Two theologies


Two theologies


Lectionary blog for April 13, 2014
Sunday of the Passion – Palm Sunday
Texts: Matthew 21:1-11; Isiah 50:4-9a;
 Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

By Delmer Chilton

In today’s Gospel readings — the first telling us of Jesus’  triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the second vividly portraying his trial and crucifixion — we have laid out before us what Martin Luther and other Reformers identified as the two theologies that have competed for our allegiance down through the ages.

One is the Theology of Glory — which looks for God in the good, the beautiful, the strong and the powerful.

The other is the Theology of the Cross — which looks for God in exactly those places where we feel God’s absence: in pain, in humiliation, in suffering, in weakness and foolishness and death.

A Theology of Glory is concerned with health and happiness and prosperity. A Theology of Glory centers on what God can do for us; how being a person of faith can make us more popular and powerful and successful. At the time of the Reformation, it was centered on the penance and relic system.

Today it spreads out across the “spiritual but not religious” folk who swear that breathing right and arranging your furniture correctly unleashes your power; it moves through the Babylonian captivity of the mainline churches in the Land of Pseudo-Social Science gurus who will tell us everything from how to raise money to how to get more members using the results of the latest research and business techniques, and on to the evangelical cult who find their wisdom in the land of Christian bookstores filled with books like “The Purpose Driven Life,” or “How to Unlock the Bible’s Wealth and Prosperity Principles.” A Theology of Glory is all about power and control and winning and living large.

A Theology of the Cross is concerned with God, with who God is, and with what God wills and with what God has done for us on the cross and with what God calls us to do in response. A Theology of the Cross is concerned with what looks like failure, with what appears to be disaster, with what seems to be the utter and complete absence of God in our more desperate and trying moments.

A Theology of Glory centers on some formulation that makes the difficulties of our lives OK, makes everything all right, that somehow turns the evil and hurt we experience into a moral good, in the long run, in the overall scheme of things. A Theology of Glory has to have God, and us, in control and good always winning.

A Theology of the Cross makes no attempt to either justify or condemn, to either find God’s hand or lament God’s absence. A Theology of the Cross points and weeps and realizes that we humans are so very much in need of God’s grace. A Theology of the Cross brings us to the stark realization of our own mortality and imperfection, or our need for rescue from outside ourselves. A Theology of the Cross calls a thing what it is, Luther said; death is death, sin is sin, horror is horror, suffering is suffering. There is no window dressing that can make them anything else. And yet, it is in the stark, cold cross that we are saved.

In our text from Philippians, we see Jesus modeling for us that which we are called to do — for salvation is not just about the cross of Christ; it is also about the cross of Delmer and the cross of Jane and the cross of John and the cross of _____ (put your name in that blank).

Jesus showed us the way. We have been called to follow him on that way. For Jesus, that meant giving up whatever glory he had — and he had it all: Glory, power, wisdom, you name it, he had it and he let it go.

The word translated into English as “exploited” means “clung to,” “held on to,” “clutched at.” Jesus had everything and instead of clinging desperately to it, he opened his hands and his life and let it go.

Many of us spend our lives striving and self-improving and working and networking and dieting and working and investing and saving to get what Jesus had and let go of. The “Spiritual but not religious” folk who encourage us to seek the holy within, to get in touch with our inner divinity, to ascend to the level of our own holiness have gotten it backwards. “Equality with God” is not a thing to be sought but a thing to be let go.

Jesus went further. Not only did he give up all the power in the universe, he completely emptied himself of it, got rid of it, purged it, flushed it, threw it away. Jesus then became as we are, and then went further than most of us are willing to go; he became a servant to others, a slave.

In completely humbling himself, he went from being everything to being nothing. From being in charge of the universe he went to being in control of nothing; from being the agent of creation he went to being de-created by dying upon a cross. And there, there dying on the cross as the ultimate servant of humanity is where we will find God — or rather where God finds us.

For it is in our own crosses that we find ourselves driven to Christ for salvation.

It is when we stop chasing after whatever it is we think will justify our existence.
It is when we release ourselves from the relentless pursuit of success and happiness that we take as every American’s birthright.
It is when we open our hands and let loose of that knot in the end of our existential rope –
that God can begin to come to us.

When we let ourselves become more human and then more fallible and then more frail.
When we move beyond just being ordinary into an intense awareness of our sinfulness.
When we begin to die with Christ –
then we begin to become converted.

For to be a Christian is to die and rise with Christ.
There is nothing that can save us but the cross.
There is no place we can turn for help but to the cross.
There is no way to God but the way of the Cross.

But we must not just sit back and passively accept the benefits of Christ’s death on the cross. That is what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” God’s grace is free, but it is not cheap. We must imitate Christ in dying to the old self.

Christ’s act of saving us began in the incarnation — the letting go of heaven and the embracing of being human, including the human fate of suffering and death. This is dying we are talking about. It is not easy. It is painful and arduous and time consuming. Once we have turned our faces to follow the way of the cross, we discover new things about ourselves every day that need to die in order that a new Christlikeness can be born within us.

To be saved is to follow Christ to the cross, knowing that the old person you have been must die and not knowing if you will survive — but knowing only that you cannot go on as you are.

To be saved is to give up on your “self” and place everything in the hands of God.

On the cross Jesus said both, “Into your hands I commend my spirit!” and, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To go to the cross is to go to one’s spiritual death because one must, without sure knowledge of what comes after.

It is in that moment when we despair of saving ourselves that God can save us.

We are called to the cross.
We are called to die to who we think we are.
We are called to cease our endless rounds of striving.
We are called to conversion.
We are called to death.
We are called to life.
We are called to Christ.

Amen and amen.

Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

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