Sunday, February 25, 2018

If God is For Us... (Lent 2B)

I often talk with the music teacher at St. Anthony’s School about getting me a role in a school play.  Ever since I played St. Joseph in the Christmas pageant—costumed in a cozy bathrobe that I still wear—I’ve been hoping for another chance to get on stage.

What I really hope is that the school will perform the musical Oliver!, because I’m dying to appear in this adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist. As a youngster I auditioned for the role of Oliver, but the director quickly decided I looked too well-fed for the role. But in high school, I played the lovable villain Fagin with considerable success, if I do say so myself.

However, there’s no chance of my dream coming true until the copyright owners re-write the play, because the story ends with the violent murder of the heroine, Nancy.  And we can’t have the children watching that.

At least that’s the way modern thinking goes. As kids we read Grimm’s Fairy Tales—and they were certainly grim. We heard a witch threaten to eat Hansel and Gretel, a wolf threaten to eat Little Red Riding Hood, and a king threaten to cut off a girl’s head if she won’t marry the goblin Rumpelstiltskin—but somehow we survived.

Children have a way of filtering out the scary bits of familiar stories.

But today I wonder whether adults do that, too—and whether it’s a good thing when it comes to the Word of God.

I watch the faces of the congregation whenever I read the story of Abraham and Isaac, and no one ever looks shocked or appalled. Yet find me a tenser moment in the whole Old Testament than when Abraham takes up the knife. If we really listened, we’d gasp in horror.

The second reading today helps us stop and think about the meaning of the first reading—about how Abraham’s sacrifice connects to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Not only that: it helps us understand how the enormity, the awfulness, of Calvary should affect each of us in a personal way.

After hearing the story of Abraham and Isaac, we haven’t a shred of doubt that Abraham loved God more than anything in the world, even his son. We understand why he is called our father in faith, and how he is a model of obedience for all time.

But St. Paul tells us that the Crucifixion should convince us that God loved us with an incomparable love, and that this love is still being poured out on us and for us. Paul’s question says it all “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”

The translation is a bit difficult. Listen to the more flowing words in the Jerusalem Bible: “Since God did not spare his own Son, but gave him up to benefit us all, we may be certain, after such a gift, that he will not refuse anything he can give.”

From my bedroom window in the seminary in Rome, I could see the front of St. Paul’s Basilica. At the very top of the church is a cross and the words “Spes unica”—the cross our “only hope.”

To be a Christ-follower means wrestling with the mystery of the cross. For some, as St. Paul says, the cross is a scandal, an obstacle; it’s as if Abraham had killed Isaac. How would we like hearing the story if that was its unhappy ending?

The fine Anglican preacher Fleming Rutledge says that Jesus on the cross, atoning for our sins with his sacrificial death, will cause offense in every generation. Some make the mistake of picturing a wrathful God, condemning his innocent, victimized Son. Rutledge says “This mistake must be strenuously resisted.”

And so it must, for as she says “At the heart of the mystery of the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God is the fact that the Father’s will and the Son’s will are one. This is an action that the Father and the Son are taking together.” (The Undoing of Death, 122)

And there is the fundamental difference between the sacrifice on Mount Moriah and the sacrifice on Calvary, where Christ was both priest and victim.

A traditional way of looking at our Gospel today is that Jesus let his glory be seen in order to prepare his disciples for the scandal of the Cross—to give them a glimpse of his Resurrection so that they would not despair at his death.

For too many of us, there’s no scandal in the Cross. Like children listening to fairy tales at bedtime, we’ve heard the story so many times that it fails to engage the deeper level of our emotion or our intellect. We haven’t thought long and hard enough about all that the saving sacrifice of Jesus means and all that it reveals about God’s limitless love.

But this Sunday the Word of God leads us to an unavoidable conclusion—that there can be no terror, no condemnation, no ultimate defeat, for those for whom the Father gave up his Son.

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