In praise of the paradox: A Lord’s Supper Homily on Acts 2.22-24,36

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January 15, 2013 by jmar198013

I presented this talk this past Sunday, 1.13.13. It’s mostly inspired by S. Mark Heim’s book Saved From Sacrifice: a Theology of the Cross, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006. Heim’s basic premise involves a paradox at the heart of the Gospel: “Christ’s death saves the world, and it ought not to happen” (17).

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Fellow Israelites, take heed! There was a man, a Nazarene named Jesus. God endorsed this man to you by the miracles, signs, and wonders God did through him while he was among you. You know what I’m talking about. By God’s design–intentionally and deliberately–this man was handed over to you. And you nailed him up and murdered him at the hands of lawless men. But God raised him to life again, wrenching him from death’s brutal grip. For death could find nothing in this man to hold onto … So let it be known to all Israel: This Jesus you crucified, God has made him both Lord and Messiah! (Acts 2.22-24, 36)

Peter’s Pentecost sermon is probably the earliest reflection on the meaning of the Cross on record [1]. In this sermon, Peter presents a paradox that will frame the New Testament’s subsequent interpretations of Jesus’ death. One author has phrased this paradox simply: “Christ’s death saves the world, and it ought not to happen … It is God’s plan and an evil act.” [2] Peter’s sermon–and the Gospel Passion narratives–tells how Jesus was unjustly killed at human hands. But Peter is just as emphatic–as are other voices of the New Testament–that Jesus’ death is at the center of God’s plan for redeeming what we have ruined. What do we make of this? I’m afraid that, because we humans tend to be uncomfortable in the presence of paradox, we have simply tried to resolve it. We abstract the Cross from its story and apply it to the problem of satisfying God’s wrath. [3] So we embrace the side of the paradox that says the Cross is God’s plan to save the world; but we virtually ignore the side of the paradox that says it was an evil act that ought not to happen. That Jesus was killed by people who had no regard for the truth; who believed they were securing the peace by violence; and that his friends abandoned him to this, become incidental to our telling of the story. I am afraid, however, that our impatience with the paradox of the Passion distorts the shape of our discipleship and the church’s witness. So today I speak in praise of the paradox.

I don’t believe that we can rightly appreciate how Jesus’ death is God’s plan to save the world until we come to terms with why it was an evil act that ought not happen. We’ll never know, in other words, how right it was until we see how wrong it was. The Gospel Passion accounts are plain that Jesus was railroaded. The Sanhedrin, the high priests, and Pilate conspired to throw him under the bus. But why? John 18.34 gives us a hint: the high priest Caiphas “had advised the Jews that it would be to their interest if one man died for the whole people” (REB). Pilate is afraid Jesus will spark a rebellion. The religious leaders fear he will bring the Romans down on them, and they plant this fear in the people. The solution for all parties is to remove Jesus from the equation. Old Scratch has put it in their heads that violence–even against an innocent man–is necessary to secure peace. So they design to kill this one man to avoid everyone else being killed. Meanwhile, Peter and the other disciples shamefully abandon Jesus and disown him. Why? Because they fear that if they speak up for him, they will become victims, too. Jesus’ death is an evil thing and it ought not happen. Peter makes this clear when he says: “You nailed him up and murdered him at the hands of lawless men.”

When we recognize that Jesus’ death was evil and ought not to happen, it helps us identify with the story in particular ways. For instance, if we have endured abuse, humiliation, or abandonment; if we have suffered long or intensely or unjustly and wondered why; if we have been slandered or scapegoated, we are on Jesus’ side. But what if we are more like Caiphas and Pilate, dictators of our own lives who believe that peace can be secured by violence? What if we are like Peter and the disciples, afraid to reach out to others in their suffering, or to speak up for the mistreated? Then we are not free from the sin that led to the Cross. It is written–not in the Bible, but somewhere it is written: “Nobody’s perfect … well, there was this one guy, but we killed him.” [4] What if this is an uncomfortable truth that we cannot live without? What if our killing of Jesus reveals why we so badly need him? Once we acknowledge that Jesus’ death was an evil act that ought not happen, we have made room for the Cross to become the Gospel. For it is also God’s plan to save the world.

