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Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Gospel of Matthew 27:45-54
Gospel of Peter 1:1-6:24
Acts of John 97-102

One thing becomes clear from comparing these readings: the cross quickly became a stumbling block for Christians just as much as for unbelievers. There's apparently just something in the notion of a crucified messiah that just doesn't wash!

1 Corinthians is the earliest of these texts. In it Paul presupposes a radical separation between what hearers of the gospel might expect and what they actually hear. They say (or so Paul pictures them) that they would be perfectly happy to consider a messianic gospel if it just didn't involve the patent absurdity of a messiah executed by the Roman state! "Are you trying to tell me that God's great deliverer, he who is to sweep aside the pagan oppressor like a flimsy sand castle, was put to death by order of the Roman procurator? Sorry, by definition, that's no messiah; you've got yourself the wrong man!"

A few miracles might make all this more palatable! They might function like the proverbial spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down! But as it is, Paul is dispensing doses of unadulterated castor oil! He is sorry to have to tell his audience that he has no miracles to ameliorate their skepticism. Because the death of Jesus was nothing but shameful and ignominious. There was nothing in it to distinguish it from the thousands of other crucifixions Pilate ordered, nothing to make this dead man different from the hundreds of others who died on the very same crossbeam, who were no doubt still dying on it over in Roman Palestine even as Paul wrote these words to the Corinthians! He has only the naked cross to preach, ungilded by miracles.

But, Paul says, if one swallows hard and admits this fact, one will be in a position to see that the power of God is present at Golgotha after all! It is present, of all things, in the depth of human weakness! How is that? Why, it is present in precisely the same way the kingdom of God was present in the form of mystery and of mustard seed in the inconspicuous, itinerant ministry of Jesus.

The power of God was present in the unadorned, ugly death of Jesus just as it was in Paul's own preaching, which in this very same letter he admits was utterly without rhetorical flourish. That was a good thing, Paul says, as opposed, say, to the Alexandrian eloquence of an Apollos, because if one agreed with what one heard, one knew that it was the content of the message itself, the inherent power of the gospel, and not the verbal seduction of a sophist that had won one's assent.

Even so, in a strange way the issues are actually clearer at Golgotha if the power of God is manifest in a hidden way, in a human being's painful death. Because we see where timely miracles are truly to be found. If we saw the impossibilities and absurdities of Matthew's  crucifixion account, we would simply have beheld a special effects show that would have proven one thing: that in Jesus God had not at all condescended to join the suffering human race in its agony, but had made sure that he went out with a bang as befits a god who only pretends to walk the earth.

If the power of God was evident on the cross as Paul said it was, there can be no question at all of the stage dramatics of a Mark or a Matthew, of strange celestial phenomena that would have proven even to a pagan Roman executioner that "Truly, this was the Son of God." Not a chance! No, Paul says the power that was revealed there was revealed only to the eye of faith!

The power revealed on the cross that awful day was the revelation that the mighty God suffers with humanity and that his power is made perfect in us in our weakness, nowhere else. What a notion that, as the Gospel of Peter has it, Christ felt no pain upon the cross! If he didn't, then let me tell you the writer to the Hebrews was dead wrong: in that case we do not have a High Priest able to be touched by our afflictions, because in that case he is a total stranger to them!

What an absurdity that according to the Acts of John Jesus Christ was not even present on the cross! Because that is to say that he is not present with us when we suffer either! He is a stranger to our pains. His grace can have no role there. This is all just the sort of triumphalistic theology held by the Corinthians that Paul was trying to rebut.

Have you ever read 1 Corinthians 12:3 and wondered what Paul meant? He says to the Corinthian prophets: "Remember when you were devotees of pagan deities? You were led in a bacchantic frenzy from one outrage to another. But now that you are Christ's you ought to know better: you ought to know that it is never the Spirit of God that leads any one to prophesy, 'Jesus be cursed!'" What kind of a loony bin was this church that Christians were cursing Jesus? The point seems to have been that these prophets were those who believed that the Christ Spirit was not the same as the human Jesus, but that Jesus was merely a temporary vehicle for the Christ Spirit. Do you see the implication of this? Christ did not really come among us in the raw, uninsulated. He merely took a nice, safe motorcade ride among us, slumming, safely behind the bulletproof glass of the Pope-mobile!

But Paul knew better! He knew the secret of the incarnation, though he may not have worked out all the philosophical implications of it. That would take some centuries. He left that to Athanasius and to Gregory of Nyssa. But it was already more than clear to him, certainly much more clear than to Mark, Matthew, the Gospel of Peter, or the Acts of John, that if any ­relevant­ power is to be revealed on Good Friday, any power that is going to do any man or woman any good, it is going to have to be the peculiar sort of power that is made perfect in weakness, which, thank God, it was!




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