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[Preached as dialogue between John York and Rubel Shelly]
Rubel: I found the following New York Times story a bit weird and strangely insightful at the same time. The Big Apple’s Church of the Holy Cross was broken into twice in the summer of 2003. A moneybox with a minimal amount of cash was taken the first time. Three weeks later, thieves entered during the dead of night, unbolted a 200-pound, four-foot-long image of Jesus. When the vandalism was discovered the next morning, the big wooden cross was still there; the Jesus statue was gone.
The caretaker was quoted in the story: “They just decided, ‘We’re going to leave the cross and take Jesus.’ ” Need I say more?
John: It would not be the first time that a thief unwittingly revealed truth about Jesus and the cross. However I doubt these vandals intended to become the metaphorical reference I hear you making this morning. Since the earliest days of Christian community, people have been tempted to want the gifts of salvation without any of the cross-bearing responsibilities of discipleship. It is difficult in any cultural setting – and particularly difficult in our wealthy, western world – to desire what we commonly believe are losses associated with taking up one’s cross daily to follow Jesus.
Rubel: The spirit of “I’ll take Jesus (and forgiveness and blessings and heaven), thank you, but I think I’ll pass on that splintery old cross” is very much at the heart of how many of us think these days. Oh, I don’t want to sound too judgmental! But do you remember the term used during recent TV coverage of the death of John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI? As the reporters and commentators talked about options for the Roman Catholic Church’s leadership, they wondered if a “traditionalist” or “progressive” would emerge. And their term of reference for Roman Catholics in the United States was “cafeteria Catholics.” By that term they meant to identify the pick-and-choose mentality of many in that church. “I’ll take a plateful of anti-abortion, please, but I don’t need any anti-birth control” or “I’ll take a modest helping of anti-war, but can’t you guys take the no-female-clergy – at least the no-married-clergy – off the menu?”
John, isn’t it absolutely shocking to you that anybody could claim to be a Christian and go at his or her faith with a pick-and-choose mentality?
John: Rubel, I think I see your tongue parked firmly in your cheek! That “cafeteria Catholic” term could as easily be generalized to “cafeteria Christian.” It is such a common thing across the board. Not only do Christians out of different traditions feel free to take or leave certain elements of those traditions but, far more fundamentally and significantly, we all are tempted to take what we like and ignore the rest from Scripture itself.
It is easy to enjoy being “right” or thinking “right” about the subjects and circumstances that we are not tempted by. Most of us here this morning could get a passing score on our overt efforts to keep the Ten Commandments. But there are subtleties about having no other gods before us that we really don’t want to discuss – other humans and circumstances that we ‘idolize,’ the security we find in our possessions and American lifestyles, our dependency on our superpower status as Americans. There are those more subtle ways in which we treat other human beings as “less than” us by the way we talk about them. There are few things more insidious than “church gossip!” Yet, in the name of grace and Jesus, we (I should say I) often excuse my own materialism or gossip or envy or idolatrous interest in sports while at the same time demanding some doctrinal soundness in others.
Rubel: It is so easy to let baptism stand in the place of repentance. Church membership in the place of self-denial. Piety on Sunday for truth-telling on Tuesday. And on and on the list could go!
I don’t think this “cafeteria” mindset or “pick-and-choose” attitude toward apprenticeship to Jesus is what Paul had in mind when he wrote this about himself: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). My image of Paul is that of a man who took the whole thing down from the wall – Jesus and the cross. Jesus and self-denial. Jesus and sacrificed family, sacrificed status as “up-and-coming rabbi,” sacrificed ego. We cheapen Christ’s sacrifice for us when we communicate the idea that our own cross is so self-defined, so minimal in consequence.
John: Two or three times already in our sermons on living beneath the cross of Jesus, we have either quoted or referred to this paragraph from Romans 5: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (vs. 6-8). Those verses stress the degree of sacrifice heaven made for us in history. Everything from the Incarnation to Calvary is surveyed in those three verses. And you’d think that would call us to deeper devotion and more obedient lives. In fact, I’m sure it does! But maybe it would inspire us to go deeper in our faith commitment to realize that heaven is still aggressively pursuing us, empowering us, shielding us, helping us.
I’m thinking about the next two or three verses from the same chapter: “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Rom. 5:9-11).
