A Theology of Glory’s Crux

Mark 8:31-38

Some glad mornin’, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away. . . .

We Christians like a theology of glory.  We enjoy this song.  We know how it’s all going to end—in Christ’s triumphant return; in a land of fadeless day; in a place where there are no more tears.  We like a theology of glory: of new life in Christ; of crossing the River Jordan; of passing through the Pearly Gates; of flying away; of resurrection!

And so we try to bring this theology to our earthly lives.  What would it look like, we ask, if all our outreach attempts as a church truly shone the bright light of the kingdom of God?  What would our own church body look like if only we could reflect even some the light of Christ’s kingdom more vividly?  What if we could only make a theology of glory come alive in this earthly kingdom now, where we live today?  How can we make the coming kingdom less future and more present?

A theology of glory is a good preoccupation.  For such a mindset leads to an answer like Peter’s.  When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Peter liked a theology of glory.  We like a theology of glory.

But things can get sticky when this theology becomes our main—our only—focus.

Which it has.

We modern-day American Christians crave a theology of glory.  So we’ve fashioned church into our own brand, a type of Christendom that in the end only we recognize.

Here’s how it happens.  We look around us to see what’s attractive, what programs seem to generate the most numbers, what kinds of messages seekers want to hear.  Then we compare: we ask questions about our own programs, the felt needs of the culture around us, our demographics.  We want our church to look just like that attractive, glitzy one in the Midwest that’s getting all the press lately!  That’s the kingdom of heaven come to earth!  Surely!

We understand and like a theology of glory.  And so that’s what we want: glory.

But is this the main purpose of church?

Poses a sticky question, eh?

But never mind.  We like our theology of glory.  We preoccupy ourselves with it.  And so we will continue to focus on it.

What we don’t like to talk about so much is a theology of the cross.

A theology of glory pictures a happy Christendom in the here and now.  The purpose is glory, the coming kingdom, heaven.  So a theology of glory focuses on how to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth now.  No more sorrow, no more tears, a land of fadeless day, a city foursquare—all now!

But, on the contrary, it’s a theology of the cross, not a theology of glory, that has now as its focus.

The Word became flesh and dwells—now—among us.  Jesus suffered and died on the cross in our stead; he’s with us now in all of life’s messiness.  A theology of the cross pictures the church not as a happy land of Christendom but as it is in its present, earthy, gritty, messy state.

Christendomland—that place we’ve invented to compete with that other happiest place on earth—is not the same thing as church!

A theology of glory is confident, certain, sure of itself, right.  It tells you things like, “If you struggle with questions about whether God is real, why you can’t ever seem to make ends meet, or why your kids don’t respect you, then, well, you don’t have enough faith.”

But this thinking tends to confuse faith with something else.  Confidence is not the same thing as faith.  Confidence seeks glory; true faith seeks the cross.

A theology of glory is optimistic.  “All things work together for good,” optimism says; “so just buck up and make the most of your struggles.  You’ve got cancer?  Well, God means it for good.”

But a theology of the cross tells us, “Yes, you’re experiencing tremendous pain right now.  Your very Lord Jesus Christ is right at your side, enduring your pain with you and helping you through.”  A theology of the cross doesn’t value some sort of pretentious optimism.  A theology of the cross genuinely hopes.

A theology of glory tends to look for escape.  I’ll fly away. . . .  But is escape the answer?  When pain comes our way, is escape from it the best way to deal with it?  Our culture seeks deliverance from pain at all costs.  But deliverance from pain is not the same thing as love.

Faith, hope, and love are properly understood only when our theology of glory is tempered by a theology of the cross.

The church is properly understood only when we read it with our bifocals on, through both lenses of glory and the cross, at the same time.

But we don’t like to.  We like a theology of glory.  But we don’t like a theology of the cross so much.  It makes us uncomfortable.

Now, isn’t this the same mistake Peter makes? Doesn’t Peter focus too much on a theology of glory and too little on a theology of the cross?

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples.

“Some say Elijah,” they reply; “and others, John the Baptist raised from the dead.”

“Fine.  But who do you say that I am?”

“You are the Messiah,” Peter blurts out.

And not in Mark but in Matthew we hear that Jesus responds, “Yes, Peter, and on this rock I shall build my church.”

Peter is caught up here in his quick answer with a theology of glory.  Peter is so quick to call Jesus Messiah, Son of God, deliverer of God’s people.  Peter is resolute and immediate in his connection with Jesus to glory.

Many of us are too.  And that’s a great thing!

But what about a theology of the cross?

What if the Son of Man must suffer and undergo many trials and tribulations at the hands of ruthless people?  What if Jesus ends up having to face that horrendous Roman invention of a slow and tortuous death, the cross?  Oh, and what if—just a possibility here—what if Jesus’s disciples must face suffering and hardship too, just like he did, on his behalf?

What do you think of that, Peter?

Well, we know what he thinks.  “May it never be!” he replies.

But we also know Jesus’s response to Peter, from today’s passage: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Peter didn’t like a theology of the cross so much.

We don’t like a theology of the cross so much.

But, obviously, Jesus doesn’t like it so much when we neglect a theology of the cross.

To understand God properly—to grow best as a disciple of Christ—we must understand glory in light of the cross.

So: remember the cross during Lent.

Remember that Jesus, the Son of Man, had to undergo great suffering; that he was rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes; that he was killed; and that after three days he rose again.

Remember that you, as his disciples, must take up your own cross and follow him; that you must lose your own life in order to gain his; and that you must strive never to be ashamed of Christ.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

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