1 Corinthians 1:18-31
We’re talking, these few weeks, about the promises we make when we affirm out baptism—to live among God’s faithful and broken people, to hear God’s Word and share in the Lord’s Supper, to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ through word and deed, to serve all people following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. Today, we focus on the last one—the one about justice and peace.
When I was visiting seminaries, I checked out Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, IA as well as the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. At the time, I was drawn to Chicago because of the opportunity to take additional classes from one of a dozen other seminaries in the city. I wasn’t altogether sold on Lutheran theology—that grace alone stuff seemed a little fishy. What about our commitment—our responsibility to the gospel? As good as Lutherans are about using guilt, Lutheran theology just didn’t seem to have enough of it for me.
When I got to Chicago, all they talked about was social justice. Social justice this and social justice that. Where was the theology? I wanted to get into the nitty gritty about who is right and who is wrong. I wanted some clear-headed thinking salvation—who was in and who was out. Mostly, I wanted black and white answers to the questions that were still rolling around in my head. Why baptism? Why infants? Why me?
So, I left Chicago feeling I wasted my time. When I visited Wartburg, I sat in on a senior theology class and argued incessantly with the other students about justification—the process of being saved. What about us? Where is our part in the whole formula? The systematic theology professor just grinned at me and told me with confidence that I would come to Wartburg. And when I did, I was still hell-bent on arguing about salvation. I twisted myself in knots trying to figure out how to make my approach to theology fit the outcome I desired.
It wasn’t until I came here for internship—when I was in the midst of real ministry and not hypothetical ministry—that it started to come together. What I believe is presented in my actions. And my actions demonstrate what I really believe. And what I believe about God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has implications for what I believe about me and you and the rest of world. It’s all connected. When it doesn’t mesh, that says something about the integrity of my faith—my belief system.
As Lutherans, in particular, we approach the word of God in Holy Scripture always and only through the filter of the Word of God, Jesus the Christ. Everything we read in the Bible gets interpreted through Jesus—what he said, what he did, who he was, and what was said about him. I’ve always hated the saying, “What would Jesus do?” but it does bear some consideration. More importantly, we should ask ourselves, “What DID Jesus do?”
I start here because it is the underlying premise for everything else. If you think that premise is wrong, you’re free to stop listening. But this is how I approach life as a Christian, albeit poorly. To call myself Christian is as much how I follow Jesus to the cross as it is what I say I believe about the cross. If I’m not willing to walk the walk, then the talk is pointless.
The thing about the cross, however—as Paul points out—is that it isn’t something that makes sense to this world. It is foolishness to those who are otherwise identified as wise. It is risky to those who promote safety. It is subversive to those who think they know the rules.
Today’s gospel passage says that Jesus had begun his ministry teaching and healing throughout Galilee. And the crowds were starting to follow him. They were starting to wonder about him. Someone that powerful could really change the political scene for them—stand up to the Roman authorities, upend the occupation, make Israel a great nation once again—a nation sanctioned by God, blessed by God, a nation whose border would hold fast, who would no longer be ransacked, violated, occupied, and exiled by other people. They longed for security and power. They longed to finally stand behind a winner who would lift them up as a force to be reckoned with—like the old days—the days of Moses and Joshua and David.
Jesus saw that they were gathering and following—and he knew what they wanted. He knew they wanted to follow him to the crown, but not to the cross. Today’s passage says that when he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, sat down, and gathered his disciples. And he told the disciples what he was really about.
He didn’t say, “Blessed are the rich and powerful; blessed are the winners; blessed are the mighty; blessed are those who can defend themselves; blessed are those who are secure and safe.” No, he said, “Blessed are the losers—the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted.”
Imagine who Jesus would bless today—what Jesus would say today. Blessed are the vulnerable, the weak, the heart-broken, the disenfranchised, the beaten, the unloved, the unlovable. Blessed are the refugees, the ‘other,’ the ones we look at sideways, those on welfare and those without health insurance. Blessed are the imprisoned, the homeless, the ones whose lives didn’t turn out how they planned. Blessed are the failures, the sick, the differently abled, the stranger, the orphaned, the left behind, the pregnant teenager. Blessed are those who are persecuted for their gender and sexual orientation and the person who sits alone in a nursing home day after day. Blessed are the risk-takers, the advocates, and those foolish enough to think that a dead man on a cross can be an image of hope.
Blessed are those who march to make a statement about the treatment of our mothers, our wives, our daughters, our aunts, and each other. Blessed are those who stand firm in the blizzard calling us to account for the greed that allows oil to be transferred across sacred land. Because all land is sacred land. Blessed are those whose naiveté allows them to hope for something better than what has been promised. Blessed are those who survive what has been promised.
Yes, it sounds political. It is political. Jesus was political. He was one of the most important political figures in all of history. He went up against an empire and showed all of creation that true power is NOT beholden to wealth or titles. Caesar had nothing on Jesus. Even on the cross—especially on the cross. Jesus went up against an empire and showed us that true wealth is not found in the treasury supplied by taxes but in the grace given freely by God. He went up against an empire and showed us that true security cannot be ensured and defended through military might and oppression but is only guaranteed through mutual respect, trust, and honor—through a life of faith. He went up against an empire and showed us that true love cannot be killed, stifled, bought off, or held for ransom.
Jesus—poor carpenter from the middle of nowhere, born in a barn—became a political threat to the establishment because he made political statements that undermined the empire and those in charge. He didn’t fight with a sword or an army. He didn’t ride into Jerusalem on a mighty steed, brandishing fancy armor. He went in shackles, flesh torn, heart broken. He went willingly—a political statement to Rome and a religious statement to the Temple. And on the cross—the end of the road for losers—he won justice. He freed humanity from both political and religious power in order that we would follow him—in order that we would do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.
That is the end product of Christian theology—not some pie-in-the-sky heavenly kingdom apart from this world. While we argue about morality and salvation, real people are living in a real hell, praying desperately for someone to care—praying desperately for the kingdom of heaven right here. We get to be the bearers of God’s promise—right into the darkness of hell, itself, for the sake of God’s beloved people.
And with that calling, we need not be afraid of those who challenge, argue, commiserate, diminish, name-call, put down, mock, or disgrace this work for the sake of worldly wisdom. We may not always get the process right; we may not always agree on the end product; we may come late to the game; but if we are standing up for those who cannot stand, then we are doing our best to follow Jesus and fulfill our promise to strive for justice and peace—here in Lincoln, in Nebraska, in America, and in all the earth.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church