Rubel: I think I see where you are headed with this. I tend most naturally and most often to think of Christ’s saving work as the historic fact of his death, burial, and resurrection. But you are focusing on the “how much more” of verse 10? You’re talking about the “we shall be saved through his life” statement? What do you think Paul’s point is with that theme – and what does it mean for us?
John: You have to look back at the beginning of chapter 5 and then go perhaps all the way through chapter 6 to begin to see what Paul is trying to accomplish with his contrast of the death of Jesus and his life. Remember the opening words of this chapter:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom. 5:1-5, NRSV).Rubel: Let me interrupt you to read that same section from The Message:
By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us – set us right with him, make us fit for him – we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all. We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand – out in the wide open spaces of Gods’ grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.John: Do you hear the connection, particularly in that last phrase of Peterson’s translation, between the actions of Christ in the cross (past) and the ongoing work of God in the Spirit (present)? The cross event for Paul is almost always a reference to both death and resurrection – to the past and to the present. Jesus died but he now is alive. Likewise, those who have believed in the death of Jesus believe also in the life of Jesus. But here is where it gets tricky.
Sharing in the resurrection life of Jesus does not mean that we get spared further hardships as humans. Nor does it mean that salvation is only about getting into heaven and avoiding hell in the afterlife. It has everything to do with living in our own present circumstances, including suffering. To be saved by the death of Jesus refers to reconciliation and restored relationship with God. To be saved by the life of Jesus means we are indwelled and empowered by the Holy Spirit to be transformed by all of our human experiences.
Rubel: So salvation is more than forgiveness of sins. And you are claiming that this line about being “saved through his life” means there is another aspect of salvation at work in us, an ongoing activity empowered by the Holy Spirit.
John: Exactly. Our forgiveness of sins accomplished in the death of Jesus is just the beginning of the new identity and new life we are invited into. When conversion and salvation are talked about only in terms of forgiveness of sins or grace is thought of only as the means by which our sins don’t count against us any more, we’ve really missed the point.
Rubel: Or, when we think that salvation means our sins don’t count when we get to Judgment Day, so we don’t have to worry about going to hell any longer, we also miss the point. Salvation isn’t just about a happy afterlife!
John: Precisely. To be saved through his life is to experience an empowered form of human existence now. We have received reconciliation with God through Christ so that we can live Holy Spirit-empowered lives. That’s why it makes no sense to Paul in the next chapter that anyone who has received this new life would even contemplate the idea that we are now free to keep on sinning because grace covers us no matter what. If we have shared in his death, we also share in his life. Jesus died to overcome our powerlessness against sin and death.
Paul continues in verse six, “At the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” On the one hand I take great comfort in that statement. There are so many questions I have about the mystery of human existence in this tiny outpost in the universe called Earth. I have so many unanswered questions about my life at this moment in Nashville, Tennessee, in relation to all other people at this moment on this planet; in relation to people who have lived before me and those who will come after me. I know just enough about the stories in the Bible to be really dangerous. I know just enough about the world and times in which Scripture was produced to be even more dangerous! But I put a lot of faith in this statement, not because now I can live however I choose and still escape the fires of hell, but because the death and resurrection changes everything. The powerlessness of sin and death has been transformed by Christ’s death and life. Christ’s death overcomes the separation between Creator and creation. Human creation is now fully connected once more to its creative power source. For Paul it is the Holy Spirit that God has now poured out on us that transforms even our suffering into the glory of God.
Rubel: John, I think it is always very hard for humans to believe in things we can’t see, hear, and touch. That’s why, it seems to me, the second commandment in the Decalogue forbids worshiping Yahweh via some hand-carved representation. God can’t be reduced to something we manufacture, house and transport in a shrine, or manipulate to our self-serving ends. So I both understand and am astonished by the fact that the Israelites – under Aaron’s leadership – created a golden object not to replace Yahweh but to represent him for worship purposes at the base of Mt. Sinai while Moses was getting the tablets of stone.
But the temptation to idolatry – reducing the intangible presence of the risen Christ to something of our own creation – faces every generation, Christians as well as Jews. In recent times, I fear that temptation has seduced some Christians to create tangible God-space in the form of cathedrals and campuses; faith has been institutionalized as land and structure and ceremony. And if Protestants have been critical of Catholics for doing that, we have created, instead of physical structures, our ideological structures; faith has become right dogma, correct worship, and reformed or restored churches. In the meanwhile, the surrounding culture gets on with “real life” while we play “religion games” on the sidelines! Outsiders treat Christianity as either an irrelevance or a nuisance; insiders get increasingly bored and demand more pop and sizzle from their paid performers to keep them coming. What’s wrong with this picture?
