As we approach the end of Lent, and we begin the season of Passiontide, our thoughts must, necessarily, begin to look towards the Cross.
During Lent, I have been preaching about sin and theories of salvation.
In week 1 we learned about sin and its effects
Week 2 we learned about the Classic Theory of Atonement: Christus Victor.
Week 3 we learned about the Latin Theory: vicarious substitution.
And last week, about the recapitulation of all things in Christ.
During Eastertide, we’ll be concentrating on the teaching of St Paul and the Resurrection life; so I thought it would be good to look at how Paul understood the notion of sin and salvation. And at the heart of that understanding stands the Cross.
As Paul told the followers of Jesus in Corinth: For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
As we will discover during Eastertide, the event that changed Paul’s life was not the crucifixion of Christ, but the Resurrection, but Paul was also clear that there could be no Resurrection without the crucifixion.
Now most of us have been brought up as Christians, so there is always a real danger that we take the crucifixion for granted.
Paul’s first audience would not have done that.
Crucifixion was the most terrible death imaginable: even the Romans themselves admitted that. It was reserved for the low-life’s of the Roman world: the runaway slaves, the criminals, the rebels. Anyone of any import – like a Roman citizen – was executed by the sword or allowed to take their own lives.
So the notion of anyone claiming anything special of someone who had been crucified would have been sheer nonsense to the ears of anyone living in the first century.
So let’s just imagine ourselves back there.
We are part of a Jewish community living in Asia Minor: modern day Turkey.
We are orthodox Jews. We believe that we are part of God’s Chosen People: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has chosen us.
We have an agreement. We are His people; He is our God, if we keep our side of this agreement, He will keep His. There is a covenant between us.
Because we are God’s covenant people, we are different (at least that’s the idea). We don’t work on what we call the Sabbath. We don’t eat pork. We don’t visit the temple prostitutes. And countless other rules and regulations that set us apart from the people among whom we live, and display our loyalty to the one, true, God: Blessed be He.
We are different, and we are different because we are God’s unique people, Israel.
There is a wall – a divide – between us, and the rest of the world.
Then along comes a preacher. A former Pharisee by background who was called Saul, and now calls himself Paul.
A lot of what he says make sense.
His message still calls on us to proclaim that there is one God: the Lord our God is one God, as it is proclaimed in the Shema prayer, then and now, the centrepiece of Jewish morning and evening prayers.
But then he says something that sounds simply insane.
This Paul now proclaims that the wall that divides us from other people – the Gentiles – has been broken down, and the promise that was made to the Jewish people has now been extended to all people. Now all people may share in the promise and the blessings God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And it’s all because of a wanderer teacher/preacher/healer called Jesus of Nazareth.
What Paul tells them is that this Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed one of God – for whom the Jewish people have been waiting for so long.
One of the things that the Jews of Paul’s day were expecting of a Messiah was that he would inaugurate a new Passover, greater than the one brought about by God through Moses.
And now here is Paul proclaiming that this Jesus was the Christ, our Passover – the new Passover – who has been sacrificed for us.
As Jewish families settled down for their Passover meal, with their ritually slaughtered lamb, so Jesus becomes the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Through the Cross of Christ, there is a new Exodus, a new Passover. As the people of the Covenant had been freed from slavery to Egypt, we have been freed from slavery to sin. As the forces of Pharoah are defeated at the Reed Sea, so evil and sin and death are defeated by Christ on the Cross.
Through him we have been reconciled with God: atonement – at-one-ment – union – with God has been won.
This is salvation, and is now offered and available to all people: the wall between the Jewish and non-Jewish world, as Paul says to the Christians in Ephesus, was no longer necessary: it was gone.
All the peoples of the world – Jew and Gentile and all those whom the Good News will one day reach – will now be gathered together in Christ. Now because of the Cross of Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Nothing now to do with Jewish laws and ritual and feasts and festivals. What mattered now was faith – trust – belonging – to Jesus.
And all this because a Jewish teacher/preacher/healer from Galilee had suffered the most appalling death the twisted ingenuity of the Roman world could devise.
It was, as Paul himself admitted, a message of madness:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
What Paul was saying, and still says to us today, is a grave warning to those who would seek to concentrate on the differences between peoples and nations.
Human beings are inherently tribal. We tend to want to look after our own, often at the expense of others. Often in life it’s easier to scapegoat someone else, blame another group, look after Number 1.
But beginning with His people Israel, that story has begun to change.
The story of the old covenant is a story of God gathering in a particular people to enter into a unique friendship with God. The God of Israel is a god who reveals Himself in wonderful signs and powerful deeds.
The story of the new covenant is the climax of the prophecies that said that God’s gathering would one day extend to all the people of the world.
Now, through the Cross, all people are called into that unique friendship with God and with one another.
More than that, the Cross, on the face of it an occasion of death and failure, sorrow and defeat, a place where worldly power seemed to have triumphed, has actually turned such ideas on their heads.
That Cross – a stumbling block and folly to so many – has now become the place which demonstrates the full power of God’s boundless love. How? Because the Cross is a demonstration of love, and love is the true power, the true triumph, that has now been revealed to all people.
In the eyes of many, the entire life of Jesus of Nazareth has been one of folly and foolishness which reaches its deserved end in the ignominious and awful torture of the Cross.
And yet this Cross is at the heart of Paul’s teaching because for him, the Cross reveals the ‘power of God’ as he tells the Christians in Corinth. And that power is different from human, worldly power.
The Cross – although this will not become fully clear until after the Resurrection – the Cross truly shows us what God is: fo r God is love, a love that is greater than sin; greater than evil; greater, even, than Death itself. A demonstration of a love that will endure all the pain and torture in order to reveal the conquest of love for the salvation of you and me. For all the world.
Through the Cross, the almighty God reveals Himself as an infinitely humble, totally self-emptying and utterly relentless, tireless, lover and pursuer of sinners.
And men and women made in His image and likeness – that’s you and me – are called on to do the same.
Down through 2,000 years this message of Paul is still foolishness to so many people: to atheists, to non-Christians, even – let it be said – to many Christians for whom worldly power and honour, privilege and prestige still mean more than the Cross of Christ.
It is the foolishness of a love that gives without counting the cost, or heeding the wounds.
It is the foolish love of a priest in the diocese of Bergamo in Italy who refused to use a ventilator his parishioners had given him to treat his own respiratory illness. Instead, he chose to give it to a young parishioner fighting for his life against Covid-19. The priest, Father Giuseppe Berardelli, contracted Covid-19 and died last week.
That is Christian love: the folly of the Cross as Paul understood it.
It is the love we see revealed in life, the passion and the death of the Lord.
A love that gives without bounds or limits or judgements.
A love that seeks to break down the barriers between people of difference.
A love that seeks to gather all people into the love of God.