For see your vocation, brethren, that there are not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble: But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong. And the base things of the world, and the things that are contemptible, hath God chosen, and things that are not, that he might bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his sight. But of him are you in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and justice, and sanctification, and redemption: That, as it is written: He that glories, let him glory in the Lord. And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not in loftiness of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of Christ. For I judged not myself to know anything among you, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not in the persuasive words of human wisdom, but in shewing of the Spirit and power; That your faith might not stand on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
Again therefore Jesus said to them: I go, and you shall seek me, and you shall die in your sin. Whither I go, you cannot come. The Jews therefore said: Will he kill himself, because he said: Whither I go, you cannot come? And he said to them: You are from beneath, I am from above. You are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you, that you shall die in your sins. For if you believe not that I am he, you shall die in your sin. They said therefore to him: Who art thou? Jesus said to them: The beginning, who also speak unto you. Many things I have to speak and to judge of you. But he that sent me, is true: and the things I have heard of him, these same I speak in the world. And they understood not, that he called God his Father. Jesus therefore said to them: When you shall have lifted up the Son of man, then shall you know, that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself, but as the Father hath taught me, these things I speak: And he that sent me, is with me, and he hath not left me alone: for I do always the things that please him. When he spoke these things, many believed in him.
In one of the more difficult passages in the Gospels, our Lord said that violent men take the Kingdom by force (Matthew 11:12). There’s a lot of parchment spent on this verse, as well as its parallel in Luke. I first became aware of this in college when a dorm chum told me to look up the discussion on it in Terry’s Biblical Hermeneutics. Upon reflection, the exercise was formative in my life, as I started delving into Terry, who was quite the shock for my poor fundamentalist mind, his work joined a whole string of shocks, the kind of things students need in college. In a sense, it was a violence to my naive understandings. Thankfully, though a fundamentalist school, apart from preserving a keen anti-Romanism, most other matters seemed fair for debate: Calvin versus Wesley, Dispensationalism versus covenant theology (premill versus amill), the mode of baptism. It was all wildly engrossing, and my continued love of learning dates to those days.
In the lectionary passages for today, on the leave-taking of the exaltation of the Holy Cross, we come again to consider the paradoxical place the cross takes in our Faith, this the emblem of the “foolishness of God.” Our Lord’s words in the Gospel carry this paradox, and indeed the whole passage, moves from disbelief to belief, from incomprehension to revelation, and it all revolves around the crucifixion. St. Paul in the Epistle speaks of how the cross as a sign of contradiction was something that confounded the Greeks and scandalized the Jews, but to St. Paul it was the only thing he wished to know in his mission to the Corinthians, even if “knowing” was actually a form of unknowing: forgetting what he thought he knew to embrace this revelation of foolishness. Thus to St. Paul the message of the Gospel must be simple: Christ and him crucified. Surely, there was much to explain in this, but for St. Paul this is the central fact of all created history, what gave meaning to all human action, and even could turn the wisdom of the Greeks on its head to show that they had confused, complicated, and often missed the fundamental nature of reality. This, after all, was why so many of the Athenians balked at his words, for the crucifixion does not stand alone, but stands with the resurrection.
The Gospel lesson closes with an interesting note, that once Christ had said that they would understand him, and know who he was only when he was “lifted up,” many believed. We aren’t told who these are, and may have even included some of the scribes and Pharisees who were mocking him at the beginning. The conversation in John 8 continues beyond these verses, and Christ has some rather harsh words for the religious leaders: “You are of your father the Devil.” But we see throughout the Gospels people believing on Christ, but somehow their faith seems rather tepid, rather poorly formed, and certainly not what it should have been. Indeed, at face value our Lord’s words seem to have been empty, and that no one “really” believed on him before the crucifixion, and no one really did when it was happening, either. He was “lifted up,” but who was there to believe?
No one, that is, except two violent men.
Saints Dismas and Longinus, the thief and the centurion, alone saw Christ for who he truly was. Christ’s disciples had fled, with the exception of John; the women disciples stood weeping, thinking this the end. All of them saw one thing alone, that Christ was dying; whatever expectations, hopes, anticipations they had were dying with him. But this is not the case with our two thugs. Longinus was the centurion in charge of the crucifixion. Doubtless it wasn’t his first exercise in Roman justice, and he certainly was observant. How long he had been in Judea and Jerusalem we don’t know. But it was at the earthquake and the tearing of the veil in the temple that he cries out “Surely this was the Son of God.” In short, he knew enough about Jewish expectations, why Jesus was being crucified (he had to carry out the order I.N.R.I.), and that these, the leaders of the Jews were taking some serious glee in this man’s suffering. But St. Longinus saw through all this, for here was someone whose death shook the very foundations of reality. As a man of war who had seen brutality, he knew power, and now doubtless what he saw was a conqueror, but not like any he had ever encountered. St. Longinus grasped the reality of Christ’s death, that this dying man was greater than anything he had met before: not only was he innocent, but indeed the very Son of God.
This same realization played out with St. Dismas, but in a different key. He recognized his own guilt (“We die justly”) and also Christ’s innocence. This doubtless everyone else saw. But he also saw that on the cross to his left was someone whose death conquered even death, and that this one’s death was going to alter reality: “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.” St. Dismas saw that his own death was not the end of the road, and that this man beside him was indeed the Lord of the living and the dead, and that whatever the brutal reality may have been, for brutal it was, Jesus transcended, and was greater. In death, the last act of violence visited upon him, St. Dismas saw life. Here was one who understood that the very Lord of Glory hung next to him in death.
“The violent take it by force.” We rightly proclaim that Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. On that day, when he was lifted up, at that moment it was the most unlikely who saw this: not his disciples, who had all but fled; not the women who had ministered to him; not even the believing Jewish leaders, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, understood what was happening. Instead it was two of the most brutal, violent men alive who saw that Christ himself was performing the greatest act of violence: he was despoiling the great enemy, death. That which holds us thrall by fear he vanquished. As St. John Chrysostom said, “Hell took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.” Thus it is that, as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, God has used that which is nothing, of no regard, a crucified Man, to bring to nothing that which has such a grasp on us, namely the fear and pain of death.
Glory be to Jesus Christ!