I just spent the last couple hours with my dear friend, Joe Enlet. On the eve of Easter Sunday, we met at my house, ate middle eastern food, launched an assault on my recently acquired 1.75 liters of Wild Turkey 101 (thank you Lauren and Johnny and Lindy!), and talked theology, the “defeated Christ.” Since Joe, is the pastor of a local Micronesian church, I asked him what he planed on preaching tomorrow for Easter and his answer was both surprising and wonderful. Joe said, “I’m not going to give them their resurrection feel-good message.” I responded, “Joe, if you don’t give them their Easter “feel-good” they’re gonna crucify your ass!” Secretly I was thinking, I wish he was preaching in English instead of Micronesian because this is quite possibly the first sermon that I would pay money to hear.
Now before you head out to church or to brunch or to an egg hunt, I have an “Easter” question for you. What does the scripture mean when it calls Christ a, “scandalon” or “stumbling block”? In what ways does Jesus Christ, scandalize us or trip us up? Some common responses to this question are, the scandal of Jesus Christ is his incarnation and in his designation as the, “God-Man.” Another common view is that the scandal of Jesus is found in a theological theory called, “kenosis”, a term which describes Jesus’ “downward trajectory”: his voluntary, self-demotion and the giving up of certain divine privileges and prerogatives. But the scandal in question is far less theoretical than any of this – the scandal of Jesus Christ is much more pedestrian in nature.
Jesus Christ is a historical figure and not a legend, and he is a living person and not just a “spiritual being.” Like all of us, there are certain things about Jesus Christ that are directly attributed to his person. Jesus was born, which means he had a mother and father. Jesus “grew”, which means that he went through all the stages of human development. Jesus died, which means that he faced his own mortality and succumbed to death. But none of these facts, in and of themselves, are “scandalous.” The scandal of Jesus Christ and the things that typically “trip us up” about this person and his life are bound up in his failure to meet our expectations and our desires for Christ to be something “other” than who he is, something super-human. Here are three examples from the letters of the apostle Paul that describe how Jesus falls short of our expectations for him to be “more.”
“For God has . . . (sent) his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin” Ro 8:3.
“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense” Ro 9:33.
” . . . but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” ICo 1:23.
It turns out that whether we talk about Jesus the “Man”, or Jesus the “Son of God”, the story is the same one. It is not correct to simply say that God revealed his “divinity” in Jesus Christ; neither should we say that God is hidden in Christ’s “humanity.” The scandal of Jesus Christ is that God is both hidden and revealed in the form of a “stumbling block”, in the form of a weak, vulnerable, mensch. God’s self-revelation did not come to us in the form of an idea or a feeling but as a particular person, and this particular person is in a particular form, “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” It is this form, this particular form of existence, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” – this is the scandal, the “stumbling block” that trips us up.
Ok, so by now you are probably thinking, “Come on, Chris, what are you blathering about here? Well, to quote El Duderino, “I’ll tell you what I’m blathering about!” Contrary to what has become for many of us an Easter tradition, the message of Easter is not an “easy-feel-good” story, but rather, it is a difficult and controversial message, one that tends to scandalize and confuse its recipients. The purpose of this homily is to correct the view of Easter as the “happy sequel” intended to cover up the tragedy and erase the painful memory of Good Friday. The problem with this approach is that the passion of Christ, his betrayal, doubt, suffering, abandonment, death and resurrection are all cut from the same cloth. Christ’s passion and resurrection rest on the one and same “scandal”, which is why the Gospels calls for faith even while leaving room for uncertainty and confusion. Also, because this “stumbling block” is an actual person, who also happens to be the “given” Son of God, his existence and his form are presuppositional and are not subject to proof (which would only seek to explain away and minimize the “scandalousness” of the scandal).
The scandal of Christ’s crucifixion, his execution at the hands of Pontius Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders is a major “stumbling block” for both Christians and pagans alike. Now I can hear someone say, “But wait, I thought Easter tells us that Jesus was crucified, died and was buried, but then rose from the tomb two days later – how is this still a scandal?” Well, Paul also believed that Christ was risen and alive and yet he wrote, well after the fact, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” Notice, he neither says, “we preach Christ resurrected” nor does he say that his message is, “scandal and folly” to unbelievers. Christ’s followers, such as his first disciples, repeatedly “stumble” over Christ before they learn to believe.
