Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

The Crucified God (Nov-Dec 1999)

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by Tom Olbricht
November – December, 1999

Mark in his Gospel has the disciples standing on two peaks, though the mountain is one. Just prior to Mark 8:31-38, they arrived at the first. The path was a challenge. Steep inclines required great stamina and boulders stood in the way. But the disciples made it. They stood basking at the summit. Peter uttered the growing conviction, responding to the pointed question of Jesus, “But who do you say that I am?” by declaring, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:30). Oh, what a world-shaking confession! But it is a false peak! Is that possible?

In June, 1989 we flew to Anchorage in order to travel three weeks in the interior of Alaska. We spent the second week at Camp Denali where, from the front window of our cabin, we had tremendous views of Mt. McKinley rising 20,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. In the other direction stood what looked to be a ridge which a novice hiker might conquer. Dorothy isn’t much into hiking, but she decided she would try it with the rest of the gang. The ascent was deceptive. First we had to walk through thawed tundra. The going was rough. We sank up to our ankles in the muck. We walked a mile in these conditions before reaching a solid path. The way grew steeper, but after an hour we arrived at the peak that we could see from the cabin below. Dorothy was tired, but she exerted that final burst of energy required to reach the top. She was flushed from the climb and the achievement. Breathing hard, she looked back down at the camp and across the valley to take in majestic McKinley. She turned north once again, and she was crestfallen. We hadn’t reached the peak at all. This was a false peak. To reach the peak required a climb similar to the one just made. Before us was a plateau, a canyon two or three hundred feet deep, then the ascent to the real peak.

In comments to the disciples (Mark 8:31-38) Jesus made it clear that they had not arrived at the top, simply by making what we have labeled “the great confession.” To attain the summit is more than simply confessing that Jesus is Messiah. The ultimate confession is that Jesus is God crucified. Jesus lived the way of the cross. He died upon the cross. He beckons us to follow him on that same path. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

The False Peak
None of us are to disdain the feat of mounting the first or false peak. That achievement is only inconsequential if we stop there. Even though not the ultimate destination, the false peak cannot be avoided. That is the only way to arrive at the top. The supreme peak consists of the confession that the Son of God can only be seen for who he really is when he hangs inexplicably on the cross.

As Mark began his account, he wasted no precious time, but immediately declared that Jesus is the “Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). He himself made this confession only after Jesus had died and arisen. It was only those in a privileged position who announced prior to his death that he is Son. The demons knew him. Three times, in varied language, they declared, “You are the Son of God” (Mark 1:24; 3:11; 5:7). God, in a voice from heaven, twice affirmed, “You are my Son, the Beloved” (Mark 1:11; 9:7).

Mark wants us to know that it took time, and death and resurrection, before the disciples arrived at that conclusion. The nearest they came prior to that stunning achievement was the confession of Peter, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:30). According to Mark they did not at that time declare him Son. Whatever Peter had in mind when he confessed Jesus as Messiah, it did not include the cross. When Jesus spoke of being killed and arising, Peter took him aside and rebuked him. James and John did not understand the import of the confession either, for they requested to sit, “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). The first human in the Gospel of Mark to make the confession that Jesus is the Son of God, so easy for the demons, and so difficult for the disciples, was the Roman centurion who looked on as Jesus died on the cross. “Truly this mad was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39)!

How did the disciples arrive at the first peak? They were with Jesus. They heard what he said, and perhaps more significantly for Mark, they saw what he did. They ate and slept with him. But these contacts alone did not bring them to confess him as Messiah. Mark identified a number of wonders on the way to the first peak that should have resulted in belief.

The first comment of Mark on how the disciples sized up Jesus is at chapter four, verse forty-one. The disciples and Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee in a boat. A great windstorm arose. The disciples feared for their lives. They awoke Jesus, perturbed at his sleeping. He simply spoke to the storm, “Peace; be still.” A dead calm ensued. Now Mark commented on the reaction of the disciples: “And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ ” The abrupt turnabout in the storm was impressive. They perceived Jesus as someone special. But as to just who he was, they seemed to be in a fog.

