Theology of Glory vs Theology of the Cross

Sunday the 9th of April 2017

Matthew 27: 32-56

On October the 31st this year many churches, and of course our church, will be celebrating the beginning of the reformation of the Christian church. It is five hundred years since Martin Luther wrote his now famous ninety-five theses, which was to go on to have a great impact, not only on the church, but society as a whole. Some of the most significant after-effects came from Luther’s ability to see the world through the lens of Jesus, rather than the lens of our humanity. One of his most famous teachings is what he calls the ‘theology of the cross versus the theology of glory’. Now I suspect that some of you may have heard of this; others may not even know what I am talking about, and others may think, what does this mean? So in my sermon today I am going to unpack this in a way that I trust will highlight this very important teaching of Luther.

This morning on what is sometimes known as Passion Sunday, in our Gospel reading we have heard the crucifixion account from Matthew. Jesus’ death on that cross for our sins, and the sins of the world, is something that we know and have heard and that we believe. The crucifixion of Jesus is at the heart of our Christian faith; without the death of Jesus, there is no forgiveness of sins. But this morning I would like to look at this crucifixion account from a different angle.

In Matthew chapter 20 as Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the final time, and he had told his disciples for the third time what was going to happen, that he would suffer and die on the cross, Matthew says this: 20 “Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him.21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

As I read the Gospels I get a sense that the closer it came to going to Jerusalem for the last time, the more the disciples knew that this was going to be the deciding moment for Jesus. And so James’ and John’s mother comes to Jesus and asks for special treatment for her sons. The expectation that Jesus is going to be entering his kingdom is on her mind. But it tells us something else. She knew that Jesus was going to be a king; she knew that he would rule, and she wanted her sons to be in on the action. But what kind of king was she expecting? I suspect that being a typical Jew of that time, she would be expecting Jesus to be an earthly king, who would rule with power; who would rule with justice; who would keep the Jews safe from their enemies; who would bring peace and prosperity to the people so that they did not have to suffer anymore; who would bring relief to those who were poor in that country. This woman was thinking about the benefits that this king would bring to her and her nation and she wanted her children to be a part of it. This is an example of what Luther calls the theology of glory. We want a king to be what we want and expect; we want from a king one who will glorify our expectations and wants and needs.

When we think about Jesus as a king, what kind of king do you and I want Jesus to be? Perhaps we want Jesus to come and fix all of our life problems, to fix the government maybe, to stop the craziness of the world at the moment. Perhaps we want Jesus to be a king of action, a king who will bless us and give us peace and prosperity and safety. Maybe we want Jesus to be a king who demonstrates his power. The problem is that the focus of this way of thinking is on us; thinking about Jesus as the king we want him to be, the king who will do our will.

As Jesus is crucified and is hanging on that cross, there is a sign above his head that reads: “this is jesus, the king of the jews.” And who is next to him, but two sinful criminals, one on his left and the other on his right. This is not insignificant I believe.  Jesus is the true king in that he trusts his Heavenly Father fully, so much so that he was willing to go through and drink the cup of extreme suffering, so that others can be saved. Jesus is the king who dies for the sake of his people, so that they can live.

This is the kind of king that Jesus is. He is a king who is willing to walk in suffering for the sake of others; he is a king who gives up his life for others; he is a king who is willing to die a criminal’s death on a cross, a death that all people deserve, so that we do not have to. This is a king who does what we are not capable of because of our sin. He is a king who trusts his Father’s will and is willing to follow him where he leads; this is what Luther calls the theology of the cross.

Our sinful hearts don’t like this kind of king. It is easier to want a king in our own image, than one who takes the punishment for our corrupt sinful hearts. Jesus is a king who comes to us in our darkest moments in life, when our sins overwhelm us and says, ‘I have taken care of your sins; you are forgiven because of me.’ Jesus is a king who seeks out sinners, the ones who are lost, who have rejected him. He is the king that seeks out us.

The people in the crowd called out to Jesus, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In other words show us your power. It says: 41 “In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”

These people wanted to see a theology of glory moment; they wanted to see Jesus use his power to save himself to prove to them who he was. Even though they had admitted that they had seen him save others. A king without power would not suit their image, so they mock him.

They say, 43 “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” It is here that the greatest irony is seen. The very fact that Jesus was on that cross was precisely because he trusted his Father; it is because of his love for his Father and us that he did not throw himself down off that cross. At that precise moment he was trusting God more that they could ever know or realise. Those around him could not see this. We still find this two thousand years later in the world we live in. How many people accuse God, curse him and mock him. How many people say, ‘I can’t believe in a God that allows suffering;’ or ‘I can’t believe in a God who…. .’ How many people treat our Lord as if he has no relevance to their lives because in their view he is impotent? They want a king of glory, but we know that we have a true king, who is the king who went to death on a cross for us.

Luther says, “If you want to look for God in this world, you will find him on the cross.”

As we come into this Passion Week leading up to Easter, we think about Jesus and who he is and what he has done for you and me. I encourage you all to look at the cross and see. For me this is the high point of our year, because it is here at this time that we see just how far our Triune God would go, out of his love for us, to save us from death and hell because of our sins. It is here that we see the true heart of our God, that his son Jesus does not come in our own image, but comes to us to suffer and give his life for our sins to set us free to have life, not only here but also life eternal.