For those of you who have not read N.T. Wright’s massive book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, let me just say that this exhaustive (and exhausting) theological exploration of Paul’s world, faith, writings and ministry by such a deeply revered, beloved, and prolific scholar does not start with Romans like perhaps you would expect, and not even with Galatians, but rather with Philemon. Yes. Philemon. And what Wright establishes there in that short letter from St. Paul which opens the way to all the rest of his extensive theological reflection is the loving, self-sacrificial position Paul puts himself in between Philemon and Onesimus (Philemon’s runaway slave) as he attempts to bring reconciliation to both men in a very public way. (He makes Onesimus carry the letter to the church in Colossae to be read publically in front of the whole assembly and tells everyone in earshot that any debt or damages Onesimus owes to Philemon, Paul will pay in his place – all the while reminding Philemon of a debt he owes to Paul!)
And the point Wright draws from all this?
Paul has managed to take these two brothers, one in each hand (metaphorically) outstretched in the position of Jesus Christ hanging on a cross paying for our sins, and there Paul finds the power of God for reconciling them to each other, to Jesus, and to the church.
In recent months, my actions and words – even my beliefs and motives – have been called into question (to put it mildly) both privately and publically, in writing and face-to-face, and I have been characterized as “unloving”. In fact, I face multiple accusations, and all of them stem from my confrontations, (not with the poor, but) with the rich and powerful among the ranks of the church.
In response, I offered rebuttals and refutations. I counteracted the accusations with further confrontation. I have not yielded so much as an inch. I see no need to do so. On the contrary, I sense my confrontation is way too lax! I should come on far stronger! I should get right up in your hostile face and not let off until you take a swing! I believe that is how Jesus does it; I just don’t have his nerve.
But that all seems distasteful, and I sense there is some genuine worry that Jesus does not, in fact, confront the powers and principalities on center stage, but instead quietly mops up their messes in the wings. He does both, actually, but the action on center stage is no accident or afterthought; he is driving there from the start. He picks a fight with his actions in the temple, but then wins it, ironically, at the cross.
This is where, with outstretch hands, Jesus takes the love of God in one hand and the pain of the world in the other and holds them together where God does his mysterious thing and brings about reconciliation.
But it’s not N.T. Wright that I need to really talk about today. Let me say, by way of caveat here near the start, that I may or may not have done (or be doing) a good job of following Jesus the way Paul does with Philemon and Onesimus, but that picture is never far from my mind. And as I now give a more thorough account of my actions and motives than you find in refutations, rebuttals, and counter-confrontations, I will instead appeal to one of your own poets: C. Leonard Allen.
(For those readers here who either are not involved or not familiar with Churches of Christ, I invite you to join the discussion, but keep in mind I am directly talking to those in-house actually, and so quoting from Allen will have far more direct impact for those insiders than for those overhearing the conversation. You are welcome, but please bear with me as I talk in the local dialect and accent.)
Leonard Allen is one of the most intellectually gifted writers from the ranks of the Churches of Christ. He is a deeply spiritual man, and I was blessed, once upon a time, to be one of the sheep in his flock when he was a pastor for the Abilene Mission Church shortly before that congregation split up. Our denomination may be a small pond, but he is a large fish in it! When Paul quotes Athenian poets to get a moment of respect for his own case, I do the same by quoting Allen.
“Cruciform” is a term Allen introduced to the Churches of Christ back in 1990 with his book The Cruciform Church: Becoming a Cross-Shaped People in a Secular World.
In that book, Allen deals with issues very specific to Churches of Christ, but the larger point of the book is pertinent to any church that worships Jesus. The centrality of the cross is indispensable, but for various reasons (and Allen explores reasons he sees as pertinent to Churches of Christ in particular), the church has lost its focus on the cross, and even more has ceased to have the shape God wants us to take in the world in order to bring about and be his means of reconciliation of all things. Basically, Allen is saying that the cross is so centrally important that we lose our reason to be without it taking center stage, AND we cease to bear the image of God for the world and being shaped by it when we let go of it at our center.
