For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
— The Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 1:25
If Jesus were around today, everyone would be mad at him. He swims against the current. One of the ways he stands out is that, even when he works wonders, the real Jesus doesn’t make headlines or hold press conferences, either.
The Bible is a counter-cultural book. The message of Christianity is a counter-cultural message. By counterculture I do not mean it is against “the man.” Nor do I mean he spoke truth to power. No, he spoke truth to everyone.
I mean that God’s purposes and ways cut against the grain of every culture and subculture in human history. And it is intentional. God deliberately works in ways to shame human ideas of power. Nowhere is that more evident than in the resurrection of Jesus.
Starting a series on Jesus with the resurrection seems backward. What can I say? It’s not like it’s a mystery. We all know how the story ends. Besides, Easter was ten days ago. It’s history. But I have been thinking about it. The story of the resurrection is full of surprises.
That Bible on the Nightstand
When I was a teenager, I found it necessary to read myself to sleep. Sometimes I would pick up the black faux-leather copy of Scripture on my nightstand. This Bible was a gift from my parent’s church. They gave it to me upon completion of what is called a communicant’s class. Perhaps you do not know what that is.
He, with long hair and denim pants, advocated for “free thinking.”
Classes like this prepare a child to become an adult member of the church. During my 8th grade year, I attended class weekly, in the basement of our church, right next to Mellon Junior High. Pastor Harry led the class. The games were fun. Meals were starchy. And what we discussed was bland. How bland? The highlight of the year was an interview with a “hippie.” He, with long hair and denim pants, advocated for “free thinking.” In the 1960’s that was radical to middle America.
So, I attended, never missing a session. Upon completion of the class, on Easter Sunday 1968, I became a member, received a Bible, and took my first communion.
Empty and Puzzled
There I was, sitting in the front rows of the church with my fellow-communicants, fresh from a series of classes whose highlight was a hippie, being treated like something big had happened. I tried to remember something in the previous 7 months that was big. There was a cute girl who acted like she liked me, at least for a few weeks. Then there was the free thinker. But really, all that amounted to nothing. As far as my 12-year-old brain could figure, it was all a fraud, some sort of religious mumbo-jumbo.
I took my first communion. Then I quit. Apart from holidays, I did not shadow the doors of the church for 4 years.
The Real Jesus Sitting On My Nightstand
The evening of my phony renaissance I placed my newly gifted Bible on my nightstand, right next to the George Washington lamp. And there it sat, gathering dust. Except, sometimes I would pick it up to read it. Most of it was opaque to me. Good for putting me to sleep. Those ten commandments were a bit punchy. I memorized Psalm 23. Then there was the book of Matthew. It was all about Jesus.
The puzzle of Jesus
It seemed obvious that he was exceptional, powerful, and insightful. I really admired him. But the part at the end of the story about Jesus troubled me. The story of his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion also made me angry. By that time, I had had my share of experiences with bullies. Being shamed a few times motivated me to buy some weights, do pushups, and think about taking karate. In my imagination I would picture taking out one of those bad boys at school.
My hope was Jesus would put down the bullies. But he didn’t.
Bullies surrounded Jesus. They lied about him, made up stories about him, and then murdered him. While he was dying they mocked him, challenging him to prove he was the Son of God by coming down from the cross. I found myself shouting at him in my thoughts: “Yes, come down! Show them who you are!” My hope was Jesus would put down the bullies. But he didn’t. I was mad at Jesus.
What I didn’t understand
While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was up against God’s counter-cultural ways of doing things. We humans think that the way to beat the powerful is by greater power. God defeated them by weakness. That makes us mad.
Jesus did not show them he was the Son of God by coming down from the cross, but by staying on it. He did this willingly. He gave himself for us. It was an act of love and obedience. But more than that it was a rebuke: God defeated the mockers by bearing shame, crushed the powerful by becoming weak, and stood down the guilty by dying for their sin. Crucifixion was utterly shaming. The goal was to erase permanently the good memories and name of the victim. For God the Son to be crucified was scandalous. To claim a crucified man is the Savior of the world is sheer madness.
I thought this was about the resurrection
OK, you say, so he died voluntarily, shamed and humiliated by his enemies. What does that have to do with the resurrection? Well, the resurrection is more of the same. It is not just that he broke the power of death, but the way he did so was contrary to all human thinking. He showed power in powerless ways. Let me show how I would have done it. If I were God, and my Son had died in humiliation and shame, I would make the resurrection a big, “I told you so.” The schedule for the morning would look like this:
6 AM (dawn): rise from death, move the stone, scare the guards to death
7 AM walk into the city, appear to Pilate at his palace, show him my hands and side, give him the raspberries
8 AM, knock on the door of Caiaphas, smirk as he drops his jaw to the ground
9 AM, hold a press conference, show I really am the Son of God
10 AM, assemble my followers, gather forces, begin to push back
My plan would be grounded in the idea of winning by conquest, by defeating enemies, or persuading the enemies with irrefutable evidence.
God knows the problem is not lack of evidence
God has no part with that way of thinking. He knows that their rejection of Jesus had nothing to do with evidence. Anyone who can see Jesus bring a man back from death simply by a command and conclude that both Jesus and the man needed to be “taken care of” in mafia fashion, does not have a problem with evidence. They have a problem of hardness of heart and spiritual blindness. No appearance of the risen Christ would persuade them.
God rebukes our ideas of power
More than that, God opposes human ideas of power and wisdom. Humankind lusts for power. Under the assumption that we can create the kingdom of God without the help of God, we yearn for the ability to pull off our plans. Give us enough authority, along with a good education, and some high-minded morality, and just watch what we will do. At their root, our ideas of power are self-saving.
