Usually on Reformation, I talk about Luther’s central emphasis grace, God’s unconditional love for us. This morning, I want to talk about what grace reveals about God. This is called the Theology of the Cross and it is central to how Lutheran Christians understand God.
The first thing we have to realize is that God is foolishly in love with us. The familiar parable of the Prodigal Son told by Jesus makes this point. If you remember the story, the younger son was so hateful towards his wealthy father that he wishes he were dead, and treats him as if he were dead, demanding his inheritance before his father even got sick. The son then took the money, left the household of his father and blew it all on bad, bad choices. When he ran out of money and choices, he headed home hoping his father would allow him to come back into the household, if even just as a servant.
The father saw him from his front porch on the road that led to their house. It would be understandable if the father barred him from the house. “You made your bed now sleep in it.” It would be understandable if the father made the son grovel and beg for forgiveness. “Only if you show me you are really, truly, cross your heart and pinky swear sorry will I forgive you.” It would be understandable if the father conditionally let him back into the house, weary of being hurt by his son again. “I will let you live in the barn for three months, and we can see how that goes before you get your room in the house back.”
Instead, the father runs from the front porch into the street and embraces him before he even turns into the driveway, before the son even asks for forgiveness. He throws him a huge, foolish party, inviting his neighbors to celebrate the return of this disappointing kid. Neighbors came, willing to eat the fatted calf and drink his wine, while they snickered at the old man behind his back, figuring he must be losing it. “No wonder he turned into such a rotten kid, look how he spoils him. The kid has no consequences for his behavior. Spare the rod, spoil the child.”
The father wasn’t losing it. Love just makes him, all of us really, do foolish things. Love makes us vulnerable to each other. The father’s heart ached while his son was away because he loved him. The father risked giving the son a second, third, fourth, fifth chance because he loved him. The father’s joy at his return outweighed any anger or shame he had at his leaving, because he loved him.
The crazy thing about God that Jesus reveals is that God plays by the same rules concerning love that we all do. Love makes God vulnerable in a very real way, like it makes us vulnerable in very real ways. So that even God when God is showing the divine love of forgiveness, that gift of forgiveness can be rejected angrily, even violently as it was on the cross. In order to be forgiven, we have to admit we had done something wrong that needed forgiveness. Confronting our own brokenness is tough and can cause acts of graciousness by others and God to go sideways quickly.
I had a friend in high school who was sexually abused several times by her brother when she was eleven and he was fourteen. It was a traumatic event for her. After years of therapy in her thirties she got to a point where she could forgive him. With her therapist, she wrote a letter to him forgiving him, completely, unconditionally, nothing more needed to be said about it. The brother was so angry that she was making a big deal about a boyhood mistake that he stopped talking to her, as did her parents, too. Love is complicated. We have all done ugly, maybe even violent things to people and God who have tried to love us.
The cross is the symbol of those violent ugly things that can happen when we are foolishly in love with someone. The cross is where the vulnerability of love can lead us. The cross is also the symbol of our hope in God’s plan to change the world through love. Jesus asks us to pick up and carry his cross in our world. We are to be foolishly in love with not only our family and friends, but even our enemies. If we love like this in the world, though, we become a part of God’s hope for transforming the world.
Another famous parable, the Good Samaritan, is about foolishly loving our enemies. The Samaritans were despised by the people who heard Jesus tell this story. So, as the story goes along and first one good religious person, then another passes the beaten bleeding man lying on the road, his audience would have became indignant that no one was doing the right thing. The surprise was the ending. Predictably, the one whom Jesus called righteous was the one who stopped and helped, sacrificially and abundantly taking care of the victim. The surprise was that the righteous man was a miserable and despised enemy, a Samaritan. Jesus command us to see all people, even our enemies as created in God’s image, capable of loving like God and needing to be loved like God.
This is who we are called to be. Loving foolishly our neighbor even if our neighbor is our enemy, as God foolishly loves us. We love not because it will bring reward or honor, because it likely will only bring snickers and eye rolls. We love aware that our love makes us vulnerable to be abused by not just our enemies, but our friends and family, too. We love because we have been transformed, changed by love in the waters of baptism, and this is who we are now. A people willing to suffer to love foolishly and abundantly.
A few years ago at our annual Church Synod Convention a pastor told the story of her small struggling urban congregation in Cincinnati. It was an anxious place with declining attendance causing difficult financial choices. When the city announced construction that would shut down the road to their church for six months, they went into full scale panic mode. This could be the end of them. They loved their church. How could it survive?
They had a congregational meeting to figure out what they should do. There was anger and shouting at the meeting. The pastor should have known about this. She should have made plans. Now, it was too late. There was nothing they could do. One sweet lady raised her hands and suggested that they bake cookies in response. Bake cookies? Yes, we can bake cookies daily and bring them to the workers. A man laughed, Why? Do you think that will make them work faster? No. I just think it is better to be busy with loving them then working ourselves up into hating them and each other. And that is what they did. The church every day for six months brought dozens of cookies to the workers whose work was literally killing the church feeding them.
The theology of the cross tells us to get busy loving as God loves us. Not because it will solve our problems, because it will likely bring us more headaches. Not because it will be easy, because loving someone is often hard. Not because it will earn us points in heaven, because each of us already are loved so much by God, what could more points do for us? The theology of the cross tells us to love passionately and dangerously because that’s how God loves, in whose image we are made.