Sunday, November 21, 2010
Paul's stance of seeing everything through the lens of "Christ crucified" completely revolutionized how he read Scripture, and it also revolutionized how he lived his life, and his understanding of what it meant to follow God. That is not just pious talk, Paul radically changed his approach to faith, going from a faith which led him to violently persecute the church, to one that led him to endure persecution in Jesus name. He went from legalism to grace, from religiously justified violence to enemy love and nonviolence. At the heart of that change is the cross. Having listed all the things he used to see a central to his faith, Paul writes, "I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ" (Phil 3:8). Now what does it mean to "gain Christ"? He continues, "I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (v 10-11). Notice the pattern here of knowing the power of the resurrection by becoming like him in his death.
This echos the pattern Paul has set up in the previous chapter where he tells of how Christ "being in very nature God... made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant" (Phil 2:6-7) and how that act of self-giving and dying to self resulted in "every tongue acknowledging that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (v 11). For Paul, saying "Jesus is Lord" means that the crucified one is Lord, and thus that God has proclaimed the way of the cross as both God's way and our way. This is, as Michael Gorman calls it, Paul's "master story" of both the narrative of God's actions in Jesus, and of our model of ethics as we take up our cross and follow. Paul in fact directly connects the example of Christ in the opening hymn of Philippians with how we should act. He introduces it by saying, "In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus" (v 5). Our way of life needs to be the way of the cross, the way of doing "nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others." (v 3-4).
Paul makes an identical point in in Romans when he says we are to live as a "living sacrifice" (Ro 12:1) so that how we think, see, and act is formed by the cross . He continues, "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (v 2). Notice here, as in Philippians, Paul draws a direct connection between Christ's sacrificial death and our ethical response. In fact, more than any "theory" of the atonement, what we see in the NT again and again is a connection made from what Jesus did, and what we should do. The cross leads to ethics. From the perspective of the New Testament, this is not a side point, it is the main point.
Paul goes on in this chapter to outline what that looks like. It involves being "we-focused" rather than "me-focused," caring for those in need, demonstrating humility and compassion... but the crux of it all (if you pardon the pun) is summed up in his concluding statement "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (12:21). We see here that Paul's understanding of the Christ crucified, and what it means for us to declare the crucified Jesus "Lord" is deeply tied to what we see Jesus doing throughout the gospels in his teaching and ministry. That is, in order to understand the cross we need to get that all of what Jesus did lead up to the cross. The way of Jesus we see throughout the gospels is the way of the cross. Paul directly makes that connection for us.
Why does the cross matter? Because the atonement is inseparable from ethics, and from exegesis. Understanding the cross properly does not just have an impact on our own personal salvation and relationship with God (as important at that is!), it also changes how we see our world, what we value, and how we treat others.