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The Cross And Wisdom

Lenten Service @ St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Kanata

March 12, 2014


“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”  1 Cor 1:18

Henri Nouwen commented that from the beginning he faced two inner voices that spoke to him and gave him guidance as he made decisions about what to do with his life:

One said: “Henri, be sure you make it on your own.  Be sure you become an independent person.  Be sure I can be proud of you.”

The other said: “Henri, whatever you are going to do, even if you don’t do anything very interesting in the eyes of the world, be sure you stay close to the heart of Jesus; be sure you stay close to the love of God.”

The result was Henri, as a priest, studied psychology and became a psychologist.  That way if people weren’t so comfortable with having a priest around, Henri put on his psychologist hat.  He wore it well.  He began teaching psychology, and had time doing so at Notre Dame, Yale, and at Harvard.  He was seated in some of the most prestigious Halls of human wisdom in the western world.

But Henri recognized that something was wrong. He wrote that he could speak to thousands of people about humility, and at the same time wonder what the crowds were thinking of him.

He wondered if his career, responding to the first voice calling for his diligence and respectability, had gotten in the way of his vocation – the call of God in the latter voice.  He didn’t feel peaceful; he felt lonely.  And so he began to pray “Lord Jesus, let me know where you want me to go, and I will follow you.  But please be clear about it.”  And so Henri walked away from the safe and rational halls of human wisdom he’d enjoyed for so long.

He worked with the poor in Peru for a few months to explore whether God was calling him there, but eventually he found his way to the L’Arche community called Daybreak, just North of Toronto.  There, Nouwen gave his life to working with the handicapped and disabled.

Nouwen’s first task was to work with a young 24 year old man named Adam.  Adam was non-verbal, and could not stand on his own.  Henri was to help him with his morning routine.  Henri says he was afraid – it wasn’t easy working with Adam.  “Adam was not able to dress or undress himself.  Even though he followed me with his eyes, it was difficult to know for sure whether he actually knew me.  He was limited by a body that was misshapen, and he suffered from frequent epileptic seizures.”

Nouwen gives a description of the morning routine bathing, dressing, holding him as they made their way to the breakfast table.  Adam loved to eat, and was able to lift a spoon to his own mouth.  And so they ate together.  “It took a while,” Nouwen wrote, “and I was aware that I had never sat silently watching with anyone, especially a person who took an hour to eat breakfast.”

After two weeks, Nouwen felt his fears about Adam begin to diminish.  After a month, Nouwen was looking forward to being with Adam.  Nouwen found it hard to describe, but something was happening, and he wrote “God was speaking to me in a new way through this broken man.”  In time, Nouwen came to see Adam not as one challenged who needed Henri to survive, but as a brother who spoke to him about God and God’s friendship in concrete terms.  Henri learned that ‘being with’ was more important than ‘doing for’.  That ‘doing together’ was more important than ‘doing alone’, and – coming from an academic culture – that the things of the mind were subordinate to the primacy of the heart.

In the western world we’ve accomplished many mighty things of the mind. Wisdom and her cousin rationalism have allowed us to cut open the atom, to send humanity into space, to stop diseases and disorders that once ravaged humanity, and to create technologies that were science fiction dreams just decades before.  And we’ve seen incredible and wonderful changes in human society – we need not diminish the gift God has given us in wisdom and rationality and the curious and creative human spirit.

But we also want to recognize the real limits of that gift.  We recognize that when it comes to matters of truth, and trust, things are perhaps more complicated than ever.  Despite our increase in knowledge, we are a polarized and divided world.  Science is bought and sold.  Rationality is subject to bias.  Truth?  I daresay that more than a century of enlightenment thought has done little to help resolve Pilate’s ancient question.  We’ve just multiplied possible answers and revealed the brokenness of humanity when it comes to wielding them.

