A cruce salus
I KNEW a parish priest once. He was a very nice man, the kind of guy you’d stop and chat with about the weather and the town news. He was an engaging and comforting preacher, but at the end of the day his homiletics really just boiled down to the Buddy Christ. It was all very fine for Sunday coffee hour, but if I had a death in the family, or even a dark night of the soul, I’d call someone else.
It will not surprise you, dear reader, to learn that this good clergyman was much in favor of administering Communion in advance of Baptism, and, frankly, you can’t really fault the guy. When one inhabits a theological (if it can be called that) and philosophical world that prizes above all else an unquestioning, uncritical, blind welcome, what reasons can possibly be articulated for qualifying admission to Communion? Join us! All are welcome at the table!
This friendly priest is not alone. Throughout our beloved church, and indeed the mainline Protestant churches everywhere, we find a similar poverty of theology, Christology, and ecclesiology.
A couple of years ago, with regard to our contemporary church-rot, the theologian John Milbank hit the nail squarely upon the head:
For various reasons… it seems to me that the quarrel between liberal theologians and orthodox theologians is now much less to the fore than it was, but I think that the overwhelming reason for that is that liberals are simply tending to become agnostics or atheists, or they move into religious studies, or they move into a sort of inter-religious position — into some sort of post-Christian position — and that has resulted in a general weakening of the liberal current in theology.1
This, to our mind, just about sums it up. Oh, many would disagree. It’s not post-Christian… it’s ecumenical! It’s multi-cultural! It’s celebrating difference! It’s the broad theological umbrella!
It’s none of those things. It’s just plain bunkum.
The reality is that the afflicted clergy are walking away from the cross… Because they don’t want to make it too hard for people, or they don’t want to offend people. They just want everyone to feel nice and to pull out their cheque books at pledge time. But they have nothing to offer, nothing but welcome without renewal and sacraments without grace.
And what they fail to grasp is that the closer you go to the cross, the bigger the cheques become, because when you hear the gospel preached and proclaimed, and as you approach the cross, you cannot help but fall down in gratitude and joy.
N.T. Wright tells us why:
When the first disciples were sent off by Jesus into the wider world to announce that he was Israel’s Messiah and hence the world’s true Lord, they knew that their message would make little or no sense to most of their hearers. It was an affront to Jewish people to tell them that Israel’s Messiah had arrived — and that the Romans had crucified him at least in part because the Jewish leaders hadn’t wanted to accept him! It was sheer madness, something to provoke sniggers or worse, to tell non-Jews that there was a single true God who was calling the whole world to account through a man whom he had sent and whom he had raised from the dead. And yet the early Christians discovered that telling this story carried a power which they regularly associated with the Spirit, but which they often referred to simply as ‘the word.’ Note these references from Acts: ‘Filled with the Holy Spirit, they spoke God’s word with boldness.’ ‘The word of God continued to spread.’ ‘The word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.’ ‘The word of God grew mighty and prevailed’ (Acts 4:31; 6:7; 12:24; 19:20).2
As we have seen, when they were down and out, Paul and Barnabas waxed bold, and the power of the gospel of Christ carried the day. Why? Because in the cross, there is the path to life. In the resurrection from the dead of Jesus and his triumph over the power of sin and death, we find ourselves restored to God and renewed in hope to live a life before death, even as we look to a new heaven and a new earth.
This is the good news. It is enlivening, and by comparison, an invitation to join a petty social club of pot luck, desperate cheerfulness, and the occasional moral pick-me-up from a bumbler in some silly vestments… well. It sounds distinctly dreary, doesn’t it? No wonder no one goes to church.
1. John Milbank, lecture given at St.Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Moscow. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TO_Mc0DehA, retrieved August 26, 2014.
2. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (London: SPCK, 2006) 133-134.