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The Offense of the Cross

I was reading a bit in 1 Corinthians 1 this Good Friday morning and was once again struck by the conclusion of the chapter, Paul’s famous description of the “foolishness” of the cross.  Paul describes Christ crucified as a “stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”  I wonder if this is not sometimes also the case for those of us who “are being saved.”  Do we, too, stumble over the idea of a crucified king or do we just turn it into another kind of “Christian wisdom?”  Does God’s wisdom seem, at times, like foolishness even to those of us who have come to believe in the saving power of what was accomplished at that first Easter?

Last night a small group of us walked through a fairly somber Maundy Thursday service where we shared a simple meal, read through John’s account of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion in stages and blew out candles at each stage along the way.  It was a dark service for a dark period of Holy Week.  The previous Sunday I had preached about how Jesus enters Jerusalem as a very different sort of king than any the world has ever seen.  Rather than overwhelming his opponents by force and triumphantly inaugurating his kingdom, Jesus is subjected to public humiliation and disgrace and is ultimately executed like a criminal.  Some king.  Some redeemer.  Some rescue plan.

There are times when I find the cross to be a beautiful thing—an inspiring display of self-sacrifice, moral heroism, redemptive commitment, and judgment of evil.  But there are also times when I, too, find the cross offensive (Gal 5:11).  There are times when, like the disciples, I long for a less ironic and subversive display of power and for more concrete and obvious evidence that Israel’s king really is drawing all things to himself.  There are times when the cross doesn’t seem all that victorious—when it really does seem like little more than a cold slab of wood where hope dies, where the inevitability of violence, pain, and death win yet another day.  There are times when the cross really does seem foolish and offensive, and unworthy of the history of hope that has emerged out of the first Easter.

At this time of year we often hear some variation of, “you have to walk through Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday.”  Usually this is meant to convey the importance of meditating on the extent of Jesus’ suffering, recognizing how awful it was for him, and not moving too quickly to the victory of Easter Sunday.  Or something like that.  Perhaps a rediscovery of the “offense of the cross” might also be a part of what Good Friday is about.  Perhaps Good Friday is meant, once again each year, to “destroy the wisdom of the wise” (1 Cor. 1:19).  The cross is not rational.  It may not even be that inspiring.  It may seem little more than tragic and futile.

Easter Sunday does change how Good Friday is understood and experienced—indeed, it’s the only reason the adjective “good” can be prefixed to all that is symbolized by that dark day.  But like the first disciples, we still wait for the victory inaugurated by that first Easter to be consummated.   The kingdom of God is real, and it does advance, but sometimes not as quickly or obviously as we might like.  Because of Easter Sunday, we wait expectantly and hopefully for we believe that out of the deepest darkness comes the brightest light.

But in the meantime, we still have our dark Thursdays and Fridays.

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,  so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

1 Cor. 1:27-30

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tanya Duerksen #

    Thanks Ryan.

    April 14, 2009
    • You are most welcome Tanya—always good to hear echoes from the other side of the Rockies!

      April 14, 2009
  2. Ian #

    Thanks for your blog. Yes most of our days are Thursdays and Fridays. Let’s admit it. But we do have that deep rooted joy because the kingdom of God exists, even as a seed. Yes, there is much to explore in 1 Corinthians 1. Thank you for your stimulating thoughts. I’ll be back for more. Our mutual friend Tanya pointed me in the direction of your blog.

    April 14, 2009
    • Thank you for the kinds words Ian. I absolutely agree that joy, not despair, is the final reality made possible by Easter and which ought to characterize the Christian life. This certainly comes through throughout Paul’s writings (I just taught a class on Philippians and was once again impressed by the deep joy that pervades Paul’s writings despite his external circumstances). I think that joy is a much better and deeper (and more biblical) term than something like “happiness” or “delight” because it can incorporate our darker Thursdays and Fridays into the overall reality of what Sunday promises and makes possible. In other words, as you allude to, joy does not preclude honesty before God and others.

      April 14, 2009
  3. Ian #

    I wonder if you can help me with the so called “Truth Project” by Del Tackett. I am not impressed by the bandwagons that traverse the evangelical landscape and so I try to stay clear of them. I am looking for a critique of the Truth Project by a reputable thinker and writer. As a principle I prefer to be known for what I favour, not what I’m against. However I fear that this most recent bandwagon has potential to damage the cause of Christ. Can you point me in the direction of an analysis? Perhaps you have read the material and given some thought to it yourself. Thanks.

    April 16, 2009
  4. I actually attended one of The Truth Project “training seminars” last fall, so I got to see Tackett and his approach up close and personal. I had meant to blog a bit about that experience a while back but never got around to it. One of our care groups is currently going through it and I think it’s getting mixed reviews so far. Some people’s main critique of it is that the sessions are too long, but others have questions about the entire approach as well.

