Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Good Friday: The Transforming Cross (1)

The transformation of glory

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:20-23)

In April 1518, the Reformer Martin Luther was summoned before a general chapter of his own Augustinian order of monks at Heidelberg, and called to recant the position he had adopted the year before in his 95 Theses.

Luther refused, though he did resign as district vicar of his order. Instead, he put forward a much more lengthy statement of his views, in what became known as the Heidelberg Disputation. This showed how his thinking went far deeper than merely to opposing indulgences, or even to relying on faith rather than good works for salvation.

Rather, Luther’s theology (though ‘theology’ is too dry and clinical a word for it) was, at heart, the theology of the cross — an understanding that the cross transformed all of life. Indeed, for Luther the cross of Christ was not just the means of our salvation, it was an insight into the very heart of God —the point at which the invisible God is truly revealed.

But God is only revealed through the cross to the eye of faith, whereas most people think of God’s unseen character as being revealed through the physical things we see. In Luther’s opinion, this led to a false understanding of God:

That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened.

In other words, we cannot look at the world around us and truly understand God on the basis of surface appearances alone. Our natural inclination is to look at the mountains and say, “Here is the majesty of God,” or look at the stars and say, “Here is the power of God,” or to look at a newborn baby and say, “Here is the love of God.” But the eye of faith looks on the cross and says, “Here, truly, are the majesty of God and the power of God and the love of God.”

So Luther continued,

He deserves to be called a theologian ... who perceives the visible rearward parts of God as seen in suffering and the cross. (Following McGrath, here.)

Luther is alluding to the request of Moses, when he said to God, “Show me your glory” (Ex 33:18). God replied, “When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back ...” (Ex 33:22-23). What Moses saw of God was what a man is able to see and live — “the visible rearward parts”, to use Luther’s phrase.

Therefore the only theologian worthy of the name, according to Luther, is the person who recognizes the cross to be God’s ‘back’ — that is, the place where God’s glory may truly be seen by mortal human beings.

But if this is so, then it overthrows everything that human nature assumes about ‘glory’. So Luther went on to speak with contempt about the ‘theologian of glory’, meaning the person who thinks glory is ‘glorious’. This person’s whole life is based on the assumption that God’s power and love will be manifested in powerful, lovely things. Yet such a life is actually entirely mistaken and entirely un-Christian:

He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.

The last phrase is particularly striking: “he ... prefers good to evil”. Aren’t we supposed to do that? Aren’t we supposed to prefer good to evil? Luther’s point, however, is that what the world means by good and evil stands opposed to what the Bible means.

Thus the world calls suffering ‘evil’. The Bible calls suffering ‘good’. “We rejoice in our sufferings,” says Paul, “because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5:3-4). The world calls the cross ‘evil’, the Bible calls the cross ‘good’. When Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that the Son of Man must be crucified, Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mk 5:33)

The false ‘theologian of glory’ may speak of the cross, adore the cross or wear a cross, but they prefer to know nothing of the cross in their own life. They see God’s power only in things everyone would call powerful, God’s miracles only in things everyone would call a miracle, God’s answers to prayer only in things everyone would call answers to prayer. They call themselves Christian, but they lack anything distinctively Christian in their view of life.

By contrast, Luther’s understanding of being a theologian is this:

Living, or rather dying and being damned make a theologian, not understanding, reading or speculating. (Alister McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross London, 1985, 152, quoted from WA 5.163, 28-29)

It is in the experience of what the world calls evil — indeed of what is evil: of ‘death and damnation’ — that, if we are living by faith in Christ, we truly encounter the true God.

Thus the word of the cross is not a momentary call to conversion: “Believe in Jesus and you will be saved.” Nor is it an invitation to escape from the awfulness of daily life: “Be saved and you will know God’s marvellous plan for your life.” The word of the cross calls us to the way of the cross: “Take up your cross and follow me.”

Hence, when Jesus referred to the crucifixion as “the hour ... for the Son of Man to be glorified,” (Jn 12:23), he immediately went on to apply the same principle to his disciples:

The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me ... (John 12:25-26)

There is nothing new or surprising for most of us in what Jesus says here. We know we must follow Jesus, we know we must take up the cross, we know we must deny ourselves. We even know, if we have been to the right sort of meetings or listened to the right sort of talks, that as Romans 3:28 puts it, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

But we still struggle when God actually does what he has said he would do. We forget that Romans 3:29 goes on,

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

That is to say, the ‘good’ that ‘all things’ work for in those God loves is the good of being like Jesus. But Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), reveals the invisible God’s power, majesty, goodness, love and glory in this world in the cross. Hence the risen Jesus did not just tell Peter to feed his sheep as Jesus had fed them, but told him the manner of his death by which he would glorify God, as Jesus had glorified God (Jn 21:19).

This is the completion of what John says at the start of his gospel:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The glory of the Word-become-flesh was seen when he was lifted up from the earth, drawing all men to himself, bearing God’s judgement and casting out the prince of this world (Jn 12:31-32).

This is the kingdom, the power and the glory. And this is the way, and the truth, and the life of those who would glorify God in the likeness of his Son.

John P Richardson
8 April 2009

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall has written a great deal about the "thin tradition" of the theology of the cross.