Models of The Cross

Sunday 5th March 2017
The First Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Genesis 2.15-17; 3.1-7
Romans 5.12-19

In spite of a comment near the end of the second Letter of Peter (2 Peter 3.15) to the effect that Saint Paul sometimes writes difficult things, he was a relatively uncontroversial figure until the Reformation: his theology, epitomised in our First Reading, at its simplest level - although to be simple is not the same thing as to be easy - made a direct, causal link between human sinfulness and physical death and, conversely, asserted that Jesus by his death broke that link. Thus, we became justified, that is we were re-instituted into a right relationship with God by the death of Jesus and that justification meant that we would overcome our physical death in some unspecified way. To that extent, the serpent in our First Reading, in Genesis 3 might be right for he says: if you eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you will die; which is not quite the same thing as saying if you eat the fruit you will be struck down this minute. There is a perfect correspondence between Genesis 3 and Paul which sketches out the problem of created humanity and the salvation brought to it by Jesus.

The confusion with respect to Paul arose at the Reformation because Of Martin Luther's highly original re-reading of Paul. From the beginning of the history of the Church, its only interest in individual bad conduct was if this brought the Ekklesia, the Church Community into disrepute. Up until the middle of the Sixth Century, therefore, the Church was only interested in public sin; but the development at that time in Ireland of a tariff book of penances for sins made in the context of the developing Sacrament of Confession,  changed everything. The power of the Priest to perform the Eucharistic act of Transubstantiation, the changing of the bread and wine into the "very" body and blood of Jesus Christ, endowed the clergy with unimaginable power which was, over time, transferred from the altar into the realm of private behaviour. But humanity, being ingenious and always wanting a contractual rather than an arbitrary, salvation, fell in with the Church's power politics and money raising, first through chantry Masses and then the sale of indulgences. Nobody thought that the Crucifixion, death and Resurrection of Jesus had anything to do with these earthly infractions although there was a muddled debate about what happened to the souls of people who committed very serious, or "Mortal" sins such that the aristocracy quite often reserved their Baptism until their death-bed, believing that once the soul was washed clean by the Sacrament of initiation, the operation could not be repeated after a serious sin.

Martin Luther, who was a fierce opponent of the Indulgences system which was being operated in his part of Germany by the Preacher Tetzel around 1515 to raise money for the enlargement of Saint Peter's in Rome, by a crucial coincidence of sentiment, was also deeply conscious of his own, personal sinfulness, some would say to an obsessive degree. Nonetheless, what this meant was that his solution for the elimination of his personal sins was to fuse these with the theology of sinfulness and redemption in Paul's letter to the Romans so that the death of Jesus not only repaired what Adam had impaired but also ensured, Purgatory having been ruled out along with Chantry Masses and Indulgences, that there was a means to salvation of the soul, purified by the blood of Jesus.

So much for the history of the theology which is important because it makes it very clear that what some Christians believe now, following in Martin Luther's footsteps, is not what all Christians have believed for the past two thousand years; on the contrary, this view of the relationship between private sin and the blood of Jesus has only been held for a quarter of the Christian Church's history by a tiny minority of Christians.

Before drawing to my conclusions, I should make two incidental remarks which bear thinking about: first, the concentration which Luther engendered on his own private sin tends to pay little attention to public sin, not that necessarily which brings the Church into disrepute but that which tarnishes creation: most of us will never be plunderers or murderers but we are all likely to both sin by omission and also, less frequently, to sin by implicitly or explicitly, sanctioning a collective course of action which we should not. And so it is really important that we do some studying and praying about our part in public, or collective, sin. Secondly, the very people who hold most firmly to Luther's revolutionary interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans are the very same people who resist organic theological development; they are, if you like, the theological equivalent of people who climb a ladder and then kick it away so that nobody can follow, operating a deeply injurious double standard which cannot be logically sustained because they cannot say at precisely what point in theological history we have to arrest all development!

Which leads me naturally to my conclusion: the Creeds quite properly shied away from defining the mechanics, or the process, by which the so-called "work of Christ" on the Cross was accomplished, not simply because this would have raised a major theological controversy but, more fundamentally, because our Salvation through the death and Resurrection of Jesus is a mystery which demands our Faith. In Lent, as we live our narrower life, preparing for the sorrow of the Cross and the joy of the Resurrection, it would be most profitable to us all, as a worshipping community, to learn of different "models" of the Cross so that we might better understand each other and see that it is not only unhelpful but actually untenable, to hold one exclusive model at the expense of all others.

We know plenty about what Luther thought of Saint Paul but I would be fascinated to know what Saint Paul would have thought of Luther!