In the shadow of the cross

How early did Jesus know?

One conventional answer is that he was born to die, and as God incarnate he knew this all along. Even if we wait for explicit biblical references, though, it is clear that Jesus saw the cross looming up a long time before he got there.

And yet he kept walking forward. He kept teaching. He kept healing. He kept praying. He kept on doing what he was here to do.

This is the way life responds to death and fear.

A word to myself today.

Hauerwas: Conversion, gospel, & cross

Three more quotes from the Al Mohler interview of Stanley Hauerwas. Mohler — the evangelical — asked Hauerwas about the absence of references to conversion in Hauerwas’ works:

I guess I stayed away from that term because it has been so associated with Billy Graham’s football-field evangelism. Billy Graham’s football-field evangelism and conversion is not without value, but to be a Christian means that from baptism forward you are living a life of constant transformation in a manner that you are able to have the sinfulness of our lives located in a manner that through the good graces of others I have some hope of living a life that is more, to use Wesley’s phrase, perfect. And so I think that conversion is the name of an ongoing process from birth to death that we as Christians are invited to live.

Mohler then asked him to summarize the gospel, the good news:

That through Jesus Christ, very God and very man, we Gentiles have been made part of the promise to Israel that we will be witnesses to God’s good care of God’s creation through the creation of a people who once were no people that the world can see there is an alternative to our violence. There is an alternative to our deceptions. There is an alternative to our unfaithfulness to one another though the creation of something called church. That’s salvation.

And finally he asked him about the cross and forgiveness:

Well, I think that what it means to have our sins forgiven is you’ve been made part of a narrative that you do not have to justify the path in a way that means the past continues to haunt you because you’re determined to live righteously. Interestingly enough, forgiveness of sins does say you do not have to be determined by the path because you’ve been given a future that is so compelling you don’t have to constantly try to renegotiate a world in which you are trying to be righteous even though you’re not.

I will confess to not being able to figure out exactly what Hauerwas means in his answer to the question about forgiveness. I think he is saying something like — to use narrative terms — our story starts over again when we are baptized (or start the process of conversion). The story that shaped who we were no longer has any hold on us and — more important — we no longer have to answer to that story our try to defend our role in it. The old has passed away. I think that might be what he is saying, although I would not want to have to pass a test in one of his classes based on that answer.

All three of these answers are striking in the importance they place on the church and the here-and-now over against the future, especially in an interview about a book of “eschatalogical reflections.” I take his answer about the nature of the gospel to be centered entirely on the creation of the church. Salvation itself is the creation of the church as a witness to an alternative way of being in the world.

What I find compelling about that statement is that it highlights my sinful pride. My protest against Hauerwas’ way of framing these topics is, in part, the question “What about me and my salvation?” It is the individualistic question and — as he might put it — the buyers’ market talking. I also feel myself objecting to the long-term project they lay out. I want it now.

And yet, it is difficult for me to see how some of what he says squares with the biblical witness and how much of this can be explained in a way that is meaningful for people who are not professional theologians. He said he wanted to avoid Billy Graham-style evangelism, but what Graham provides that Hauerwas does not is an account of Christianity that ordinary Christians can understand. It does not require a priestly class of academics to explain it to us.

I was thinking of this while reading the lectionary selection from Acts for this Sunday:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:37-39, NRSV)

Peter and Paul in Acts strike me as not operating out of Hauerwas’ definitions of terms such forgiveness and gospel. When Peter promised the people that day that their sins would be forgiven, I don’t think the people gathered heard that promise as an appeal to a narrative reconstruction of their lives. Having our sins forgiven does start our story anew — or fold us into a new story — but I’m not sure that is the primary reality of the event or process of being forgiven.

Here is what is likely a bad analogy to explain where the language feels ill-fitting to me. When we had a baby, my wife and I became part of a new story. Our story could never again be told the same way, and our experience of our story changed in a thousand ways. But the fact that having a baby changed the story of our lives was not the most important part about having a baby. The most important thing about having a baby was having a baby.

Having our sins forgiven changes the narrative, but the most important thing about having our sins forgiven is having our sins forgiven.

Having a cancer cut out of our body changes the narrative of who we are, but the most important thing about having cancer removed is being cured of cancer.

As I say, I would not want to hang my grade in Dr. Hauerwas’ class on any of these thoughts. But something about his focus on narrative feels to me like fantasy. It is the suggestion that there is nothing real behind the stories we use to tell our lives.

Given that Hauerwas is so influential among United Methodists — especially that tribe of clergy who cheer for Blue Devil basketball — I wonder how Hauerwas’ responses to these questions influences your thinking, preaching, teaching, and living.

Hamilton on the atonement

I was watching Adam Hamilton’s sermon on the meaning of Jesus’ death the other day.


Here is what I heard. First, all theories of the atonement are metaphors. Taking them as literal is an error. It is poetry not economics or juridical practice. Second, the atonement is primarily about how the cross changes us. It is God’s message to inspire and motivate us.

That is not all that was said, of course, but those were the two main ideas I heard. What about you?

Speaking of the cross

The church catholic has never designated any single theory of the atonement as orthodox. Or so we are often told. Nonetheless, those of us who claim the sermons of John Wesley as doctrinal standards do have some guidance on how to speak of the work of Christ.

Here are Wesley’s words in the sermon “Justification by Faith.”

And as such it was that “he bore our griefs,” “the Lord laying upon him the iniquities of us all.” Then was he “wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities.” “He made his soul an offering for sin:” He poured out his blood for the transgressors: He “bare our sins in his own body on the tree,” that by his stripes we might be healed: And by that one oblation of himself, once offered, he hath redeemed me and all mankind; having thereby “made a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Not really Wesley’s words, of course. Most of the passage is constructed from the words of scripture and the Anglican Articles of Religion.But the thrust of it all clearly plays in the realm of satisfaction, sacrifice, and substitute.

Oh wait, though. We don’t have to go to Wesley’s sermon for our language. We have it right in our own Articles of Religion.

The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifice of masses, in the which it is commonly said that the priest doth offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, is a blasphemous fable and dangerous deceit.

Or in our Confession of Faith:

We believe God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The offering Christ freely made on the cross is the perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, redeeming man from all sin, so that no other satisfaction is required.

My interpretation of this as a pastor and candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church is that my teaching and preaching is most faithful to my vocation in the UMC when I speak of the cross in these terms.

Short enough Paul could have tweeted it

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. (1 Cor 2:12, NRSV)

This was not Paul’s tent revival strategy. This was not his plan for hosting a Billy Graham-style crusade. This was the vision and plan for his ongoing ministry in Corinth. It was his pastoral strategy for planting and nurturing Christian congregations.

Lectionary blogging: What does the cross say to you?

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor 1:17-18, NIV)

What does the cross say to you?

Billy Graham shared his answer late last year.

In 1 Corinthian 1:27-30, Paul appears to offer his answer:

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. (1 Cor 1:27-30, NIV)

Charles Wesley reportedly said he would trade all his hymns for Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” which says this about the message of the cross:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

To Christ, who won for sinners grace
By bitter grief and anguish sore,
Be praise from all the ransomed race
Forever and forevermore.

I wonder what we hear as the message of the cross.