June 30, 2010
Maple syrup has no business running off my pancakes into the sausage links. Sweet and spicy don’t belong together. It’s a violation of the natural order of things.
This was my settled culinary worldview until something unexpected happened on a visit to Mexico City. At the mercado, my family ordered a heaping cup of sweet, succulent mango. But because we had crossed the border, the mango slices came with a liberal dusting of chili powder. Mango with chili sounded like an unnatural combination. But after we tried it, we couldn’t get enough of it. The union of spicy and sweet created something new and beautiful: a bold, vibrant flavor standing out from the drab palette of tastes we were accustomed to.
We’re used to Paul speaking of the cross as the center of his theology: “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ….” The cross has become conventional for us, our theological “meat and potatoes.” But what we may not be used to is the bold and vibrant way that Paul speaks of the cross intersecting with realities we would normally keep separate.
Paul applies crucifixion language to himself almost as often as he uses it of Christ: “…by which the world has been crucified to me, and I have been crucified to the world.” In Paul’s way of looking at the world, we not only look back in time at Christ’s death to find our identity; somehow we also share in Christ’s death in the present. Paul said earlier, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (2:19-20).
And if this were not enough, Paul also speaks about the crucifixion of the world. In the death of Christ, the old world itself has died, along with its old ways of death and bondage.
Craig Koester says, “Three deaths have occurred: Christ died, the world died, Paul died.” All of the old antagonisms and their bitterness stored up for generations: dead. All of the old ways of measuring ourselves and one another: dead. All of the fleshly definitions of who is in and who is out: dead.
But if the cross represents three deaths, it also heralds a new beginning. Christ died, Paul died, the world died. But God raised Christ, and He will bring that triumphant reversal to fulfillment in every other sphere. Because Christ is risen, we, together with creation, will be raised to new life. Paul’s gospel heralds nothing less than a total overturning until all things are made new. “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” In the new creation, Christ and his people will be united as groom married to his bride. Christ’s people are not merely Israel of the flesh, the Hebrew people, but they will be “his peoples” (Revelation 21:3), a vast community reconciled in the cross across all fleshly divisions and raised to resurrection life in Christ.
Three deaths have occurred. But in the end, Christ, his people, and a new creation will be married, sharing resurrection life, together in perfect communion.
So earth-shattering, so cataclysmic is the event of the cross that Paul understands that Christ has taken us over the border into a new land in which unimaginable things are possible and bold, new flavors are to be tasted. In this new land, all the reference points we have lived by have been torn down. The old boundary of circumcised and uncircumcised has been obliterated. Paul’s storehouse of spiritual accolades (like ours) is so much barnyard manure. There is no more living off the past because the past is rotting and the life of the future is erupting if we have eyes to see it.
Because of this, those things that didn’t seem to go together in the old regime are now brought together. Suffering and joy can flow together. Weakness is no longer to be avoided; it is the only thing Paul longs to boast of.
For us, life in the new state of affairs may appear highly abstract because we hear Paul say, “I was crucified with Christ.” Christ died, I died, end of story. But what he actually says is “I have been crucified with Christ.” The cataclysmic event begun at Golgotha isn’t over. It is being carried out in an ongoing way in and through Paul and now us. In some sense, he is saying, “I am crucified with Christ”. When Paul says, “The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world,” it means that Paul daily reaffirms severing his allegiance to all powers apart from Christ. Everyday he regards their threats and promises as having no potency. Being crucified with Christ and to the world is an ongoing life-style. Paul’s suffering is his ongoing participation in the reality of cross and new creation.
On this Independence Day, we who have been crucified with Christ would do well to allow Paul’s bold way of speaking of the cross to shatter our definitions of who is in and who is out, who belongs to our community and who doesn’t. Identities based on law and immigration status have expired because Christ has taken us over the border.