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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - September 17, 2006

   On Sunday mornings I always go down stairs and meet with the kids at the beginning of Sunday School; I talk to them a little bit, maybe read them a story, but mostly it’s so I get to know them and they get to know me; but I learn things too.  In their innocence kids can be quite insightful. One of the kids who often has his hand up because he wants to tell me something or wants to ask a question is Noah Kaukola and last week after I was done talking, he pointed out the picture that was behind me, a picture of Jesus praying in the garden.  I said, “Yeah, that’s nice isn’t it.  Who is that in the picture?”  With no hesitation whatsoever Noah said, “God.” 

I resisted the temptation to delve into the intricacies of the doctrine of the Trinity with Noah at the point; I wasn’t sure that it would be very productive for him; it didn’t seem appropriate or necessary.  Besides, he had just answered Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  It is the big question and there are much longer answers, but at the heart of it, Noah’s answer is the one that all of us would give.  Everyone who calls themselves Christian would say that Jesus is God.  That was the answer of the first ecumenical council in the year 325.  The big question then was is Jesus the same as God or is he just similar to God?  The answer was the same as God and that has been Christian doctrine ever since.  Noah was right!

From there it gets a little more complicated.  We believe that Jesus is God; but who do we believe God is?  What is the image of this God in whom we claim belief?  If I asked you for words to describe God I’m going to guess that you would start in one of two places.  You might start with power words; might, authority, supremacy, omnipotence, omniscience, ruler, judge, things like that.  In the creed we start with I believe in God the Father almighty…that’s power talk.   

The other place you might start is with God as the last word in love.  Words like compassion, mercy, forgiveness, grace, savior, redeemer, friend, might come to mind.  A lot of you might start there because when you think God, you probably think Jesus, kind of like Noah, and those are the things we learn about Jesus.  He does some power things too, but they are pretty much powerful acts of compassion.  So with Jesus in mind, you might start with love.  In either case, whichever of these two places you start at, when you think about God both dimensions probably come into play, maybe sometimes you lean more one way, other times, the other way.

Our minds can handle all of that reasonably well; God as the last word in power; God as the last word in love.  We might struggle to put the two together at the same time, so maybe we don’t; we just think about God and/or Jesus in whichever way meets our needs at the moment and that’s OK.  What proves to be the real stumbling block in our thinking about Jesus as God though, is the same thing that got Peter in today’s gospel.  He thought he had the right answer to “Who do you say that I am” when he said “You are the Messiah.”  It was the right answer.  But when Jesus dragged suffering and rejection and death into it, that’s not exactly what Peter had in mind, and it’s not what we have in mind either, when we think about God. 

We perhaps do better than Peter did because we can look at the suffering and rejection and death of Jesus from the Easter side of things and because of our Easter perspective, if this was just about Jesus we still probably wouldn’t like the crucifixion business, but it would be easier to take.  But, it isn’t just about Jesus.  We can’t escape the part about “If you want to be my followers you have to take up your cross.”  That says that this isn’t just about Jesus; it’s about us too. 

Theology of the cross is what this is called; that’s what Martin Luther called it anyway and he contrasted it with what he called theology of glory.  The theology of the cross is important to how we understand God in light of our understanding of Jesus as God, but it isn’t easy.  I confess that I struggle to make sense of it.  I think the best way to explain the theology of the cross though, is to start by saying it’s a way to think about God that meets us where we are, in the world as we know it to be, which is a world sometimes, often full of sin and brokenness and suffering and death.  It’s an honest theology rather than one that asks us to suspend disbelief and pretend things are other than they are.

The theology of glory wants you to deny all the bad, unexplainable, unfair things that happen, or it wants you to say that it’s all God’s will because God is all powerful, all knowing and all those other power words.  The theology of the cross accepts and acknowledges all those bad things to be real, to be part of life, but it doesn’t say that they represent God’s will.  What it says is that God enters into these tragic events to sustain those who live in the midst of them and also to bring about something new; not necessarily to fix everything the way we’d like it fixed, but to do something new.

Theology of glory answers all your questions about life which is why it’s the most popular Christian theology.  Saying it’s God’s will, God knows better than we do, God has a master plan we just can’t always see it, that pretty much ends the discussion doesn’t it and there’s probably none of us here who haven’t used those or similar words at one time or another.  It’s an approach to God that can be quite comforting because it settles things, leaving God firmly in control, enthroned in a place of glory, above the fray. 

The theology of the cross, on the other hand, can leave you with more questions than answers because it describes a vulnerable God, one not above the fray but in the middle of it, a God who joins us in our times of rejection and suffering and death, a God who suffers with us.  That’s harder to understand and it’s why one modern day theologian has said, there is plenty of evidence in the Bible and in the tradition for the theology of the cross, but it’s never been much loved.

When I speculated about having you come up with words that describe God, I’ll bet vulnerable would not have been on your list.  Without a lot of thought it wouldn’t have been on mine either and it certainly wasn’t on Peter’s list.  Peter had Jesus on the road to glory.  Glory for Jesus after all should mean glory for Peter too.  So Peter rebuked Jesus and Jesus responded with the harshest rebuke he ever had for anyone!  Get behind me Satan!

That rebuke should get our attention.  It should get our attention when we get carried away with our own ideas of a triumphant god of glory.  There is that aspect of God.  You’ve heard me say plenty of times that God is portrayed in a wide variety of ways in the Bible and triumph and glory is part of the mix.  But we’re Christians…and if Jesus is God and the cross and crucifixion are central to his story, then God is revealed in vulnerability and suffering, humility and weakness and we can expect to encounter God in our own times of vulnerability and suffering, humility and weakness.

I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “If you want to be my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow.”  It doesn’t mean you should seek out suffering or feel bad that you’re not suffering enough.  You can rejoice and give thanks when things are good but don’t be afraid or surprised when hardship comes your way and let’s face it, it comes to all of us in some fashion.  Don’t be afraid, but know that God is present with you.  It doesn’t mean praise God in all things, it doesn’t mean praise God when it feels like life is kicking you in the teeth;  that’s theology of glory stuff.  It’s OK to complain and be angry with God.  You remember Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  There are plenty of cases in the Bible where such complaint marks the beginning of change and newness.

Take up your cross also means that we should not be afraid of entering into the suffering of others.  It’s one of the ways you make God’s love known and one of the ways God’s love is made known to you.  As I look out at you, I don’t know all the stories out there, but I know there are so many of you who have cared for or are caring for others in their need.  In so doing you reveal God’s love, but I’ll bet you also experience God’s presence and love maybe more than at any other time, not being a hero, but just doing what you can do.  It’s a powerful form of ministry, it’s taking up your cross, it’s theology of the cross.

Noah was right in his identification of Jesus as God, just as Peter was right in identifying Jesus as the Messiah.  I’m not sure we’re much further along than Peter was though, in our understanding of the suffering Jesus.  It still doesn’t fit in with our dominant image of God.  Fortunately, we can profess faith in Jesus and at the same time confess that we don’t understand it all.  From Jesus side of things though, with the emphasis he put on the cross, the necessity of his rejection, suffering and dying, it seems clear that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was right when he said, “Only the suffering God can help.”
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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one who
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