I recently asked on one of my posts, “What does taking up a cross and following Jesus have to do with being a church and shepherding his flock??? For that matter, what does it have to do with anything?” The context of that question had to do with outreach ministry. What does the cross have to do with helping the poor, the homeless, the needy? And this recent post was only the latest in a long string of reactions and responses to the “Seeking Shalom” class put out by the Lupton Center and the book When Helping Hurts authored by Corbett and Fikkert who also contribute to the “Seeking Shalom” class. Leonard Allen surveys five generations of history in the Churches of Christ and plots the ever-shrinking significance our church has placed on the centrality of the cross in our identity and mission, and points out how it finds less and less significant mention over time in sermons, articles, and books. Likewise, I, having been exposed to Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert, find little or no significant mention of the cross of Christ in the studies they produce.
“Seeking Shalom” sounds good on the surface of things. Shalom. Who doesn’t want that? The word means “peace” but not merely the absence of conflict, rather the very robust presence of harmony – of all the parts of creation being in tune with all the other parts AND with the whole! No wonder Corbett and Fikkert can sound so biblical when they claim poverty alleviation is “… the ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the rest of creation”. In fact, the slogan from “Seeking Shalom” says to “stop meeting needs; start seeking shalom”. It may beg other questions, but already we can see the effort at what seems to be the same kind of world-wide harmony and reconciliation St. Paul and actually the whole Bible dares us to dream about and attempt to implement. What could be wrong with that?
Well, it lacks any consideration of the cross of Christ! And let’s face it; a cross-less peace is just NOT God’s shalom. If it was, then why did Christ die? If not for shalom, if not for a right relationship with God, with self, with others and with all of creation, then why die? As St. Paul says it, “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:19-20). It is through the blood of his cross that we have the shalom we say we are seeking. It is so important to make the cross central to our ministry that, to quote your own poet, C. Leonard Allen, “The cross… provides the lens which focuses the distinctively Christian view of things. It provides the dominant vision of what life in Christ should be like.”
Allen then sets out this case:
“Through the lens of the cross, we can say, this dominant vision of reality becomes cruciform or cross-shaped. Consider three ways the cross does this. First, through the cross we see the heart of God revealed most clearly. Second, only through the cross can we see the true nature of human sin and the depths of divine grace. And third, the cross provides the model for God’s new social order, the messianic community.”
Let me be clear about something at this point: I am fully aware that Allen’s book is not written about outreach ministry. The Cruciform Church was not written as some kind of manual for serving the poor, the homeless, and the needy. Allen makes a few remarks here and there that catch issues related to that from time to time, but always as a glancing blow, never a direct address of the subject. But Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert have attempted to appeal to biblical shalom as a theological grounding for their approach to outreach, but they have produced an ideal of a cross-less shalom, and Allen’s work challenges that notion almost head on – except that he is dealing specifically with Churches of Christ and issues particular to that denomination. Never mind, for our present purposes, that Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert offer multiple lessons regarding care for the poor that don’t even cite a single passage of Scripture, and that these lessons pervade their work at several critical points, the theological premise they start with lacks the very central and vital point Allen claims is indispensable! They offer a vision that is decidedly NOT cruciform, and thus it has come untethered to God’s mission for his shalom.
Let’s listen to Allen talk about these points briefly and see if his remarks have bearing…
Point 1: The cross reveals the heart of God most clearly, thereby putting all our human conceptions of God to the test.
This point has a lot to say about the image of God. What is God like? How does he relate to his world in trouble? Does he put together an “asset-based community development” approach to helping people in need? Does he look for the good inherent in the lives of sinners and a fallen world and build on that? Or does he send his son to suffer and die in their place? In dying on that cross, does Jesus portray the image of the suffering love of God that will pay any cost to reconcile with his beloved creation? Which approach reveals God to us? Isn’t it the latter? And doesn’t that reveal God’s hand at work in the world rather than our own? And isn’t a cross a truly ironic approach?
Here’s Allen: “The cross thereby challenges and breathtakingly alters our human conceptions of what God must be like. We think of God as high and lifted up, enclosed in glory; the cross reveals God as stooping and lowly, enduring shame. We think of God as omnipotent, invulnerable, and unaffected; the cross reveals God as making himself vulnerable because of love, exposing himself to all the world as one who appears weak and powerless. We think of God working his will through sheer almightiness; the cross shows us that God has chosen to work his will through the power of suffering love.”