When we read the Apostle Paul saying that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”, we have a tendency to imagine that by ‘the perishing’ he means simply all those nasty pagans and their Graeco-Roman philosophies.  But Paul was writing to the Church in Corinth.  It was a church of educated, broadly experienced and exposed people.  From across the Empire ships harboured there, trading their goods, and their bits of wisdom and insight.  The best of everything could be found on its way through Corinth.  And, as a result, I think we’re right to interpret the community as one of those who’d seen it all, sold it all, bought it all – understood it all.   Did the cross seem foolish to them too?

And so in the church at Corinth there was division and quarrels.  Some followed Paul, others Apollos, others Peter.  The church had not come to truth, but to positions about truth.  Just like the world, they had developed heroes and favorites and played out the battles between those figures in their arguments and debates.

For them, the message of cross – it’s foolishness in the eyes of the world – wasn’t sufficient to satisfy their needs for significance and prestige.  The church, for Paul, was no platform for pontificating philosophers or squeaking scholars.  And we’re not seeing here some kind of early church anti-intellectualism.  What we’re talking about is people coming to terms with the truth revealed through the Cross, and interpreting everything through that reality.

When I was in seminary, I once got into a debate in a class about some theological point.  And my professor commented that he admired my mind, but wasn’t sure if I was aware of the degree to which my emotions lay under my thinking.  It stalled me.  Was that a compliment or an insult?  It wasn’t either.  It was a statement of the truth.  I‘m a human person, and even if I had a great degree of head capacity, it couldn’t counter the reality of my broken and complicit humanity.  Under my polemic or position, however rational I may have esteemed it, lay the desire for respect or acknowledgement.  Underneath are rivers of pride and insecurity that try to wear the clothes of power and being right, but are never more than a child within playing dress-up in other people’s opinions.  I discovered it is possible for me to use the message of the cross to attempt very un-crucifixion like acts of power.

It’s the cross itself that denies us that road.  It’s the epistemological revolution that pre-dates and out-does the post-modern skeptical critique of human objectivity by a couple of millennia.  If trendy philosophies today are unsure about our ability to know truth, the cross said so long ago.

The cross tells us that truth, ultimately, must be revealed – not by acts of men, but by an act of God.  The cross leads us not to human strength, but to God’s incredible sufficiency for everything we require including salvation and a road through and beyond death and suffering.  The cross does not set us up for division with some better than others, but sets the stage for unity with the whole of us equally before God and his judgment and totally dependent on his grace.  It calls us to lay down our attempts at human strength and our comparative self-driven measurements, and instead to begin trusting God in the truth of our collective weakness.

With that lens, we see before us a road not marked with eloquence, but contrition; not satisfying our need to prove ourselves, but calling us to lay our lives down for others; not convincing the world with all the tools of persuasion we might design, but penetrating it with the one truth that makes every great mind and powerful person squirm in discomfort: God alone is God, the author of life, the teller of truth, the saviour of humanity, and the ruler and judge who knows the real details of our hearts and from whom we cannot hide.  In the cross, and its foolishness, we see the one who lays all that power down as if it’s nothing, subjecting himself totally, and yet overcoming and ruling nevertheless. 

Delacroix Christ on the Cross

                                          Eugene Delacroix. Christ on The Cross. 1845

You may know that our son Owain has Down Syndrome. His presence in our lives has been entirely a blessing, and it’s made us sensitive to and progressively aware of issues related to Down Syndrome.  We’re new on our journey with Owain, but feel strongly both the stretching of our hearts and the need to speak clearly about the incredible value of his life.  Recent discussions about abortion, the killing of children after birth discussed in the BMJ last month, and the statistic that more than 90% of Down Syndrome babies are aborted are radically alarming, and as a result we’ve become more vocal about our pro-life stance especially in situations like Owain’s.  The following post is taken from a Facebook conversation about the appropriateness of the picture below in the context of those who’ve faced and made the difficult and painful decision to terminate a pregnancy of a disabled child.

