Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Sermon: Violence and the Cross

Good Friday
In 1993 a Neurologist named Oliver Sacks wrote a paper called “To see or not to see”.  In this paper he discussed the issues that arose for a blind man named Virgil, who regained his sight as an adult after being blind almost his entire life.   When he was blind, Virgil’s world had very specific boundaries to it.  Everything he knew in any given moment was defined by what he could touch and by what he could hear.  Now when we imagine someone blind regaining their sight, we imagine it is a simple matter, like opening our eyes and letting the light in.  But it so much more complicated than that.  Sight is something we learn.  When Virgil was given sight, his world which had once been so small, so manageable, became incomprehensible to him.  He saw everything as confusing patches of color, and simple objects that we take for granted he could not identify.  Virgil described some of his experiences saying “During these first weeks [after surgery] I had no appreciation of depth or distance; street lights were luminous stains stuck to the window panes, and the corridors of the hospital were black holes.”[1]  He had no depth perception and was confused by shadows.  Again and again he would examine something in great detail, only to later not be able to identify it without touching it. For those of us who have had sight since birth we might find Virgil's struggles difficult to imagine because what he was experiencing as an adult we all went through as infants. 

Dionysius wrote that God shines in our lives ‘a ray of darkness’.  This of course is a paradoxical statement, after all, Jesus is the ‘light of the world’.  A light that cuts through our darkness, interrupting and disrupting our status quo, but the light that God shines on us in the person of Jesus Christ is not a convenient light that clears up all messes and smooths over all difficulties.[2]  Quite the opposite is true actually, the light of Christ is one that turns what we think we know on its head, the light shines in the darkness and suddenly everything is confusing, because what becomes clear is that everything that we thought we knew, about ourselves, everything that we ever took for granted about the world, we didn’t know at all.  When God’s light shines in our lives, what we are quick to know is that we don’t actually know, and never really did.

So often when I attempt to ponder God I suddenly realize that I have been like a blind person and when I am made to see, I do not know or even understand what I am seeing, my world becomes only unidentifiable shapes and confusing blotches of color.  And though I may examine an aspect of God and think I understand, I quickly learn that I didn’t grasp it all, and have to try again to comprehend what is being revealed to me.

Jesus crucified is at the center of this strange, seemingly incomprehensible light of God.  Christ is the very ray of darkness that comes into our lives and turns it all on its head.  Again and again I go back to the cross, examining it, trying to understand and I think I do, until I don’t again.

Everyday in Christianity, but particularly today, we are made to realize how complicated and difficult our faith really is.  In the cross we are faced with the mystery and paradox of God’s action in the world and our instinct is to simplify it, to make it easy by untying the complicated knot of the paradox and turning it instead into a nice neat bow.  But to do that would be to stop short of truly experiencing God, it would be like accepting the world as a mere collection of random colors where detail and perspective are completely lost.

Perhaps the reason the cross is so particularly hard to grasp is because it it an act of violence.  An act of violence that we say was necessary and done ‘for us’.  Humanity is quite the expert at covering up the violence that pervades our lives and the workings of our world.  And we try very hard to do the same thing with the violence that was present in Christ’s death.  We have become accustomed to crosses either gilded in gold on one hand, or completely bare on the other.  The cross has become a symbol of imperial majesty or a fashion statement.  When we hide the violence that stands at the center of the gospel drama, we distort the message of God’s costly love turning it into a sentimental fairy tale, or a symbol of domination or something else equally flat and meaningless.  Alternatively, when some people choose to acknowledge the violence of the cross, that violence is blamed on some particular group, like blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death, or even blaming God by saying the cross was a necessary measure to appease God's wrath.  But these are mere scapegoats that only add to the system of violence present in the world.[3]

The unfortunate truth of this world is that it is saturated with violence.  No less so now than it was in Jesus’ time.  The twentieth century was riddled with some of the worst violence the world had seen and while we may have had hopes that the twenty first century would bring a new beginning, those hopes were quickly dashed as war and civil unrest rage across the globe.  Socially and economically the weak are still at the mercy of the strong, with unchecked competition that glorifies the victors even at the expense of the vulnerable.  Still in the United States alone there are nearly one million reported cases of domestic violence a year and 3 million reported cases of child abuse.  Even the Church is subject to scrutiny as exploitation, abuse of power and hateful rhetoric are constantly tarnishing the name of Christianity. 