Hmmm… the power of suffering love is an idea Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert seem to have ignored – even avoided. They want us to help the poor, alright, but they want us to avoid pain – unless by pain we mean to teach the poor delayed gratification, which might be characterized as a pain produced by discipline. To be fair, I don’t recall them ever making such a case, but perhaps it is implied. But even the title of Corbett and Fikkert’s book explicitly sets out to dodge suffering, and there is no indication that the poor should (or might) benefit from our suffering on their behalf. Yet this is exactly what Jesus says in the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive the debt! If you forgive a debt, that means you are paying it off yourself on behalf of the indebted one who is burdened by it. This is precisely what St. Paul offers to do for the runaway slave, Onesimus! Yet, that would involve suffering, sharing in suffering, and thus the help would hurt! Despite this power of suffering love, Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert present a cross-less shalom that just is not God’s shalom.
In the interest of brevity (believe it or not, I am condensing here), Let’s move on with Allen.
Point 2: The cross reveals to us the true nature of human sin and the depth of divine grace.
Of the three points quoted here supporting Allen’s thesis, this one is the weakest, I think, insofar as it also addresses my topic. But there is enough connection to at least raise some questions, I think, and so we will look at it closely, even if briefly.
Here’s Allen: “We do not truly see our sin until we see something of what our sin cost God. We cannot know the extent of our estrangement from God until we see something of the distance God had to travel to reach us. We do not confess our sin, then turn to the cross. Rather we see Jesus lifted up on the cross and find ourselves moved to confess sin.”
Allen continues: “The cross therefore is deeply wounding, for it exposes us for what we really are. The cross passes judgment on the prideful human self, for it is that self which presents the greatest obstacle to God’s work. The prideful self tends to regard itself as self-sufficient….”
If the cross reveals our sin and challenges our pride and self-sufficiency as part of the larger shalom project God is engaged in, then is it unreasonable to apply these insights to our outreach and care for the poor, the homeless, and the needy? And if that is the case, how does the cross and a cross-shaped shalom sit with “asset-based community development”?
It would seem to me that one of the goals we have with the poor, the homeless, and the needy, one that is not (in the final analysis) significantly different than what we offer to anyone, is for the poor, the homeless, and the needy to take stock of themselves and their situation quite soberly in the light of God’s love (something I think Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert would agree with as far as it is thus stated). But do we want them to become self-sufficient? Really?
Well, in a Luptonian/Corbettian/Fikkertian shalom, the answer is YES. But in a cross-shaped shalom, the answer is NO. But I have already spent more time with point 2 than I should. I think you can see the implications, but actually the other two points carry the real weight, so let’s move on with Allen again.
Point 3: The way of the cross provides the model for God’s new social order, the messianic community.
A new social order? Despite all the talk of relationship with God, with self, and with creation, I suggest that the relationship with others is the real agenda for Corbett and Fikkert (and Lupton), an agenda to free ourselves, finally, of the burden of THEM. We Christians feel a sense of responsibility for the poor, alright. Even a glance in your Bible will slap the idea right into your selfish mind. But with the fancy footwork Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert provide, you can blame your one-another-burden-bearing Christianity for causing poverty and for keeping people trapped in it, and you can promote personal responsibility as the way of salvation in its place as you “stop meeting needs” and “start seeking shalom”. Honestly, these guys offer a thinly veiled, shallowly baptized version of “Get a job, Hippie”, or “Must make bricks”, or my personal favorite – a baptized neo-Nazi version of “Work will make you free!”
But Allen ain’t havin’ it.
Here’s Allen: “…Jesus summoned people into … an alternative social order”. “Entering the Kingdom means nothing less than participating in an alternative order, one that stands in sharp and disturbing contrast to the dominant ways of thinking and acting.” “In this community one learns to love freely and indiscriminately – a reflection of the way God loves. ‘But you must love your enemies, and do good and lend without expecting return… you will be sons of the Most High, because he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish’.” “In this new community people release their grip upon possessions and share freely with those in need… Here we learn to care for the people society has rejected, to receive the handicapped, the retarded, the poor, the prisoners – all of those whom Jesus called ‘the least of these'”. “This new community, in short, follows the way that Jesus went – the way that led to the cross.”
At nearly the end of this section of his book, Allen pens this convicting thought: “The cross thus puts our churches to the test. It exposes our smug elitism, our affluent isolation.”
