Being raised in a nominally Jewish household in the Midwest, I always considered Christians as “normal” and us Jews as the special ones. In fact, with a Jewish mother and Christian father, I considered myself “half Jewish, half plain,” as if being Christian was the boring default of the rest of the world. It wasn’t until college, through friends and randomly encountering Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky, that I came to consider Christianity as, if it is anything at all, not normal.
There is an offense inherent to this religion that goes back to the earliest Christians, who referred to Jesus as a “stumbling block” and “rock of offense.” The apostle Paul’s own description of the gospel, or good news about Jesus, is “foolishness to the Greeks.”
These descriptions of offense may not be at all surprising to us at Yale, since our social and cultural values are often on the opposite side of the culture wars from the loudest and most popular American Christians. Part of my frustration with the social conversation around religion is not that people get offended, but that we take offense at the wrong thing. Christians, myself included, often act judgmental and self-righteous. That’s not just a character flaw, it’s a self-defeating posture. Having the privilege of being a Christian pastor now for over a decade, I have come to deeply appreciate that the offense that Jesus provides is not primarily a social one to “those people” outside the church, in light of whatever is perceived to be the Christian stance on sexuality, marriage or legal rights; Rather, it applies equally to all people and is precisely what this weekend of Good Friday and Easter is meant to celebrate.
The offense is that God in human form came, as the Gospel of John describes, “to his own and his own people did not receive him.” His own people — that is, the best of the world and his chosen covenant people — rejected him. We are all meant to see ourselves in those who condemned Jesus, so that we see that when Love itself walked among us, we rejected it! We killed the author of life! The very embodiment of truth and goodness and beauty was treated as a treasonous impostor and enemy of the state.
I believe we are called to see ourselves in that condemnation — on both sides. We are the ones putting Jesus on the cross, and we are the ones deserving to be on the cross in Jesus’ place. This scandal-turned-salvation then, and only then, can become the life-transforming, world-revolutionizing movement that it became in the decades after Christ.
The heart of Christianity proclaims, yes, there is a judgment, and it is upon the best among us. Christians may be known for being angry, the irony is that we should be known for being angrier at our own sin more than anyone else’s. Combining realism — the obvious fact of sin — with the idealism of God’s redemptive grace could make us more merciful than the most optimistic anarchist, all because of the cross of Christ.
Put another way, we may accomplish the pinnacle of human achievement and joy, which is surely on offer at a place like Yale, and still fall woefully short of the glory of God and the purpose of humanity. If we realize that our only hope and comfort is not that I must climb my way up to God, but rather that God climbed down to me, only to face utter humiliation and disgrace — and in that moment to still love me — then we can experience true freedom and joy and peace.
This weekend, we are all invited to look past the distractions, and consider the one who “trampled down death by death.” The offensive response is to think we can do that trampling ourselves.
CRAIG LUEKENS DIV ’08 is the Interim Lead Pastor & University Pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church, and has previously served as coordinator of Athletes in Action at Yale and as the chaplain of the Yale Football team. He can be reached at email@example.com.