The preaching of the Cross [No 2 of 3]
Saint Barnabas Downham
22nd September 1991
Year B Week 25
"The preaching of the cross sounds foolish to those who are perishing", wrote St Paul to the Christians in Corinth; and then he added: "but to us who are being saved it is the power of God".
On these three Sundays we shall look together at the central point of our belief, the Cross. Last week I talked about priorities. If "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever" then the Chief End of Man simply cannot be "to find his slot in the world and enjoy life to the full" as so many people today would have us believe.
And this is not because self-fulfilment or self-enjoyment are in themselves wrong or ignoble ends. On the contrary, if the Christian faith would to turn us into nothing but a load of miserable frustrated people then it would be deeply suspect. "By their fruits you shall know them"; "God looked at his carefully planted vineyards to produce grapes, and all it produced was sour grapes". So wrote the prophet Isaiah of the people of God of his day and age. There was something deeply wrong.
No, the conflict lies in the priority we give to these two goals, the order in which we place them, the importance we attach to each one. For man cannot have two chief ends without contradicting himself.
"God forbid that I should glory except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ". Crucifixion was invented by the people of North Africa as an appropriate punishment for slaves who ran away from their masters and citizens who rebelled against the authority and power of the state.
It was meant to make a public example of them as if so much as to say "That's all the running away you're going to do for the time being, my good man!" and to those who saw their fellow slaves or citizens slowly dying of exposure and thirst by the roadside it was meant to convey the message "Well you can try taking us on if you like... but in the end it's we and not you who hold all the trump cards".
No wonder the preaching of the Cross sounds foolish to the ears of those whose chief end is finding their place in the world and enjoying life to the full. For the cross begins by offering precisely the opposite of what such people are looking for. It offers, at first sight, failure and disgrace, and an end to hope, where people are looking for success and fulfilment and upward mobility on the social ladder.
I say it "at first sight" it offers precisely the opposite. For this reason many people do not give it a second glance. But as any wise person knows, things aren't always what they appear to be at first sight.
So let us look more carefully at this apparent contradiction between the concept of "being crucified with Christ" and the notion of "self-fulfilment" which it so resolutely appears to contradict.
Look at any of the Saints, past or present, to people who have really "done it", given themselves to Christ and taken his cross upon themselves. Whether we think of St Barnabas or Mother Teresa or St Francis of Assisi, or perhaps someone we have known personally, in whom the life of Christ has shone out, the one thing we can't say of them is that they were, or are, bitter and frustrated people – the words simply don't fit.
One may indeed have all sorts of criticisms to level against the Saints whilst they are in the process of being made saintly. Indeed they would be the first to recognize that the hallmark of the saint is not "what a good boy am I" but "I simply don't know why God goes on saving me seeing that I let him down so often" or "God be merciful to me, a sinner."
For the truth of the matter is that the world is not divided into the "saved" and the "damned". It is divided rather into those who are being saved and those who are perishing.
That is why you get such a funny mixture of people who come to Church. We're not, by-and-large, those who have reached a certain standard of righteousness, "passed an examination in Goodness" so to speak, and therefore qualified for admission; we are on the contrary all people in various stages of disablement who are learning, often by slow and painful stages how to be healed or made whole (or "become holy" is the technical term)".
I think that those who look into the Church from the outside expect to see a museum of glass cases with good people inside. What they actually see is something far more like a hospital ward of living people who are waiting and recovering from various surgical operations.
I don't expect you need to be told that such places as churches and hospitals are not havens of total peace and light. Most people strive to stay out or of hospitals altogether even when they ought to go through with some necessary operation; and those who are inside and generally eager to get out of them as quickly as possible. Their attitude to Church is not much different.
And yet having said that, neither hospital wards nor the Church on Sunday are quite that bad as experiences go. For one thing they are the beginning of many of friendship which would never otherwise have happened, and for another, the whole experience of watching the healing (or saving) process taking place either in oneself or in someone else can be profoundly satisfying and intriguing experience.
Satisfying because it takes in the whole idea of progress. Progress means literally "skipping forwards". Christians talk about the Way of the Cross or the Pilgrim's Progress precisely in this way and for the same reason.
Those very ideas which the dying would find so attractive, "progress" and "promotion" and which so often fail to be satisfied in the world are as it were "built-in" to the very gift of salvation which God has to offer us.
Of course everyone will from time to time come across Christians who have stopped progressing just like you will meet the odd invalid who doesn't want to get any better. These are the tragic exceptions which because they can be seen to be exceptional only help to prove that the rule is there in the first place.
Next week we shall look at some of the reasons why people do get stuck in this way and how we can help them get unstuck.
But for this morning the lesson is quite simple; which is not however to say it is easy to do. And the lesson is this: the Cross, which at first sight seems to offer man precisely the opposite of what he's looking for turns out in the hands of God to be precisely the key which unlocks the door which stands between man and his Chief End, which is, if you remember, to "Glorify God and to enjoy him for ever."
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