May I never boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul is facing a crisis. In his first missionary journey to Galatia, the Gospel was well received, the church was established and Paul was able to move on to preach to other regions. But after he left some wolves in sheep’s clothing arrived and began to sway the church to a different Gospel, which in reality was no Gospel at all. These were men who thought that compromise was a virtue and so while they claimed to embrace Christianity, they also embraced the law and encouraged the new converts in Galatia to do the same.
Those of you who went through the crises in the Episcopal Church will be able to relate well with this conflict in Galatia. When we were in the thick of it Fox News called me and asked if they were missing anything or not getting it right. I told them that they were missing something. I said “Y’all keep making it all about sexuality when the real issue was the authority of Scripture and the Church not having the authority to alter Scripture.” To which the reporter said to me, “Oh I know that Father but sex sells.” So there are presenting issues and there are deeper issues beneath.
In Galatia the presenting issue was circumcision. It was being taught that these new Gentile believers should submit to circumcision in obedience to the law. But there was a deeper issue, as Paul said, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything.” The deeper issue was a true gospel verses a false gospel, righteousness by faith verses righteousness by works. Or simply put it was about the law versus grace. The deeper issue was how we are to live our lives as Christians. Have we been set free so that we can live as sons and daughters or are we to go back into slavery under the law? Whose yoke are we wearing, Christ’s or Moses’?
So Paul cuts through it all by declaring that it is all about the cross and by claiming that he will boast in nothing else but the cross, he puts himself over against those who boast in themselves and their ability to keep the law.
Those who were preaching what Paul called in chapter one, “a different Gospel,” were no doubt motivated by a number of things. First as I said earlier, they saw compromise as a virtue. They could walk among the Christians and claim to be Christian themselves and at the same time make the Jewish leaders happy by declaring how many Gentiles they had circumcised. In this way they would also avoid the persecutions that the Jewish leaders were fomenting against the Church.
But there is another reason to avoid focusing on the cross. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’…For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” If you preach the Cross of Christ, you must proclaim Him and not yourself. If you preach the cross, how can you receive the praise of men for how clever you are? Besides, the cross is a scandal. It is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles and indeed to all who are perishing. You can’t purchase a ministry jet by turning people off, for heaven’s sake! So instead let’s tickle their ears, tell them what they want to hear, and be sure that when they leave they feel good about themselves. Don’t tell them that they cannot save themselves. Give them something to do in order to save their dignity.
Another reason to avoid preaching about the cross is because it forces you to address the why of the cross. One day I had a visitor come up to me after Mass and she was more than a little put out with me. She pointed to the altar cross and said to me, “You know He is not on the cross anymore!” I decided to defuse her anger with a little humor and so I smacked my head and said, “Man when did that happen? Nobody tells me anything any more.” I went on to explain to her that while we are fully aware that Christ has risen from the dead, we have a crucifix to remind us of His passion and that it was for our sins that He died.
When you preach the Cross you are forced to explain why He was put on that cross and that puts you and me in the cross hairs. People love hearing about His birth and they celebrate His resurrection but most would rather skip from Palm Sunday to Easter and miss Good Friday all together. You will recall some of the outrage over Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of Christ.” It was upsetting to many because it hit a nerve. Preaching the cross does that. I didn’t have anything to do with His birth and I didn’t have anything to do with His Resurrection but I am the one who put Him on the cross. It was for my sins that He died and that is not a comfortable truth to preach or to hear.
So Paul says he will never boast in anything except the cross of Christ. When you really think about it, that makes all the sense in the world. In what else could Paul boast? His brilliance? His gifts? His apostleship?
When I was in seminary outside of Boston I used to make frequent trips to the Museum of Fine Arts in the city. Believe it or not, seminary can be a very dry place for your soul. Gordon-Conwell was so intensely academic that I had to use all of my resources to keep up and all that work and no play made Johnny a dull boy. So when I would feel my soul getting dry I would go to the museum and stand before the Masters, in particular the European and American Impressionists, and I would drink in the beauty and restore my balance. That place was heaven for me because it also had a very large collection of Samurai swords and armor, which I also find fascinating and beautiful works of art.
