Wisdom that changes lives (1 Cor. 1:18-25)
The wisdom of the domination system, the wisdom of the world can come to us disguised as the wisdom of God, and we can go a long ways and a long time thinking it’s the wisdom of God.
For a good number of years my dominant image of God was that of a Judge who presided in a heavenly courtroom and demanded payment from his human creation for breaking his law. The God I imagined was bound to the law and intolerant toward sin. God demanded punishment. And not just any punishment. Punishment by death. So God sent Jesus, God’s unique Son, to die, so that God’s justice would be satisfied, and that God would be free to release the rest of humankind from the penalty and punishment they deserve for having transgressed God’s law and offended God’s justice.
But then, at some point on my journey when I gave myself permission to question and even doubt, I began to wonder why God’s unique Son would have to die such a cruel death by execution in order to satisfy some broken law, particularly since God is the one who makes the law in the first place. God can change a law anytime God wants to, I reasoned. So why would God require this sort of tit-for-tat justice that would demand the sacrifice of a human life? I began to wonder how this arrangement was that much different than what primitive peoples did when they offered up human lives and then later, animals to appease the anger of their god?
These questions led to more questions. So I started down that slippery slope. In one sense it was and continues to be a liberating ride, sort of like the kid who finally gets up enough nerve to ride the roller coaster and afterward wants to ride it over and over again. But in other ways it was and continues to be a painful ride, because of friends who do not understand my journey and get angry with me when I talk about it. But anyone who has traveled this path knows, as some of you know, that once you give yourself the freedom to question, and once you discover new truth, there’s no going back.
As I read and reflected on the stories of Jesus with new eyes and understanding I wondered how I could have missed the central message that makes the good news good news. I began to see that Jesus’ dominant image of God in the Gospels was not a God who sits upon a judgment throne far above his subjects demanding punishment for breaking the law. Rather, Jesus’ dominant image of God was that of an “Abba” – a loving father or mother who is intimately aware and engaged in the life of his or her children. I realized then that Jesus considered all people to be children of God, worthy of love, and all people are invited to come as they are.
God, of course, wants us to grow beyond where we are, but we are welcomed to the table as we are.
Jesus spoke of a God who forgives huge unpayable debts, not in order to satisfy some divine form of justice or broken law, but simply because God is “Abba.” God is love and grace and truth, and wants more than anything in the world to be in relationship with us. When Jesus was criticized for eating with all manner of people, tax collectors and other “sinners” whom the religious leaders thought disrespected the law, Jesus said, “Go learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13). Jesus is quoting the prophet Hosea. A wisdom that challenges the sacrificial system can be found in the Psalms and the prophets.
Maybe you have seen the billboard that’s on highway 27 by-pass. The caption is: “Real Christians, love their enemies.” I don’t know what Christian church or group is responsible for that sign. But how different is that? When I first saw that billboard I thought, “Wow, finally, the gospel of Jesus.”
The gospel of Jesus is a gospel of unconditional love and forgiveness. Why does God forgive us? Because God loves us unconditionally. God wants us to live free of our grievance stories, and free of our need for revenge and retaliation. If we can’t let go of our grievance stories, we do harm to both others and ourselves. God wants us to find spiritual and emotional healing. And God wants us to live together peacefully and lovingly.
Forgiveness is not about broken laws and punishment, but about restored relationships and letting go of grievances. It’s captured best in the parable of the waiting father in Luke 15. The father has already unconditionally forgiven his wayward son, so when he sees him in the distance returning home, he runs out to embrace him, weeping tears of joy, and he throws him an extravagant welcome home party. The gospel of Jesus is about mercy and restorative justice. Not retributive justice. Not tit-for-tat, an eye for an eye justice, but restorative justice. As Luke makes clear in Luke 4, it’s about good news for the poor, freedom for captives, liberation for the oppressed, sight for the blind and spreading grace like scattering seeds.
This message of the cross is the message of love your neighbor as yourself. It is the message of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is the message of forgive others just as your heavenly Father, your Abba, has forgiven you. It is the message of do not judge, lest you be judged. It is the message of love your enemies and pray for them and do good by them. It is the message of deny your little self, lose your false self, so that you will gain your true self, and you will be free to love freely, completely, and unconditionally.
The message of the cross is a message of inspiration and courage and hope that saves us from our sins. Not from the penalty of our sins. Not from divine punishment. We don’t need to be saved from God. God is on our side. God is with every single one of us. God knows the number of hairs on our heads. God suffers with us and rejoices with us. We don’t need to be saved from God. We need to be saved from our actual sins – our selfishness and contrariness, our lust for honor and glory, our misuse and abuse of power, our lack of forgiveness and thirst for revenge. We need to be saved from the sexism, racism, egotism, materialism, classism, nationalism, and consumerism of our age. That’s what we need saved from, sisters and brothers.
The message of the cross is the message of welcome and inclusiveness. The power of the cross is the power to confront injustice and challenge systems of meritocracy. The wisdom of the cross is the wisdom of unconditional forgiveness that bypasses holiness codes and brings to naught worthiness systems. The saving power of the cross is the power to liberate us from our destructive addictions and false attachments. This is the message, this is the wisdom, this is the power of God that heals and restores and makes us whole. To the world this is foolishness. To the domination system this is weakness. But to those of us being saved, it is the wisdom and power of God.
