For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
As Lent builds to its Holy Week climax on Good Friday and Easter, it becomes more and more difficult for us to avoid the brutal reality of Jesus’ crucifixion and the mysterious claim of Christ’s resurrection. Both are topics we’d prefer not to have to deal with. The crucifixion is an uncomfortable reminder of the fact that even the most sophisticated societies can cruelly torture and destroy the lives of good and innocent people. The resurrection, on the other hand, strains our credulity by challenging us to accept the possibility that death is not only the end of life, but also a new beginning. It would be so much easier for us if we could just think of Jesus as a great moral teacher, a committed social reformer, or a highly gifted healer, without having to wrestle with death and resurrection. But the Christian gospel doesn’t afford us that more comfortable luxury.
The fact is, Jesus nonviolently faced head-on the murderous hostility of his enemies, and refused to take any evasive action. Throughout his ministry, he trusted God to work through him in wonderful and unexpected ways. Even when confronting his own execution, he continued to trust God to manifest divine love and power through him. Most people, then and now, would regard his faith as naive and unrealistic. But on Easter morning, his confidence in God was dramatically vindicated. Death was not the end for him, but the beginning of a ministry of eternal scope and power.
Some people like to point to Jesus’ experience as something unique to him, and irrelevant to ordinary people like us. But Jesus’ instructions to his disciples make it clear that the ministry to which he called them included trusting God to work through their own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and deaths. Their faith in the undying, life-giving power of God’s love was to characterize their own lives as it had his, right to the very end of life as we know it.
This is a difficult instruction for most of us. Our human nature instinctively wants to preserve our lives at all costs, fighting and destroying the lives of others if necessary to do so. But Jesus promises that God’s Spirit will help us to see beyond the ending of our own lives to envision the transformation of the world we’ll leave behind us. By living our lives in a way that will benefit people who come after us, even death can be faced as an act of love.
This is an invitation to strengthen our mystical connection with God as individuals, and also as churches. Most people today regard the church as a dying institution that no longer has a place in the modern world. It is seen as hopelessly trapped in the music, rites and rituals of a by-gone era and which no longer has anything to contribute to 21stCentury life. For that reason, the church is routinely ignored by all but a handful of people each week, despite the professed “Christian” convictions of the stay-at-home majority. Despite the heroic efforts of church leaders to keep the institution alive, it is clearly on life-support, and cannot survive much longer. It has been nailed to a Cross by human indifference to God’s presence among us just as Jesus was crucified centuries earlier.
The institutional church as we have known it must die, just as Jesus did — not because its death will remove all trace of Christ’s presence among us, but so that God can resurrect it in a new, more perfect form. The church that must die has become preoccupied with structures, rules, roles, personalities and personal preferences instead of focused on the life-giving and life-transforming Spirit of God at work among us, creating a kind of humble unity that we alone can’t generate. The New Creation that God will resurrect in its place will not be concerned about buildings or bank accounts, but with the Mystery of God’s activity in their midst: reconciling our differences, healing our brokenness, forgiving our failures, vindicating our suffering, calming our fears, ending our loneliness and giving us hope for the future. This resurrected entity will be known, not by its words or rituals, but by the mysterious peacefulness and warmth that emanates from it.
The Lenten season is about crucifixion and resurrection — not just that of Jesus, but our own! The question it asks of us is: How much of what we normally think of as “ours” are we willing to let die so that God’s love can be revealed? We know how Jesus answered that question. What will our answer be?