Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Centerpiece of Our Faith - The Crux of the Matter

There is a small village in one of the Tyrolese valleys. If you walk through this village you’ll see a cathedral in the center. This edifice of Christianity has been there for centuries. A constant reminder to all who enter this village that Christ is present in that place. If you were to venture beyond the threshold and enter inside this remarkable landmark, you’d see upon the pulpit an outstretched arm. It’s carved completely in wood and this hand holds a beautifully chiseled cross. When most people leave this tiny village they comment on the beautiful village in the mountains, serene and peaceful. Most people also comment on the glorious cathedral. But nearly everyone mentions this cross. There’s just something about the cross that sticks in the minds of the visitors. And there’s just something about the cross that sticks in the minds of us as human beings, isn’t there!

When members of this chaotic world visit the safe harbor of our Christianity may they look past our external rituals and traditions and see only the cross of Christ.

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule—peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.  
Galatians 6:11-18 (NRSV)

With these words, Paul concludes his letter to the Galatians. And he begins his conclusion by calling attention to his penmanship! “Look at the large letters I am using to write to you…” Some point out that the reason Paul included this seemingly inconsequential bit of information was because his scribe wrote the rest of the letter. A common practice of this period was for an author to dictate a letter to a scribe. At this point, Paul says, “I’m picking up the pen myself now. I’m writing my own signature to the letter.” That scenario is certainly possible here. But I think there is a bit more to it. Whether Paul wrote this entire letter by his own hand or whether he only personally wrote this last paragraph is of no serious consequence. What is of consequence is Paul’s penmanship! He uses large letters, and he makes a point to tell these Galatians that he is using large letters. So, my questions are: Why did Paul use large letters in his conclusion? And, why did he think it important enough to call this to the attention of the Galatians?
They didn’t have computers in Paul’s day; they didn’t have typewriters either. If they did, Paul might have changed to a larger font at this point, or, maybe he would have italicized or bolded this last paragraph. Whatever the case may be, his intention seems clear: Pay attention to these last few words, they are important, they are central. In fact, they are the very reason I wrote to you in the first place! And what is that highly important statement?

I love the way The Message puts it:

These people who are attempting to force the ways of circumcision on you have only one motive: 
They want an easy way to look good before others and they lack the courage to live by a faith 
that shares Christ’s suffering and death.

As human beings, I believe we have an innate tendency to classify one another. We group ourselves.
As athletes, we group ourselves into teams. As we grow older, we group ourselves based on our allegiance to certain teams. This group is American, they have certain characteristics, they value freedom, they value democracy. This group is from China, they have their own rituals and culture, they honor elderly generations, traditions to them are essential. We do the same thing in religion. Those are Baptists; they believe once a person is saved, they are always saved. Those are Catholics; they are recognized by their allegiance to the Pope. We are Churches of Christ, others often classify us by our a cappella worship style.

People constantly are on the look out for ways to define one another, to put people in categories and find boundaries between one group and another. These first century Christians were no different: they also classified one another. Some members of this Galatian community believed the way a person of God differentiated himself or herself from a pagan was through his or her observance of certain laws. Specifically, only those who were circumcised were really Christians. These Galatians took pride in their membership on this “team”, God’s team, the people of Israel, the chosen race. And, likewise, they felt pride when others made the necessary sacrifices to join their team.

All along, they were building their identity around this ritual, this external activity. Those who do this thing are in, those who do not do this thing are out! In this letter, Paul tells the Galatians, you’re right and you’re wrong! You’re right, Christians do have a defining mark that differentiates them from everyone else in the world. But your wrong, circumcision is not that mark!

Let me speak very plainly. Sometimes you are I are guilty of the same mistake. Because of our human nature, we also want to classify one another. We want to know who is in; we want to properly designate who is out. So, we, like so many before us, search for those defining markers, those litmus tests to help us in our quests…

“Well, what kind of church did you say she attended?”
“What kind of worship do they have?”
“Do they have a choir?”
“What do they believe about the end of the world?”
“Do their ministers wear robes, or not?”
“Now, tell me, what were the exact words used during the prayer for communion.”

Sometimes contemporary Christians set out on the same quest to identify ourselves around certain practices, or prayers, or rituals, as if these rituals give us our identity, as if these rituals really express to the world who we really are.

But I want to reorient our vision the same way Paul reoriented the vision of those first century Galatians. Church, quit looking to these rituals as our defining characteristics and turn your attention to the one defining marker of those children of God…the cross. To be honest, an identity formed around a particular style of worship is a much more comfortable existence than one formed around the cross. An identity formed around a ritual concerns only the things that take place in this room. An identity formed around the cross forces each of us to wear our family name outside of these walls every day of our lives. Contrary to popular opinion, being a Christian has much more to do with Monday than Sunday! We live in a world where people crave money and power and prestige. Any many will sacrifice anything to get these things. They’ll give up playing baseball with their sons in the front yard. They’ll give up precious opportunities to spend time alone with their spouses. They’ll even spend money to improve their social status.

Brothers and sisters, a follower of Jesus Christ, to put it bluntly, should have different priorities. And a life centered on the cross is not always an easy life. It is predicated on sacrifice. It’s predicated on not always getting our ways. It means you will have to look out for your neighbor, not yourself. It means instead of seeking positions of power you will have to follow Jesus by getting on your knees with a basin of water in front of your friends and enemies!

Perhaps Deitrich Bonhoeffer said it best in one of his sermons:

The cross of Christ destroyed the equation religion equals happiness.

But here is the great irony of the cross…

Regardless of the splinters one may get by spending too much time near the cross, it has always had the ability to attract the world. Beginning with that Roman centurion who stood looking up watching the Son of Mary bleed to death, centuries of people have not been able to look away from the cross. Regardless of its power to put you on your knees, it also has the power to raise you up. Church, the cross (not anything else) is the center of our faith! The cross alone is what saves us. Praise be to God that the cross alone saves us.

In his book entitled, The Cross, Max Lucado makes a profound statement about the cross of Christ:

It rests on the time-line of history like a compelling diamond. Its tragedy summons all sufferers. Its absurdity attracts all cynics. Its hope lures all searchers. History has idolized and despised it, gold-plated and burned it, worn and trashed it. History has done everything but ignore it. How could you ignore such a piece of lumber? Suspended on its beams is the greatest claim in history. A crucified carpenter claiming to be God on earth. Divine. Eternal. The death-slayer. Never has timber been regarded so sacred. No wonder the apostle Paul called the cross event the core of the gospel. It's bottom line sobering: if the account is true, it is history's hinge. Period. If not, the cross is history's hoax.
Which is the cross for you, hinge or hoax? Or in the words of Jesus, "Who do you say that I am?"
--The Cross (1998)

Is the cross the centerpiece of your life, or is it not? If not, maybe you are ready to turn your gaze in that direction.

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