    I haven’t yet come across a thorough review of The Truth Project that I would be comfortable recommending (although, to be fair, I haven’t spent a whole lot of time looking), so all I can do is give you my impressions of what I saw. To put it bluntly, I wasn’t impressed. It’s certainly a well-done presentation that obviously has quite a bit of money behind it, but as far as content goes it seemed fairly weak—another of those “bandwagons that traverse the evangelical landscape,” I fear, and not a very helpful one.

    I think your initial suspicions are completely borne out by what I saw at the seminar. It is a very reactionary and defensive approach to truth that sees the primary task of the Christian as deciding what is true (as opposed to relating to and obeying who is true) and then defending it against an evil secular culture. It is a very polarizing approach to truth and a very cognitive one (i.e., the most important thing is that you “really believe that what you really believe is really real!”—that’s a quote from Tackett) as opposed to a personal or relational understanding of truth. I see Jesus as being very concerned with how we act. At the very least, the Hebrew worldview had a much closer connection between belief and action than we seem to—what we believe is shown by how we act and how we act is influenced by what we believe). There was a whole lot of Paul and almost no Jesus in Tackett’s presentation, which I found interesting. I’m not saying that Paul and Jesus present different gospels, but to do a project on “truth” and virtually ignore the one who claimed to be “the way, the truth, and the light” seems odd to me.

    In addition, as a Mennonite, I had some strong reservations about his persistent linking of Christian values with America as a political entity (usually in the form of a lament that politicians weren’t legislating Christian values, or that America was no longer a Christian nation). As I see it, Christians are called to be salt and light from and to influence our contexts from the ground up as opposed to from the top down. Tackett (and probably Focus on the Family in general) have a different understanding on this matter.

    Overall, the impression I got was that The Truth Project was designed to arm a bunch of vulnerable and beleaguered (American) Christians with the appropriate weaponry to fend off their evil secular neighbours. I think this is a very bad posture to take with respect to the broader culture. Not only do I think that it is theologically suspect, but it’s just flat-out counter-productive. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone when from the outset you understand them to be your enemy.

    Sorry for rambling on so much. These are just a few of my initial recollections. I may have to go back to my notes and see what else I can recall. Overall, I came away from the conference with very mixed impressions. I don’t doubt that some good could be done by using these DVD’s and that they could open up some very interesting avenues of conversation, but it’s not a resource that I will be turning to anytime soon.

    Hope that’s at least somewhat helpful. I’d appreciate it very much if you would let me know if you come across any good reviews of this material.

    April 16, 2009
    • Ian Lawson #

      Your response is very helpful. I asked about the Truth Project because a woman in our church recently asked me. There are a few in our church who have taken the training. I’m hesitant to make judgments on the basis of suspicion and hunches. So the fact that you took the training seminar and possess theological acumen gives your comments significant credibility. For those who ask I will point them to your blog and insights.

      Again, I cannot speak with first hand authority. But I am concerned when Christians take an arrogant posture with respect to truth, leaving the notion that we alone possess it. They fail to recognize that God’s truth resides in general revelation, available to all humanity. My suspicion is this kind of posture, creating an “us verses them” view of the world, does nothing to foster our engagement in the culture. I hear of parents wanting to use the material to equip their youth for university. Frankly that’s a scarry thought. I’m afraid that simplistic answers will not create a robust faith able to withstand the challenges of secularism.

      I have said more than I should, considering that my remarks are based on hunches, not research. Your blog response has been very helpful and has not relieved my concerns. Thank you again.

      April 16, 2009
  5. Your second paragraph says it very well, Ian. I couldn’t agree more.

    A story from the conference that I think illustrates your concern about university students clinging to simplistic answers that cannot withstand the challenges of secularism: While I was there, I met a couple of post-secondary students who were very enthusiastic about Tackett’s insights and how they were going to provide them with long-sought after rebuttals to their secular friends and professors about some issue discussed in class (in my opinion, Tackett had been entirely unconvincing and unfair in his discussion of this particular issue, but I digress). When I asked this student how they would respond if one of their non-Christian classmates or their professor asked them, “how do you know that?” or “what are you basing your assertion on?” there was an awkward silence, and then this: “I’ll just tell them that the speaker at a Focus on the Family conference said so.

    For me, this little conversation offered an unfortunate synopsis of some of the problems of The Truth Project in general. For whatever reason, the sense I got at the conference was that truth was a (very well-packaged) commodity that Focus on the Family would be happy to sell you (along with Adventures in Odyssey for your kids, keychains, T-shirts and any other number of products) to arm you against the advances of secularism or to support those who do so on your behalf. I’m probably being overly-cynical, but the implicit message seemed to be: “We’ll do the thinking/battling the secularists for you; just buy our products and you’ll have everything you need.” Perhaps that’s a tad unfair—I don’t doubt that there are some very well-intentioned and committed followers of Christ behind this whole enterprise, but I just disagree with the entire approach to culture that I saw at the conference.

    Again, sorry for the rambling. And thanks for your encouragement and insight.

    April 17, 2009

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