the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

1st Corinthians 2. 1-12 [13-16]
Believing begins and ends at the Cross!

It was my first year at seminary. I was at the library studying. Studying, that is, until I needed a break. It was then that I got up and started exploring. Eventually, I made my way down to the basement. And I found “the cage.” It was a small room made of chain-link fencing – floor to ceiling – set apart from the rest. Inside were kept the oldest books. Oldest, not necessarily the most valuable. I started at one end and worked my way across the shelf. Books from the 1880s. From the 1700s. Even two or three from the 1600s. I’d hold those books in my hands. Look at them. Touch them. Even smell them. Trying to imagine the who and the when and the where of the first person to hold each one.

Somewhere along the line, I found a framed print. I didn’t understand what I found, at the time. That would come online, sometime later. I dusted it off and took a picture of it. Over the years, I kept a copy on the shelf across the room … for inspiration. As a pastor. As a Lutheran. As you’ve, probably, already guessed, this is that picture. A copy of it, anyway. It’s the painting above the altar of the city church in Wittenberg, Germany. St Mary’s is the church Luther preached in. Not the other one in town, the castle church, All Saints. All Saints is where Luther’s buried. When he nailed the theses to the door. Anyway, this was painted by the Cranachs – started by Senior, finished by Junior. Both were colleagues, contemporaries of the good doctor. Of course, my copy was in living black-and-white.

I knew at first sight … This is what it looks like to be a Lutheran. This is what it looks like to be a pastor. And this … this is what today’s secondReading would look like if it was a painting … “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” Take a look! This is what it looks like every time we get together. Every time god brings us together. Sunday morning in, Sunday morning out. Each and every Christmas Eve and Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, this is what happens! Jesus Christ, and him crucified proclaimed! Jesus Christ, and him crucified administered! On one side is the preacher – in this case, Luther. On the other side are the people. Hearing. Receiving. Believing. And in the middle, bringing them both together is “Jesus Christ and him crucified!

Popular religion, though, has very little of that. It has the preacher. And the people. It’s just missing Jesus and the cross. There are those who claim that we’re a Christian country. Anchored, rooted, in the faith. And yet, we end up arguing over everything by Christ. Over everything but the cross. In god we trust. That’s our motto. But if you painted it, what would it look like. Morals? Ethics? Principles? At most, at best, we believe in Christ as a second Moses, a lawgiver. At best, at most, we believe in Christ as a model, an example. But that’s not Christ and him crucified.

For us, Jesus is savior. And saving is a cross. It’s sacrifice. And it’s suffering. You want to know who we are? You want to know what we’re about? Look at the picture. Preacher. People. And up front and center is Jesus Christ and him crucified! “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die and for his sake, god forgives …” That’s Christ and Christ crucified! “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Spirit.” That’s Christ and Christ crucified! This is my body; this is my blood. The lord blessed and keeps and shines and gives …. That’s Christ and Christ crucified! Proclaimed, administered, believed, week in and week out! It’s that black cross inside a red heart. Making it alive. Motivating. Inspiring. It’s the gospel! It’s the gift! And it’s all there in this painting! It’s all there in the secondReading: “When I came to you, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Paul wrote those words to the church in Corinth, nearly a hundred generations, ago. But it could, just a likely, have been written to us by the good doctor himself. And it’s all there in that painting, hanging above the altar, at St. Mary’s, in Wittenberg, for the past five hundred years. During the time before Luther was born, before he re-“discovered” god’s grace, the church knew a lot about sin and guilt. Knew a lot about fire and brimstone. Knew a lot about hell and damnation. In that way, they were a lot like the church here in the U.S. A lot like the church here in the oilPatch. I stumbled onto a quote by Billy Graham, the other day. “The greatest vision of sin,” he said, “that a person can ever receive is to look at the cross.” “The greatest vision of sin that a person can ever receive is to look at the cross.” That’s the perspective of the popular. The cross is an expression of man’s inhumanity to man. But to Paul and to Luther and to us, that cross is the greatest vision of love! Of god’s love! For each and every! For one and all!

But that’s the one thing of which today’s “conservative” church is most ignorant. Gospel’s not our love for god. Gospel isn’t our love for neighbors. Gospel is god’s love for all of us, neighbors included! Gospel is Jesus Christ, and him crucified! Without him, without that, there is no faith. Nothing – no one – to believe in! Nothing – no one – to depend on! Nothing – no one – to stake our life on! Sure, there are commandments to obey. A judge and jury waiting at the end of it all. But there’s no savior! No redeemer! No deliverer!

But that’s not what the painting’s about! That’s not the church! That’s not the gospel! That’s not Christ and Christ crucified! Christ and Christ crucified in every brushstroke! Christ and Christ crucified in each highlight and every shadow! Christ and Christ crucified in every tint and every hue! Nothing complicated. Nothing confusing. It’s all there, right before our eyes. Truth is, it’s a truth we learned, a long time ago. Before we started to talk. When all we could do is sing. Jesus loves me! Loves me and all the me’s of the world! Not because the bible told us so. But because that’s what our parents told us. And our grandparents. And their parents before them. Jesus loves us! And that, too, is Christ and Christ crucified! It’s as simple, as straightforward, as that! Down-to-earth! Matter of fact! The heart and soul of believing! “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus! Nothing but the cross!”

Jesus loves! No more! And definitely, no less! And it’s all there in that old painting, hanging over an old altar, in an even older church! There’s the one who comes proclaiming the mystery. Not with words of wisdom. Not with entertaining yarns. But with fear. And trembling. And faith. On the other side, we listen. Listen to that mystery. Listen and receive and believe. And in between, in the middle of it all, is that one thing that matters. That one thing that transforms lives. That one thing that changes the world. Jesus Christ and him crucified! So, look, my friends. Look closely. Look carefully. Learn every brushstroke by heart. Because this … this is all you need to know! This is all you need to believe! Christ and Christ crucified!

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