Do I really need to explicate these points? Are they not almost tailor-made for addressing outreach ministry and refuting Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert? Jesus summons us to “stand in sharp and disturbing contrast to the dominant ways of thinking and acting”. And that is definitely NOT the “Seeking Shalom” program with it’s cross-less agenda! No. That class would have us help, alright, but help the poor to become part of the dominant ways of thinking and acting! Of relabeling pride as “dignity” and then aiming the poor at self-sufficiency.
The remarks I quote here all come from Chapter 5, “The Church Under The Cross”. I lift all the quotations from pages 145 – 151 in the second edition, in case you want to look for them and see if I do him justice with the larger context.
I fully recognize that by employing Allen’s work in the way I do, it stretches his remarks a bit to cover issues of outreach ministry in a way he never intended. But I explained above that when Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert build a theological basis for seeking shalom upon which to then advance their instructions (much of which takes no basis in the Bible at all, I might add), then Allen’s work in firmly placing the cross back into the picture of shalom as necessary for it to be realized shows Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert’s omission of it to be a fatal flaw right out of the gate. But of course, that only matters if you value C. Leonard Allen’s view on things.
One feature I find interesting about Allen’s book is how broad a base of evidence he puts together to make his case for Churches of Christ. He could have, it would seem – especially to those of us insiders – gone straight to Scripture and pointed it out to us, and that would be enough to settle it all. However, he takes great care and goes to elaborate measures to confront the Restoration Movement heritage as this issue developed over the course of many generations, and the case he makes becomes rather cumbersome really. I mean when he has sections of chapters called “Exploring A Strange World” and “Enlarging Our Canon” where he explores metaphors, idioms, cross cultural dynamics and literally dozens of other features to make his point, he is not only being pervasive, he is working hard to show the relevance. Thus I find my own use of Allen to address Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert (among others), though it feels like a stretch, is no farther a stretch than your own poet makes when he develops this material for his purposes
But really, let’s get down to the real thrust here. I took you on this tour of C. Leonard Allen’s book, not so much so I could employ a few quotations here and there to refute some of the major points from people with whom I disagree. No. My real point is the fact that Allen uses the term “cruciform” to describe the shape we are supposed to be formed into as we serve Jesus. And I happen to really like that term. I happen to dwell on it frequently and purposefully. And while my use of some quotations here has helped to refute Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert, and certainly has shown their lack of acknowledgment and even respect for the work Jesus has done and is doing and calls us to as well, I also want to demonstrate how being cruciformed affects me and my ministry AND also as a bit of a defense against some of the accusations that I am unloving or have impure motives.
Let me be clear on this point, though. I am NOT claiming I live by even my own ideals appropriately. That would be a second debate (possibly). If you find me doing a terrible job of reflecting a cruciformed life, that will be up for debate, however, I have yet to find anyone using the term (or anything like the concept) as a standard for living and for mission. So now I want to give an account of what I believe to be the right way forward, of what I strive for in my life and work. It is, to borrow a term, cruciform.
At this point I plan to depart from heavy dependence on N.T. Wright and C. Leonard Allen, and instead offer my own thoughts, though I freely admit I came to them largely with the help of both of these teachers. I hope you can see how I build on their offerings. Specifically, and most importantly, Wright imaginatively shows us how prophetically St. Paul applies the cross of Christ to his mission/ministry for the church in Colossae, and specifically in reconciling the slave from that church to his master in that church. As far as Allen is concerned, I specifically want to use the term he gives for that, and to rely on his extensive account for how cruciformity is missing in the theology and praxis of the church today. And from the basis supported by these observations, I want to share my own thoughts going forward.
Fat Beggars School of Prophets takes this as it’s mission statement: Go to the place of shame, pain, and despair, and bear the image of God there. The statement is modeled on remarks offered by N.T. Wright, but even that is modeled on the (what should be the overwhelming) observation that Jesus’ whole mission points to and drives to his work at Golgotha. He reveals a cruciform God there who demonstrates his love in suffering the estrangement of his wayward, beloved creation.
