Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wisdom, Word, Spirit, Christ

Texts: Proverbs 1 20-33 (Wisdom cries in the streets); Mark 8 27-28 ("Who do you say I am?")

"Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asks; and Peter replies, "You are the Messiah."

True enough, we could say. But then Jesus goes on to describe what type of Messiah, Christ or King he is; one who will soon undergo suffering, rejection and execution, and then after three days, rise again.

The confirmation of the first part of this prediction -- the crucifixion -- is often called the great scandal of Christianity. What kind of king gets killed before he even ascends the throne? What kind of God gets executed by an evil empire?

But is crucifixion really such a surprise? It is hardly unusual for earthly leaders to be killed by their rivals. It is also hardly unusual for gods or goddesses to be eliminated by an enemy state.

Most kings fail in their earthly ambitions. Over the course of history, thousands of bands, tribes, chiefdoms and empires have warred against each other. Most of them eventually suffered defeat, and those defeats often led to the death of their kings or other leaders.

Today only 200 states still stand, and there are only two superpowers: the United States and China. So while it is painful when a people is defeated by their rivals and their king is killed, such an occurrence is hardly unusual.

The defeat of a tribe or nation is also often seen as the death of its god. Thousands of different gods or goddesses have been worshipped over the millennia, but only a few are still worshipped today. When a people is defeated and conquered, their god usually dies at the same time.

So it must have been with the people in Jerusalem when the Temple was burned down by the Babylonians more than 2500 years ago. The Jews believed that their God, Yahweh, lived in the Temple. Therefore, many of them also believed that Yahweh had died in the rubble of the Temple. This was a tragedy for the Jews in Jerusalem, but hardly unusual.

80 years later, Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem from Babylonia, rebuilt the Temple, and resumed the worship of Yahweh. 600 years after this, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Once again, Jews must have feared that Yahweh had been killed in this war. Instead, Jewish rabbis found new ways to worship Yahweh without the Temple, just as their Christian brothers and sisters continued in our own way to worship God in Christ without the Temple.

It is this latter development -- worshipping God despite the defeat of his people and the destruction of his Holy City and Temple -- that makes Judaism and Christianity stand out in the history of defeated empires. While it might have looked as though Yahweh had been killed when the Temple was destroyed -- and while it was painfully clear that Jesus had been crucified on the cross -- God's Love lived on, and continues to live on today.

Jesus' prediction that as Messiah he will be killed is a realistic one. What Peter  misses is the final part of Jesus' statement: that "after three days he would rise again." Jesus predicts both death and resurrection.
There is death at the end of each individual life; and as Christians, we approach death confident that our lives will find their fulfilment in God's Spirit. This is the promise of resurrection.

But there are also many small "death's in life," which can sometimes lead to a gracious possibility of resurrection. Sometimes they are an occasion for the death of an illusion or a false messiah. Sometimes they can remind us of the Christ within us. Sometimes they can give us an opportunity to turn from the worship of an idol to the worship of the God who is Love.

As we grow into adulthood, we become attached to many things. We love our family and friends, we follow our favourite sports teams, we become patriots of our country, we develop interests and passions, and we devote ourselves to our careers.

All of this is unexceptional, but it can also become a problem, I believe. Here is a simple example from my own life.

For all but three years of my adult life, I have lived in the big city of Toronto. I enjoyed life in Toronto, and I became attached to it. Living as a minister in rural Alberta and now here in rural Saskatchewan challenges my attachment to city life. In this case, grace might involve letting my attachment to big city life drift away; resurrection might involve  embracing the awesome beauty of this land, the people who live here and also love it, and a simpler and quieter life. This is a small example, of course, but one that is important for me.

We cannot help but form attachments. Spiritual growth can involve finding grace in the losses that dissolve those attachments and that open us to a world beyond our small selves. And since life involves so much loss, the opportunities to receive the pain and joy of grace are endless.

Children grow up and move away. Careers blossom and then fade. Loving relationships continually challenge us. Our bodies age and sometimes fail us. Our sports team, our church, or our country disappoint us. Any such challenge in life can sometimes feel so painful that it seems like a death.

If we accept the same grace that Jesus accepts on his road to the cross, then we can find new life beyond the pain of losing our old attachments. By accepting our situation, no matter how difficult, we take up our crosses; and we move a bit beyond our egos into the wider world of God's Spirit . . .

The question of what life after death will be like often comes up in church. Scripture gives us some ideas. But none of us really know.

I believe that all the small deaths and resurrections in the course of life give us the best clues. Each time a painful loss breaks an old attachment, God's Spirit gives us the grace to rise to new life beyond that attachment. In this new life, some of our old ego has been washed away. Such new life is less about us as individuals and more about God's world, God's community, and God's love, which has always supported us whether we knew it or not.

Of course, not every challenge or loss breaks old attachments and opens us up to new life beyond them. But even if we only catch brief glimpses of life beyond ego this side of the grave, the good news is that we are confident that at death, a new life beyond ego will be ours completely.

Taking up our cross does not have to involve tremendous effort. It can be as simple as painfully letting our old attachments drift away and waking up to the fact that there is much more in our family, community,  and world than our small ego and its desires. There is a deeper joy, a deeper connection, a deeper love available for us. It is the love of God in Christ beyond our small self. The Big Self of God lives inside each of us, binds all of us together, and reaches beyond us into God's eternity . . .

In our first reading from Proverbs, we meet God's Wisdom, a mysterious figure who pops up several times in the Old Testament. Some Christians think that Wisdom is the Word of God whom John tells us is born as Jesus. If Jesus is Wisdom, then his is an unconventional wisdom. Jesus' wisdom sees grace in loss, strength in weakness, and resurrection in death.

Who do we say Jesus is? He is God's Wisdom that leads us to death. He is God's Word  come to us as a vulnerable baby. He is God's Spirit that lives within each human heart. He is God's Christ who is rejected and killed, and who is raised to new life on the third day.

Wake up, Jesus calls us. Take up your cross and rise with me to new life. This might not be the life we once thought we wanted. Instead, it is a life that all of us as children of God deserve. It is life of love, now and forever within the heart of God.

Thanks be to God.


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