Paul and the Story of the Cross

When I start talking about the importance of the story of the cross as I did yesterday–that we are a cross people and that we know what the cross signifies because of the whole story in which it is found–I quickly bump up against the fact that most of the books of the New Testament are not stories.

So what happens to a storied faith, a storied identity, when we delve into hortatory letters?

We discover afresh that Paul doesn’t talk about the cross as we so often talk about it. Paul wants to place us in the middle of a cosmic narrative–and by “middle,” I don’t mean just that we are influenced by the crazy cosmic story of Jesus but that the church, in union with the crucified Christ, finds itself at the heart of everything.

Paul’s story of the cross is told by his own life, by his ministry, by his churches.

For Paul, the faithful are united to the crucified Christ.

For Paul, baptism unites to the crucified Christ.

For Paul, the Spirit is the clear demonstration and agent of participation in the crucified Christ.

And so to the Galatians, who think that they need to start observing Torah to be part of the people of God, Paul says, “… Before your eyes Jesus Christ was placarded as crucified. This is what I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law or by faithful hearing… Did you suffer so many things in vain?”

These connections are not incidental. To receive the story of Christ crucified is both to receive the Spirit and to being the earthly manifestation of co-crucifixion with Christ. Or, as Paul will put it clearly in Romans 8: to receive the Spirit of the Son, is to be co-heir with the son, if we suffer with him in order to then be glorified with him.

The test of Christian identity is the cross: the suffering of the people of God is their manifestation of their union with the suffering savior. We are the story that we preach. We are the cross people, Paul insists. This is our story, and the measure of our fidelity.

To be the cross people means that the defining markers of Christian identity are the cross, the crucified Christ, and all these entail.

Are we a people who have been united to Christ? Then an inseparable component of our Christian identity is unity–because there is one bread of communion in Christ’s death, we who are many are one body for we all partake of the one loaf.

Are we Christ’s? Then we must be one, and act as one body–because by one spirit we were all baptized into one body.

Is our message one of God’s power in crucifixion? Then pursuing power by the world’s economy of death, of attainment, of prestige is all rendered antithetical to the story of the church.

Is our message one of God’s wisdom in crucifixion? Then the world’s ways of wisdom–of prudence in exercise of force, of wisdom in the methods of growing large organizations, of attainment through doctoral level education at prestigious universities–will all be foolishness, in the end. These are not the measures of the Kingdom of God. Our story is the story of folly in the sight of the world. And we must live it.

For Paul, no less than for the Gospel writers, we are a people of the story. The story of God is, in fact, our story. It’s not ours in the sense that we own it, but in the sense that it is the story we are called to enact, the play we are called to perform.

We are cross people.

This is the story that makes me ambivalent about Osama. I believe in the God of justice. I believe in justice being realized on earth as an in-breaking, however small, of God’s glorious Kingdom.

I also know that taking up the sword against the unjust tyrants was precisely where the disciples wanted Jesus to act on their behalf, and where he refused. No, said Jesus, we are going to be a cross people. Follow me by taking up your cross.

Have faith in God–God will throw the mountain into the sea at the proper time of judgment.

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