We can, and should, explore the meaning and power of the resurrection, but it is primarily a validation of the cruciform shape Jesus prophetically takes when he bears the image of God most powerfully at the place of shame, pain, and despair in his community, and all the wonderful explorations of it are beyond the scope of my purpose here today. I merely acknowledge how important and related a study that is, but I will not go farther into it at this time.
Cruciformed image bearing. (Suffering)
The cross of Christ is the ultimate expression of God’s suffering love. This is God’s ultimate answer to all the world’s problems. You name the problem, and this is God’s answer. It’s not readily seen as such on the surface in every case, but follow the trail of love and you will find it is the answer even if deep below the surface. There is nothing made in all of creation that does not answer to the Creator, and he put humans at the center of it all to bear his image, and thus the creation will harmonize when it sees him in us! This – THIS – this is SHALOM!
Got cancer eating away at your vital organs? The image of God bore on a Roman cross just outside Jerusalem roughly 2000 years ago is the answer. Yes, but how? Seem strange? Sure, but look into it. When cancer, that power that robs the world of precious human life, comes to see the Creator God of shalom fully displayed in his image-bearing human creature, then cancer learns it’s place! When cancer sees God suffering after cancer invades your body, cancer takes note of this God’s love for you and finds its proper place in creation and ceases to be a threat to the peace of God that surpasses understanding.
Hmmm… Cancer learns it’s place in shalom? That is a strange idea. They didn’t teach that in Sunday school when I was a kid.
No. They didn’t. And I have some important ideas about why they didn’t, but like Leonard Allen’s work, it would take me a few chapters to demonstrate it and a few more to show its relationship to our subject. Important though they are, the reasons the church hasn’t taught this stuff to us will have to keep for now. So in the meantime, NO, they didn’t teach this, and that means we missed something important along the way. And it demonstrates a phenomenon of modern Christianity, especially as expressed in the consumerist West, where pastors and preachers attempt to “make Christ relevant” for your life today largely through the elimination of suffering and certainly the centrality of suffering in God’s love for the world.
How did we get to a point in world history where pastors and preachers would feel the need to connect those dots in such a manner? This is God’s world of his creation. How can there ever be a single moment where any particle of it does not see him as relevant? Despite our shortsightedness and tendency to lose focus on God’s agenda, we know this down in our bones, and we must rely on faith that God is faithful to his mission. Only a sinful heart, blinded by pride and sin fails to see this connection. But we have a culture full of this blindness, and we have a church that has lost its cruciform shape, that has lost its value for the cross, seeking ways to be relevant despite her mission from God. Thus the church sees a problem in the world that needs “fixing”, and we seek relevant and “effective” ways of addressing the problem that never gives the cross of Christ a second thought – in fact, not even the first.
Suffering is a measure of love. A mother suffers the birth of her children. Both parents together bear the burden of feeding, sheltering, clothing, protecting, and disciplining the children even when the return on investment manifests only in cries in the night and dirty diapers. And of course we call this LOVE, and it bonds the children to the parents for life. And we do all manner of things to mitigate the suffering involved in the process, but we also accept that it is part of life, and actually, it is a measure of love. No one loves you like your mother. No one. Ever. Except maybe your father, but even that is not likely. The suffering a mother endures and is willing to endure for her children is a bedrock foundation of human culture. It is practically an immutable phenomenon.
Here I am going outside the Bible now to make a point about the relevance of God’s suffering love to his creation for a church that has lost touch with its relevance to the world. Hmmm… Ironic, don’t you think? (Actually, I can piece something of this notion together with Bible references, but the point still holds.) The suffering love of God put on display on a Roman cross is the most central and powerful moment of our faith – even of all of world history (we would say, rightly) – but the moment we talk about outreach to the homeless, it isn’t even an afterthought.
Seriously. Go read When Helping Hurts; take the “Seeking Shalom” class; show me where Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert make any meaningful application of the cross to their study – in fact show me where it comes up for any mention whatsoever.
I don’t have time to wait for you.
These guys are taking the church by storm making sure the church learns not to suffer the poor in our midst. The poor, they think, need to learn self-sufficiency, and we have a duty to teach it to them. It has all the marks of a superiority complex, if you really think about it, and nothing of a cruciform, suffering love. The peace it mislabels as “shalom” is actually a parody, parading as God’s love, but really alleviating your conscience when the suffering love of God poured out through his church seems ineffective at fixing the problem. And this moves entirely away from the central focus of our faith! It moves entirely away from God’s answer to all the world’s problems! Thus it doesn’t actually seek shalom at all, but falls into the same pit as all worldly wisdom that seeks a utopia without suffering and thus without love.
