by Keith Fry
It was a Sunday morning during my internship. I had preached that morning a sermon that referred several times to the various persons of the Trinity. After the service, one of the women of the congregation cornered me at coffee hour, and said she had a theological question for me.
Janeece was a middle-aged woman who, until four weeks earlier, had been living on the streets of Washington, D.C. for at least a few years. She was now living at N-Street Village, a transitional housing facility for women who had been homeless. She hadn't had many years of school, having been forced by a terrible home situation to leave and find her way at a very early age. She had come from a holiness church tradition, so the Lutheran bit was new to her. She was an eager listener during sermons, and I could always count on making eye contact with her, could always count on her vocal affirmation during the proclamation. She had been a bit quieter that morning, though.
After I poured my coffee, Janeece and I sat down at one of the tables in the fellowship hall, and she posed her question. "Vicar, you kept talking about the Trinity. What is that?" I gave the simplest answer I could think of, that God was one God, but that we experience God in three Persons: the Father (Janeece was not sympathetic to any other characterization of this Person), who created all; the Son, whom we knew as Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ; and the Holy Spirit, who moves in the world to empower us to love God and to serve our neighbor. Janeece looked at me with a chiding glare and said, "What the HELL does that mean?"
I stumbled through some verbiage that I thought might clarify matters, but found myself digging a deeper and deeper hole. She asked, "So you mean there are three Gods?" No, there's only one God. "But if there's the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, that sounds like three to me." Well, those are three expressions of the one God, I said. "But if Jesus is a man, how can he be God?" Well, he was unique. She continued to pepper me with questions. Modalism, subordinationism, monotheism, the two natures...all the questions that bedeviled the Nicene council were neatly packaged in this one woman's quest for understanding.
I tried to fall back on systematic formulations, only to realize that, as my head spun, I was not going to be able to satisfy Janeece's thirst. Finally she looked at me and said, "You don't understand it either, do you? That's OK, then, Vicar Keith...because when it comes down to it, it's just God, is what you're saying. And if it's just God, it don't matter to me what you call it...it's just God. I don't need to know anything more than that. I know God, and God is good to me. All that matters to me is that God loves me. I don't have to understand all the how."
"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." We keep trying to know God through wisdom, though, don't we? That can be an especially strong temptation in a seminary community. Like the Greeks in Corinth, we desire wisdom. We want to talk about God, to know God through our philosophizing, through our systematizing, through the knowledge we acquire-and not only to know God, but to domesticate God, to make God safe and manageable, controllable because we can define God and God's ways. Our quest for understanding can mask a desire to substitute wise words for a direct and lived experience of the Holy One, because that direct encounter scares us. But we don't know God through our wisdom. We know God because we believe God, because we encounter God.
And at the heart of that encounter is the foolishness of our proclamation. It's funny, I've always read the verse, "God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe," as referring somehow to God saving in spite of the ineptness of our preaching. But the "foolish proclamation" referred to there is not our bad preaching, it is what we proclaim that is foolish-and what we proclaim is simply this: Christ crucified.
That is the foolishness. That is what saves. That is what we can believe in. This is how God has chosen to be among us, to encounter us, coming to us as the divine human one who knows what it is to suffer, and who dies there. That has been our proclamation throughout the history of the Church. We repeat it over and over again in the Eucharistic liturgy, each one of us in the assembly: "Let us proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." That is our proclamation. That is our foolishness. That is God's own foolishness, that confounds those of us who would be wise.
The cross remains as foolish to people today as it was then, though we've lost much of the sense of the scandal of it, scandal so deep that for the first few hundred years of the history of the church, there is no evidence of the cross having been pictured among Christians. Probably the earliest rendering of a cross that we have is a jeering cartoon, crudely scratched on a wall in the 2nd or 3rd c., showing a crucified donkey with a man looking up at the cross, a caption scratched in the plaster saying, "Alexamenos worships his god."
The foolishness of the cross. The cross mystifies even us. It makes no rational sense. In our practice, we talk as little about the cross as we possibly can, avoiding the scandal, dealing with it mainly on Passion Sunday and Good Friday, in two intensive doses, taking it almost like medicine, rushing past it to get to resurrection, because somehow resurrection makes more sense to us-and resurrection is ever so much cheerier! We try not to linger on the cross. But linger we must, in spite of our discomfort. Yes, we are a resurrection people...but we are also a crucifixion people.
I think part of what makes us uncomfortable about the cross is that we cannot, in our wisdom, explain it. We can develop all the atonement theories we want...but ultimately, we have no words to express what transpires there. The cross is mystery, and as Craig Satterlee said a couple of weeks ago, all we can do is point to it. Bound up in that mystery is that God chooses the lowly, the despised, the unthinkable, and hallows it with God's own presence.
As we look upon the cross, we are reminded that our God displays ultimate strength in the ultimate weakness, ultimate wisdom in the ultimate folly. There is nothing so low or despised that God is not there. There is nothing so foolish that God cannot use it to express God's love for us and for all of creation. This is the wisdom of God. This is the power of God, that even death itself is not beyond God's reach in God's desire to be in relationship with us. This is our salvation. This is our wholeness.
As children of the Reformation, we have often shied away from contemplation of the cross. We want words, not pictures; facts, not mystery. And as humans we want triumph and glory, not seeming defeat. But I invite you as we continue this Lenten journey to not rush headlong to Easter and resurrection. Let's linger here to contemplate the cross. Let's begin contemplation now, yes, even before Passion Sunday. Contemplate as wordlessly as possible, without analyzing. Let's lay hold of the fullness of our proclamation, not just the resurrection part.
Know, as you look upon this tree of life, proclaim with my sister Janeece, that God is good, that the Holy One seeks you out, that God loves you, and you don't have to understand or be able to explain the how. All you need is to believe the foolish proclamation of Christ crucified and raised, and join with Cyril of Alexandria in saying, "In silence I fall on my knees to worship the unspeakable." AMEN
1 Cor. 1:18-31