When we see Christ in agony in Gethsemane, we ask, “What will happen to the Son of God if he is captured and defeated?” At Golgotha, we gaze upon the lifeless body of our hero and in shock and disbelief we ask, “How could this be?” When we arrive at Easter Sunday the “fog index is high” when we discover the empty tomb . . . “What does this mean?” And when we encounter the risen Christ, even if we don’t say it out loud, we wonder, “Who or what is this who has as returned to us from the dead?”
It is at this point that we must resist the temptation to indulge in the comfort of predictable formulas and religious slogans. If we can suspend our default schemes long enough to read the gospel accounts again, we might discover that the one who emerges from Arimathea’s tomb is not simply an invincible deity, but a figure shrouded in mystery. Scripture simply does not support the popular image of Jesus as the divine super-hero and the resurrected demigod. The Easter story that we encounter in the Gospels does not reflect the Schwarzenegger slogan, “He’s back!” The Gospel’s depiction of Easter is a much more nuanced and paradoxical reality, resurrection as “concealed glory” and “exalted-defeat.”
(In Luke, two disciples encounter Jesus after the resurrection but fail to recognize him. They walk along the road together while Christ “plays dumb” in order to draw them into a conversation). “The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel . . . He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Lk 24:21-25).
This same theme of “glory through suffering” appears in the book of Revelations where John describes his vision of Jesus Christ at the “end of the age”:
“And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals? And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it.
And one of the elders said to me, ‘Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.’ And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain . . .” Re 5:2–7.
Notice that the “elder” assures John that “the Lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed to open the scroll” (the title deed for the cosmos and the fulfillment of the destiny of humanity), but the one who actually appears is not a Lion at all. When John looks, he sees a “slaughtered Lamb.” But how can this be? How can a “slaughtered Lamb” be a “conquering Lion”? Is this just a case of mixed metaphor and word play? Was Jesus’ “slaughter” a rouse intended to give the illusion of defeat? I suspect that the problem lies more in our failure to grasp the scandal of the gospel and the “foolishness” of the cross, for “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (ICo.1:21).
Jesus Christ’s cross was a genuinely tragic defeat, and all our Easter sermons and all our “atonement theories” cannot change this fact. As much as we like to make the scandal a “success story”, we are simply out of our element here. It turns out that the only way for the scandal of Christ’s death and defeat to be transformed into “glory and victory” is with another scandal. The scandal of Jesus Christ, his person and his cross, were ultimately subject to God’s own judgment. The scandal of God’s judgment took place when God looked upon his Son’s death and defeat upon the cross, and proclaimed him the “winner.”
Jesus Christ’s submission to an ignominious and tragic death was not vindicated by either his disciples or by the church with her priests and theologians, and he is not vindicated by this Easter sermon.The scandal-ridden story of Easter, rises and falls on God’s own vindication of Jesus. For God is the one actor who alone could vindicate the obedience of his “defeated Son.” Therefore, when we say, “Easter”, we are saying, “God vindicated the obedient submission of his Son even though that obedience ended in death and defeat.” For God did not rescue and exalt his Son despite his defeat on the cross, but because of his defeat. The message of Easter is when God proclaims to the world, “My defeated Son is the ‘winner’ and his shameful death on the cross is now the wisdom, power and glory of God!” Easter is the “wisdom of God’s folly” the “victory of God’s defeat” and the “glory of God’s humiliation.”
The Easter scandal is Jesus Christ himself and not merely the circumstances which he is involved in. And because the “stumbling block” is a Person, the scandal lives on into his post-resurrection encounters with his disciples and into eternity. It should be noted that Christ’s return to life was anything but publicly overwhelming, and to this day, the vast majority of his followers have never even seen the “risen Christ. The climax of the Easter scandal was when God overruled the “natural” order of things by rescuing and exalting his defeated Son from death and Hades and declaring him the “winner” over those who had defeated him!
The scandal of Easter echoes in eternity. For the one who suffered and died, who was raised and exalted above every name and throne, is the one who forever bears the wounds of his earthly defeat! The eternal scandal of Easter is that God has appointed a “slaughtered Lamb” to rule as his undisputed sovereign of the cosmos, the one who will bring all of history to its consummation! This is why we experience the Spirit of Christ whenever we acknowledge the reign of the defeated Messiah in our midst, for as Paul says, “we proclaim the Lord’s death (defeat) until he comes” (I Co. 11:26).
Now as I finish this piece at 2:53am the current song of my “soundtrack” plays poetically (prophetically?), “Gotta Serve Someday” . . . “Might like to drink whisky, my like to drink milk, might like to wear cotton, might like to wear silk . . . Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody!” Alright, I’m going to bed, now go get your Easter brunch!