A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent
Year B – 8 March 2015
John Edward Miller, Rector
The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
– 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
When I was a child in the 1950s, one of my favorite television shows opened with the scene of a man in a red cape and sleek bodysuit streaking through the skies of an American city. The visual was explained by a voice-over narration that responded to the cries of onlookers trying to figure out the identity of the flying figure. It went like this:
Narrator: Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Man 1: Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird.
Woman: It’s a plane
Man 2: It’s Superman!
Narrator: Yes, it’s superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands. And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.
Superman fascinated me. I not only watched the program religiously, but I read about him in DC comic books, and tied many a towel around my neck and leapt off furniture and ran about my parents’ house as though I could fly. Just knowing that he was there made me feel good.
When I look back on the time, I remember that it was a frightening period for our country. We were engrossed in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, above-ground nuclear testing poisoned the atmosphere with radioactive fallout, people were building and stocking bomb shelters, and the threat of America being eclipsed as a world power became suddenly real in October, 1957. That’s when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite in earth orbit.
It may have been a “cold” war, but tensions were heating up between east and west. In short, we were frightened, and needed reassurance that all would be well. American children and adults needed someone invincible on their side. Superman helped to fill that need, and over time, he was joined a host of other superheroes that have come to our psychological aid.
The television character also helped me cope with a more pressing situation in our home. Dad was disabled by polio in 1953, and he lived on artificial life support. Paralysis of his respiratory system and his arms and hands weakened him to the point of death. It was touch and go more than I knew then, but I was very aware than his physical strength was gone. I’m not sure, but I may have fantasized that Superman was a god-like figure that could come and rescue Dad from danger, and restore him to health. My prayers in those days were filled with that kind of longing.
People are always looking for a strong man, a hero, someone larger than life, who can move the world, “change the course of mighty rivers,” and bend more than just steel in his bare hand. In our dreams we want someone who can bend life into shape, right all the wrongs, and banish every malignant evil to which we are vulnerable. That is why the popularity of superheroes continues. We long for someone who will deliver us, save us, and take us to the land of promise.
At the time of Jesus the people of Judea were looking for someone like that. Their ideal savior would be the second coming of the famous King David, a man whose accomplishments and strength secured the Jewish people and made life safe and prosperous. Their constant sigh was, “O would that he would come quickly.” The Messiah’s long-expected advent was supposed to set things straight, rid the country of Roman legions, and restore the fortunes of Israel. But Jesus was not that kind of Messiah. When measured against the people’s hopes, he was a colossal disappointment. And yet, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, called him Christ, which is Greek for “messiah,” literally, the “anointed one” – the one God had chosen to redeem his people.
Paul never knew Jesus of Nazareth; the person he knew was the risen Christ. By the time the Apostle Paul became a Christian, the events of what we call Holy Week had already happened. The ugly events of Good Friday and the amazing reports of the empty tomb were history. The one Paul presented to the Gentiles – including the Greeks and Hellenized Jews at Corinth – was the Lord who had emptied himself, and took the form of a servant, whose dutiful death God had redeemed, and had highly exalted him in resurrection. But the fact remains that Jesus the Christ had died. So, Christ crucified is neither a hero nor a superman. He was an unpretentious rabbi from Nazareth, who was easily arrested, quickly tried, and summarily dispatched by the might of Rome with little fanfare.
Jesus died in the way that criminals and political dissidents died under Roman occupation. He was executed by crucifixion, that is, by being nailed to a wooden cross and left to die. The cause of death by crucifixion is debatable. It ranges from dehydration and exposure, blood loss and psychological trauma, to shock and suffocation. For the victim, though, death could not come fast enough; the pain that he suffered was awful. It is literally “excruciating,” meaning “from the cross.” It was an ignominious, cruel way to die. Its purpose was to eliminate outlaws in such a way as to be a deterrent to would-be lawbreakers, be they common thieves or messiahs. Jesus went to his death without protest, silent as a sheep to be slaughtered. He exercised no earthly power. To the world, his messianic kingdom was preposterous. The Roman Empire had swatted him like a pesky fly.
We proclaim Christ crucified, said Paul. Why proclaim something such as that? What qualifies the death of Jesus as “good news” when it looks to us as bad as news can get? He lost everything he had, including his life. Compared to movers, shakers, and superheroes, he was one of history’s greatest losers. How could anyone view his weakness as the power of God? If the cross reveals the power of God, it must be a kind of power that transcends what we can generate on our own. It must be a completely different form of strength.
Christ crucified is a stumbling block (literally a “scandal”) to the Hebrews, who were looking for a strong man to liberate them. He was a disappointment in the eyes of those who hoped the Messiah would be as tough and daring as King David of old had been. And his life and death were foolishness to the Greeks, for whom philosophy (the “love of wisdom”) was the guide to living life well. The vision of Christ crucified made no sense as a system of thought for everyday ethics. Those who would be disciples were instructed by Jesus to take up their cross and follow him. The Greeks recognized that the cross – the cross of Christ crucified – represented no earthly power, and they were right.