They are also a lie. A lifelong pursuit of a lie is foolishness. And that is exactly what God says: we are fools and powerless. More than that, his good purpose is to strip us of our lies and folly. Unless he does, he cannot help us. To do that he has to work wonders in ways we think are idiotic and anemic.
Just to make the point he puts down the kingdom of darkness through the weakness of a crucified man. He puts an end to evil by absorbing it. He raises his Son from death forever without any fanfare. God does not hide his purpose. He comes right out and says it:
““I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”” (1 Cor 1:19 ESV)
The way it actually happened
God’s agenda for that day is quite a contrast to mine:
6 AM, women (women! People with no legal standing in the ancient world) come to the tomb to put spices on the body.
6:05, they find the tomb empty. They have diverse reactions. Some run back to tell the others.
6:06 an angel tells some of them Jesus is risen
6:07 they are all confused, fearful, perplexed.
6:20? They look in the tomb and see another angel who speaks to them. Still no Jesus.
Later: Jesus begins to appear to one or two of them
That afternoon: Jesus appears, unrecognizable to some traveling companions on a walk
The weakness and foolishness of the resurrection
The real deal is quite a contrast.
There was no “I told you so.”
There were few appearances of Jesus to prove he is risen. He seems disinterested in public displays of his triumph.
There was no display of his powers to compel his murderers into submission. He did not demand obeisance, put them in jail, offer them pardon if and only if they apologize Nothing was bold, dramatic, or “conquering.”
His focus is on sound evidence of his resurrection given to his apostles. They are eyewitnesses who will pass on their legal testimony to the succeeding generations of the new covenant people of God. Their witness is called the New Testament. Of course, there were 500 others who saw and heard and touched him. No one was able to prove their claims were false, despite an immense prejudice against the truth and a very rigorous Roman legal system.
For one, they did not murder him because they lacked evidence of who he was. They murdered him because he was a threat. The evidence to uphold his claims was so clear the only option was to rid the world of this nuisance.
Second, his power was not for dominance but for redemption. He has power in order to serve and save. He is not the Emperor of Star Wars forcing his enemy to bend over in honor by using the powers of the force to compel.
Third, he was focusing on the eyewitnesses. The news of resurrection would be passed on through them. He would not keep showing himself as Risen. Rather, for 20 centuries the kingdom of God would advance by the incredibly unimpressive means of people talking to each other, passing on the eyewitness accounts that they had received.
And so I came to understand
It was through the words of friends in High School that I came to understand. One man in particular captured my admiration. He was the kind of person I wanted to be but had no power to become. Through his words I learned that Christianity was not about being moral, or going to church or even becoming a member of the church. He explained to me that my communicants class was a fraud because it was not about Jesus’ life, death for sin, and resurrection. God opened my eyes to see.
Now I knew why Jesus appeared to let the bullies win — it was because of his love for us. He laid down his life to rescue us from our own evil ways. The first Sunday after I began to see, I went to a church where the Bible was believed. It was electric. All of the songs and preaching was alive.
God is no friend to human powers
Throughout history, God’s people have been enamored by political and cultural power. We can blame that on Constantine. But whenever it began, it has corrupted the people of God into relying on forces that God does not embrace.
The events of the last 40 years in the USA underscore this point. All the fuss and grasping for political power by the evangelical church is entirely contrary to how God designs to advance the message.
I am not saying Christians should not be good citizens or serve in public office. I am saying that grasping for power to influence the culture is idolatrous.
I woke up on Easter Sunday 10 days ago to a wonderful editorial by David French. He cited what is one of the best and worst pieces of news I have heard in a long time. Gallup published survey results that show that for the first time in recorded polling, church /synagogue/mosque membership is below 50% in the USA. Of course, there is a lot more to the analysis and you can look it up.
You can take this as the terrible news that secularism has gained ground. Indeed, secularism is another form of hubris. It is another iteration of our revolt against the true God.
It is also the bad news that the voices of Christian/Jews/Muslims in all walks of life has been so uncompelling that people in the USA are fleeing the world of religion (but not so in other parts of the world).
Good news: Now that we are weak and marginalized all we have is God’s power
It is good news as well. It is good news that we are no longer the majority and the crisis of losing power may lead us to repent of our pagan thinking about power. God calls us to embrace his way of working through weakness – through sacrifice, service, and care for the vulnerable.
Again, there is certainly a place for God’s people to be involved in protecting the rights of every citizen under our First Amendment. But the freedoms of the first amendment are a massive exception to 2000 years of church history. They are not ultimate. God will work even if they are lost.
God doesn’t need political power to advance and preserve the Gospel
Are you aware that in the earliest centuries of the church, God’s people were powerless and without rights? The Romans considered them perverse atheists and traitors to Rome. Yet, in the face of this they were used by God for the spread of the message of Christ crucified and risen. How did they do it? How did God do it?
In his excellent book on those first centuries, Alan Kreider tells us. They pursued godliness in the church. Christians and churches were outposts of the kingdom of God under the Savior King Jesus. One could be among them and taste something of the powers of the age to come. And how was this nurtured? Public worship formed new Christians into the meaning of their redemption. Pastors called God’s people to live distinctive lives of love and purity. When Romans abandoned their babies, the Christians took them in. As epidemics struck cities, and people fled in fear, pastors called the Christians to stay in the city and care for the dying. And they persisted for decade after decade.
Jesus, counter cultural from first to last
As I reflect on Jesus, one of my points will be that everything about his life and words and work cut against the grain of every form of human culture. That is because human culture, with its standards of what is valuable and who is significant, is created by men and women who reject the true God. It is the city of man, as Augustine calls it, that seeks to establish the kingdom of God without God. In his resurrection we find a case in point. Jesus rose in power but did nothing by means of human power or persuasion to make his case.
Yet, 2 millennia later, he has become Savior from sin and Lord of life to billions.