I’ve always kind of envied born-again Christians. The certainty that is conveyed by the experience of being converted to Christ in a moment of ecstasy is very attractive. Being born again, as many people experience it, seems to eliminate doubt and according to our scripture, allows one to enter the kingdom of God.
When I was doing graduate work at Emmanuel College many years ago, a reporter from the Toronto Star called me on the phone because she had heard that I was a lawyer who had given up the practice of law to become a minister. She thought there might be a human-interest story there.
So she asked me why I’d given up law and how I’d come to be a minister. I told her I’d been raised in the United Church and like many adolescents of my generation had drifted away. I’d had little to do with the Church until I was in my thirties and my marriage broke up. One way of dealing with the depression that followed on that experience was to get out and find places to meet people, and the church just seemed a natural place to go.
As it turned out, I made many friends, and I discovered I had an interest in learning about the Christian understanding of God. So I participated in a couple of study groups. I wanted to learn even more about the Christian faith than was offered in my congregation and as it happens I was working across the street from the United Church’s seminary in Toronto, so it was easy to start taking classes part time. As I continued my studies the idea grew within me that I wanted to spend more of my time working in the church and studying theology and at some point I recognized I felt a call to be a minister.
“Were you unhappy practising law?” the reporter asked. “Oh no,” I said. “I really enjoyed it. I had a good variety of work. I had good colleagues. There was lots of room for doing new and interesting things. But ministry just felt like a stronger call.”
“Well that all sounds pretty seamless.” The reporter said. And I could tell then that I wasn’t going to get my fifteen minutes of fame and a photo in the Toronto Star. There was just no drama in that story.
But Oh! Wouldn’t it be great if I’d had an experience like Paul who was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians and heard a voice from above and was so shocked he fell off his horse? That’s what I think of when I think of being born again. Not this seamless gradual process that I underwent.
Or I should say, that I’ve been undergoing.
Because I haven’t yet reached the level of certainty that John’s gospel promises in this passage. I keep having doubts and questions and then finding something that speaks to them, something that keeps me going. But it’s kind of seamless. There’s no flash of lightening, no immersion in water, no falling off a horse, nothing like a rebirth.
For me at least, church continues to be a struggle to find out how God is active in my life, how God calls me to live my life and how God calls me into relationship with God and with my fellow humans. I have no certainty that I’ve been born of Spirit, no confidence that I have come to believe in heavenly things let alone the earthly things that Jesus refers to in this passage. I still feel that I have so much to learn. So much.
In trying to sort myself out, at least enough to preach about this passage that is so often cited by the born-again, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” I consulted my “go to” theological guide, Douglas John Hall, a United Church minister who spent most of his career teaching at McGill University.
The book I found myself immersed in most recently was written nearly forty years ago, yet it resonated with my questions about how I am to understand this Jesus who promises eternal life, expects me to believe in him and calls upon me to be born again. It is a book about the meaning of the cross in particular, and as I read and pondered it, I found if I wanted to explore who Jesus is or what it means to believe in him then I need to engage in one of the central questions of Christian theology: what it means that Jesus was crucified.
The apostle Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” This suggests that the most important thing about Jesus is that he was crucified. Paul, whose letters are the oldest documents about Jesus that we have, doesn’t focus on his teachings or his resurrection, but on his crucifixion. Why, I wonder, have I thought about it so little.
So let me spend the last few minutes of this conversation with you sharing where my pondering the cross has taken me in the last few days. Because I’ve come to see that it is the cross and the power of that story that is at the centre of my faith, hidden deep to be sure, but as central as the spark of Christ we are told is within each of us. It’s not that the rest of the story of Jesus – his teachings and healings, his resurrection and even his triune relationship with God – is irrelevant, it’s just that the cross is what hits us in the gut and makes me, at least, feel the power of the God of love and compassion who longs to save each of us from the blindness of self absorption.
Like every Protestant church, we don’t actually show Jesus crucified on the crosses we display. Our cross is empty. We do that, I have been told, to symbolize the risen Christ, the triumph of the resurrection and God’s power over death. But when we emphasize the glory of the resurrection we gloss over the impact of death on a cross. We get the cross as lifting Jesus up to divine glory rather than the cross as an instrument of torture, suffering and death.
Doug Hall suggests that our focus on the resurrected Christ is part of a theology of hope, that has become a muddled theology of inevitable progress, a focus on the promise that in the end things will turn out for the best. In moving past the death so quickly we overlook “the mutilated, sorrowful, forsaken Christ” who died in the most ignominious and squalid way that Roman cruelty could devise.
What is important about seeing the dying Christ is that doing so forces us to face up to the “mutilation, sorrow and forsakenness” that we are responsible for. Seeing Christ crucified draws us into the suffering of the world’s poor and the poor of our own communities. When we choose not to see them, we can simply ignore the way in which our wealth is dependent on their poverty. When we encounter the crucified Christ, he makes the misery of the world visible to us, which is uncomfortable. And so we choose instead to look to the empty cross. We look beyond this world to the glory of God.
Just look at this cross at the back of our chancel. It is beautiful. It is also powerful and awe inspiring. It evokes images of the cross on a lonely hill that we have seen pictured in works of art.
The cross on which Jesus died was made of two irregular pieces of unfinished wood. He hung with his feet no more than a foot or two off the ground so that when he died the jackals could gnaw on his flesh. He was not on a lonely hill but on a main street. And he was not alone. Those whom the Romans crucified were strung up in huge numbers; in one case 6,000 rebellious slaves were executed on either side of the Via Appia. Crucifixion was not a noble and elevating way to die. Jesus was part of a crowd of thousands, the lowest of the low, those who were a threat to the system, those who refused to go along with the oppressive state under which they lived.
The death of Jesus in this way was not a singular sacrifice, a blood atonement for human sin, a ransom for our souls. The crucifixion was God’s way of getting us to look at the misery and suffering in the world and to be moved. God wants us to see the misery of those who are dying in our midst today and to let our hearts break open with compassion. When we realize that we are just the same as those who are on the cross in front of us, then we are born again and we enter the commonwealth of the God who loves every one of us equally.
What the image of Christ crucified evokes for me, when I let myself see it, is this collage of the world’s suffering that was put together by a Palestinian photo-journalist working at the student newspaper of Queen’s University in their first edition after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001. George Bush’s request for prayers you can clearly see. What the images from Rwanda and Palestine and Albania and East Timor evoke is the universality of human suffering and the affirmation that the tragedy of 9/11 is the daily experience of humankind. Everyday, again and again, Christ is crucified.
Although I am touched by these images of Christ crucified, I am not transformed in a flash as Paul was. At the most, I experience a small, seamless incremental change. But that is enough to keep me coming back, with my doubt and my imperfections. Because I know that God can move me, even me, to weep for those I have crucified. And as I do, I am born again and again and again. The crucified Christ draws me into the nearer presence of God.
Rev. Dr. John Burton reserves all rights © 2017. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce this sermon with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.