I saw this picture shared on a friend’s Facebook page recently, and in the midst of a conversation about the appropriateness of the picture, I commented on it there.  I’m a father with a son who has Down Syndrome, and I’m also a pastor with firm convictions about separation of church and state.

Let me say first about the legality of abortion that the rights of an fetal child are never really taken into full account unless the parents own that responsibility themselves.  And they do own that responsibility.  Whether they come to terms with that responsibility in the course of their hard decisions, or later on in life afterwards, they will own that decision.  Whatever the state does, ultimately, it’s a mom and dad who’ve been entrusted with that child, and no moral or right choice really comes under duress.  Only they, really, can protect that child’s rights, even if the state did have the kinds of structures that they should which actually reflected equal protection and rights under law.  Laws against abortion are totally about that question – the protection of individual freedoms – in this case, of course, the child’s.

Let’s avoid the politics here, though, and so I hope you’ll bear with me here ultimately in terms of the question of sensitivity to people who’ve ended their pregnancies.

I’ll start by saying that I think the harder things in life are unavoidable realities: having a child with a special need, certainly handling the tension of what to do if it’s discovered during pregnancy, but maybe more the question of dealing with the decades of guilt and remorse and self-doubt and grief that can come after having terminated a pregnancy.  All these difficulties are part of the real world in which we all live.  I’m not sure the role of the church is to help someone find a reality where they don’t have to face this stuff.  Having that child will be hard.  I think aborting that child will be a lot harder down the road.

It’s not as though there were some sanctuary of ambivalence that could free someone from facing the decision in question for what it is, nor the consequences for what they are.  I do believe in the church as a place, a sanctuary, of safety and grace and gentleness and kindness and healing and forgiveness.  But not of simple ambivalence where murder is understated and the destruction of a child is shrugged off as the sad consequence of a difficult time.

It’s in the hard thing – whether having the child, or struggling with our own grief over the depravity of our sin – that we’re driven to cry out for God.

That’s been the gift of Owain to us.  The miracle of a child who’s very nature cries out for more of us, who cries out for us to let go of our motives and prejudices and even the designs of our parental dreams, so that we’re taught to love and receive the child that is.  Not even taught, God help me, Owain’s presence makes that love erupt from us not because we’re good parents, but because in the gift of Owain we’re driven to the feet of Christ for his love and help.  It’s in the hard things that we cry out God and find him.  It’s in the scuttling of my dreams and designs that I’m finding some of God’s.  No one should be spared this kind of gift if it’s offered – the most wonderful gift, so quickly refused because of our cultural bull of success and independence and personal freedom from any kind of hardship.

The appropriate grief and regret and remorse that follow the murder of a child like Owain is like a second chance at the same gift.

I don’t think we need to whack people with guilt – I expect they’re already doing that to themselves.  And the church is the place for hope for them.  But that hope is not necessarily, “oh there, there, we know that was so difficult; but don’t worry, that decision was ok.”  Maybe in some circumstances, sure.  But the real hope we offer is about those times when we know for certain that we’ve blown it; that we’re frigged, and that we’ve frigged someone else.  It’s for those times when we know it not because some mean legalist beat us with his Bible, but because we know deep in our core that what we’ve done is dissonant with God.  What we’ve done is clear evidence that our selfishness, perhaps, or at least our deliberate refusal to receive the gift of the hardship and suffering of caring for that child, drove us to murder.  It’s in that confession, in that painful truth where our brokenness is revealed – maybe not to anyone else – but to ourselves.  And in the face of that revelation, we may find God’s grace for us has meaning as we’re left with no hope but to cry out to him for our very souls.  From that brokenness, if they can experience it for what it is, they might cry out to God in grief for their sin and be healed.  That’s what our brokenness does for us.

No church that intentionally spares us the fact of our brokenness, or which mitigates its severity, is doing anything ultimately worthwhile for others at all.  That would be almost worse than a church that could point out every sin in the book and say nothing about the grace of God that can restore and forgive us!   It’s certainly not better.