Again, Peter says, “You nailed him up and murdered him at the hands of lawless men.” Jesus’ death was an evil act. “But God raised him to life again,” he adds. Jesus’ death was God’s plan to save the world. For Peter continues: “This Jesus you crucified, God has made him both Lord and Messiah.” I don’t think that the Cross becomes the Gospel because God visited the wrath our sins deserve on the innocent Jesus. If God killed Jesus to avoid killing everyone else, then God is standing with Caiphas and Pilate and all who believe that peace can be secured by violence. The violence of Caiphas and Pilate is the status quo. If God sanctions the status quo, all is business is usual. And if it’s business as usual, then it’s not the Gospel. But this is not the story Peter tells. The story Peter tells is not Jesus’ solution to the problem of sinners in the hand of an angry God, but God’s solution to the problem of Jesus in the hands of angry sinners. “You nailed him up and murdered him at the hands of lawless men. But God raised him to life again, wrenching him from death’s brutal grip.” What makes the Cross the Gospel is the Resurrection. God has spoken for the suffering victim, Jesus. The Resurrection is God saying that Jesus’ death was an evil act that shouldn’t happen. This is good news for those who suffer and wonder why, who have been abused and abandoned, slandered and scapegoated. The Resurrection means that God has heard their cries and agreed: “This is an evil thing and ought not to happen.”

But what about those of us who have participated in the sin that killed Jesus? Who like Caiphas and Pilate have become dictators of our lives–and perhaps those of others–by believing we can secure peace by violence? Who, like the people, have gone along with and evil deed we believed would serve the greater good? Or, who like Peter and the disciples, have deserted, betrayed, and denied those who suffer out of fear that their suffering would become our own? Isn’t the news that, “This Jesus you crucified, God has made him both Lord and Messiah,” in fact just awful news for us? For surely to be judged by the Lord and Messiah we have dealt so treacherously with could mean only vengeance and disaster for us. We would expect that. But again, if God’s plan to save the world caters to our expectations, then it’s not the Gospel. The risen Jesus does not come to avenge himself, but as a herald of mercy and reconciliation. Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5.18: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their sins against them.” Though his risen body bears yet the marks of our sin, Jesus stands before God as our advocate. In a striking reversal of the first murder, the author of Hebrews writes that, Jesus’ “blood … speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12.24 NRSV). Abel’s blood called for vengeance; the risen Christ can speak for himself, and he pleads for mercy. [5]

So as we gather round this table of bread and wine, let us eat and drink to the paradox: “Christ’s death saves the world, and it ought not to happen.” May we recall that God has entered our suffering in the person of Jesus and has vindicated our loss in his Resurrection. This is good news. May we be strengthened thereby to share this good news with those who suffer by standing with and speaking up for those who, like Jesus, have been deserted, betrayed, and denied. And let us acknowledge our share in the sin that killed Jesus. But let us also hear the good news that the one we have injured advocates for us. Let Jesus’ resurrection be for us a sign that God is able to reclaim and redeem what we have ruined.

Prayer: Father, we are awed that this Jesus we crucified but you made Lord and Messiah would share his table with us. May this astonishment animate our discipleship and determine our witness as a church. Amen.

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[1] I am well aware that this is not technically true, since Paul’s letters were written before Acts. I am simply referring to the canonical “plot line,” if you will. Just pretend with me that Peter said something very like this at Pentecost, and whatever Paul or Hebrews, etc., had to say represents further development. In other words, be postcritical or pre-modern or whatever.

[2] Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, 17, 108.

[3] Heim, 18-19.

[4] It is written in Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. I don’t have the book in front of me to reference the page number, but I assure you–it’s in there.

[5] Heim, 159.

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3 thoughts on “In praise of the paradox: A Lord’s Supper Homily on Acts 2.22-24,36

  1. […] Last time I spoke at this table, I challenged the assumption of one of our favorite modern hymns, “In Christ Alone.” Namely, that “on that cross/ as Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied.” I suggested, by contrast, that what makes the Gospel the Gospel is not that Jesus solves the problem of sinners in the hand of an angry God, but that God solved the problem of Jesus in the hands of angry sinners. Today I’d like to walk a bit further down that path of thought. Why should God solving the problem of Jesus in the hands of angry sinners be good news for the rest of us? What difference does it make? Maybe it is this: perhaps you are a sinsick soul who just cannot live without the belief that God has vented his wrath over your sin on Jesus in an act of summary violence. If so, perhaps God’s solution to the problem of Jesus in the hands of angry sinners is just the good news you need to hear. […]

  2. […] I stood by this table and presented the Cross as a paradox: it is both an evil act that shouldn’t have happened and God’s plan to save the world. I chose 1 Cor. 1.18-30 as my text today because it helps reconcile this paradox. Furthermore, the […]

  3. […] In praise of the paradox: A Lord’s Supper Homily on Acts 2.22-36 (Jan. 15, 2013) […]

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