Emmanuel, Champaign—Mark 9:30-37, Wisdom 1:16-2:1, 12-22; James 3:16-4:6
Refrigerator door and bumper sticker slogans are usually good for a chuckle, and are often profound. One of my favorites is also ironic and insightful: “I’ve given up my search for truth, and am now looking for a good fantasy.”
Anyone who would make a remark like this is probably expressing sarcastic frustration with real life, and does not intend to be taken literally. It is, in the cold light of self-evident logic, ludicrous, to prefer any fantasy, no matter how appealing, to what is actually true. Truth is, ultimately, inescapable. It is what we are, in the end, accountable to. But what is ludicrous to our minds is still often the choice of our passions. Human beings do sometimes prefer an appealing fiction over an unpleasant truth.
The evil men that we hear about today in the Book of Wisdom do not want to face their own wickedness, and they shamelessly plot the murder of the righteous man, whose goodness is a constant reminder to them of their lack of it. By doing away with him, they could continue to indulge their fantasy, and not come to terms with the truth.
The disciples of Jesus also fit into this category. As St Mark’s gospel relates it to us, Jesus point-blank tells his disciples that he will be arrested and tried and put to death, and rise from the dead three days later. One would think that a prediction so startling would freeze them in their tracks, and that after recovering their composure they would bombard him with questions about when and how and where and why this would all take place. But Mark tells us that they decided instead to just keep quiet about it. They were more comfortable with a fiction of their own making—“He can’t really be serious; we didn’t really hear what we think we heard”—they were more comfortable with such denials than with the horrifying truth of what Jesus had told them.
But Jesus, who is the incarnation of the God of truth, and who is himself the truth, insisted to his followers in Mark’s gospel that they know him as no Christ but a crucified Christ. This is what lies behind all the instances in the gospel of Mark where Jesus commands people who come to faith in him as the son of God to keep quiet about it. Mark does not allow anyone in his gospel to publicly proclaim Jesus as the Son of God until the Roman Centurion does so at the foot of the cross, on which Jesus has just died! So critical was the cross to Mark’s understanding of who Jesus is.
Some time ago I saw a news story about a very special summer camping program for children and youth. The setting—the buildings, the activities—were all standard summer camp fare. But the campers themselves were quite special. They were all young people who had been critically burned, and were substantially disfigured as a result. The aim of the camp was to help these kids along in the process of accepting themselves as they are, disfigured in ways that would make most of us want to avert our eyes. What fire has done to their appearance is an unpleasant truth, but it is the truth, and anyone whose life is touched by one of these kids can know them in no other way than as someone whose appearance has been radically altered by fire. You and I can know Christ only as one who has suffered and died on the cross. It is disturbing, but true, and to evade this truth is to indulge in fantasy, not reality.
It is, no doubt, easy for us, with our 20/20 hindsight, to be critical of those first-century followers of our Lord who were scandalized by the prospect of his being crucified, who did not want to recognize the utter centrality of the cross. But I’m afraid that they have company, and that company is us. Yes, twenty-first century Americans—even twenty-first century American Christians—want a Christ who is untainted by the shame and scandal of the cross. The cross stands as a horrifying sign of human sin and suffering, because all human sin and suffering was fastened on to it when Jesus died there. It is a manifestly unpleasant truth, a truth we would just as soon avoid if we could, a truth we would gladly trade for any number of more appealing fictions. We would trade it for the fiction of a religion that makes no demands: no demands on our time, no demands on our money, no demands on our affections, no demands on our minds. We would, in the proverbial “New York minute”, trade it for the fiction of a religion that does not presume to exercise any judgment on our behavior, or hold us accountable to anything other than our own whims and desires. We would enthusiastically trade it for the fiction of a religion that is really more magic and glitz than faith and holiness, a religion that promises to cure us from every disease and deliver us from every adversity simply upon demand. We want a God we can be proud of, not one who empties himself of his glory, takes the form of a servant, and dies the shameful death of a criminal.
And this is one instance where our theology has immediate practical implications for us. Because of our reluctance to accept the scandal of the cross, because we prefer the fiction of a savior who protects us from suffering over the truth of a savior who makes us whole through suffering, we follow in the steps of Jesus’ disciples who got to wrangling with one another over who occupied what spot in the pecking order. And as St James tells us in his epistle, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” When we as a church, the Christian community, lose sight of the centrality of the cross—the cross of Christ, and the cross that he invites us to take up and follow him with—when we lose sight of the centrality of the cross, we descend into intellectual and moral and spiritual disorder. We find ourselves cultivating relationships with other people, not in joyful recognition of the image of God in that person, but in view of the ways he or she might benefit us. We find ourselves attaching strings to our generosity: I’ll give you this…or do that … if … We find ourselves attempting to control and manipulate members of our families, friends, co-workers, and, yes, even the church to which we belong!
The cross of Christ is a scandal, because it’s just . . . there. It’s true. We can ignore the truth, but we cannot for long evade it. It isn’t going anywhere. We can only go through it. And when, in faith, we do follow Jesus through the way of the cross, our experience is that of the peace that passes all understanding. We come into contact with what James calls “the wisdom from above”, which he describes as “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.” It is the ability to sleep at night with a clean heart and clear conscience, a sense of purpose and ultimate security, because we are grounded, not in any ephemerally appealing fantasy, but in the truth of the saving and redeeming cross of Jesus Christ. To him be all glory throughout all ages. Amen.