Think of it this way.  If I post the picture above, and someone who was or is faced with the terrible decision of ending their pregnancy reacts with pain and sensitivity – then that is saying something.  It’s saying they are not at peace with that decision.  It’s saying they’re still wounded and in pain.  They are not ok as they are.  And so they will own that decision inside like a tumour or outside like a scar.  It’s the truth about what they’ve done, and so frighteningly hints at who they fear they might actually be.  Now we can have a world where we all go around trying not to touch the sore spots – but isn’t our role also about seeing people healed as they’re reconciled to God?  There is no healing for us outside of the grace and forgiveness of Jesus meeting the truth of who we are and what we we’ve done.  I’m not really in the business of going around hitting people to see who’s sore or to prove that they’re bad (or that I’m better, God help us) – that’s devilish in its design.  But I’m not sure avoiding the matter altogether is any better for them.  It might actually be worse.  God’s been consistently kind to me as he comments on who I actually am.  But at the same time he has indeed been speaking, as painful and shameful as that can be.  With grace and love, isn’t that what he’s asked us to do?

To my way of thinking, the most unsettling feature of Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins has been the response to it in the Christian community.

Theological problems certainly can be the result of poor thinking or because even good intentions, like evangelism or protectionism, have succumbed to an evasive dishonesty that wants to make things more palatable or clear than they are.  At the same time, some theological difficulties arise from a healthy sense of Christian humility which can tolerate well a certain degree of ambiguity.  Those concerned with guarding against the first certainly share the mind of Christ; Jesus made everything known to his disciples, even when it was hard.  Those concerned with preserving the second, however, share the heart of Christ.  Jesus was honest with his disciples, for example, when telling them that no one knew the day or hour of the end, except the Father alone.  Faithful communication of the Gospel requires both the mind and the heart of Christ: clarity about and fidelity to what we do know; humility and honesty about things yet mysterious.

I think the heart of Christ is conveyed best by a humble tone and openness to free dialogue, even when discussing what we do know.  But this is all the more true in a post-modern world where confession of the edges of mystery is more intelligible and honest than the hammered out propositional and prepackaged truths of the modern (and not necessarily scriptural) world.  Indeed the reasoned systematic arrangement of propositions is not a scriptural principle.  It’s worth saying then that all the ordered ‘right facts’ with the wrong tone is a clanging gong and risks giving as erroneous a picture of the heart and truth of God as the right tone with poor thinking or exegesis gives of His mind.  If Bell’s book is the latter, his critics often seem the former.  Some critics are aware of this risk, but then justify a tone that could be misconstrued as mean spirited, nasty, or even cruel by making notions of “strong language” a kind of synonym for “forceful arguments”.  I’m unconvinced, and suspect rather an excuse for plain bad behaviour among some evangelicals for which folks like Bell are trying to compensate.  Piper’s tweet “Farewell Rob Bell” reveals a very serious problem among evangelicals today when it comes to understanding the heart of Christ, and even if Bell’s suggestions about what happens after death fail exegetical tests, (and I think they do), at least the heart is right.  That’s a better place to start the discussion that Bell does indeed want to have.  Bell intentionally names his speculations about a quasi-universalistic almost purgatorial Hell, as a “question that gives us much to discuss”, but then goes on to say that they are nevertheless subsidiary matters to the better and less speculative question that matters more, and about which there is no real controversy.  Bell is willing to take the ideas he’s clearly most passionately interested in exploring, and that he feels will help in his ministry, and call them secondary to what we all as evangelicals hold as true.

I do think there is a better exegetical and theological path than Rob Bell’s.  One that is more faithful to the mind of Christ and the scriptural truth we’ve received, and yet that can also reflect the heart of Christ so necessary in our post-Christian context.

