Based on 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
I was reading an article this week by an atheist about Christianity, and why he’s drawn to it, and perhaps demonstrating a better understanding of today’s passage than most commentaries. He talks about Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five (1969) in which its imaginary ‘The Gospel from Outer Space’, an extraterrestrial being studies Christianity to learn, if he can, ‘why Christians found it so easy to be cruel’. (Here I’ll quote from the article a bit)
The visitor starts from the position that the point of Christianity is to teach people to be merciful, even to the lowest members of their society. But he comes to realise that what the Gospels actually teach is this: ‘Before you kill somebody, make absolutely sure he isn’t well-connected.’
The flaw in the Christ stories, said the visitor from outer space, was that Christ, who didn’t look like much, was actually the Son of the Most Powerful Being in the Universe. Readers understood that, so, when they came to the crucifixion, they naturally thought … :
Oh, boy — they sure picked the wrong guy to lynch that time!
And that thought had a brother: ‘There are right people to lynch.’ Who? People not well-connected. So it goes.
Christ only seems like a nobody, a bum, a poor carpenter: in fact he is the prince of Heaven, the most royal of royalty. The visitor from outer space makes a gift of a new gospel in which this disparity does not exist. His Jesus actually is the lowest of the low; God himself stresses repeatedly what a nobody he is. Accordingly, the people assume there will be no comebacks when they decide to amuse themselves by nailing him to a cross:
And then, just before the nobody died, the heavens opened up, and there was thunder and lightning. The voice of God came crashing down. He told the people that he was adopting the bum as his son, giving him the full powers and privileges of the Son of the Creator of the Universe throughout all eternity. God said this:
From this moment on, He will punish anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!
The point of this splendid midrash is that the gospel message loses force if Christ actually is the sort of person you shouldn’t lynch — a king, the son of God — not least because such a story inevitably establishes the category of ‘people you are permitted to lynch’. The most cursory glance at what Christ says in the Gospels ought to persuade us of his repudiation of any such idea.
This is why theology matters. A friend of mine once asked me whether or not it matters that we believe that Jesus was God. I answered by saying, “Of course, it absolutely matters. How else would we know what God is like?”
“We preach Christ crucified.” I wonder if we have become so familiar with the crucifixion of Jesus that it has lost its shockingness. Because here’s the thing: if Jesus is not merely God’s son, but also God, then it is God who hangs weak and limp, bleeding and dying on a cross by the side of a public road. Such an image is utterly absurd – the God who spoke stars into existence surrendered to a crude Roman execution. I mean, if this is your God, then by most standards, your God is foolish and weak. I remember participating in an interfaith program a number of years ago (Christians, Jews and Muslims), and what both Jews and Muslims simply could not get their heads around about Christianity was this idea that God could suffer. To them it was blasphemous. How does this image change the way we understand God and God’s relationship to humanity? Is the cross just an aberration, a ‘blip’ on the way to God returning with a vengeance to punish those who wrong him like a tortured action hero? Or does it fundamentally change our way of being in the world knowing that God is prepared to risk such vulnerability out of love for us? Is the cross merely an accident of history, or is it a fundamental part of God’s self-revelation to us?
We spend our lives trying to avoid being vulnerable, shoring up our lives so that we can control them. I noticed it even last week after the car attack in Bourke St I felt vulnerable. If it can happen here in a place I have often been, what does that mean for my life, for all our lives? I suspect others felt similarly because the response after the initial shock was to blame. It’s the bail justices’ fault, it’s the fault of police policies regarding car chases. The assumption behind all the blaming is that if we can nail down who and what was responsible, we can once and for all fix the world so we will no longer feel unsafe. Because we’re happier to swallow convenient and reassuring lies than we are to admit we’re vulnerable, and maybe we can’t fix everything.
But if even the God we see in Jesus is vulnerable, then that changes everything.
Paul reminds us that the world’s wisdom tells us that vulnerability is foolishness. The world’s wisdom says we need to make enough money to set ourselves up, to be self-sufficient, to stand on our own two feet. It’s foolishness to depend on others who may let you down, you can’t trust anyone but yourself! Worldly wisdom says there’s no medical problem, or energy problem, or technical problem that science and technology can’t fix through innovation. It’s foolishness to not have the latest technology, or to choose to simplify. Wisdom means protecting yourself from those who might do you harm, building a wall or patrolling your borders or locking your doors or shutting out those who are different. It’s foolishness to expose yourself to possible harm by befriending strangers, welcoming those you feel threatened by. Worldly wisdom means getting people back for what they’ve done to you – hitting them as hard as they hit you, or returning snark with more snark, or find ways to hurt them. It’s foolish to be kind to them, then they’ll never learn their lesson, and they’ll just keep doing it. Worldly wisdom says you have to hide your flaws, your brokenness. It’s foolish to admit them, or others will take advantage of you.
These ways of thinking are not ‘alternative facts’, they are idolatry! If we’re to follow the God revealed in Jesus, the one who goes to the cross out of love for enemy, then vulnerability is not to be avoided, it is our only way forward.
To be sure, vulnerability when it’s unchosen can be horrendous. Just look at what has happened, and continues to happen, to aboriginal people, or refugees, or domestic violence victims, or children who have suffered abuse. But vulnerability freely chosen is the the ultimate strength. It says to another – even another by whom we’re threatened – that they are safe with us, even if we are not safe with them. That God freely chose to be vulnerable is one of the reasons God is worthy of our worship, our discipleship, and our lives.