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On Being a Theologian of the Cross

The season is changing. These past weeks, in the mornings I have been putting the garden to bed. The horn worms have eaten the leaves off the tomatoes, but the plants soldier on, still producing a few fruits. The sunflowers have been cut and laid on the woodpile for the goldfinches to discover and feast on the seeds. A lone surviving zinnia is blooming for all it is worth. And the dogwoods, stressed by the summer heat, are putting out new leaves as the cool nights arrive.

A frog laid her eggs in our fountain. The resulting tadpoles are getting their back legs now. I’m hoping they will mature before the weather turns cold. A cover crop of red clover is sprouting, and although the days are too short for it to bloom, the roots and leaves will build the soil as they compost over the winter. Baby lettuce is growing. The plants will overwinter, and in mid-February we’ll enjoy the first green leaves — a foretaste of the feast to come.

With the changing of the seasons comes death, but also the promise of rebirth. This time of year we are face to face with death in the natural world. In fact, those of us who garden are death doulas of a sort. But as winter comes and the days shorten, this confrontation with physical mortality can also become a dehumanizing force. Capital-D Death reigns, both in the decay of our bodies and also as we suffer loneliness and search for identity in sex, work, political and social realms, and fail to find our identity in any of these.

Bent on capturing territory, Death steals our identity. It dehumanizes our institutions. It poisons relationships, setting people one against the other. Death fuels the fires of distrust, leading people to the depths of despair as it sabotages any attempts to build community. Death makes a mockery of God, faith, and the gift of life. It is no wonder that we and our congregations reel in the face of Death.

Our generation is neither the first nor the last to struggle with Death. Until he was gripped by grace, Martin Luther lived as one desperately troubled by the depth of Sin and Death he found both in his body and in the church. Luther struggled with Death and finally, throwing himself on God’s grace at the foot of the cross, found new life in Christ.

And so it was that Luther stumbled upon a third kind of death — the Death that strips us bare and leaves our dry bones clattering. In this Death, God comes to us hidden under the sign of the opposite. In these times, love feels like discipline, freedom feels like slavery, and the call to righteousness feels like condemnation. We come to the end of ourselves, to the end of our self-esteem, and to the death of our ego.

At this very moment when we become nothing, the door to the third, redemptive form of death opens. When all human possibilities have been exhausted, we are gathered into death in Christ. From things that have become nothing, God creates anew.

This is the foolishness of the cross. This is the foolishness upon which we stake our lives, and, as Christian leaders, the foolishness upon which we stake our life’s work. We have been called to proclaim Christ and him crucified, bringing people with us to the foot of his cross.

In baptism, we have our first and most profound rebirth into God’s new creation. St. Paul reminds us, “when you were buried with [Christ] in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Throughout our lives, we enter anew into this profound mystery through our little deaths and resurrections.

Our new life in Christ deepens as we are claimed again and again by our crucified and risen Lord. In what reads like a rhapsodic love letter, Gerhard Forde describes emerging into new life, saying it is

not like accomplishing something but like dying and coming to life. It is not like earning something but more like falling in love. It is not the attainment of a long-sought goal, the arrival at the end of a process, but the beginning of something absolutely new, something never before heard or entertained.

Is not this the new life we have been thirsting for?

We have difficult work ahead of us. We have dying to do. We have congregations that perceive themselves to be in the throes of death. Our towns are full of people who have been so challenged by the powers of Death that they have lost their sense of themselves. We have lifelong members who have never known themselves to be beloved children of God, saints created in God’s image and redeemed by Christ’s sacrificial love.

Words alone are not enough to bring life to these dead bones. Only Jesus, the Word made flesh, can call us into new life. Only Jesus can unite us with his redeeming death, breaking the power of Death as we encounter the cross with him. Only Jesus can bring our bodies and our spirits into his resurrection life, securing our identities as beloved children of God and heirs of God’s reign. Only Jesus can call us into our life’s work, which is simply living each day in him instead of Death.

We are invited to enter into this economy of death and new life. We are invited to lay down our egos, our striving, and all the things to which we cling that are not Christ. Jesus beckons us, “Come.” Jesus gathers us to himself at the cross where he overcame the power of Sin and Death — for the world, and for us.

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