So what does a cruciform outreach look like?
It looks like outstretched arms of a body daring to grasp the pain of one world in one hand and the pain of another world in the other hand as these two worlds war with one another and ravage each other and the outstretched body between them at the same time. You know, like Jesus on a cross holding heaven in one hand and our fallen world in the other, like St. Paul creatively and imaginatively holding Philemon with one hand and Onesimus with the other. I hate to say something here that seems so obvious at this point and so simple that the saying of it might make you look stupid for not seeing it before, but… It probably looks like a church with wealth and means holding the hand of the poor in one hand and the hand of the bank in the other… of a church telling the bank, if the poor owes you anything, we will pay it in their place. Accept them back at the table of fellowship on our account, and remember, you (the bank) owe us (the body of Christ) for the Judeo-Christian world order in which you conduct your business with any sense of trust that clients will be honorable and trustworthy!
I expect there will be room to debate lots of specifics and particulars within this overall cruciform program, and so my offerings at this point are largely on the order of suggestion, but there can be little doubt that the direction a cruciform mission takes is practically a one-hundred and eighty degree turn (a repentance) from the Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert direction. Rather than avoiding meeting the needs for people, we will seek a way of meeting them, of suffering their needs for them, as a means of sharing God’s love with them. Like Jesus says in Luke 6:30, we will “give to all who ask” at least, and very possibly will consider selling everything we own and giving it to the church, like we find in Acts 2 and 4 and maybe even giving it to the poor as a means of inheriting life in the Age to Come like we see in Mark 10 – a matter of shalom, not to mention the very goal of the church which is relevant to a world feverishly attempting to build a utopia that cannot work based on other grounds.
Questions arise, then. What are we doing with this property we communally own such as a church building? A building going empty night after night. What would suffering love look like given this kind of resource if we refused to grasp at it and instead humbled ourselves? What about all those empty guest rooms in our fine Christian homes? How might we suffer the poor to love them with these resources? How might we bear the image of God if he blesses us with this kind of wealth?
Cruciformed image bearing. (Confrontation)
There is another feature of this suffering love that I have not explicated yet, and in fact it goes almost universally unnoticed by church people who, it seems, so eagerly seek to blend with the “dominant” culture and so readily embrace all it’s fads, trends, and conventions in the church – whether politically conservative or liberal, whether contemporary, fashionable, and vogue or antiquated, old-fashioned, and reminiscent of glory days from yesteryear. This other feature has to do with confrontation. Suffering love confronts a world of God’s making, which he made in peace and harmony but which flirts with chaos and disaster despite it’s intended purpose. And the thing is: Suffering love isn’t always “nice”; and it may or may not involve warm fuzzy feelings at any given moment.
Yes, the same Jesus who says “Blessed are the meek” and “the peacemakers” enters the temple in Jerusalem and flips tables picking a fight and goes on to argue with religious leaders there even preaching parables they recognize as being against them, yet they fear the mob following him, so they put up with him until they find a way to catch him with no mob around. Yes, the same Apostle Paul who outlines the fruit of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” calls the very people he instructs about this “stupid Galatians” just a few passages before that. He also outlines how he confronted the Apostle Peter, opposing him to his face, and tells us about this within the same letter too. How is it that if I flip tables, call people hypocrites, snakes and dogs or stupid that I am considered unloving, but if Jesus or St. Paul does this, they are not?
The fact of the matter is that we believe Jesus to be love incarnate! No one, not even Job, embodies love, patience, and longsuffering more that Jesus, and St. Paul surely comes as close to Jesus as any mortal in all of human history! Never mind me, for the moment, how can we account for this disparity of character in them?
Jesus, being the Master of all, surely demonstrates perfect piety even where I try and fail, but there seems to be an inconsistency here on the surface of things that we need to account for somehow. He does demonstrate both patience and impatience, at least on the surface, while calling us to be like him and to be patient. We must sort this out. Ignoring it is not the answer.
