Paul makes an extraordinary statement in his closing remarks to the Galatians: "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." (Galatians 6:14, NIV) Never boast except in this ONE thing? The world (absolutely everything) has been crucified (killed) to me and I have been crucified (killed) to the world? Jesus has replaced absolutely everything? ONE has become ALL? Astonishing.
The personal nature of Paul's claim is striking. "I ... me ... I." Disclaiming everything in order to claim Jesus is not merely a helpful, general theology for the church-at-large. This is Paul's own confession. This is personal. Jesus is not merely the savior of the world, he is also the lover of each and every one. This experiential reality is critical if we are to live Paul's theology in the letter to the Galatians. There is knowing, and then there is knowing. It's one thing to understand the message; it's quite another to massage the message into a human life. The Advent storyline includes this important reminder.
The biblical Christmas plot offers a stern, even unwelcome warning to religious people. The geographic narrative tells a sobering tale. The Lord Jesus is safe in unexpected places. First, "the east." The magi are likely from the land of Babylon, modern-day Iraq. This is the territory of one of the two great evil powers of the Old Testament era. The kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar: violent, profane, arrogant, anti-God, and antiChrist. But Jesus is protected by "the east." Next we find Jesus shuttled off to the west, to the other great evil power from Israel's history: Egypt. Pharaoh's ruthless dictatorship, the great politician-god who enslaves the people of Joseph. Yet here, in Egypt, God finds protection for his Son. What a message to Muslims: Jesus was cradled in lands that you now occupy. God entrusted your people with His beloved Christ. Finally, it is time for Jesus to head back to Israel. But he cannot go "down south." He is not safe in Judea, in Jerusalem. Instead, he must go "up north," to Galilee, to Nazareth. His city of refuge is the town Nathaniel mused has nothing good about it, absolutely nothing! Jesus goes where the backsliders reside. Jesus is cradled by the morally suspect.
The east, Egypt, and Galilee--why? Because Jesus is not safe where religion is thickest. Jesus is not safe in the city of God, in Jerusalem, where messianic interest is most intense. Jesus is not "okay" where the law if most revered. Jesus is not welcome where worship is taken the most seriously. Jesus is not protected where the Sabbath is most hallowed. Jesus is threatened where people feel most chosen.
What a warning.
The question is why. Why is Jesus unsafe with religious people--even Adventist people, who are looking for the coming of the Messiah?
When we first encounter the Apostle Paul (Saul) he is thick in theology. He is a world-class theologian and biblical scholar. He is the pharisee of pharisees. Paul knows more about the Holy Scriptures than anyone. He is holy, righteous, and zealous for the beloved law of God. But all of this biblical know-how means nothing. In fact, it means some pretty horrible activity on Paul's part. He is murdering God's movement. What changes Paul? What turns him around? He encounters Christ. He falls in love with Jesus.
When we first meet Paul he is on a missionary journey. Now, we have many of Paul's missionary journeys described by maps in the back of our Bibles. But Paul was into missions and mission trips long before the events recorded by those maps. He was always going to be "on mission." But all the mission in the world meant nothing good for Paul. In fact, the trips he was taking were terrifying. Mission doesn't change Paul. What does? Encountering Christ. Falling in love with Jesus.
When we first meet Paul he is thick with religion. Everybody knows Paul in Jerusalem. If anyone is given a key to the city, it must be Paul. Paul is a commandment keeper. Paul is a cheerleader for the temple, for religious leaders, for the whole enterprise of his peculiar people. But Paul has nothing. Much religion with little effect. What transforms him? Everything changes for Paul when he is confronted by Christ, when he falls in love with Jesus.
Amid his first-rate theological missives (including the letter to Galatians) we discover Paul writing like a teenager like a who fell in love over the weekend. "Oh, for me, life itself is Jesus. Oh, I would just die for my Jesus. I would give everything up in the whole world for my Jesus. I count everything in the whole world as nothing but garbage except for knowing my Jesus. Nothing can separate me from the love of Jesus--not you, not you, not this, not that. Nothing."
Paul, in Acts 21, is bound for Jerusalem, that city unsafe for Jesus and those carrying the name of Jesus. The apostle is confronted by the prophet Agabus, who prophecies that Paul will be bound, tortured, and killed if he goes to Jerusalem. Paul's friends plead with him not to go to the city. His reply? Do you remember it? Why are you breaking my heart? Don't you know that I am prepared not only to be bound but to die for the sake of my Jesus.
Why does Paul go to Jerusalem? Why is he willing to give it all for Jesus? Yes, he affirms the ethical teachings of Jesus. Yes, he agrees with the priorities of Jesus. Yes, he believes in the validity of the Old Testament, as Jesus does. Yes, Paul is a fan of church gatherings, tithe-paying, and healthy living. But these convictions about certainpropositions do not compel Paul. No. He is willing to give his life because of a personal, passionate love for Jesus, his Jesus.
Paul boasts only in the cross of Jesus Christ first and last because the cross is where the love of God is most powerfully revealed. In the beginning Paul hated that cross and the ONE who hung on that cross. But on a road to nowhere, Paul discovers he is somebody. He is a man deeply loved by Jesus. And in the subsequent darkness Paul discovers the crystalizing light of Christ's love. And he just can't stop preaching Jesus--resolving to do nothing but. Paul is the Christian Church's greatest theologian principally because he enjoyed a rich, personal relationship with Jesus. The rich brushstrokes of Pauline theology always appear on a Christ-canvas, are applied by the brush of Christ's Spirit, and are fashioned in the inspired mind and heart of Paul, who is madly in love with Jesus the Christ. Great theology begins and ends with an enduring affection for Jesus on the part of the theologian. This was true then, and now.
When we're "on our game" it's all about Jesus. Seventh-day Adventist Christians, at our best, stay on topic: Jesus. This has been true since the very beginning. Ellen White's personal reflections of her young, teenage years (in the early 1840s) include a season of great darkness. She is unsure about life and God. During this period of time fifteen-year-old Ellen White has a dream, marked by a mysterious guide, a staircase, and a door. At the top of the twisting set of stairs she encounters Jesus. After a brief exchange with Jesus she spirals downward, returning to her original place at the bottom of the steps. Near the end of the dream the guide gives her a green cord. He tells her to keep the green cord coiled up near her heart, and whenever she needs Jesus, to uncoil the green cord, and think of Jesus. He reminds her not to let the green cord remain coiled for any long period of time. Open it often, he urges. Think of Jesus with great frequency. The dream ends with a buoyant Ellen White, determined to share Jesus (to boast about Jesus?!) to anyone in her path. What a story! The church's prophet is marked early with this steadfast commitment: to keep Jesus ever-present, to forever present Jesus to the Advent movement as the ONE to be kept. Jesus, the "desire of the ages," including the Year of our Lord 2012, soon to begin.
May we never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Alex Bryan, D.Min.
Alex Bryan is senior pastor of Walla Walla University Church and the author of the forthcoming The Green Cord Dream: Pursuing Ellen White's Vision of Jesus and His Church.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3676