Preaching the Cross, by Tom Wright (5)

You see what’s happened? A certain kind of ‘natural theology’, growing
out of eighteenth-century human arrogance, has hoped to be able to find a
way to God without any need for God to reveal himself to us. But the
gospels, particularly John’s gospel, offer us a different kind of ‘natural
theology’: a story, fully ‘earthed’ in the historical reality of our world, of a
God who comes to meet us, not at the top of a ladder we can construct,
but at the bottom of the heap, the place of broken hopes, broken dreams,
broken signposts. As the hymn puts it, thinking of the foot washing scene
in John 13: ‘We strain to glimpse your mercy seat, and find you kneeling at
our feet’.

So my first point in this first talk can be summed up like this. There are
many aspects of human life, across times and cultures, which really do
seem to point up to God. But history and experience suggest that these
signposts are broken. They remind us, instead, of the chaos and tragedy
of our world. But when we come back to the stories of Jesus going to his
death, we find that Jesus comes precisely to the point where the broken
signposts had ended up. There, in real human history, we find a God doing
what no other God had ever dreamed of doing: coming to the place of
human failure and brokenness to meet us right there. And John’s story
insists that this meeting was the ultimate act of love. Of God’s love. I
learned long ago that wonderful poem by the first world war poet Edward

Shillito, ‘Jesus of the Scars’. Contrasting Jesus with the great pagan gods,
he writes:
The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak;
They rode; but thou didst stumble to a throne.
But to our wounds, only God’s wounds can speak;
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

That points us to the second half of this talk. But before we get there let
me remind you of the well-known illustration of the way in which Jesus’
crucifixion can get through to hard hearts without any theological
explanation or doctrinal substructure. The late cardinal archbishop of
Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, used to tell the story of the three boys who
played a trick on the local priest, by going into the confessional and
‘confessing’ all kinds of wild stories. The first two ran away, and the priest
wasn’t fooled. He gave the third boy – who happened to be Jewish – a
penance to perform. He told him to go to the far end of the church, to look
up at the large crucifix hanging there, and to say to the figure on the cross,
‘You did all that for me – and I don’t give a damn.’ He told him to do it
three times. Off went the boy: this was all still part of the game. ‘You did all
that for me,’ he said, ‘and I don’t give a damn.’ Then he said it the second
time. And then . . . he couldn’t say it the third time. He broke down, and
left the church a changed person. ‘And the reason I know that story,’ the
Archbishop would conclude, ‘is that I was that young man.’

Le cardinal Lustiger en 10 photos - Gala

Preaching the Cross in Dark Times
(c) 2021 N.T. Wright 8

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