What does proclaiming Christ crucified have to do with being a joyful disciple? That is the theme that I want to explore today, but first, just a little review of where we have come from so far in our Lenten exploration of discipleship: The first week we explored what it means to be a disciple of Christ, baptized into the joyful family of disciples that is the Catholic Church. We talked about Christ’s call to repentance, and how disciples find joy in the clear conscience that comes from the confession of our sins. I challenged you to invite others to experience this joy through the Sacrament of Confession, especially by inviting others to participate in “The Light is on for You” last week. I was here until 9 p.m. and heard 47 confessions, so I think we did a pretty good job of that!
Last Sunday we discussed the goal of discipleship: eternal life forever with Christ in Heaven. This reward for the Lord’s disciples is possible because of His Resurrection, when he gained an eternal triumph in the ancient war between good and evil, between God and Satan. We learned that we are, at all times, either climbing closer towards Heaven or sliding closer towards eternal punishment (I gave you what I guess was a pretty memorable image for that, because people have been talking to me all week about that old truck without a parking break rolling into the street). We also recalled that we are meant to bring others with us to Heaven as well. Everyone around us is also moving towards one of two places, and our love for others ought to compel us to desire their eternal salvation.
Last week, then, we talked about the victory prize for discipleship: Heaven. This week we need to talk about how we get there. We know that for Christ, our model and guide in discipleship, the way there was His death on the Cross. If we are going to follow our Lord and master to Heaven as well, then the Cross is also going to be our path there.
St. Paul tells us today that “Christ crucified” is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” A “stumbling block” and “foolishness.” This is hard to see in our own day and age because we are so used to seeing the Cross. Like I mentioned last Sunday about the Resurrection, the Crucifixion has become an entirely too normal reality for us. But for the people of St. Paul’s day, the idea that a god would come and suffer and die for the people he loved was absolutely absurd. For the Jews, this was not the savior they were expecting would come in power and might to deliver them from political oppression. For the Greeks, their gods and goddesses occasionally came down from Mount Olympus to meddle in human affairs, but they only did so for their own amusement or to get even with each other. They had absolutely no notion of a God who really cared about mankind, let alone one who would be willing to die for us. Utter foolishness, they thought.
Yet, at the same time, seeing the Cross as foolishness is still a strong tendency even for those of us who have often become desensitized to its power. The first way this happens is through the experience of suffering. How many people have lost their faith in God because of their own suffering or the suffering of others? The devil uses these times of suffering to tempt us in to believing that suffering in the world proves that God does not care about us. Some people formulate this doubt by saying, “Suffering is incompatible with a God who loves us and is all powerful. Either God is not really all-powerful, or He is not really all-loving. Otherwise He would not let people suffer.”
This attitude, though, denies the power of the Cross – it regards Christ’s Cross as foolishness. Suffering exists in the world because the power of sin lingers, like the smoke from a candle that has been extinguished. But this world is passing away, and so is suffering, even if we must experience it for a time. After all, if God Himself deigned to suffer for us, should we not be willing to suffer for Him and for others? For the Christian, suffering is redemptive because it gives us a participation in the sufferings of Christ for us, so that we might also share in the glory of His resurrection. That is why we would even go so far as to seek out suffering, especially by taking this time of Lent seriously and dedicating ourselves to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
If suffering shows us the experience of regarding the Cross as foolishness, we can see how it becomes a stumbling block when we consider the reality of sin. So often, the challenge to being a faithful disciple of the Lord is the refusal to put aside our sins. Maybe it is a sinful relationship with another person, a bad habit, a sinful work environment, or something that we have convinced ourselves is inevitable, that we just cannot get around because the demands placed on us by the Gospel are difficult for our weak human strength.
The refusal to put away our own sins in order to follow Christ is to stumble over the Cross. When we look at the Cross, we can see either an obstacle to overcome, a challenge to avoided, or we can see an outpouring of grace, a source of eternal consolation for all who believe. When we behold Christ on the Cross, we are reminded that sin can be defeated. On the Cross we see the victorious King in His triumph. We need the eyes of faith to see through this ironic victory of the Savior who defeats death by Himself submitting to its power, to have the courage to approach the Crosses that exist in our own lives, to wage this same battle against sin and death and emerge victorious through the power of Christ’s victory. Christ’s cross shows us that victory over sin is possible – that no sin is inevitable, no matter how difficult the trials of temptation might be. Otherwise, we empty the Cross of its power by denying its ability to transform our lives (1 Cor 1:17). When faced with the reality of sin, do not stumble over the Cross, but pick it up, be willing to suffer with the God who suffered for you, and then, having mastered your sinful desires, you will be able to experience the victory-prize of eternal life.
Unlike the Greeks and Jews, who could not imagine the absurdity of a God who would be willing to die for them, we know that we have a savior who was not above taking the punishment due for sin onto Himself. When our Lord drives the money changers and vendors out of the Temple, His disciples recall the words of the psalm, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Normally we think of this line and this event as being about zeal for God’s holy presence here in His house, our church. This is always a good point of reflection. But what if we also considered it in terms of the zeal that Christ has for all those other temples of God’s presence – the souls reborn by Baptism but often sullied by sin.
Christ has the same zeal to drive out the vendors and money changers of our hearts, which are as precious to Him as was the Temple in Jerusalem. That is why He suffered, died, and rose from the dead, so that He might drive sin out of the hearts that are meant to be temples of God’s presence. Imagine that: Christ has as much zeal for the purity of your heart as He does for His Father’s house. He wants to come and drive out the vendors and money changers, all those things that are keeping you from God. He wants to drive them out when you confess your sins and He frees you from the power of death. He wants to drive them out when you devote time to prayer every day, opening the door for Him to drive away the worldly concerns that distract us from the goal of pursuing Heaven.
To desire this great goal for ourselves is not enough. As Christ’s disciples, we should also have this zeal for the holiness of our brothers and sisters, for all the hearts that Christ desires to be temples of God’s presence. Seeing our brothers and sisters in Christ wallowing in sin should provoke the same reaction that our Lord has to the money changers who are defiling the Temple.
Being willing to call others to repentance, to invite them to encounter God’s loving mercy, will at times mean being willing to experience the same scorn for the Cross that St. Paul experienced from the Jews and the Greeks. In the Temple, this chaotic scene of changing money into the official Temple currency and selling animals for sacrifice had become normal. People would have been really confused as to why our Lord felt the need to upset their comfortable pattern of existence. The same thing will probably happen to us when we witness to the truth and call others to repentance, especially over sins that so many people now consider to be a normal and inevitable part of contemporary life.
This fear of being considered odd or behind the times does not stop our Lord, though, and it should not stop us. We must imitate our Lord’s fearless zeal. If we truly love our brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot be content to see their souls – meant to be Temples of God’s presence – infested by the money changers of the world. In order for us to persist in true zeal, our zeal must also be joyful for it to be persuasive. It is by joy that we will convince all of those Temples of God’s presence that they ought to have their money changers thrown out.
At times, yes, we will meet with rejection and scorn. But this is just another opportunity to be close to Christ who was also scorned and rejected, to see His Cross not as foolishness or a stumbling block, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18). Christ’s zeal for your heart and for the hearts of all those around you is the source of far greater joy than any worldly approval. No sin – no matter how difficult temptation might be – no worldly care or anxiety, no suffering can compare with the immensity of the power and the joy that flow from His Cross.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
III Sunday in Lent, A.D. MMXVIII