It’s not one of the scriptures for our fall series, but this week’s Gospel lection is one of the questions God poses to us: “Who do you say that I am?” In short order, Peter screws the pooch over the answer.
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
– Mark 8
Like Peter, we’ve been determined ever since to get a God by any other means than a cross, a savior who meets us through any other medium than suffering and shame.
“The cross alone is our theology,” Martin Luther wrote in his Heidelberg Disputation. Notice, Luther didn’t say, “The death of Christ alone is our theology.” The distinction determines our theology. To say the cross alone is the core of our God-talk is to make the awful and audacious claim that the glory of God meets us not in our strivings up towards glory but in our suffering and humiliation. The God who condescended to meet us in the crucified Christ never chooses any other avenue by which to meet us than condescension into suffering, or, as Chad Bird writes, “The glory of God is camouflaged by humility, anonymity and even foolishness, for our God likes to hide himself beneath his opposite.”
If the cross is God’s attack upon sin, as scripture sees it, then the particular sin revealed in Christ’s crucifixion is our dissembling.
The cross outs all our spiritual pretension as a sham.
It’s our affectations at virtue, not our vice, that abandon God.
It’s our “goodness” that pushes him out of the world on a bloody tree.
In the name of godliness we drive nails through his hands and his feet; in homage to wisdom and justice we reason it’s better for this innocent one to die. God hides behind the mask of a cross in order to reveal the masks we wear to play-act the role of a righteous alter ego. Like Jekyl’s Hyde, this alter ego is as much a killer as it is addictive, for if, as St. Paul insists, God’s righteousness has been gifted to us in Christ apart from any of our religious doings, then our goodness itself- or, our pretense at goodness- is the problem Christ kills by his cross.
Our goodness itself, and it’s attendant self-deceptions of self-sufficiency and shit-togetherness, is the sickness from which we requiring saving. Luther said that Jesus Christ meets us so far down in the muck and mire of our lives that his skin smokes hot; that is, Christ condescends to meet us not as a needless accessory in the pristine parts of our lives in the steaming piles of shit in our lives.
Wherever shit happens, grace does too.
God meets us in our shame and in our suffering because only when we’ve been reduced to nothing do we know our need and you can’t receive a gift in joy if you’re determined it’s unnecessary. It’s why God must kill the patient before he can live again. As Luther continued in thesis 18 of the Disputation: “Man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is ready to receive the grace of Jesus Christ.” Knowing you have nothing to offer is the only way to receive what God has to give. It’s only when shit happens that you see you need a savior.
In his memoir Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer tells of a young woman, a new wife, from whose face he removed a tumor, cutting a nerve in her cheek in the process and leaving her face smiling in a twisted palsy.
Her young husband stood by the bed as she awoke and appraised her new self: “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
The surgeon nods and her husband smiles, “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”
Selzer goes one to testify to the epiphany he witnesses:
“All at once, I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with God. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I’m so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”
The glory of God always shows forth in Jesus stooping over to kiss the shameful scabs and weeping wounds of lepers like us.
During their sojourn in the desert, still waiting on God to deliver the goods in the milk and honey department, Moses asks God to disclose his glory. No one can see God’s face and live, the Almighty explains to Moses before instructing him to hide in the cleft of a rock. As God passes by the rock, God covers Moses’ eyes, permitting Moses only a glimpse of God’s backside. God is the one who prevents Moses from seeing his glory. Whether from the cleft of a rock or upon a cross, God refuses to be seen in glory. To Moses, God gives only a peek at his behind. To us, God responds to our taunts at glory (“If he’s the Christ let him save himself!) by bleeding and dying.
“If he’s the Christ let him save himself” echoes an ancient addiction. From Adam onwards, we are addicted to the “glory story;” that is, we’re hard-wired by sin to imagine that God is far off in heaven, up in glory, doling out rewards for every faithful step we take up towards him and doling out chastisements for our every slip-up along the way. It’s the glory story that produces cliches like “God never gives you more than you can handle” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s the glory story that provokes questions like “Where is God in the midst of my suffering?” The glory story prompts those kinds of questions and cliches because it gets God’s directionality backwards.
The Gospel is a one-way story that goes down.
The story of the Cross is not the story of our journey up to God but God’s journey down to us. The story of the Cross is a story of God’s condescension to us not our ascension up to God. Addicted to the glory story, we’re reliably liable to point our mouths in the wrong direction when we cry out to God for help. Up into glory rather than down in to the darkness we’re in and out into the nothing and shadows that surround us.
How preachers like me so often speak of the cross is insufficient. In the suffering Christ, God does more than identify with those who suffer, the poor and the oppressed.
By his suffering, God in Christ does more than give us an example in order to exhort us into rolling up our sleeves and serving those who suffer.
No, God is to be found in our suffering.
God refuses to be seen in any other way in our world than in how he appears when Pontius Pilate declares of him, crowned with thorns and his cloths and skin in tatters: “Ecce Homo.” Behold, the man. Behold the man reduced to nothing; so that, man will know this man is to be found in our nothing. Gerard Manley Hopkins got it half-wrong: God only plays in ten thousand places if those ten thousand places are places of suffering and humiliation, crosses and conjugal beds. If the sin revealed by the cross is our spiritual pretension, then when the dying Christ declares
“It is finished” he ends any of our self-congratulatory projects that would have God be seen in any other way but in our need and by any other means than the cross.
While we so often wonder where God is in our suffering, St. Paul indicts as “enemies of the cross” any who insist that God isn’t in suffering. Where we assume God’s absence amidst suffering, Paul implies that not to know Christ is not to know that in your suffering God is hidden, present, there. Suffering isn’t a sign that God’s asleep at the wheel. Suffering is the vehicle in which God drives you to his grace. “Where is God in my suffering?” just may be exactly the worst question to ask- even if it is an unavoidably natural cry- because the God who shows his ass to Moses shows himself no more clearly than in our suffering.