Sunday, August 8, 2021

The cross as political accident. . ..

A couple of weeks ago we hosted The Rev. Roger James of the International Lutheran Council.  In a discussion of the state of world Lutheranism, it was clear that for some, perhaps many, Lutherans, the Gospel is not Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen, not about the forgiveness of sins made possible by the shedding of His blood, and not about the redemption of our lost lives of sin.  In fact, the sad reality is that many Lutherans go to church on Sunday morning and hear a gospel of love without condemnation for sin (except politically targeted sins like intolerance and bigotry and racism).  As much as this is true among the most progressive and liberal Lutherans, it is not only true among them.  It is a typical perspective of progressive and liberal Christians of all denominational stripes.

I was struck to read of the departure of Cathedral Dean Drew Pearson of the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama.  The story I expected was one of personality conflicts and clashes but as it turned out it became more a story about what the Gospel was and was not.  Pearson said his meetings with diocesan leaders were generally cordial but involved the most basic theological questions over the identity of Jesus and the meaning of the crucifixion.

“I got really tired about arguing over who Jesus is, and arguing over what the Bible is and what its role is in the life of the church,” he said. “Those things are very important and ought to be discussed. But those conversations were taken to a level that it’s shameful that a denomination would have to have those conversations. You see that in the emphasis laid in the Episcopal Church on Jesus as a way of love, that Christianity is about emulating Jesus, and loving one another in the way that Jesus loves us. That is part of Christianity, but that’s a deficient view of the Christian faith, and a deficient view of who Jesus is and what he came to do. A Jesus who is just the way of love is a Jesus who can’t save. It certainly may help make our life a little bit better and our neighborhoods a little bit stronger, but when it comes to salvation, he came to die, and die for a very specific purpose. I would often engage in conversations with leaders of the diocese and at given points it was clearly said that Jesus’ death on the cross was just a political accident and that his death would have been just as effective as if he had died of pneumonia, that if the cross is anything, it’s just an event, it’s reduced to an example of ‘see how he loves us,’ rather than the cross being the moment where God is reconciling the world to himself because Jesus’ death is an atonement for our sins. He is a substitution on our behalf. I was always very careful in these conversations. The last thing I would ever do is to un-Christian somebody. But after years and years of these conversations, it became clear that many of us were using the same words but operating under completely different definitions. We were having disagreements sinover what Jesus did for us, what is the nature of sin, core issues that kept us apart.”

My friends, so many presume that the doctrinal divide among Christians is simply one of taste, of musical style, of nuanced theological emphasis but it is really about the very Gospel itself.   For St. Paul, there is only one Gospel -- the Gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen -- and only one truth that gives life and hope -- the truth of Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, who  lived in obedience that we might be declared righteous and died for sin that we might be justified.  When you go to a church on Sunday morning, unless you hear this Gospel of Christ crucified and risen for the forgiveness of your sins, you have not heard the Gospel.  If we are embarrassed by the cross and what happened there for us and for our salvation, we have no gospel, no hope, no salvation, and death and the devil have won.

This is not some foolish contest over who is right and who is wrong or some vain attempt to preserve the past in an age of change.  This is about the Gospel.  There is no hope without the fruits of Christ's redeeming death preached and taught.  Indeed, in the Holy Supper of our Lord we boldly proclaim that as often as we eat of this bread and drink of this cup we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes, repeating Scripture and its insistence that love has a shape in the cross and accomplishes a purpose in paying for sin not with silver or gold but with the holy and precious blood of Christ.

What is playing out across Christianity throughout the West is a vain attempt to change the Gospel and transform the faith but what no one is admitting is that in so doing the faith is robbed of its power and prevented from bestowing what it promises.  So do not fall into the trap of picking a church that fits your or appeals to your tastes and make sure that where you are you will hear every Sunday nothing less than this eternal Gospel for it is the one and only hope of salvation.   It is both shocking and embarrassing that there are churches who have chosen to preach another gospel instead of this eternal Gospel.  For in so doing, they have surrendered their right to be called Christian and emptied themselves of any means of offering hope to the guilty conscience, life to those in the shadow of death, and peace to those who hearts are troubled.


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