 It is true that we are not all equally responsible for the terrible webs of violence that ensnare this world, but we are all caught up in it.  Most of us are not merely victims or victimizers, but are a bit of both as we both passively and actively take part in the cycles of violence and exploitation that make the world function in the way that it does. [4]
This is the real world, the world into which salvation unfolds.  A world of both systematic and individual violence, both hidden and overt.  A world where the poor are exploited the innocent are slaughtered children abused, the earth plundered, and prophets are murdered.  The message and ministry of Jesus, clash profoundly with this world, just as it did in the first century A.D.  Jesus announces God’s forgiveness to sinners, promises the future to the poor, welcomes the outcast and the stranger and calls everyone to a new way of life characterized by selfless love for God and for others. 

When Jesus proclaims and enacts the kingdom of God in the world, a world ruled by human kingdoms built on violence, it is inevitable that the purveyor of God’s Kingdom would suffer.  God’s boundless love collides with a world that desires domination and therefore fears the reign of God that is founded on self offering, love and forgiveness.  The fear cannot help but incite the desire to retaliate and meets God with counter-violence.  In the face of this it was indeed necessary that Jesus Christ suffer and die, that God’s love be fully expressed in all its subversive vulnerability.  This necessity is not of God’s making but the necessity of a world order of human making.  It is a necessity that the one who brings to us God’s forgiveness and shows the reign of God characterized by mercy, freedom, peace and love should fall victim to the violence of retribution, coercion, hate and fear.  The good news of this is that God does not oppose our violence with more violence, does not answer our evil with evil, but answers only with love.  The cross is God’s free but truly costly gift of love whose goal is the true transformation of the world, the true transformation of souls.  

The cross writes on human history the truth that the vulnerability of love and the courage of true compassion and forgiveness will always be greater than the raging passions and fears of this world.  

We profess in the Apostles creed that Jesus after he died ‘descended into hell’, while this statement is perhaps provocative in its interpretation, it is necessary in that it shows the completeness of God’s love.  Extending to the furthest corners of being, not just to the victims, but to the perpetrators, not just to the oppressed but to the oppressors, not just to the betrayed but to the betrayers too.  The cross is the sign of God’s unending, and unlimited love for us.  We have the freedom to turn away from God both in this world and the next, but God will not turn away from us, not ever.
Christ died in order to expose the selfish and self destructive system of violence we have devised for ourselves, a violence that can only lead to destruction, violence that corrupts both the beauty of this planet, and the beauty of our own creative gifts. And most especially destroys the beauty of our own human nature created in God’s image.  This is what humanity has done with the freedom we have been given.  So Christ came to show us what we have let ourselves become, but Christ’s death is so much more than that, because in the cross we also see the unadulterated, uncompromising love of God.  A love that does not waver, that does not lose hope.  

But Christ’s death goes beyond being merely an example, because even though God gives us insight into the kingdom of God vs. the kingdoms of humanity, we are still stuck in the cycle of violence set in motion so very many generations ago.  We are thoroughly steeped in this world, and our own perspectives can only take us so far.  That is, we are like a blind man who has been given sight, we may now be able to see the world around us, but we struggle to truly understand what it means, or what to do next.  Christ’s death on the cross forges a way ahead of us, a way through death which imprisons us in confusion and fear.  Christ breaks through that prison of death creating a path into a new level of being that is beyond our limited imaginations.  A path that Christ will lead, but never coerce us to follow into.  It is a seemingly incomprehensible path of the most courageous and vulnerable of all love, and while we may seem blinded by all that we don’t understand, we are asked to hang our faith on the cross.
Because despite all that we don’t understand, despite how unreasonable the ways of God’s Kingdom may seem to us in the context of this world, the cross is a promise that God’s way of life, a life we too are called to live, is so much greater than our own way of darkness and death.

[1] Sacks, Oliver. “To See or Not to See.” NY, 1993.
[2]Williams, Rowan. “A Ray of Darkness.” A Ray of Darkness: Sermons and Reflections. Cambridge: Cowley Pub, 1995.  102.
[3] Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding. Cambridge: Eerdman Pub, 2004. 188.
[4] Ibid, 189.

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