3 Pentecost: 17 June 2007
(1 Samuel 17:1-10/Psalm 32/Galatians 2:15-21/Luke 7:36-50)
Crucified with Christ
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming (Luke 3:1-3a)…a baptism of enlightenment.
“Awake to the divine within you,” he called. “You are children of God. Look within for the truth that will guide you into peace and perfection. You are whole. You are good. You are divine. But you are asleep. And from your sleep you need only be awakened to transcend your self-imposed boundaries, to cast off the chains of the world’s dogma and ignorance, to seize your destiny and create your universe. Yours is the power. What do you want? Believe in yourself, believe in your power to materialize your dreams and it shall be unto you as you will. Then you will fill every valley, level every mountain and hill, make the crooked paths straight and every rough way smooth. Then you will walk this world as you truly are, a manifestation of the divine, shining with the eternal light of the cosmos.”
Had John only preached this message he would have been a regular guest on Orpah, a weekly commentator on The Scribes and Pharisees News Hour. He would have topped the New Jerusalem Times bestsellers list for weeks on end. He would have had access to the halls of power and been welcomed as counselor and spiritual advisor to governors and kings – perhaps even to emperors. But no.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Luke 3:7-9). Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand “(Mt 3:2, marginal reading).
That, of course, is the real John – the John of history, the John of truth, the John of Scripture. These two messages – one fictional and one real – point to the vast chasm between the pleasant lie our culture tells us about ourselves and the hard truths of Scripture.
One of the most subtle and powerful [of the difficulties in serving God] is the …presupposition that the consciousness of the “common man” (or woman) is innately valuable regardless of its formation or lack thereof. Through “self-evident” truths and “inalienable rights”…people are presumed to be born good rather than in need of conversion.
But Scripture will have none of that drivel – nor will the daily paper or nightly news, if we but look and listen. Innately good people do not wage genocide or abduct and murder children or raid employees’ retirement accounts or allow countless men and women and children to die daily from lack of food or water or medical care or love. But we do: men and women just like you and me. How, with a straight face, psychologists and counselors and gurus and even preachers can say we need only look within and release our true selves – the light of love and perfection within us – I will never, for the life of me, understand. God save the world from what is inside of me, inside of us! For we are whitewashed tombs, pleasant on the outside, but filled with dead men’s bones and all manner of corruption. We are God’s good creation despoiled by sin, turned inward upon ourselves, in rebellion against our Creator. Not just some of us, but all of us.
As it is written:
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
there is no one who has understanding,
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one” (Rom 3:10-12).
When a London daily newspaper ran an editorial asking rhetorically, What is wrong with the world? noted author and Christian G. K. Chesterton replied, “I am.” There was a man formed by the truths of Scripture. There was a man who understood.
So despite the persistent – though verifiably false – claims of innate human goodness, we know better. We know ourselves to be deeply flawed. Moreover, Pelagius notwithstanding, we know we cannot pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps and achieve moral goodness, moral perfection – righteousness. So what is to be done? What, if any hope have we – all of us together: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man and woman?
Paul addresses words to the Galatian Christians, and through the Holy Spirit to us, words which offer an answer and a hope.
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is reckoned as righteous not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing (Gal 2:15-21, marginal reading).
As with much of Paul’s writing, this is a dense, theological thicket; we need a sharp machete to hack our way through. We find it in an apparently unrelated text from 1 Samuel, the record of David’s defeat of the giant Goliath. You recall that the armies of the Philistines and the armies of the Israelites are in a standoff, massed in the mountains on opposite sides of a valley. Neither moves against the other. Then one man comes forward, a giant of a man, from the camp of the Philistines. Striding into the valley of decision he stands and shouts to the ranks of Israel,
“Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us” (1 Sam 17:8b-9).
What Goliath calls for – with the odds heavily stacked in his favor, of course – is a battle of champions: one warrior from each side to represent his people. The underlying principle of a battle of champions is simple: What is true for the champion is true for the people he represents. If the champion is victorious, his army obtains victory. If he is defeated, his army suffers the loss.
While this idea might seem strange to us, it is assumed throughout the biblical text. In the New Testament it appears in Hebrews where the author contends that the mystical, Melchizedekan priesthood of Christ is superior to the Levitical priesthood of Israel. Remember Abraham’s victory of Chedorlaomer and the rescue of Lot? the author asks. Upon returning from battle Abraham was greeted by Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of the most high God. Though Abraham kept none of the spoils of battle for himself, he gave a tenth – a tithe – to Melchizedek and Melchizedek blessed him. From this account the writer of Hebrews notes,
It is beyond dispute that the inferior is blessed by the superior. In the one case, tithes are received by those who are mortal; in the other, by one of whom it is testified that he lives. One might even say that Levi himself, who receives the tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him (Heb 7:7-10).