The second comment is at chapter six, verses fifty-one and fifty-two. Once again they were on the sea. Jesus was not with them. As they struggled, rowing against the wind, they saw to their amazement someone about to pass them, walking on the water. They feared a ghost. But Jesus spoke to them and they “were utterly astounded.” Jesus was incredible. He had just fed 5,000 in the wilderness with no visible food supply. This time Mark observed, “and they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Why hardened hearts? Pharaoh’s heart was hardened. What did that mean? It meant that he did not perceive the hand of God in the spectacular events which unfolded before his very eyes. Neither did the disciples.

Now again (chapter eight, verses seventeen through twenty-one) a third time Mark observed the disciples’ perspective. The crowds were again in the wilderness and Jesus had compassion on them because they had nothing to eat. Once more they ate their fill. After it was over the disciples engaged in a dispute regarding Jesus’ charge to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. Like some of us, they grow in contention, not conviction. Jesus retorted, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect? They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?'”

What should they have understood? I suggest that when he spoke and nature obeyed, and when he walked on water, and nature supported, they should have thought of the God who called worlds into existence by a verbal command. When they observed the multitudes eating in the wilderness without a visible food source they should have recalled a much earlier wilderness in which God fed his people with manna.

In regard to Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear?” (Mark 8:18), notice two healings not accidentally located where they are. Jesus opened the ears of a deaf man (Mark 7:35), but the disciples remained deaf (Mark 8:18). Jesus opened the eyes of a blind man (Mark 8:22). As the disciples watched Jesus at work, they began to see vaguely but not yet clearly. Jesus has a way of reaching even the most dense of persons. The ears of the disciples began to open. With their eyes they began to see. Jesus asked the probing question and they reached a conclusion. They ascended the first peak. They confessed, “You are the Messiah.” Now they could relax and enjoy the scenery.

The True Peak
Almost immediately Jesus disabused the disciples of any afterglow from their achievement. He hastened to speak not only of suffering and death, but issued a straight forward challenge, enigmatic to the disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” These declarations in effect announced that there remained another peak up there somewhere. The disciples must outfit for the remainder of the climb.

So where is this true peak? What must the disciple do to surmount it? It is not enough to see God in Christ. Jesus must be envisioned as the right kind of God. He must be seen for who he really is – the crucified God. How is it possible to envision a crucified God?

First, the disciple must stand in the shoes of the centurion facing the cross. Only then can one confess that Jesus is Son of God. Of course, Mark did not pinpoint the centurion as the consummate believer. He was only a forerunner for those who were, that is the disciples. They, like the centurion, ultimately stood face to face with Jesus on the cross. On the way to Jerusalem, the eyes of the blind Bartimaeus were opened (Mark 10:46-52), and the disciples now had Jesus more clearly in focus. But only when they had passed through the excruciating experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection did they make the ultimate confession, “Jesus is God crucified!” Until we realize that the one suffering on the cross, discredited and in anguish, is God in the flesh, we have not understood.

God on the cross was genuine scandal to the nineteenth century American, William Ellery Channing (1780-1884). He envisioned God as above and beyond the fleshly attributes of human existence. God, for him, by no stretch of the imagination involved himself in the dirt and grime of sinful humanity. “William Ellery Channing rejected as ‘idolatry’ the notion that Divinity might have clothed Himself in flesh. The doctrine of the incarnation was a product of a weak and ignorant imagination, lacking the ‘reflecting and purified mind’ to worship God as ‘pure spirit, invisible and unapproachable.’ Trinitarianism represented ‘a relapse into the error of the rudest and earliest ages, into the worship of a corporeal God,’ he asserted in an unusual outburst of invective. ‘Its leading feature is the doctrine … of the Infinite Divinity dying on a cross; a doctrine which in earthiness reminds us of the mythology of the rudest pagans.’ The crucifixion of the creator of the universe was altogether too preposterous, messy, and disgusting to be credible for one of Channing’s enlightened temperament. Nor could he bear to think that any act so purely physical as the torture of a man nailed to wooden beams could bring salvation to humanity: ‘I am astonished and appalled by the gross manner in which “Christ’s blood” is often spoken of, as if his outward wounds and bodily sufferings could contribute to our salvation; as if aught else than his spirit, his truth, could redeem us'” (Daniel Walker Howe, The Unitarian Conscience, Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861 (Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 1988, p. 42).

