A Wideness in God’s Mercy, VII: Is Christianity an Answer to a Question Nobody Is Asking?
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Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” —Luke 23:46–47
Do you remember the character of Annie, the minor-league baseball groupie for the Durham Bulls in the 1988 baseball movie Bull Durham? She says, “I worship at the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshiped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan, but I ended up in the church of baseball.
“I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads on a Catholic rosary and 108 stitches on a baseball. When I found that out, I gave Jesus a chance, but it didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me.”
We’re not really too much into guilt in the modern world, are we? It’s not a concept we’re terribly fond of. Christianity lays too much guilt on us. I talked to a friend of mine on the phone a while back. She’s going through a really rough patch in life right now. One son spent a few nights in jail and another son is going through a messy divorce, and her family and friends are quick to tell her that it’s her fault. She doesn’t agree, however, and has had it up to here with the guilt.
She’s always been an extremely active member of her Presbyterian Church; some weeks she spent more hours at the church than I did. But she said to me the other day, “I think I’ll try Buddhism for a while. There’s less guilt. All you have to do is DETACH. Become indifferent. Forget the past. Seek nothingness.” So she hasn’t been to a Christian Church for months. Like Annie from Bull Durham, the Lord laid too much guilt on her.
But here’s the problem. Distilled to its essence, our religion is an elaborately constructed answer to the problem of human guilt. The Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments, has this innate, pervasive, existential awareness of a huge chasm within us between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought,’ between human reality and divine intention, between what we are, and what God wants us to be.
Did you ever wonder why an instrument of execution is the central symbol of our faith? It’s kind of strange, if you think about it. What would you think of a house of worship with an electric chair on the altar? But that’s exactly what Christian churches do, always and everywhere. There is a cross in every Christian Church in the world, except the newest ones which look like the United Center or the lobby of a Hyatt Regency hotel. We wear them as jewelry, men and women.
It’s kind of weird, but the reason the cross is Christianity’s central symbol is that it is so central to the New Testament. The cross casts its long shadow over the whole story of Jesus.
“Jesus saves,” we say all the time. He saves by dying instead of humanity.
Mark says, “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for all.” It is as if humanity has been kidnaped by this sinister force, but Jesus pays the ransom and sets us free.
John says, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, that whosoever believes in him will never die but have eternal life.”
Paul says, “I have resolved to preach nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
It’s all Paul cares about. What do we know about the life of Jesus from Paul’s letters? Almost nothing. There is no Christmas, there is no Mother Mary, there is no Carpenter Joseph, there are no miracles, no parables, no Sermon on the Mount, no warm welcomes to the sad castoffs of polite society.
Paul does not care about the life of Jesus. All Paul cares about is that in the cross of Christ, we are set free from guilt and error. The cross is Christianity’s answer to the problem of humanity’s error and guilt.
But what if humanity doesn’t have that problem any longer. Is Christianity an answer to a question nobody is asking? For most of western history the central religious question was “How do we get right with God?”
And then suddenly sometime in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries, humanity stopped worrying about getting right with God. An angry God receded from consciousness. Life without regrets became the most prized spiritual accomplishment.
When the nineteenth-century American naturalist Henry David Thoreau was languishing close to death, his friends asked him to get right with God, and he said, “I didn’t know that we had quarreled.” That about sums up nineteenth- and twentieth-century attitudes around God. Make your peace with God? We didn’t know we had quarreled.
Let’s be honest about it: do you lie awake o’ nights worrying about getting right with God? If you claim on your college admissions application that you are a senior All-Conference hockey player but have never picked up a hockey stick in your life, are you worried that God will be angry with you?
On the other hand.... You saw that coming, didn’t you?
Most of us have this instinctive awareness of the gap within us between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought.’
A while back I knew a man who got angry with his wife, and he just said the most hurtful things to her. He told her she was self-centered and uncaring and an unworthy partner. It wasn’t the first time he’d said something unkind, but it was the worst—by far. She got angry back and moved out, and she took the kids with her. It’s unclear yet if or when she will return to him.
She was life and health to him, and in a single instant when he momentarily lost his mind, he lost her too, and he sat in my office and wept and wept and wept. It wasn’t just his loneliness he was weeping over; it was his desire to take back an action which promises to stand at the center of his life for a very long time.
I knew another man who accidentally caused the death of a stranger. He is good and kind and gentle, and it was not his fault, but he cannot sleep, and constantly invents scenarios in his head about how that day might have gone a different direction. If only, if only, if only—that’s the sad litany he lives every day.
When American GI’s liberated the death camps in Germany in April 1945, at the very end of the war, they found hundreds of bodies, starved, burned, emaciated, stacked up like cordwood. There is a German town nearby, and the American troops invite the Mayor and his wife to see what Nazism was capable of. They went home that night and hanged themselves, perhaps from shame and remorse. How can we take it back? How can anyone or anything ever undo this terrible, appalling iniquity.
Miroslav Volf tells us that during the Bosnian War a three-year-old girl is gravely wounded by a sniper’s bullet. The grief-stricken father invites the unknown assassin to sit down with him to explain how he could do such a thing, and when the father is asked why he would want to speak with such a beast, the father says, “One day her tears will catch up with him.” Indeed if there is a vestige of humanity left in him, her tears will catch up with him.
If you cannot relate to those examples of cosmic villainy, transpose the music into a lower key, a more personal one. When I am honest with myself, I discover that I am not what God intended for me to be. I unwittingly trample the feelings of my friends. I wound with words. I am often indifferent to the neighbor God has given me to serve. I keep all I have, or most.
How do we undo what we have done? So there it stands, the central symbol of our faith, casting its long shadow over the whole Christian story, an everlasting emblem of God’s vast, relentless, unfailing love for God’s children who sometimes get lost. It tells us that God never gives up on us. There is nothing God will not do to repair the broken and redeem the lost.
Richard Selzer was an accomplished surgeon at Yale University Hospital and then went on to tell stories about his experiences. One time he had to remove a tumor from the face of a lovely young woman, and in the course of the surgery the doctor had to cut a facial nerve.
After the surgery they hand her a mirror so that she can see what she looks like now. Finally, she speaks. "Will my mouth always be like this?" "Yes," says the surgeon, "it will. It is because the nerve was cut." She nods and is silent. But her husband is there, and he says, "I like it. I think it's kind of cute."
And this very famous surgeon says, "All at once, I know who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. He does not even know I am there. Unmindful he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works. I remember that in the old stories, the gods appeared as mortals, and I hold my breath and let the wonder in."
He twists his mouth to show her that their kiss still works. The Gospel says that all of us are loved like that, no matter how injured or broken or twisted—all of us, loved, by the power that spins the flying planets and fires the burning stars.
Do you think maybe it’s a story the world still needs to hear, after all these years? In Jesus, God ceases to be an enemy and becomes instead our first friend. In his death my mistakes are nailed with him to the tree.
Nothing ever dies, except with Jesus on the cross. Nothing ever lives, except in his risen life. Maybe after all, the cross is the answer to the question everybody is asking.
In a letter collected by Andrew Carroll for the Legacy Project, a collection of letters home from American military personnel serving in America’s wars, quoted in The New Yorker, “American Soldiers Write Home,” December 27, 1999–January 3, 2000, pp. 89–99.
Miroslav Volf, “A Cup of Coffee,” The Christian Century, October 13, 1997, p. 917.
Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1996), pp. 45–46.