When Constantine declared the Roman Empire Christian it was not because he embraced nonviolence and inclusiveness and the compassion of Christ. It was his way of unifying the Empire by bringing all these different factions together. And when he blended together the wisdom of God and the wisdom of the domination system, Christians soon became no different than anyone else. It wasn’t long before the domination system hijacked the sign of the cross. The emblem of the cross, representing the nonviolence and unconditional love of Christ, was plastered on swords and on shields, and Christian soldiers went off to war on behalf of God and country. And not much has changed since Constantine.
In Will Campbell’s autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly Campbell tells about a conversation he had with his friend P.D. East. P.D. had long since deserted and disavowed his upbringing in the Methodist Church of his foster parents, had tried being a Unitarian, had taken instruction from the local rabbi, and was considering declaring himself a Jew. He referred to the Church as “the Easter Chicken.” And every time Will Campbell would see him, P.D. would say, “And what’s the state of the Easter Chicken, Preacher Will?” He was trying to goad Will into an argument. Will figured he would wait him out. Well, one day, P.D. decided just to let him have it anyway.
P.D. said, “You know, Preacher Will, that church of yours and Mr. Jesus is like an Easter chicken my little Karen got one time. Man, it was a pretty thing. Dyed a deep purple. Bought it at the grocery store.” At this point Will interrupted, noting that white was the liturgical color for Easter. But P.D. ignored him and went on, “That Easter chicken served a real useful purpose. Karen loved it. It made her happy. And that made me and her Mamma happy. But pretty soon that baby chicken started feathering out. You know, sprouting little pin feathers. Wings and tail and all that. And you know what? Them new feathers weren’t purple at all. That damn chicken was a Rhode Island Red. And when all them little red feathers started growing out from under that purple it was one heck of a sight. All of a sudden Karen couldn’t stand that chicken any more.
Will said, “I think I see what you’re driving at P.D.” P.D. retorted, “No, hell no, Preacher Will. You don’t understand any such thing for I haven’t got to my point yet.” So P.D raved on. “Well, we took that half-purple and half-red thing out to her Grandma’s house and threw it in the chicken yard with all the other chickens. It was still different, you understand. That little chicken. And the other chickens knew it was different. And they resisted it like heck. Pecked it, chased it all over the yard. Wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Wouldn’t let it get on the roost with them. And that little chicken knew it was different too. It didn’t bother any of the others. Wouldn’t fight back or anything. Just stayed by itself. Really suffered too. But little by little, day by day, that chicken came around. Pretty soon, even before all the purple grew off it, while it was still just a little bit different, that damn thing was behaving just about like the rest of them chickens. Man it would fight back, peck the heck out of the ones littler than it was, knock them down to catch a bug if it got to it in time. Yes sirree bob, the chicken world turned that Easter chicken around. And now you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. The Easter chicken is just one more chicken. There ain’t a damn thing different about it.”
Will knew P.D. wanted to argue, so Will said, “Well, P.D. the Easter chicken is still useful. It lays eggs, doesn’t it?” That’s what P.D. wanted Will to say. P.D. said, “Yea, Preacher Will. It lays eggs. But they all lay eggs. Who needs an Easter chicken for that? And the Rotary club serves coffee. And the 4-H Club says prayers. The Red Cross takes up offerings for hurricane victims. Mental Health does counseling, and the Boy Scouts have youth programs” (Continuum, Twenty-fifth Anniversary Ed., 218–20).
As much as we hate to admit it, P.D. makes a very good point doesn’t he? What is the difference between those of us who profess to be followers of Jesus and the rest of society? Are we living by the wisdom of God – the wisdom of the cross – or are we living according to the wisdom of the domination system – the wisdom of the world – like everyone else?
How many of us Christians don’t seem to express any concern at all for the undocumented who live in daily fear of deportation, many of whom have been here most of their lives? How many of us Christians want revenge and retribution – an eye for an eye? How many of us are against using tax money on programs and training for the disadvantaged? How many of us would like to impose our faith and beliefs on our schools and the institutions of the land, disregarding the freedom of others? How many of us would like to deny civil rights to certain groups like our LGBTQ sisters and brothers? How many of us would like to keep women out of leadership, especially the pastorate? How many of us are just as hungry for power and position and possessions as anyone else? Is this reflective of the loving, compassionate, inclusive, generous, and courageous wisdom of the cross or is this the wisdom of the world often dressed in Christian clothing?
So instead of being the light of the world and the salt of the earth, the salt has lost its savor and the light has went out. All the purple has bled off the Easter Chicken and the Easter chicken acts just like all the other chickens in the pen, yes sirree bob.
But we don’t have to be like that Easter chicken. We don’t need a color coating. We need to immerse our whole lives deep into the wisdom of the cross. We can choose to love our neighbor and bless our enemy. We can decide to be welcoming and inclusive, not condemning and exclusive. We can be kind and generous and honest and forthright. We can pursue peace, dispense mercy, and work for social and restorative justice for all people. We can respect the dignity of every person. So that the law that will rule our lives will be the royal law of liberty, the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, the new commandment where Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is how people will know we are followers of Jesus. And when the powers in control say, “You’re foolish.” And when the gatekeepers say, “You’re weak.” We will say, “Amen and Amen.”
Gracious God, may we not be blinded by our ego or duped by our selfish interests into thinking that what is really the wisdom of the world is the wisdom of the cross. Help us to see that you do not operate on the punitive principles of retributive justice, but on the principle of amazing grace and unconditional love. Help us to see that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice of love offered up out of commitment to doing your will on earth as it is in heaven, not a sacrifice you required or demanded, because you desire mercy, not sacrificial victims. Inspire and empower us to follow the wisdom of the cross. Amen.