Preached March 7, 2021, the Third Sunday of Lent, via Zoom, to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto.
Readings for this Sunday (Yr B): Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19, 1 Cor 1.18-25, Jn 2.13-22
“Where is the debater of this age?”, Paul asks in his first letter to the church in Corinth. If Paul was around to ask this question today, someone might well answer, “YouTube”. Go to YouTube and you can spend hours and hours watching debates between atheist and Christian thinkers. Some of these events are quite respectable, such as a dialogue hosted by Oxford University between the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Richard Dawkins, a renowned evolutionary biologist and public spokesman for the idea that religious belief is a form of delusion. Some of these debates are more sharp-elbowed, and are eagerly anticipated and discussed by believers and sceptics, as if they were Superbowl matchups between Team Atheism and Team Religion.
While I respect the chance to hear thoughtful arguments for and against belief, I’m sceptical of the value of these sorts of events. It’s been my experience over the years that you can’t talk people into entering the Christian faith or to talk them out of leaving it. If we had found the person with the skilled tongue and the best arguments for Christianity, we wouldn’t have churches in decline, at least in decline in the western world. I think Paul was sceptical as well. When he asked, . “Where is the debater of this age?”, he was asking a rhetorical question. Paul knew that his message was based on the cross, and the cross is inexplicable.
As Paul opens his letter to the fractious and troubled church in Corinth, I’m struck by the fact that he doesn’t even rely on clever arguments. Everything he’s said and done since he met these people, Paul says, has been about the cross: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2.2). What’s more, Paul says with blunt honesty, the cross at the heart of his message doesn’t make a lot of sense. The cross, he says repeatedly, is “foolishness”. It doesn’t make sense to Jews, like the ones in today’s gospel who demand “signs” or proofs from their tradition and scriptures in order for Jesus to prove his identity. The cross is also “foolishness” to Greeks who prize philosophy and reason. If anyone would have asked him, “Is that all you got?”, Paul would say “yes, just this message that Jesus the Son of God voluntarily died on the cross to save us from our sins.”
Sometimes when I think that selling this Christian message is a tough uphill battle, I take comfort from Paul’s frank admission that it could be just as hard a sell in his day. Because it is a hard sell. As our own age becomes increasingly secular, it’s tempting to rebrand the church and find an easier message to sell. Recently I read a message by a priest in the Church of England with some forty years’ service who said that our message is the reason why the pews are emptying. Rev. David Keighley believes that the church’s “supernatural theism”, its outdated teaching about a sky-god, no longer works with “scientifically educated” people today. Better, he says, to ditch our dogma and focus instead on a message of “universal love”.
This isn’t a new idea. Those of you with long memories might remember John Spong in the 1980s or Bishop Robinson in the 1960s writing similar ideas about the need to reject an unbelievable Christian theology. The fact that these ideas persist shows that the gospel message remains as heavy a lift in our time as it was in St. Paul’s day. If Paul was here today, he say to Rev. Keighley that you if you want a message of universal love, you won’t find a better one than the cross. As foolish as it is, as hard to believe as it may be to accept in our scientific age, the cross is the place where God chooses suffering over power for no other reason than for love for us.
It comes down to this, that our faith is not a collection of dogma, but a long story of how, over and over, God chooses the people God loves. When Paul writes to the believers in Corinth, he calls the saints that God has chosen. “God is faithful”, he writes, “by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1.4). Paul as a Jew knew one thing with bedrock certainty, that this call had echoed down through the centuries, the same call that came over and over again to the people of Israel chosen by God to show God’s love to the world.
In our first lesson, we heard the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, given by God to Moses. Heard at random like this, one of the unfortunate results of the lectionary, this lesson can seem like another installment of the unbelievable dogma the Rev. Keighley complains of, a sky god telling people how to live. However, one of the most powerful things I heard this last week was by Joy Moore, an African American preacher talking about this reading from Exodus. Here, she said, is a people that God has called out of slavery, and here, in his commandment on the sabbath, God is telling these former slaves that they can take a day off, that they have the right to a day when they don’t have to work for anyone! Here, in this ancient text, Joy Moore does not hear an ancient and outdated dogma, but instead hears proof that the God of love is committed to the flourishing of all people, including her own people, who have their own powerful memories of slavery.
I think the Christian message boils down to this one power truth, that the God of love is thoroughly committed to all human flourishing, even to the point of demonstrating that love on the cross. What exactly happens on the cross can be debated and pondered by theologians, but somehow it frees us from our burdens of sin and opens up communion with God. I am aware even as I say this that it will seem like foolishness. Well, St. Paul warned us that would happen. I’m ok with that. Let the cross be the cross, and let God be God. I’m convinced that if we live as a people who know that the cross shows us God’s love and salvation, then we will make others curious. As Covid comes to an end and we can be more missional in the community, resuming things like the Alpha course, we will have opportunities to share our faith with others and make them curious. Meanwhile, I’m convinced that if we keep our eyes on the cross as we progress towards Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we will see why it is we believe, and why some might come to join us.
Gracious God, we thank you that in the cross, with all its ugliness and suffering, you’ve given us a profound symbol of your endless love. We don’t always understand how it works, and we struggle to explain the cross to a sceptical world. Help us understand the cross as a sign of your love, and help us show that love to the world in our lives and in our community as church.