We are currently at the climax of The Story: A 31-week journey through the grand narrative of scripture, from Creation to New Creation. And now, I have been assigned week 26: The Hour of Darkness – which is the part of the Story where the King, Jesus, dies on a cross.
And I want so badly to tell that story as it stands in the Gospels. I don’t want to skip ahead to Pauline theology and say what the cross means in theological terms: Atonement, Forgiveness, Justification, etc.
When we detach the story of the cross from the story of the kingdom like that, then we don’t even need the rest of the gospel story. We just need the virgin birth, a sinless-moral life, and death on a cross. Sometimes, the way we preach it, I wonder if we even need resurrection at all! (Even though Paul clearly says it is the most important thing).
The Story of the Cross is first and foremost the climax of the Story of the Kingdom. God launches his kingdom in and through his kingdom agent, his Messiah, Jesus Christ. And the gospel IS the announcement of that kingdom come (Mark 1:14-15).
Now, there is Peter and James and John: All of us, me and you, embodied in them. They want so badly for God’s reign to be established. They see the brokenness, the loneliness, the despair, hurt, the sin, the abuse, the mourning and crying and pain and suffering. And this Messiah has filled them with hope. They have witnessed the miracles. They have heard the kingdom vision. They sense God is in this man, Jesus.
So Jesus rides into the city to take his place on the throne. He is going to take it by storm, right? He is going to crush his enemies, right? We are about to go to war, right?
We are about to die. On a Cross.
Because the new world God is making, by his Spirit, is ushered in not by power or might – but by weakness.
So I recently read Marva Dawn’s INCREDIBLE little book “Powers, Weakness & the Tabernacling of God”, and she has this great little section outlining the theme of weakness as the Way of the New Testament people of God. They chose weakness rather than power to bring about God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. The options of power require no faith. The option of weakness to change God’s world requires much faith.
Here is her outline from pages 53-55:
Galatians: Paul’s announcement of the gospel came in physical infirmity (4:13); he is crucified with Christ (2:20) and wants to boast of nothing except Christ’s cross, by which the world is crucified to him (6:14).
Ephesians: We are loved and made alive together with Christ, saved utterly and exhaustively by grace, even though we are dead in our sin (2:1-10); though Paul is the very least of all the saints, yet grace was given him to bring the Gentiles news of Christ’s boundless riches (3:8).
Philippians: Imprisonment helps to spread the gospel (1:12-14); the community is urged not to live in selfish ambition or conceit, but rather to imitate Christ’s emptying (2:1-10); Paul can be glad and rejoice even when he is being poured out as a libation and offering for others’ faith(2:17-18); Paul’s goal is to share in Christ’s sufferings and to become like him in his death (3:10).
Colossians: Christ’s servants can actually complete what is lacking in Christ”s afflictions for the sake of the church (1:24-26); declaring the mystery of Christ leads to prison (4:3).
1 Thessalonians: In spite of persecution the Holy Spirit inspires joy and witness (1:6-10); Paul had been shamefully treated and encountered great opposition (2:2).
2 Thessalonians: The saints have been steadfast and faithful in the midst of persecutions and afflictions (1:4); with toil and labor, Paul had to work night and day (3:8).
1 Timothy: Admitting the same toil and struggle (4:10), the apostle urges the rich not to be haughty or to set their hopes on riches, instead of God (6:17-19); Timothy is urged not to let any one discount him for his youth (4:12).
2 Timothy: Timothy is exhorted not to be ashamed, but to join Paul in suffering for the gospel (1:8-10; 2:3); the apostle suffers hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal (2:9).
Titus: Paul names himself a slave of God (1:1); the saints are reminded to be subject to the powers (3:1); they were saved not by anything they had done, but entirely by mercy (3:5).
Philemon: Onesimus the slave is a child to Paul (10), has been useless (11), but is to be welcomed for the sake of the imprisoned Paul (17-21).
James: The saints are urged to face trials with joy (1:2-4); the lowly can boast in being raised up (1:9-10); with meekness they are to welcome the implanted word that has the power to save them (1:21); true religion is to care for the orphans and widows (1:27); to recognize that God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith (2:5) and thus to welcome them (2:8-17); the humble are graced (4:6-10); the prophets provide examples of suffering and patience (5:7-11).
1 Peter: The people of the royal priesthood follow one rejected by mortals (2:4-10) and live as aliens and exiles (2:11; they follow in the steps of the one abused, wounded (2:23-25) – the one who suffered (3:18; 4:1, 12-14; 5:1); they should clothe themselves with humility (5:5-10).
2 Peter: No prophecy ever came by human will, but by the gift of the Holy Spirit (1:20-21); the saints wait for God’s fulfillment, which is delayed because God is patient to save (3:11-15).
I John: We deceive ourselves if we think we aren’t weak with sin (1:8-9); we need Christ’s atoning sacrifice (2:1-2); we are children of God, but what that is we do not yet know (3:1-2); love is revealed not by us, but by the atoning sacrifice of the Son (4:7-10).
Jude: It is Christ who keeps us from falling, makes us stand without blemish, offers mercy as we rest in God’s love (21, 24).
Those are, what you might call “the minor examples” from the smaller pastoral epistles and letters. There is of course the central theme of weakness to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church (1:18-31). Romans is busting at the seems with the theme of weakness. In chapters 14-15, Paul, having finally reached a place in his letter to deal with pastoral issues, does so from the conviction of weakness as the power of God. Acts is perhaps the most obvious example of weakness in scripture, whereby the infant church does amazing things simply by following a crucified Messiah, carrying with them the hope that they will be vindicated by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. 2 Corinthians has its beautiful statement in chapter 5 about embodying Jesus’ death to carry forward his ministry of reconciliation.
I get it. The cross is about atonement too. But I cannot help myself from thinking that we have lost the full biblical vision of the cross and kingdom, both embodied by Jesus, as example for us, his followers – a new way to be in the world and serve it.
When I survey the culture and wider-world around me, with a particular eye to the Christian sub-culture, I cannot help but think we have lost this message of weakness. In matters of politics, it seems we have opted for the way of the Sadducees: see how much power you can get and wield it for God. In matters of religion: it seems we have opted for the path of the Pharisees: using God’s word as a tool to gain social status above those beneath us morally. In matters of revolution: it seems we have opted for the way of the zealots, assuming violence is our only tool (both in language and in action) with which to change the world. In matters of something we have termed “secular” (as if there are some things that God cares nothing about): it seems we have opted for the path of the Essenes and withdrawn from the wider culture as a sign of rebellion against the refusal to be hyper-religious. And all of the above have one thing in common: they are power-plays.
And against all this stands a story. The story of the cross. And it means more than atonement, though it means that too (and the need for atonement means you are too weak to provide salvation for yourself). It means weakness is the WAY of God’s kingdom.
So that time that Peter tells Jesus that he is the Messiah, Jesus tells him what sort of Messiah he will be. “I must die…” Peter is mad. He has another vision of how to accomplish God’s purposes in the world – power. James and John agree with Peter – power is the way. So Jesus, after he tells them that the way is the cross, tells them this:
“And if you want to come after me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me…”
That is the way of the Kingdom. The Cross is more than a single blood-sacrifice for sins. It is the sum-total theology of weakness. And that assumption is plastered all over the pages of the New Testament.