I’d begin by saying that Hell and final justice are simply not contrary to God’s love.  There’s no shortage, for example, of wounded people in this world who’ve rightly been crying out for justice.  And so the expressions of God’s definitive, permanent and final justice are actually expressions of His love to the victims and wounded of this world.  Victims matter to God.  Their feelings and sufferings matter.  Their loss and grief matter.  And so God’s wrath against the injustice, oppression and sin of this world is not that of a temperamental parent upset that the kids got in after 10pm.  His wrath is that of the one who sees everything perfectly, and who is filled with a love that forgives, is merciful, and that protects and sets right.

If we should be worried about who goes where ‘in the end,’ I’d paraphrase Augustine with “There are some God has, whom we [in the church] do not have; and there are some we have, whom God does not have.”  I often offer that passage with the reassurance that when God’s judgments are made, no one is going to stand back and slap their foreheads thinking God blew it.  We can trust Him.  No one is going where they don’t belong.  We can leave the matter there as a healthy and humbly expressed mystery where the scriptural truths of justice and mercy can meet, and be affirmed together.

One thing could have changed everything for Judas.

That one thing was not his betrayal of Jesus.

The night Jesus was betrayed, the disciples scattered.  The crowd armed with clubs and swords scared them away.  Judas escorted that crowd.  He knew where Jesus would be praying.  He was familiar with Jesus’ practices.  And so comes the moment when Jesus is arrested.  Soldiers chase disciples into the dark while Jesus is taken in hand and walked by shoulder and twisted arm towards the late night trial.  Peter, in the shadows, follows at a distance.  He is cautious.  Stepping over his fear he slips through the gate into the city, and then into the courtyard just outside the place where Jesus is questioned.  In that courtyard Peter sits behind his denials, his tongue submitting to the power of self preservation.  Peter would always remember the night he denied Christ.  While everyone else vented their anger against Judas, Peter vented against himself.  To the dirge of Jesus’ predictions, Peter sang the solitary lyrics of remorse and doubt.  He knew that his own weakness had left him as impotent as Judas was corrupted.

Over the centuries, the church has often characterized Judas in sharp contrast to Peter.  While we’ve celebrated Peter, the fact of Judas’ corruption has meant we in the church have often carried a practical kind of unforgiveness about Judas in our thoughts.  He’s our metaphor for betrayal from within one’s own cadre of the close and loved.  And yet, if we’re truthful, after Jesus’ arrest and Peter sheathing his sword, Judas was the only disciple who actually tried to do something to help Jesus.

Matthew’s Gospel tells us about the moment that Jesus was condemned to death.  When the judgment was pronounced, and Jesus was bound and led out to be taken to Pilate the governor, Judas saw what was happening and was immediately seized with remorse for his sin.  He knew he needed to do something.  While Peter was still denying Jesus, we can imagine he looks over to see Judas already trying to make things right, pleading with the chief priests and the elders, trying to give back the money, protesting aloud that Jesus was innocent.  How much more than Peter sitting silently just metres away!  To the elders and chief priests, and within earshot of Peter and perhaps Jesus, Judas openly confessed his sin:  “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”  Though his was the initial act of betrayal, Judas nevertheless did more practically to intervene and help Jesus on that awful night than any of the other disciples in hiding.

So what is the difference between Judas and Peter?  The specifics or the consequences of their sin?  Like Peter, Judas felt genuine remorse for what he’d done.  Moreover, in repentance he not only openly confessed his sin, but tried to make things right.  So, what else do we expect from Judas?  Isn’t that the standard we set for ourselves?  Just admit what we’ve done wrong, and then do what we can to repair the wrong we’ve done – isn’t that enough?

If we as Christians can celebrate Peter after his threefold denial of Jesus because he was remorseful, why not afford the same for Judas?  And how much more since Judas actually tries to intervene!  Are we actually saying that being sorry and doing what we can to straighten things out isn’t enough?