Channing stood, however, in company with the Cambridge Platonists and the German idealists such as Schleiermacher and Hegel, rather than with the centurion face to face with Jesus on the cross. Despite Channing’s scruples, the witness of the whole Scripture is that God is a God who involves himself in the seamy, sinful life of historical humanity. Channing scrambled up the first peak, and rather than taking it for what it was, a false peak, committed his life to heralding it as the true one.

Second, in order to stand on the true peak and see God as the one crucified, w must read the Old Testament and become sensitive to the manner in which God involved himself with humans in history. it is then than with renewed insight we can retrace with Mark the footprints of Jesus, the Son of the same God, and see that his very life was consistent with his death. It was the way of the cross.

The God of Israel continually involved himself in human history. He had compassion on humans in their plight. He sided with the oppressed and the humble. Physical reality and human existence were not alien to him. He created both. The Psalmist summed it up well: “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalms 103:13,14). Abraham Heschel, the renowned Jewish scholar, told the story that each morning God gathers the angels around him and asks a single question: “Where does my Creation need mending today?”

The descendants of Jacob resettled in Egypt because of a great drought. They raised their families and prospered. After several generations, a Pharaoh arose who knew not Joseph. He had numerous building projects on the drawing boards and forced the offspring of Jacob into slavery. “The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them” (Exodus 2:23, 24). God grappled with human history. He did not hold off persons at arms length. There followed the mighty wonders in Egypt and at the Sea. God did it not just for his own covenant people, but for all persons made in his image, so that his name, therefore his goodness, might “resound through all the heart” (Exodus 9:16).

An Ephraimite woman named Hannah had no children. She was constantly reminded of that fact by her rival, Peninnah. Hannah took the matter up with God. She went to the tabernacle where “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly” (1 Samuel 1:10). Soon after, “Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked him of the Lord'” (1 Samuel 1:20). God, the father of Jesus, was not above the hurts and desires of his devotees. He himself became a servant on many an occasion, filling human wants.

Hezekiah was a great king. Not only was he an able administrator and astute military strategist, he was resolute in restoring the nation to the true worship of God. After being king for some time, Hezekiah became ill to the point of death. Isaiah the prophet requested an audience and informed Hezekiah that he would not recover. He needed to set his house in order. Hezekiah wept bitterly and implored God. God was not unmoved by Hezekiah’s tears. He sent Isaiah back with the message, “I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; indeed, I will heal you; on the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life” (2 Kings 20:5, 6). Perhaps success went to Hezekiah’s head. Pride can inflict even a great servant! “But Hezekiah did not respond according to the benefit done to him, for his heart was proud. Therefore wrath came upon him and upon Judah and Jerusalem. Then Hezekiah humbled himself for the pride of his heart, both he and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the wrath of the Lord did not come upon them in the days of Hezekiah” (2 Chronicles 32:25, 26).

It is not surprising that God broke into human history enfleshed in the Son. He always has been a God open to the anguish and cries of his people. It is only the disciple who perceives the Father of Jesus as the servant-God, who ascends the true peak. He stands amazed as he looks at the cross, but he is not surprised to find God in the Son dying there, giving his life a ransom for many.

Like father, like son. Jesus was the exact replica of his father. He could most often be found “in the homes of the poor and lowly, serving the Lord.” Had the disciples been observant they would have not been surprised when Jesus declared, “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many.” God had always been a serving God.