For the first Christians, God was alive in history. Christ was present with them, although he had departed in his resurrection body to be with the Father. The Holy Spirit was moving among them and through them to transform and empower, encourage and comfort, deliver and embolden. There was nothing “idolatrous” about their faith. It was the lived presence of God at work in the ordinariness of their fields and businesses and families and chance encounters. And that lived presence turned the world upside down. In the wake of all this, Paul – moving now into Romans 8 – fairly shouts: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (v. 31b).
John: It is such a fine line among us humans between thinking of God’s indwelling presence as God with us and God for us, and our human tendency to decide that we are gods! Even if we maintain enough humility not to deify ourselves, we still often create that division-of-labor notion between the secular and the sacred – our part and God’s part, church life and the rest of life. Too often we live as though God’s grace frees us to be fully secular (without punishment). But being reconciled to God and saved through Christ’s life means that grace frees us to be fully sacred! Holy Spirit presence is constant, not occasional. Salvation is a present work of the Holy Spirit in us in space and time now. We are alive to God and God is with us in every setting, not just in church buildings on Sunday mornings, not just in those occasional moments when we feel particularly spiritual.
Rubel: John, what if you and I could convince the people listening to us today not that being here for worship on Sunday is unimportant but that being on time and competent and attentive to the people with whom they will go to work tomorrow is equally important?
John: Not that getting their children to Bible Class today doesn’t matter but that what they will model for them in the car on the way home could matter even more?
Rubel: Not that their Christians friends and small group aren’t really important to their spiritual lives but that how they react to the rude clerk or tearful-and-distracted waitress may be even more important to their spiritual formation?
John: Where did we ever get the idea that the essence of God’s presence and work in the world is found in what we do in our church buildings on Sundays? As important as Sunday worship as celebration of Christ’s Sunday resurrection is, as important as Sunday assemblies are for reaffirming our sense of connectedness to one another as the Family of God, as important as Sunday teaching can be to deepening our faith and enlarging our understanding – the fact remains that Sunday as worship, fellowship, and Bible study is for reminding us of our missional role as the people of God at all times and in every place.
Being “missional” simply means that my job is less to preach than to be enough like Christ that somebody can see him in me. My task on Tuesday is less to do a sterling job as a Professor of Bible as it is to enflesh Christ for some student who can’t listen to my lecture because of his moral confusion over alcohol or sex or another person in the same class who has just been dumped by her boyfriend or lied to by her suitemate.
Rubel: We have somehow defaulted to a Satanic view that the work of God in the world rests in the hands of a few Bible scholars and preachers. That church is principally a place for people to go, sit, observe, and critique the professional religionists. But is church a “place” at all? Can anybody be a “professional” at religion? Do you really think Jesus died to create such a club or society?
Since about the fourth century, church has been place more than people and Christianity more cultural movement than way of life. Evangelism has been a strategy of inviting people to come where we are and worship a cluster of activity that tends either to confuse insiders or to tire the occasional outsider who wanders in. Surely there is a better way that looks more like Jesus’ original method. Where the people most central to his representation to the world were less professional clergy than fishermen and tax collectors, rescued addicts and runaway slaves, physicians and writers.
Christians are people whose love for and faith in Jesus Christ have moved them to become apprentices to him and his way of reading the world. They have begun to imitate his love for the Father in heaven and have embraced Jesus’ commitment to making life better for human beings of whatever ethnic origin or lifestyle background. Their strategy is not to isolate from others but to know, befriend, and affirm their dignity. The plan is not to permit those people to come where they worship on Sundays but to go out among them as leaven and salt.
John: Now that God has reconciled us to himself through the death of his Beloved Son, he is willing and eager to pour out the life of that same Christ through us. He wants to fulfill these words of Jesus through the church: “Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (John 14:19-20).
If you believe Jesus died for you, you are challenged to believe that he is now alive for you. Alive in you. Alive through you. And that if he died for you while you were still his enemy, he certainly will not hold back anything you need in the risen, reigning life he shares with you as his friend. So please don’t be timid about seeing yourself as someone whose mission this week is to carry the life-presence of Jesus everywhere you go to make it central to everything you do and all you are.
 Andrea Elliott, “Thieves Take Figure of Jesus, but Not the Cross,” New York Times (August 25, 2003), p. B3.