Yes, that’s exactly what we’re saying.

Indeed, what sets Peter apart from Judas is not the content of the sins.  Neither is it the quality of their remorse or the sincerity of their confessions.  And the matter is not one of failed or successful attempts to make things right either.

The difference is something else entirely beyond the question of repentance and reparation.  Certainly the Christian call to those of us who have failed includes these, and yet there is something more, something key, that is essential when it comes to the question of our own sin.


The kingdom of Christ is not only a realm of guilt and grief for our sin.  We preach repentance and faith.

When Jesus spoke with Peter after his resurrection, Peter’s future in God’s plan was a part of the discussion.  And as Peter spoke with Jesus he trusted that he was forgiven and free to serve.  Not so with Judas.  For Judas, after repentance there was no faith – no trust that forgiveness was possible for him.  That’s of course why he killed himself.

This is not a question of the severity of Judas’ sin.  While Judas himself may have argued that his betrayal was so serious that there was no hope for him, we who have come to know God in Christ Jesus know otherwise.  There is no limit to God’s grace and forgiveness, and that applies to Judas too.  The critical failing of Judas was not the betrayal, but the fact that after years of ministry alongside Christ he could not trust that grace could still be apportioned for him.  It was not out of remorse that Judas killed himself, it was out of a lack of faith in God’s mercy and grace: a lack of faith in God Himself.

For Judas, it is that one thing – faith in God’s promise of forgiveness – which could have changed everything.

It can change everything for you too.

The screenplay for the Oscar nominated film, Up in the Air, written by Jason Reitman, begins by juxtaposing two quotations.  “There is no ‘I’ in ‘Team’” is a ‘common business axiom’.   “Secure your own mask before assisting others” is a ‘common pre-flight instruction’.  The film follows that tension.  On the one hand we have a need for relationships, and on the other, so often, it can seem as if our own survival is challenged by them.

Relationships always call for us to give something.  They call something forth from us.  Effort and energy.  Time and patience.  Attention and listening.  Emptying of self.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  We experience the demand of relationships most fiercely when faced with a person with need we obviously cannot meet ourselves.  A person without normalized social boundaries exhausts us over the phone.  A sibling with a long history of irresponsibility is again in a serious crisis, and our line of credit has run its course.  A person we love is making a decision we doubt, or fear, and we’ll share in the consequences nonetheless.  The film is right: on the one hand we have a need for relationships, and yet features of our own life are threatened by their demands.

In fact, being in relationships can kill you.

That was Jesus’ experience.  His relationship with the world meant His death; He literally ‘gave himself’ to death.  Even beyond His death we experience His resurrection as an opportunity for him to continue giving to us.  At the Father’s right hand, after the Father has given His Son, and the Son has given His life, Father and Son send us their very Spirit.  All for the demands of love?  All for relationships with us?   If it weren’t for His divine immortality, meeting the needs of relationships with us would kill Him over and over.  And yet He enters them willingly, and asks us, even commands us, to do the same.

Being in relationships Jesus’ way well – loving in relationships in imitation of Jesus – does mean we lay our own survival on the line.  In an ongoing Lenten fit, we empty ourselves in order to follow His example.  And yet we know the great secret of love disclosed to the world in Christ.  As God’s loving expression of Himself, it is always Jesus’ self sacrificial love that actually meets the needs of those we know.  As Jesus expressed the Father’s love, so also, in ourselves, we express His.  And so as we empty ourselves and remain vulnerable in relationships that are difficult, we do so trusting that we are merely expressions of Christ’s love and that the great need of every human heart we touch can be met, not by something we give of ourselves, but by that which we pass on as from Him.

Each disciple of Christ is like a Valentine’s card from the Father: someone else’s name is written on us, our packaging will be torn and cast aside, we’ll be pried open and read aloud, and maybe even dropped from memory.  But the signature of our sender will be seen, and the message of love that matters and meets needs will be spoken.