St. Paul tells the Philippians that Jesus did not grasp his deity, but actually humbled himself instead. This humble man, bearing God’s image, goes into the temple and flips tables. He was already causing a stir with his ministry long before that. He forgave sins and healed on the Sabbath. His friends picked heads of grain on the Sabbath, and all of that roused consternation. None of it was accidental. It was all purposeful and meaningful and confrontational. But then he enters the temple and really cuts loose. All the confrontations before were relatively tolerated, but this one will instigate arrest, trial, and execution, and all of that lets us know he was headed here all along.
The authorities are not running around crucifying people for being “nice”! If Jesus’ whole program were simply to out-nice the nice, some people might have found him to be unpleasant, but you could hardly rouse a group of religious leaders to put someone on trial and convict them for that. No. Jesus picked on their precious symbols very publically and roused deep hostility that got him killed. And he did it by not grasping his deity, but humbling himself.
It turns out confrontation can be made in various shapes, but they are not necessarily discernably different at some levels. If you recall the words of Leonard Allen quoted above: “The cross thereby challenges and breathtakingly alters our human conceptions of what God must be like. We think of God as high and lifted up, enclosed in glory; the cross reveals God as stooping and lowly, enduring shame. We think of God as omnipotent, invulnerable, and unaffected; the cross reveals God as making himself vulnerable because of love, exposing himself to all the world as one who appears weak and powerless. We think of God working his will through sheer almightiness; the cross shows us that God has chosen to work his will through the power of suffering love.” Yes, we have all the information we need, but we couch it in the wrong categories to serve lesser agendas.
Let me ask this: If the omnipotent, omniscient God of creation wanted to reveal his long-suffering heart to his creation that rebels against him, how would he do it? Would he come marching in and destroy it all and teach it a lesson? Or would he present himself as one not grasping his omnipotence and omniscience, yet making the provocation to revere him as such, then allowing his creatures to destroy him so that they can then see, really see, their true relationship with him for what they have made it to be??? And upon seeing it for what it really is, does that not bring conviction – at least potentially – conviction that strips away all pretense where the love, the true love, can finally be shared in all its healing glory???
And true enough, some people will hold this love in contempt EVEN THEN, but not all. And for those with the eyes to see and the ears to hear, will they not see and hear what the others look at but do not understand?
I think I might have read this stuff somewhere.
We tend to think of confrontation being that which the powerful does to others – usually after discerning the others weakness so that the powerful can then lord it over the others. But what if there is this truly divine confrontation that relinquishes power over others, yet makes the confrontation as if, and then bears the suffering that is now provoked?
And Jesus’ career shows us that there are differing intensities for this kind of confrontation. Healing on the Sabbath confronts and provokes alright, but not like flipping tables in the temple! And sure enough, St. Paul confronts the powerful Philemon demonstrating, even among Christians, that he is willing to suffer the punishment Onesimus deserves, and yet reminds Philemon, even in the midst of the confrontation, that Philemon owes Paul his very life. Thus they are all drawn into the fellowship of suffering love.
When I read the Gospels, and most of the letters too, I find confrontation on page after page. The Gospel of Jesus confronts me! It confronts the whole world! And sometimes the language of confrontation is very sharp, very shrill, and even inflicts pain – though not mortal wounds, and it appears to me that it is always vindicated by at least a willingness to suffer in love for the beloved confronted. Sometimes the willingness is put to the test with actual suffering too – meaning bluffing will not do.
How is this not our calling?
And yet it is completely ignored, even avoided really, by Lupton, Corbett, and Fikkert and the church at large today.
This stuff is not all esoteric, academic, spiritual, and other-worldly without bearing on our life in God’s creation. No. Not at all. And I say this because I find that frequently we preach a good sermon along these lines but don’t recognize it in the flesh when we see it, or are confronted by it. I mean, where I go to church we get some tremendous preaching quite frequently, and our love for the poor, our inclusion of the poor, is frequently stressed in very emphatic terms that excite me to no end! But then we hold a Bible class where we teach how not to get too involved, how not to get vulnerable with, how not to “hurt” or get hurt by the poor. And I look around at us and the church culture we have created, and I see an assembly of 95% white, middle-class people meeting together in the “white-flight” district to make academic discussion of our love for the poor without actually including them in either the worship or the conversation. I see us inventing ways to help the poor by buying a latte across town from them, and leaving their care to the hands of the professionals who make it all sound and look better than it is for the TV news, all the while with no mention of the cross..