But as I think about what I saw, I give credit not to the paint and the canvas that I viewed but to the Master who painted them. People would most often call these paintings not by their titles but by the Master. “Look, there’s a Monet, there’s a Degas, there’s a John Singer Sargent.”
And so it is with us as Christians. We are His workmanship. We can’t boast about who we are because we did not make ourselves who we are. Any gift or calling or ability we have comes from the Master and so there is nothing in us to boast about. Our boast is in Him. Our hope is that when others look at us they say. “Look there is a Christ in one” and credit the Master.
Paul takes it a step further and says that it is through the Cross that the world is crucified to him and he to the world and then he goes on to speak of a “new creation.” These are some powerful ideas and we sell ourselves short if we don’t understand what he is talking about here.
Too much of the Church thinks that the Christian life is, in essence, asking Jesus to forgive you so that one day you can go to heaven. That’s pretty much it. Until that day comes you hang on and hope to get raptured. But that is not the picture that the Bible paints. Being a Christian is uniting with Christ, being buried with Him in the waters of baptism and being raised with Him in newness of life. The person that you used to be; now you consider as dead. The inheritance that you have in Christ is far more precious to you than the bowl of porridge that the world offers to you in exchange. Christ has made and is making you new so that you fit into this new heaven and new earth that He is preparing.
As I was cross-referencing this idea of a new creation, I came across these study notes in 2 Corinthians 5 in the English Standard Version Study Bible. It said that the new creation is “the redemption of a people who now live for Christ by living for others, effected by the power of the Spirit and the death of Christ. (it) is the new creation that was destined to come amid this evil age. This new creation is also the beginning of Israel’s final restoration from God’s judgment in the exile.”
They are saying three things here. First is that when we die to our old selves through the Cross and are filled with the Spirit, we will live for Christ by living for others. We will never know any spiritual depth if we are living for ourselves alone. I think of Mother Theresa who was dead to the world but lived for others, looking for Christ in all people.
The second thing they are saying about the new creation is that it is not pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. It is the kingdom of God breaking into this evil age. The Rapture error is rooted in an untruth that the Church will be taken out of here and the world turned over to the devil. But Jesus says the kingdom of God is like leaven, it starts out small but eventually leavens the whole lump. As Christians we are not to be looking how to bail out of this world, rather we are to be working and praying to transform this world. That is the proper vision of the Kingdom of God. One of my favorite prayers in the Prayer Book is found in the Good Friday liturgy. It shows us Jesus’ goal in dying on the Cross, this Cross in which we boast.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light:
Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity
of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
God is making not just you and me, but He is making all things new. That’s worth living for!
The third thing that these notes tell us about the new creation is that it is the beginning of Israel’s final restoration from the time of the exile. Isaiah who prophesied to Israel when they were in exile said this as the voice of God.
“See, I will create
new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered,
nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight
and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem
and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying
will be heard in it no more….
They will not labor in vain,
nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
and dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,”
This vision of peace and prosperity is a vision of the Kingdom that is now and is to come. It is a vision fulfilled through the Church, as we become the royal priesthood and holy nation that we are destined to be. It is why we refuse to live a life that is divided between secular and sacred. Rather we take this new life of Christ into our businesses and into the market place and into our families so that the reign of Christ can be felt there too. It is as we treat others with dignity and respect and stand up for righteousness; it is as we refuse to compromise or tolerate injustice; it is as we bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ, that we will see the gates of hell begin to bend and break against the ever expanding Kingdom of God. God has not given us an evacuation plan; He has given us a commission to bring all things in subjection to His Christ. Our job is not over until that comes about. The first step is to decide along with St. Paul to never boast in anything except the cross of Christ. Amen.