. We need, as I reminded us all last week, to “forswear our foolish ways,” or as T.S. Eliot put it, to turn, and turn again, to renounce our narcissism (for I doubt I’m the only one that suffers that disease) “And pray to God to have mercy upon us.” The cross, when we invite it and its victim into our being can be again and again the place where God begins the work of transformation, redemption, divinization, sanctification, whatever we might call it, as God shrives from us the grot and grime of being less than we should be. But we must learn again and again to surrender, to allow the invasion that is God’s searing redemption to infiltrate us and our small lives.
We must surrender our intellectual and aesthetic and economic and sexual power over and again so that we can find again the truth that Paul battled and died so hard in proclaiming, the truth that is “stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” or to put it another way, grotty to the religiously complacent and dumb to the intellectually sophisticated.
May God help us so to do.
 “Once I followed horses,
And once I followed whores
And marched once with a banner
For some great cause
But that was thistledown planted on the wind.”
Denis Glover, “Thistledown.”
 James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011.
 See T.S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”:
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us
Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.