Christ on the cross
The Eight Sunday After Trinity
Proverbs 1:1-9, Psalm 119:33-48, Romans 8:12-17, St. Matthew 7:15-21
A few years ago Marjorie and I were looking for a school for our grandson Caleb. He was about to finish up in a Christian school that stops at eighth grade. We couldn’t rule out the possibility that God’s overtaxed grace might hold out and Caleb might get through high school. With God, all things are possible.
I visited a Christian high school on senior thesis day. These youngsters had spent the entire year in their rhetoric class researching and writing a 25-page paper. They then pared it down to a 20-minute oral presentation, which they defended before a panel of judges.
I heard a number of impressive presentations on both sacred and secular subjects, but one in particular lodged in my mind’s eye like a perfect rose. A young lady wielded the wrench of logic in a brilliant dismantling of the prosperity gospel, piece by corroded piece.
She then called out the huckster extraordinaire Joel Osteen by name and ripped him from stem to stern. Then she reversed course and ripped him from stern to stem.
I thought, “This is the school for Caleb.”
Not so long before, I was looking for a school for myself. I was attending a seminary in which I was a misfit, doctrinally speaking. I decided to try Cranmer Theological House, the Reformed Episcopal seminary in Houston.
In one of my first classes, one of our bishops fielded a question about The Episcopal Church. He replied, “The Episcopal Church is apostate; if there are any true Christians left in it they should get out now.”
I thought, “This is the school for me.”
“Beware of false prophets,” our gospel lesson for today trumpets. Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord admonishes His followers to avoid these “ravenous wolves” who “come in sheep’s clothing.”
In Christ’s days on earth, false prophets frolicked across the terrain, leading gullible souls astray. Matters are not noticeably improved in our time.
I am going to call out some false prophets by name today. I do understand the danger. No one knows the heart of another. Our Lord, however, goes on to declare, “You will know them by their fruits.” Clearly, He expects us to use the faculties He has bestowed upon us to identify the frauds, fakes and fiends who mislead millions today.
To speak through a mouth of mush out of a perverted sense of Christian charity is to play the coward. It is to dishonor the many across the centuries who have remained resolute in the truth even as the flames devoured them. If I sit mute when a high school girl stands up and proclaims the unvarnished gospel, what claim have I on the title “minister or the word”?
Joel Osteen is only the most prominent of the “encouragers” extant today. Whether we brand them with “prosperity gospel” or “health-and-wealth theology” or “name it and claim it religion” or “word of faith movement,” they all sing the same siren’s song of “your best life now.”
They beguile their victims with soothing assurances that God wants them to glow a rosy hue as they giggle their way to the bank every day. All they must do is summon up a robust faith that issues from the divine spark within them.
Pledges and gifts are also accepted, whether by cash or check, or, for the convenience of those in our vast television audience, MasterCard, Visa, Diner’s Club or American Express. In terms of wealth, the apostle of this unholy gospel should be first among equals.
So cartoonish are they in their perverting of the Scriptures that I should like very much to dismiss them out of hand and move on; alas, I cannot. I find that the tentacles of this heresy have stretched into this congregation here present.
Be not deceived. “Take up your cross and follow Me” cannot be translated, “I, Christ Jesus, owe you health and wealth for who you are and what you have done.” It can only mean, “I, Christ Jesus, the only righteous One, have suffered death, even the death of the cross, to win the Father’s favor for you and deliver you from the penalty you deserve for your sins.
“Now, take up your cross, the instrument of your death, and crucify the desires of your flesh so that you might be fit to follow Me.”
These are only some of our false prophets. An even more pernicious breed flourishes among us.
These are the ones who swap out theology for therapy, presenting Jesus as role model but not Savior. Their mission is to repair damaged self-esteem. They appear troubled not at all that they put their victims’ eternal salvation in the balance. They peddle this twaddle in the guise of “relevance.”
The retired bishop C. FitzSimons Allison terms their approach “pastoral cruelty.” The theologian Michael Horton adds in “Christless Christianity”: “Like any recreational drug, Christianity Lite can make people feel better for the moment, but it does not reconcile sinners to God.”
This is the epidemic delusion false prophets are ladling out in our time. It deletes Christ crucified. And out go satisfaction, justification, redemption and sanctification. Did I mention grace? Did I mention salvation? Nothing of value remains. Where there is no Christ crucified, there is no true church.