Thus, I confront the charade. And I don’t apologize for it. If your feelings got hurt, that is a good thing.
And it is clear to me that I will not be hired to serve on your staff. This may not be the cross I bear, but it is clear to me that I am sanctioned negatively for the confrontation alright, but it may not be clear to you that I pray for this church every day fervently – and at this church’s request too! I seek a hearing with a stonewall of hardheartedness, and I will not hide the fact that I suffer it, and have for years.
I could have thrown in the towel, taken my marbles and gone home. I could have done that many times over. But there is a strange phenomenon at work here. We are locked in it together. And I must bear your punishments, and you must bear my confrontation until we either give up on God or surrender to him. And barring that, we are stuck with each other through the good, the bad, and the ugly.
To be honest, I was watching CNN one day back in 2014 when a cell phone video captured the shaky, grainy image of a Christian man that ISIS crucified in (I think it was) Aleppo. (I pray for Aleppo now every day because of that.) And it chilled me to the bone. Within an hour, the “liberal news media” had sanitized the images to exclude what I saw there. But I cannot forget it. Crucifixion is a real part of this world, and it scares me to see it. Yet I do see it. Like the Galatians, Paul has publically portrayed Christ crucified before my eyes, and I visit that image at Eucharist every chance I get. But seeing a version of it on CNN brought it home to roost in ways I had not yet experienced. And I am shaken by it even now years later. I don’t know if I can stand with Jesus and not deny him three times before the rooster crows. I have not been so tested.
But I devote myself to him every day hoping that I am worthy to die with him all the same.
I wonder… If the church I attend were to actually lose real members from the church roll, not spiritually, but physically, due to real crucifixion in the streets of Lubbock, would we still treat the poor the way we do? Would we treat each other the way we do? Would we be “seeker friendly” and buy-a-latte-for-the-poor oriented if we were REALLY cruciformed?
I think not.
If we even merely devote ourselves to cruciformity, and much more actually face crucifixion, I think we will have repented and the evidence of it would be entirely different than any “effectiveness” Lupton, Corbett, or Fikkert have to offer. And I think the shalom we would seek would be ALL ABOUT MEETING PEOPLE’S NEEDS.
By way of answering for myself, I view my work as holding the hand of the church in one hand and the hand of the homeless in the other. Sometimes, though relatively rarely, I confront the poor. It turns out even the poor are full of pride a lot of the time. But actually just using the name “Fat Beggars” throws down the challenge for them to humble themselves and embrace that humiliating name, and so, at that level, I am confronting them all the time. As for the church, I did not confront the congregation where I am a member until and at the “Seeking Shalom” class where all the Lupton/Corbett/Fikkert nonsense was being promoted. I confronted this teaching, and I did it head on. I believe it to be the honorable and respectable way to confront it.
One of the things I find so difficult about it is how little regard my confrontation found. At first there was an almost urgent ploy to downplay my confrontation. Surely I didn’t really mean it when I challenged the curriculum! And after all, as the teacher himself said repeatedly, “We agree on like 95% of this stuff. I am saying what you are saying….” But this simply is not the case, and I ratcheted up my intensity until it became clear that I am not playing nice; I am confronting a very bad teaching that is unacceptable and completely out of step with Jesus. “Get behind me Satan!”
Yet my confrontation at no point suggested that I think my church is not worthwhile or that I would simply call down judgement on these people and be happy to watch them face God’s wrath. I did not get mad and gather up my marbles and leave. No. I have stayed there confronting, expecting to be taken seriously. And if I am wrong, and my position can be shown to be wrong (please use a Bible for this, your personal feelings and opinion do not carry the weight and authority of God’s Word), then I will repent. I am not infallible, and I never claimed to be.
And so, in the meantime, I stand here holding my church in one hand (confronting yes, but also pleading admittance for the poor) and holding on to the hand of the poor with the other, and my arms are outstretched as I do it. I imitate Paul who imitates Jesus, and I hope that my life and work are cruciformed. And I trust that we are locked in with each other until we either give up on God or surrender to him. And I hope that I am worthy enough to suffer and thus bear the image of God at this place of shame, pain, and despair in my community.