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy was a vicar in the Church of England in the early part of the 20th century. He became a chaplain during World War I, and was soon dubbed “Woodbine Willie” by the troops of the British Expeditionary Force in the front line trenches of France. The nickname referred to his pastoral method as a chaplain. Studdert Kennedy would crawl through the trenches, passing out cigarettes (the “Woodbine” brand) and a New Testament to war-weary soldiers. The young chaplain carried no weapons; he had only his haversack full of smokes and the Scriptures and “a great deal of love on [his] heart.”
He was in the thick of it with the soldiers, sharing the same dangers, and offering his version of the Christian message in ways to which soldiers can relate – which is to say, with irreverent humor and salty language. He often became embroiled in battles, and soldiers told how the “Woodbine Willie” once crawled to a working party putting up wire in front of their trench. When a nervous soldier asked him who he was, he replied, “The church.” And when the soldier asked what the church was doing there, he replied, “Its job”.
Studdert Kennedy won the Military Cross for his courageous actions under enemy fire at The Battle of Messines, Belgium (7–14 June 1917), where he carried wounded soldiers from the front to first aid stations. The citation read:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed the greatest courage and disregard for his own safety in attending to the wounded under heavy fire. He searched shell holes for our own and enemy wounded, assisting them to the dressing station, and his cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front line trenches, which he constantly visited.
Why did he do this? Why did he go to front and risk his life when he could have stayed behind the lines, or in his vicarage in England, writing poetry and books? A sense of duty had propelled him to serve as a military chaplain. He believed that all able-bodied Englishmen had an obligation to fight for what is right, and defeat the forces of evil. However, when he reached the trenches, he did not take up arms. He exercised a different kind of power – the strength of pure, unbounded love. That choice led him to do things that others avoided. He didn’t keep his head down, and he took risks for the sake of love. His faith beckoned him to do so, and his experience confirmed the value of his actions.
In the introduction to his book, The Hardest Part, Studdert Kennedy tells of a crucial encounter he had before he entered the combat zone. He was in a hospital visiting the wounded when he came upon a young officer who gestured for him to come toward his cot. The officer posed a searching question. He said, “Tell me, Padre, what is God like?” Thinking hard, the brand new chaplain spied a crucifix on the wall beside the soldier’s bed. He said, “God is like that,” hoping to satisfy the man’s earnest query. It didn’t. Instead the officer gazed at the cross, and then responded with considerable feeling that the figure of the crucified Christ could not possibly be what God Almighty is like. He cried, “That is a battered, wounded, bleeding figure, nailed to a cross and helpless, defeated by the world and broken in all but spirit.”
It was clear that the officer was wounded in a way that was more than simply physical. The horrors he had endured had scarred his soul. Not only did he feel betrayed by life, but he also felt abandoned by God. The officer assumed that God’s kind of power was about coercive force. In his mind, therefore, God Almighty had either willed the death of millions of soldiers, or was AWOL. The super-human strength that he imagined God having had not shown up. There was no heroic rescue. That’s why he wondered aloud about what God is like.
“You have not been up there, Padre,” he said, “and you know nothing about it. I tell you that cross doesn’t help me a bit, it makes thing worse. I admire Jesus of Nazareth; I think he was splendid, as my friends at the front are splendid – splendid in their courage, patience, and unbroken spirit.”
Studdert Kennedy did not try to dissuade the wounded man; he simply stayed with him, prayed, and listened respectfully, as he expressed his disappointment. The chaplain had not yet reported to the front, but he was now more than ever resolved to be there. He believed that Christ crucified is the Christian word about real power – God’s power. It isn’t about naked force; it’s about compassion, the willingness to suffer with those who are suffering.
Still, people love a hero. They want to put their money on someone strong. Even the church is enticed to think that way. Think of the grandeur, the hierarchy, the thrones, and the crowns, and you will see the allure of power. All of the glory of architecture and art, the endowments and real estate, are tips of the mitre to an earthly paradigm of power. Nevertheless, Christ crucified is not contained or obscured by such trappings. As Studdert Kennedy learned first hand at the front, the yearning for more and more weaponry could not heal the broken heart or mend the shattered mind. He saw the spiritual impotence of imperial force, as well as the effective power of compassion. He said, “. . . the Cross remained. It made its mark, and men could not forget. It is of course God’s real throne, the throne of love that lifts Him up, and draws all men to Him at last. The power of the Cross is the power of God. It is not past, but ever present. God has no other, and needs no other, glory but the glory of the Cross – the glory of suffering, striving, unconquerable love.”
Looking back over my life (as I invite you to do as well), I realize that that very kind of love got me through difficult times when I was a child, and as an adult. And it sustained Dad too, for thirty-five years of dependence on a machine to breathe, and on his family to care for him. That love never ends. It is far more powerful than Superman, more able to lift up hearts than any force, more lasting than any temporary fix. That’s what Paul was commending to our ancestors in Corinth, and that’s what he’s telling us today. What appears to be weak in the world’s terms is actually stronger than any strength we can muster. It is God’s power, and God’s gift. Let it be, Lord, let it be. Amen.
 Opening lines of “The Adventures of Superman” (1952-58), starring George Reeves, et al., http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044231/.
 G. A. Studdert Kennedy, The Hardest Part, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919), from the Author’s Introduction.
 Ibid., p. 70.