Oh, but there are myriad buildings called churches. Imagine an unchurched person, raised among pagans, with no more than a warped cultural conception of the Bible and the faith. Perhaps a mother lately concerned with the eternal destiny of her children. A false prophet offers an express lane to heaven that mentions no sin, no guilt, no encounter with Christ at His cross.
Salvation arrives in a pretty package filled with encouraging words, self-help advice and an assurance that God has provided a route to eternal bliss that detours miles wide of the cross. O happy day!
Would it occur to this victim of pastoral cruelty to ask, “Could God have sent His beloved Son to die a ghastly death in vain?”
Overwhelming evidence says it would not.
No cross, no salvation. No salvation, no discipleship. And where there is no discipleship, the Bible is expendable. This deceived soul would not encounter the two verses that precede our text for today:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
This doctrine of deceit parades a dopey confidence in universal salvation, or a facsimile of it, that demands no embrace of the Savior, no confession, repentance or obedience.
In his book, Horton relates a radio interview he conducted with Robert Schuller, who was then the renowned pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California. Schuller advocated a “human needs approach” to the gospel and said that “classical theology has erred in insisting that theology be ‘God-centered,’ not ‘man-centered.’”
And sin? “Any act or thought that robs myself or someone else of his or her self-esteem.” Hell? “A person is in hell when he has lost his self-esteem.” When Horton asked how Schuller dealt with Bible passages that condemn love for self, arrogance, ingratitude and wantonness, he said, “I hope you don’t preach that. It will hurt a lot of beautiful people.”
Others are a trifle more subtle, but these sentiments are rapidly becoming pervasive. The apostate mainline denominations have no monopoly on them. The evangelical church has broadly descended into silly skits and sappy sentimentality – and the same therapeutic drivel.
We could multiply examples until Judgment Day. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church until a couple of years ago, preached a sermon arguing for “radical inclusiveness and diversity over doctrine.” This time, she roamed so far from orthodoxy that she managed what many thought impossible. She embarrassed some Episcopalians.
Her text came from Acts 16, the passage in which St. Paul becomes irritated with a slave girl who follows him and his companions for many days. A fortune-teller, she brings considerable revenue to her masters.
St. Paul casts the “spirit of divination” out of her, rendering her useless to her owners. They haul Paul and Silas before the magistrates, who order them beaten and imprisoned. The passage, the presiding bishop proclaimed, reveals the apostle as “mean-spirited and bigoted.” I quote:
“Paul is annoyed, perhaps for being put in his place, and he responds by depriving her of her gift of spiritual awareness. Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison.
“That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!”
Her misinterpretation rises to the level of hallucination, to say nothing of clerical malpractice. Putting on the new self requires putting the old self to death by dying with Christ, an impossibility for one inhabited by an unclean spirit. St. Paul opened for this girl the door of the narrow way. May Katharine Jefferts Schori find it one day.
In the Hawaiian-shirt school of theology, meanwhile, evangelical icon Rick Warren told a national television audience at Christmastime that Christ entered His creation to give us a “do-over,” apparently much like a mulligan in golf.
If we had a Geiger counter, we could not locate a single nugget of the offense of the cross in this twisted theology. And offense is exactly what God intends, a recognition that you and I are craven sinners in desperate need of salvation. When we come face-to-face with that truth, we can see with new eyes that salvation comes from no source other than Christ, and Him crucified.
We can find outrageous heresies in any period of church history, but I wonder if we could flush out as many false prophets in any other age as in our own. The cross once hung where it belongs, at the center of our faith. I have hanging in my study a framed print of Rembrandt’s “Raising of the Cross.”
The little man in the blue beret in the shadows at the foot of the cross is Rembrandt himself. It was not uncommon for Renaissance artists to paint themselves into their works, but Rembrandt, a Christian, was keeping before him a bloody reminder that it was his sin that nailed his Lord to that cross.
We need a bloody reminder.
The sometimes hysterical reaction of Protestants to Roman Catholicism may help to explain the Christianity Lite that surrounds us. Many Protestants ignore the historic faith, treat Christianity as having begun at the Reformation and deny anything of value in Catholicism. They acknowledge no common ground. An illustration might shed some light.