They were, however, confused as many are now. Once the disciples concluded that God was going to assign Jesus a special role in the administration of humanity, they wanted a piece of the action: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). They wanted power and prestige. But they celebrated too soon. They seemed to have no clue that Jesus was already in his glory. The kingdom of God was already present. It was a kingdom of servanthood, not one of acclaim and privilege. Jesus put it bluntly: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you. But whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).

Retrace with Mark the footprints of Jesus. What did Jesus do? He did not seek the acclaim of his contemporaries so as to enhance fame and fortune. He did not hobnob with the powers that be or with the rich and famous so as to secure privilege through name dropping. He showed up rather, where life was seamy, where people hurt as the result of their illnesses. Jesus went where others feared to tread. He confronted the unclean spirits and cast them out. He went to Peter’s house when he learned his mother-in-law had a fever. He stopped to heal a leper in a sparsely-settled area. He responded to a paralyzed man let down through a hole in the roof by his friends. He ate with sinners and tax collectors, some of whom in their day and time were wealthy. He healed a man with a withered hand. He stopped at an area people avoided because of a frenzied, destructive man among the tombs and restored him to normalcy. He let people touch him. A woman with a long-standing flow of blood was healed. He responded to hunger. He stopped in the market places were the ill assembled. He even healed the daughter of a Syro-Phoenician woman who was of an alien ethnic group. He responded to the plaintive requests of the deaf and the blind, and of the son who harmed himself when he went into convulsions. He responded warmly to little children, to the rich young ruler, and identified with those who left all behind for the work of the kingdom. He commended the poor widow whose gift amounted to little, but which constituted genuine sacrifice. Jesus never walked away from any variety of illness or iniquity.
The arriving at the true peak involves giving up one’s own aspirations in order to assist those who have been pushed aside. We too must be like our father. Jesus put it like this: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Should we take Jesus seriously, we will be found associating with people at all levels.

My own life has been incredibly enriched by knowing some great servants. One time n a congregation where I preached, the wife in one of our families had mental problems and the husband financial ones. They decided to return to eastern Canada, and needed to borrow six hundred dollars. No one quickly volunteered. One member who lived frugally and had four children said that since he had the money he would be glad to loan it. Later he told me privately that it would not matter if the man never paid it back. A graduate student told me that over spring break he was able to earn a substantial sum of money. When he heard the plight of one of his fellow students he gave it to him, saying he really didn’t need it. Whoever heard of a married student with a child who didn’t need money? I knew another disciple who had a track scholarship. When his home church decided to help with his college expenses so he could study to be a minister, he persuaded the coach to transfer his track scholarship to a walk-on athlete. I have known persons who visited regularly in slums where conditions and lifestyles were opposite their own, in order to be servants to their fellows. I have known church members who moved to a region of the country far away from relatives and friends, because they wanted to help a small church get on its feet. I have known preachers who were invited to preach for a large, prestigious congregation but turned it down in order to serve a smaller church where they were critically needed. I knew a professor in a faculty where every teacher aspired to teach graduate courses, who, though better prepared than most, continued to teach undergraduates because they too need solid instruction and the ambitious professors appeared to look past them.

A century ago, a German scholar named Wilhelm Wrede introduced into the study of Mark the famous “messianic secret.” The question was why Jesus commanded people to keep quiet after he healed them. Much midnight oil has been burned in an effort to unravel the mystery of Jesus’ charge to secrecy. I think the answer may be simple, yet profound: Jesus came to serve. He did not wish acclaim to stand in the way of service. The messianic secret was that, not only did Christ die on the cross in behalf of others, but his very life was the way of the cross – giving himself up for others.

We now know that the second peak, the true one, is where Christ hangs suspended on the cross. The disciple finally reaches this peak when he stands at the cross in profound awe of the crucified God. At that point he is empowered to take up the same cross. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”Wineskins Magazine

Tom Olbricht

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