“Lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” – Third Sunday after the Epiphany 2011

“He spoke to us of God’s natural order,

The person, the family, the nation and the society of nations

And the cross that prevents us from making any of them into a god.

He said that God had made our nation

For his own purposes

And that its death would be a breach of that order…”

(D. Gwenallt Jones, Eples, Gomer Press 1951, quoted in “Threshold of Light” ed. A.M. Allchin and Esther de Waal, DLT 1986)

I came across these words many years ago in a collection of “Celtic” spiritual writings: they are by a Welsh nationalist poet called David Gwenallt Jones, an esteemed scholar in the Welsh language, and an early member of Plaid Cymru, the party of Welsh independence.  How well he captures the importance of identity – personal, familial, national, cultural, linguistic – “he said that God had made our nation” – and, I suppose, our language, our tradition – “for his own purposes, and its death would be a breach of that order”. And yet: “the cross that prevents us from turning any of them into a god”. Does that not capture the essence of things? On the one hand, the God-given components of our distinct identity, and on the other, the requirement that they should be subjected, even crucified, to the one Living God?

It’s a formula that has resonances in all kinds of areas. How about; “the person, the cumann, the party, the government” – and the cross that prevents any of them from demanding our total allegiance? Or, “the parish, the churchmanship, the denomination, the worldwide communion” – and the cross that exposes the power-games that crucify the Lord afresh. This coming week most of the Primates, the chief pastors who represent the Provinces that make up our denominational family the Anglican Communion, will be here for a meeting in the Emmaus Retreat Centre near Swords. Some have declared their intention to boycott the meeting because the American Primate will be present, and her Episcopal Church has shown itself still in favour of accepting gay Christians at all levels of life and ministry. Despite the poor press our Communion gets, and the “scornful wonder” with which various commentators look on us, “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed” – nonetheless our polity tries to affirm the distinctive identities and diverse understandings of our Provinces, while proclaiming the cross that prevents us making any of them into a god.

The cross of Jesus exposes and condemns the lust for power which often masquerades as principle. The Sanhedrin were only defending God’s honour from blasphemy. Pilate was only keeping law and order. And so the nails went in… Many of our present problems can be attributed to people grabbing at power, wanting to control, unwilling to allow space for others.

Paul writes about this in today’s Epistle (1 Corinthians 1:10-18). Factions have become apparent in the Corinthian congregation. “I belong to Paul” “I belong to Apollos”. “I belong to Cephas” – and the ultimate in one-upmanship “I belong to Christ”. Each of these names, Paul, Apollos, Cephas (i.e. Peter), represents a particular style, a certain theological position – people who had become christian under the influence of a particular preacher or party might see themselves as a sort of client of their teacher – it would be a natural identity marker, and inescapable – different strokes for different folks. What has gone wrong is that these natural identities have become all-consuming, they have become markers in a power struggle to control the Corinthian community. So Paul steps in. Thank God I didn’t baptize many of you! My job was not to collect a following of clients, but “to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The Cross is folly, because the natural person, the worldly-wise person, seeks and cherishes power. And the lust to obtain, grasp, cling to power, destroys the one who lusts and clings. “The cross, which prevents us from making any of them into a god”.

We do well, I think, to hold on to our distinctive identities, whether as a nation or as a denomination; retaining enough power to prevent the loss of that identity – but always under the cross “which prevents us from making any of them into a god.” Our church tradition is a true one – but that doesn’t make other traditions false. Our tradition is true – but we have lots to learn from others. Our way of doing things is undoubtedly the best – but so is your way – and yours – and the way of God contains them all and transcends them all.

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