One day at the track in Ireland, playing the ponies and losing his shirt, Murphy noticed a priest step out onto the track and bless the forehead of one of the horses lining up for the fourth race. Lo and behold, that extra-long longshot won the race. Before the next race, Murphy watched as the old priest stepped onto the track and again made a blessing on the forehead of one of the horses.
Murphy ran to the betting window and placed a small bet on the horse. Again, the longshot the priest had blessed won the race. Murphy collected his winnings, and hopped from foot to foot as he waited to see which steed the priest would bless for the sixth race. The priest again blessed a horse.
Murphy bet a bundle, and won a bigger bundle. He was elated. As the races continued, the priest kept blessing longshots and each ended up winning. By and by, Murphy was pulling in some serious coin. By the last race, he knew his wildest dream could come true. He went to an ATM, emptied his account and awaited the priest’s blessing that would tell him which horse to bet.
In what was hardly by now a surprise, the priest stepped onto the track and blessed the forehead of the longest shot of the day. Murphy also observed the priest blessing the eyes, ears and hooves of this soon-to-be pile of dog food. Murphy bet every cent he owned on the nag. He then watched in horror as the horse dawdled in dead last. In a state of shock, he made his way down to the track.
“Father!” he pleaded. “What happened? Every other horse you blessed today won, but in the last race the horse you blessed lost by a mile. Thanks to you I’ve lost every cent of my savings — all of it!”
The priest smiled a rueful smile. Then he nodded and said, “Son, that’s the problem with you Protestants; you can’t tell the difference between a simple blessing and the last rites.”
The gulf between us looms large, and some may be drowning in it. Protestants, aghast at the thought of using icons in worship, have made an icon of the empty cross. It is clean as Lysol, never fouled by blood and tears.
It whispers “no offense,” speaks in polite, reserved tones of our Lord’s sacrifice, shouts no demand to kneel and grieve and repent before it.
That Christ died on a cross and rose again from the dead are historical facts, and facts do not skulk away no matter how much some deny them. That He expunged your sin and mine and saved us from eternal damnation are matters of faith.
A Christian cannot dispense with faith. Still, we need before us a vivid reminder of His sacrifice that procures our salvation.
Christ lived, died and rose again. Protestants claim the empty cross as the symbol of His rising again, His victory over death. This is a perplexing idea: If He had not risen again, would not the cross still be empty? The empty tomb speaks far more eloquently of His triumph.
The church needed the Reformation desperately. But its father, Martin Luther, found nothing troubling in the crucifix of the Catholics. Among his pronouncements on the subject was this:
“When I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging on a cross takes form in my heart, just as the reflection of my face naturally appears in the water when I look into it. If it is not a sin but good to have an image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?”
Luther also said:
“. . .according to the law of Moses no other images are forbidden than an image of God which one worships. A crucifix, on the other hand, or any other holy image is not forbidden.”
Later Reformers demanded an empty cross as one of a myriad of devices to distance themselves from Rome. It is not wrong. It simply leaves empty the passion of our Lord, the core of our faith. To use it exclusively as Protestants do, however, is to ignore the passion that secured the victory.
Without a bloody Good Friday there could be no glorious Easter Sunday. Without Christ’s broken body on the cross the empty tomb would be empty of meaning.
And the offense of the cross speaks of more than His horrible death. It tells as well of our desperate need to die to self that we might rise again with Him. Without the body, without the blood, the cross too easily reduces to a piece of jewelry – a fashion statement rather than a statement of faith.
It is by no means the only factor in the deconstruction of our faith but it festoons the cultural Christianity that claims Christ’s victory as our own while denying the tortured death He had to die to defeat Satan. It demands the blessings of discipleship without its ghastly cost.
The Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote “Before I Go,” to set out the knowledge he would bequeath to his son. When you see life as unfair, when you feel you do not merit what’s happening to you, Kreeft told his son, walk up to the crucifix and say, “I don’t deserve this.”
Imagine Joel Osteen’s victims facing the torn and crumpled body of our Lord each Sunday. His auditorium would be as empty as his message. The empty cross serves our false prophets well. It allows them to peddle that recreational drug, a religion that promises happiness but cannot deliver salvation. May God have mercy upon them. Amen.