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Luther’s Theology of the Cross, Ash Wednesday Message February 13th 2013

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Ash Wednesday Message February 13th 2013

2 Corinthians 5:20b to 6:10 and Luke 6:1-6, 16-21

Luther’s Theology of the Cross

For this Ash Wednesday let’s look into Luther’s Theology of the Cross and for the midweek Lenten Services let’s then plan to take up a number of themes that come from Luther’s life and thought.

First a word about the Gospel lesson: Jesus wants us to pray and fast and give charity in secret. When you do it to be seen by others, then you are really getting some mileage from it in terms of prestige, so you have a reward. It is far better to have integrity than to be a phony, wanting to present a false image of yourself to the world. Doing good in secret does not only provide us with internal integrity, where only God and you yourself know that you did something good and wonderful, but you also set a powerful kind of goodness afoot to counteract all the evil that is done in secret. Then your goodness is accompanied by a spiritual force that will take others by surprise and overwhelm them. You also get help directly from God who strengthens your inner person, making you true and genuine. Otherwise you present yourself as so very good before others while really you are a façade with nothing behind it: nobody of that description there.

Pogo an old comic strip had a 5 cent stand for counseling: A woman comes for help. “What’s the problem?” Pogo asks. She puts her hand to her face and says, “I’m beside myself.” Pogo and Howland, the owl, look beside her and Pogo says, “Yup, nobody there Howland. This woman is really gone.”

The Corinthians text we heard is all about the Theology of the Cross. Theology is the study of God, who has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ and him crucified, to use the words of St. Paul. The Greek word logos is in the word “theology” like it is in biology, sociology, and all the other “ologies” and it can mean the study of or the disciplined reasoning about something in order to attain some reliable knowledge about it. So in the revelation of Jesus Christ, our theology has to revolve around the word of the cross. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

The scriptures say “Cursed by God is the one hanged on a tree.” (Deuteronomy 21:23). But in Corinthians St. Paul says, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Once I was reading the poetry of William Blake and in one line he wrote that the tail of the serpents swished under the cross, identifying Christ with the serpent! I was outraged and thought that was blasphemy! But then I remembered how Christ himself said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) That is not what you would think the Son of God would become: our sin! But St. Paul said that God made Christ to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. It is through all that darkness on the cross that Christ brings us into the light.

Paul says as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way. He should say as suffering servants of God because check out that list, that catalogue of trials: “through great endurance in affliction, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger…” (When my mother read a similar catalogue of St. Paul’s suffering in 2 Corinthians 11: 21-29, she cried.) Then Paul swings over to their commendation “by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God, with weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and see – we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.”

Can you see how St. Paul is seeing everything through the cross? The surprise about the suffering we do for Christ’s sake is that we step over the threshold of glory. It is a life that changes curses into blessings.

When Luther had nailed the ninety-five theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, he was asked to come to do a disputation for the Augustinians in Heidelberg. For it he wrote another 40 theses or points that would be debated by the doctors there. His Theology of the Cross comes from these theses:

18. It is certain that a [person] must utterly despair of his [or her] ability before [she or] he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.

We have to be at the end of our rope, we try everything else, before we return to God. Only when we have no alternative, do we finally say, “God, I have now come to nothing. I can’t go on. My own fire went out. Now I can only stand up and live my life out of your strength.” So we shouldn’t think that only alcoholics have to hit bottom. In our spiritual lives, so do all of us. It’s called the theology of the cross.

It’s foolishness to young people that still have so much strength that they can pull trees out by the roots and roll up their sleeves to change the world. But life has a way of catching up with us and we realize that we cannot live by our own strength, but only out of the strength of God, which we call grace. So it is through this foolishness that we get wise.

19. The person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks on the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things that have actually happened [Rom 1:20].

God’s majesty and almighty power are hidden. It is not helpful to talk about God as ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent.

20. He [or she] deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.

21. A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.

22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by [persons] is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

Luther continues that without the theology of the cross people end up using the best, our best gifts in the worst ways. (Thesis 24) Instead of wanting to do many good works, we should try to increase our faith in Christ: “The law says, “do this” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.” (Thesis 26)

Luther says that God makes us sinners so that we become righteous. Luther quotes First Corinthians 1:21, “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

“Now it is not sufficient for anyone,” Luther continues, “and it does [one] no good to recognize God in his glory and majesty, unless [she or] he recognizes [God] in the shame and humility of the cross. Thus God destroys the wisdom of the wise, as Isaiah [45:15] says, “Truly thou a God who hidest thyself!” [Truly you are a God who hides yourself!] “True theology and the recognition of God are in the crucified Christ.” God is hidden in suffering.

So in a surprising way it is through our weakness that God manifest divine strength: (A pastor worked his heart out for a congregation, which remained completely passive and just let him do everything. It brought him to despair. Then he was diagnosed with cancer and could do nothing. The whole congregation became active and started carry out its ministry.) And it is through the suffering of the cross that we can tell it like it is and also get a glimpse of the surprising way God works in this world.

We will need to work with the Theology of the Cross throughout our Mid-week Lenten Services. It is not easy to understand. Some of the themes I have lined up for the mid-week Lenten services are

1. Luther’s life and how he becomes justified through faith

2. Reading Luther’s Small Catechism again

3. Luther’s best-selling pamphlet, “The Freedom of a Christian” and what I call the existential rapture

4. Jacob’s Ladder in Luther’s Spirituality

5. Luther’s theology is Theological therapy because he was acquainted with episodes in which he is attacked by doubt that we call Anfechtungen.

6. Let’s learn some of his hymns along the way.

To recap part of the theology of the cross: the people who suffer can see things as they are and can tell it like it is. The people making them suffer just don’t get it. They are blinded by the theology of glory.


Written by peterkrey

February 14, 2013 at 10:52 am

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