Formed to “See” in the Way of the Cross – Robert Saler reflects on the scandalous particularity of our particular Messiah’s mission.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B (2015, 2018, 2021, 2024)
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
In the aftermath of the Enlightenment, it was common for philosophers and theologians looking to salvage the validity of the Christian faith to downplay any sort of seemingly supernatural passage in the Bible (such as miracle narratives, the physical resurrection, etc.) in order to emphasize the ethical teachings of Jesus. The hope was that, by focusing on ethics that did not in principle violate what could be learned by observation from the natural sciences, the Christian faith could be brought into line with the emerging optimism that was the heritage of the Enlightenment, Romantic period, and Industrial Revolution in the West.
Figures such as Kant, Lessing, Schleiermacher, and Adolf von Harnack offered interpretations of Jesus and the life of Christian belief that allowed theology to retain its status in places like the University of Berlin, but at the cost of slowly merging the demands of Christian belief—what Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Harnack’s rebellious pupil) would call the true “cost of discipleship”—into the solidifying bourgeoisie ethics of the German middle class. Christianity became synonymous with ethics, ethics became synonymous with good citizenship of the nation-state, and—as the nation-state loses its soul in Germany to the rise of the Third Reich—Christianity loses the ability to critique politics and becomes an accessory to state-run terror.
Thus, the Lenten preacher in the early 21st century—still within living memories of these horrors—is faced with the question of how to preach the distinctiveness of the Christian call to care for creation while navigating two poles. On the one hand, faced with the possibility of human-made environmental damage on a scale unprecedented in human history, it is crucial that Christian theology lend itself to what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum has called a kind of “cosmopolitan citizenship of the planet”—using the best of our spiritual traditions to foster solidarity across the lines of religion, nationality, and so on.
However, it is equally important that we not lose sight of the fact that the gospel, as Bonhoeffer saw, promises a particular kind of Christological formation that is more about the disciple being conformed to the person of the living Christ as it is about any sort of abstract ethical mandate, no matter how laudable the latter might be. The gospel is not a set of rules; it is a call to a way of being in Christ in the world that promises no stability but rather engagement in God’s adventure of redemption.
Here, Mark 8’s words still have the power to shock: such formation is in fact formation in the way of the cross. Christian focus on the cross, whether it be the stations of the cross that developed from the Franciscans in the Middle Ages or Luther’s later foregrounding of the cross as a theme in theology, has never been about dolorism or glorifying in suffering for its own sake. Rather, the Christian tradition’s insistence on disciples being formed in the way of the cross of Jesus has largely, as Vítor Westhelle and others have pointed out, been a matter of seeing the world’s ongoing crucifixion in honest fashion in order to discern where God’s spirit is at work giving life. To determine the work of the Spirit, we must see the places of our world’s suffering accurately. This is the optics of the cross into which Jesus invites us on this day.
Such an optics helps us to enact a kind of generative paradox whereby, as we go deeper and deeper into the scandalous particularity of our particular Messiah’s mission, we—like Jesus—are actually opened up to previously unimagined levels of engagement with those who bear both crucifixion and resurrection in contexts very different from the ones where we might feel comfortable. To go and be formed in the way of the cross is to become a citizen of all that God’s Spirit seeks to redeem, that is, creation itself, the very stuff of Genesis and beyond. And all the world is in need of a people that is formed to see with honesty where pain exists, and to see with joy where healing might yet surprise.
Originally written by Robert Saler in 2015.