We don’t like to be foolish. We don’t like to fail or be found wanting or finish last. We like to cheer for the winning team. We like to achieve honors and accomplishments. We like to earn more money, get more things, preserve our good looks and abilities, reach the pinnacle of the medal platform. Or at least, that’s the attitude it seems society predominantly encourages and rewards.
And we’ve begun the season of Lent. It leads to Jesus’ death on the cross. It can seem such a jarring contrast. In our texts for worship this week, Jesus urges us to join him on that way. It seems foolish, St. Paul accepts. Yet, for those who trust in God, it is wisdom greater than any guidance.
The cross. Defeat. Suffering. Humiliation. Death. The end of life. Foolish? Ridiculously stupid is more like it! And it’s the central core, the greatest expression of our living faith. God’s way to resurrection hope, power, peace, the fullest life we could know beyond our imagination. ……… What?
Jesus going to the cross isn’t glorification or even justification of suffering. It isn’t about balancing some eternal mathematical equation of Holy Anger against human guilt. The meaning of the cross lies utterly in the reason Jesus ended up there. He associated with the lowly. He served the least. And thereby, he challenged the greatest in power and privilege. Jesus dying on the cross is the consequence of how he lived full of God’s love. The cross is the consequence of those people seeing him as an opponent, and then exercising their power and protecting their privilege from his perceived challenge.
The cross and resurrection as the central expression of our faith conveys Holy Power perfected in weakness. Success embodied through sacrifice. Living more fully not through accolades accrued and accomplishments achieved, rather by giving ourselves more completely for the good of others.
You see, what makes the eternal difference isn’t just action alone, it’s intention, motivation, arising from the orientation of our hearts. There are some things about life in this world that are clearly wrong and right. And there’s a lot of stuff in a gray middle that gets all mixed up in our twisted emotions, our limited knowledge and misunderstandings, and our misguided perceptions. As in Jesus’ time, in our culture many voices of wisdom and truth propound how to have a good life. How to be successful. How to get ahead. Names and terms change, but basic human impulses persist over the ages. We desire life with greater ease and pleasure. We compete with opponents. We pursue our vision of what’s good for us or those we love. Pleasure and arguments, a little healthy competition, good life with those we love and resources to pursue it are not inherently wrong.
And in Jesus Christ, God tries to take the best loving impulses in our hearts and minds, then broaden our horizons, definitions, and imagination of “winning success.” God moves us from narrow self-interest to life in community. God transforms our fears, judgment, and competition into compassion. God inspires us from complacence and complicity into action, service, even sacrifice for the good of others. We take up the cross, as Jesus did. We follow that way fully aware of where it may lead. For many of us, it won’t be about high stakes and extreme circumstances. It’s more in our ordinary routines and relationships. In conversation with those who are intimately beloved or work colleagues or strangers on the street. In responsibility for all beyond my rights alone. In decisions and actions that may cause discomfort, and even real loss. And in God’s grace, that makes all the difference … of Olympic proportions.
The wisdom we glean is not just some spiritual high. Though I do believe such a committed relationship with God nurtures true peace and joy far beyond any illusion of life as perfect bliss. And I trust that with this orientation, when we take up the cross, we will share the promise and power of resurrection in community together—real practical outcomes in which life is better, far more abundant for all, including each of us.
By the way, some of my favorite Olympic moments have been when the German and Canadian bobsled teams tied for gold, then jumped and hugged each other with joy. When the Nigerians simply made it down the track. When the Tongan cross-country skier waited for the Mexican to finish last after virtually everyone else had left. When the Japanese skater went over to console the South Korean and she received the hug warmly through sobs and lapped the track together, despite the bitter centuries-old conflict and competitive rivalry between their nations.
Take that attitude and loving orientation from medal platforms into ordinary life … and it just might take the shape of the cross. Take up yours, Jesus said.
Grace and Peace,