What does all this mean? Simply that Melchizedek is a greater priest than all the Levitical priests to follow, because Abraham, the great-grandfather of the Levitical priests paid tithes to Melchizedek and received from him a blessing; thus Levi, still within the seed of Abraham, also paid tithes to Melchizedek. Further then, in that one act of Abraham all the Levitical priests to come paid tithes to Melchizedek thereby acknowledging his superiority. There’s the principle at work again: What is true for the father is true for his children for generations to come – true for Abraham, true for his great-grandson Levi and for all generations of Levitical priests. This type of thinking may stretch us a bit, enthralled as we are with the cult of the individual, but not so those from tribal cultures. The idea of a champion, a representative, makes perfect sense. What is true of the representative is true for those he represents. Now we can return to Galatians and hack our way through that text.
We are in a mess, you recall, in bondage to sin, turned in upon ourselves, in rebellion against God, and unable to do and to be otherwise. This is true, Paul insists, for Jews and Gentiles alike. But, for all of us – Jews and Gentiles alike – there is a champion, a representative, Jesus Christ the righteous one: What is true for him is true for us.
Jews cannot be justified by the law because they have not been – and cannot be – faithful to it. Yet, Paul says, Jesus was the faithful Jew who fulfilled the law in all its requirements, so that Jews might be justified not by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus, their champion: what is true for him is true for those he represents. Likewise for the Gentiles. Sabbaths and holy days? Dietary restrictions? Circumcision? Torah observance? No, none of this is necessary and none will be sufficient. If the Jews to whom the law was given could not observe it, what possible chance have the Gentiles? None whatsoever. Nor is it required, for Jesus is the Gentile champion as well; it is his faithfulness that matters. What is true for him is true for those he represents. And – this is central to Paul’s argument – what is true for Jews is also true for Gentiles. All are justified by the faithfulness of Christ our champion.
So Jesus as champion, Jesus as representative, is the way out of the insurmountable problem we find ourselves in. We are not innately good or holy, but Jesus our champion is. We are not faithful and righteous, but Jesus our representative was and is and ever shall be. And, by God’s grace, what is true for him is true for us. If, of course, he is our champion, our representative.
Is he? And, if so, how did he come to be that? These questions brings us near the very heart of Pauline theology. And, at the heart is death – actually two deaths, Jesus’ and our own.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:19-20, marginal reading).
The just penalty for my transgression of the law is death. Yours, too. But here Jesus stepped in as champion, as representative, and died for me so that the righteous demands of the law might be fulfilled. He died according to the law as my representative so that what was true for him might be true for me. Jesus died and I died with him; the penalty has been paid. Hold on – now it gets good. Not only did Jesus die as my representative, he also rose again, not just for himself but as my representative. He rose justified before God for his faithfulness. And I rose with him. You, too. The life we now live in the flesh we live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, our champion, our representative. What is true for him is true for us. He was faithful and through him we are faithful. He died to satisfy and fulfill the law and through him we died to the law. He rose justified before God and through him we are declared righteous by God. What is true for him is true for us.
But how? In what way does Jesus become our champion? I mentioned earlier there were two deaths in the story. It’s time for the second. I have been crucified with Christ, Paul says. It is through our crucifixion in union with Jesus’ crucifixion that we come to be in Christ, that he comes to be our champion. It is our death in union with Christ’s death that makes this possible. And here is a great mystery, a sacrament. Our baptism is our death that joins us to Christ and makes him our champion.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom 6:3-6).
Baptism is the act, in the present, that unites us with Christ’s crucifixion in the past and places us in him; that is, baptism is the act which makes Christ our champion, our representative. It is through baptism that what is true for Christ becomes true for us. And so this mess, this bondage, this rebellion…well, they’re all undone. Moreover, through Christ our representative God seals us in the present with the Holy Spirit in promise of the full redemption to come. Not only seals us, but empowers us, transforms us for a holy life.
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (Rom 6:12-14).
And this reminds us that baptism is more than an event; it is a covenant, a way of life in Christ.
Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
These are among the questions and vows of our baptismal covenant. It is the water, the word spoken over it and in our hearts, and the Spirit-filled life that follows that recreate us as baptismal people, uniting us with the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, making him our champion. Neither our innate human goodness nor the works of the law will do. And so, echoing Paul’s word to the Galatians we can say,
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
 William Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Erdmans, 1992), p. 40.
All Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.