Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Crucified Culture

This past Sunday, I was asked to teach at Lake Elsinore Christian Church, in place of my friend, Trevor Smith. He has been teaching through the epistle to the Galatians and I continued his progression into chapter three.

A word about the church in Galatia, reading through the epistle (which doesn't take long. Go do it. I'll wait…), Paul is obviously upset. Something has happened to this church while he is away that has supplanted the message that he taught them when he was present. No small part of this may be the result of what Peter writes about in one of his epistles, "Some things Paul writes are difficult to understand. Irresponsible people who don't know what they are talking about twist them every which way. They do it to the rest of the Scriptures, too, destroying themselves as they do it" (2 Peter 3:16, one of the "other" 3:16's worth memorizing).

After establishing his position as a trustworthy communicator of the Christian message in chapters one and two, Paul begins chapter three with some fire:

"You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it's obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set before you clearly enough.

"Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God's Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren't smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!"

The issue that Paul is taking the Galatians to task for is constructing a different image of Christ than the one which was presented when the originally believed. Specifically, they were now believing in a Jesus who had not been crucified. That is what I want to ponder for a few moments, is what difference it makes to believe in a Jesus sans crucifixion.

Images of Jesus abound, and the manner in which we view him will determine the response that we make to his life and teaching. There are several perspectives that do not require any element of crucifixion. Jesus never actually existed in history, but is the mythological creation of a community, in the same vein as King Arthur or Robin Hood. Jesus was an ethical and moral teacher the demonstrated compassion for the poor and neglected in society. Jesus was a political leader who sought to revolutionize the underclass (meek, poor, etc.). Jesus was a prophet/spiritual leader who taught an understanding of God in relational terms. Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish rabbi who was mis-identified by his followers as a messianic figure.

To reach the above conclusions is perfectly reasonable, considering the assumptions that one begins with and the basis of evidence which they choose to believe.

The importance of Jesus being a crucified leader is essential to Paul in this instance because it cuts to the heart of the issues disabling the Galatian church. In each chapter of this letter, reference is made to Jewish influence upon the Christian community: Paul's practice of Judaism (1:13), description of Peter's hypocrisy in practicing Jewish customs selectively (2:11ff), reference to Abraham (3:7), reference to Hagar and Sarah (4:21ff), the symbolism of circumcision (chapter 5), and 16 quotations or allusions to Hebrew scripture.

The teachers in the community were teaching a gospel life that had co-opted Jewish cultural values. Jesus was, after all, Jewish, so to follow after him would entail living like him in every way possible. Jesus is presented as one who fulfilled the fullness of Jewish religious/cultural expectations. To be crucified, however, would have repudiated the honorable life that he had built under Jewish practice. To follow after a crucified leader would negate all of the hopes and dreams assumed by the Jewish culture. The execution was a shameful demonstration of the powerlessness of the god of Jewish nationalism to keep his promise to the descendants of Abraham. To call the death of Jesus a disappointment would be an understatement, perhaps debasement would be a better term.

This is why a non-crucified Jesus can be so appealing. It allows us to respect the life and teaching of Jesus without having to confront the difficulty in reconciling that with his demise. In my own development, I spend much more time reading and preaching the gospel of Luke and Jesus' teaching that is directed towards social inequality and oppression.

What is still lurking in our hearts is the desire to replace the call which a crucified Jesus has on our lives with the fulfillment of our cultural values and definitions of success.

This is where an unfortunate translation issue steps in. In verse three, the word sarx is used in contrast to the word numa. Numa is in reference to the Spirit of God, so good Platonist disciples throughout history have translated sarx to be flesh, with a sinister connotation. The New International Version even supplies a note reading: "In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit."

But what if we can translate sarx to mean our particular culture-- culture which is neutral but has the capacity for both positive and negative. This is more in line with the translation of the passage above (which is a reason why a chose the translation to quote, and another example of how every translation is an interpretation) and provides us with a framework to deconstruct our own cultural influences in the attempt to form a coherent, cognizant Christian expression of faith.

A crucified Jesus does not measure up to any culture's expectation of greatness. The images of success in our culture (sports icons, CEOs, politicians, entertainers all) are images of triumph over adversity and exceptionalism. This grandiosity would ridicule the man who was executed shamefully outside the gates of Jerusalem. And so it is appropriate that Jesus developed a "cult following" as acceptance by the mainstream culture was incomprehensible.

And so we can choose to live by the Spirit of God, leading us to a knowledge of God through the roadblock of a crucified leader, or we can live by our culture which demands that we perform continually. But in light of what God has done for us in reconciling us to him, what can we possibly hope to add? God's response to us has already been established in the crucifixion event and the fork in the road that we have is whether we reject this image of Christ or allow him to redefine our values, behaviors, and beliefs that we have inherited in our cultural systems.

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