I picked up a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories at Black River Books in South Haven the other day. I’m also digging back into Galatians, so I read with interest Lou Martyn’s essay, “From Paul to Flannery O’Connor with the Power of Grace.”
He compellingly captures Paul’s apocalyptic vision and the subversive power of the cross. A snippet:
The crucifixion of God’s Christ – the horrifying nailing of Jesus to splintery pieces of wood – seen as God’s invading apocalypse speaks in an utterly different way to the question of power. We say to Paul, ‘Look! From Harlem to the ancient valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates, the oppressed are crying out for change, for liberation, for transformation, and we must find the power by which genuine change, liberation, and transformation can be brought about!’ Paul responds: ‘The people are indeed crying out. I myself cry out. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?’ (2 Cor 11:29) ‘But look,’ Paul continues, ‘God is neither indifferent nor powerless. There is a word, one Word, which has the new power genuinely to change, liberate, transform, and that is the word of the cross.”
A strange Word with a stranger power that looks like weakness. It is not a word addressed to the will of the individual, exhorting that individual to do this or that. Neither is it a contingent word, laying down conditions that humans must meet if there is to be a movement toward human betterment. The word that is God’s power is the indicative word of the cross as the apocalypse of God’s genuine love and powerful grace.
But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8)
. . . while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son. (Rom 5:10)
At this point we are confronted with the mystery of God’s strange way of making right what is wrong. For the crucifixion of Christ proves to be the centerpiece in God’s war in our behalf, the event of his powerful invading grace, in no way contingent on the fulfilling of a single presupposition from our side. On the apocalyptic battlefield Christ’s death is the deed enacted in behalf of those who are enslaved under the power of Sin, and that means in behalf of all of us. Paul can even say, therefore, that in Christ’s death God is the one who rectifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5). Here is the power of God’s grace: that Christ did not die for the righteous, for the morally acceptable, for the noble of heart who are never anxious. Indeed Paul even sees in the crucifixion that Christ did not die for those who believe. Neither Christian faith nor faith of any sort is a presupposition to God’s invading apocalypse of love in the crucifixion of the Messiah. On the contrary, the crucifixion is God’s revelation of that gift of grace that, not assuming or presupposing faith, calls faith into existence. . .
See that in the literal crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth God invades without a single if. Not if you repent. Not if you learn. Not even if you believe. The absence of the little word if, the uncontingent, prevenient, invading nature of God’s grace shows God to be the powerful and victorious Advocate who is intent on the liberation of the entire race of human beings. This is the victorious power that . . . Paul saw in the cross, the event in which the name Immanuel was enacted: ‘God with us’ (Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, pp. 288-89).