Lenten blog | March 9, 2023
"The Crucified God"
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 9th: Exodus 16:1-8; Psalm 95; and Colossians 1:15-23. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Here is more theological history than you need, but it is important to help us better understand the passage from Colossians. In Christian theology, there is an historical heresy termed patripassianism, which is derived from the two Latin words for father and suffering. This is part of the early Christian thinking about Jesus that called into question the distinctiveness of the persons of the Trinity, something called modalism.
Early Christian theology was born of Greek philosophy, and the Greeks equated perfection with unchanging. If anything was perfect, it could not change by improving because then it would not have been perfect before, and it could not change by being degraded because obviously then it would no longer be perfect. Perfect is, therefore, according to Greek philosophy, a constant, unchanging, unchangeable state. When early Christian apologists adopted Greek philosophy to explain their faith to the non-believers within the Roman Empire, they wanted to maintain the Greek philosophy of the perfect when talking about God.
Well, this philosophy creates difficulties in trying to explain Jesus because Jesus changes. Jesus is born, matures, suffers, dies and resurrects. This is undeniable. What Christians believed about this same Jesus is that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” The fullness of God dwells within Jesus. It would take another three centuries, but these biblical indications led to the theology of the Trinity, of the three distinct and equal Persons in the one Godhead.
This is where patripassianism arose. The fullness of God is in Jesus at the cross. Reconciliation is tied to “the blood of [Jesus’] cross.” Does God, therefore, suffer? Greek philosophy said no and this was the lattice upon which early Christian theology was built. God’s suffering would call into question God’s unchangeable nature, would challenge God’s perfection.
But the unchangeableness of God presented the illusion of an unconcerned God. At least in today’s Exodus passage, Moses and Aaron remind the complaining people in the wilderness that their attacks are not against them, but that they are directed at God. God is angered by this and then responds. God changes. This happens regularly in the Old Testament and it is explicit in the Book of Jonah as we talked about previously where it comes right out and says, “God changed his mind.” (3:10)
The Jewish theology of God is much more personal than the Greek theology of God’s perfection. This humanness is presented in wonderful style in Harold Bloom’s “The Book of J,” which relishes the humanness of God in the parts of the Books of Moses written by an author known as J, from Jehovah, or rendered more accurately as Yahweh. We meet up with this J in the story of God’s encounter with Adam and Eve as God strolls leisurely through Paradise after they have eaten the forbidden fruit. A surprised God enters into the conversation with them by asking three questions: Where are you?; Who told you that you were naked?; and What is this that you have done? Jewish theology relishes the relatability of God, even a God who asks questions, rather than God’s unchangeability.
“Paul” in Colossians is writing for a non-Jewish audience, but he comes from a Jewish tradition. I don’t think we need to erase the meaningful engagement of God from the suffering of Christ, and I think this is what Paul says when he teaches that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus even to the moment when Jesus makes peace “through the blood of his cross.” The renowned Christian theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote the book “The Crucified God.” The title is provocative, and it says the same thing as does “Paul” in Colossians: the fullness of God is there at the cross. Moltmann argues that if God chooses to suffer, then God remains in control as God experiences the real suffering of Jesus who carries the fullness of God in his person. Moltmann allows for a way to think of God as perfect, but not indifferent.
What does it mean to believe in, trust, be devoted to, challenged by a “crucified God”? What sort of love does a crucified God reveal? What does it expect in return? These are questions for Lent and I hope they bring us closer to Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2)
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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