Michael Servetus (1511-1553)
Hidden in the annals of Christian history are stories we’d rather not tell.
The Church of Christ has not always done well at emulating the life and love of its Lord and Savior. As a matter of fact, we’ve been downright evil for much of the time. One need only mention the Crusades or the Salem Witch Trials to get an idea of what I’m talking about. One such example comes from the very roots of our own Presbyterian tradition:
Back in the 1500s, when John Calvin was preaching in the Swiss city of Geneva, a guy named Michael Servetus blew into town. He was on the run from the Catholic Church after being arrested for heresy and then breaking out of prison. Servetus was a Unitarian, meaning that he did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity: the belief in one God, consisting of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The fugitive Servetus made a bad choice in putting Geneva on his travel itinerary. John Calvin, whose opinions had a powerful influence on city politics, had no more love for Servetus than the Catholic authorities had. Calvin himself had previously written to a friend, “If [Servetus] comes here… I will never permit him to depart alive.” And Calvin made good on his threat. As soon as someone recognized Servetus attending worship at Calvin’s church, he was arrested, tried, and burned at the stake for heresy. Michael Servetus’ last recorded words were, “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me.”
This is part of the dark side of Presbyterian history. John Calvin is still remembered as the founder of the Reformed Tradition, of which the Presbyterian Church is a part. In 1903, Calvin’s spiritual heirs in the city of Geneva erected a monument to the memory of Michael Servetus on the spot where he was burned. The inscription on that monument condemns Calvin’s error and acknowledges that the true spirit of the Reformation can only exist where liberty of conscience is allowed to flourish.
It’s too little, too late for Servetus, but the gesture acknowledges that we’ve at least made a little progress in half a millennium.
In so many of these cases of heresy trials and stake burnings, there is an oft-repeated label that has been misappropriated from the New Testament and applied to the opponents of established orthodoxy. That label is: “Enemies of the cross of Christ”.
You might have noticed that very phrase appearing in this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul wrote, “[M]any live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”
And just who are these “enemies”? Paul is not clear on that. At various points in church history, this term has been applied to Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Unitarians, and basically anyone else who’s theological views differ from the person applying the label at the time. “Enemies of the cross of Christ” is a derogatory epithet used to identify others as “outsiders” and “heretics”. Most of the time, it has been applied to emphasize doctrinal differences between religious groups.
I believe that such use of this phrase does violence to its original meaning in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. You see, in that letter, Paul never suggests that one’s religious affiliation or theological orientation are determinant of one’s status as an enemy of the cross of Christ. For Paul, the truth goes much deeper than that: so deep, I would say, that the essence of this message can be found in the spiritual teachings of every mystic and every sage in every culture, every place, and every period of history. Paul’s message of the cross is the story of people graduating from their small, self-centered lives to the larger, reality-centered Life. Some have called it conversion, some salvation, some liberation, and some enlightenment. For Paul, as for most Christians, the central symbol for this process of transformation is the cross of Christ.
The cross is the single most recognizable Christian symbol in the world. Historically speaking, it was of course the instrument of torture and execution on which Jesus was killed. Symbolically speaking, Christians have attached multiple levels of meaning to its significance. Starting about a thousand years ago, a full millennium after Jesus was born, a British writer named Anselm of Canterbury came up with the idea that theologians now call “substitutionary atonement”. You might not have heard that phrase before, but you probably have heard some preacher on the radio or television saying, “Jesus died for your sins.” Substitutionary atonement is currently the most commonly known and accepted interpretation of the significance of the Jesus’ crucifixion, but the idea is only about half as old as Christianity itself.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul presents an entirely different understanding of the cross. For Paul, the crucifixion event cannot be understood apart from the story of Christ’s resurrection. According to Paul, these two events form a unified whole. Neither one makes any sense without the other.
The crucifixion and resurrection, taken together, form the central image of the Christian spiritual journey. In the process of transitioning from a self-centered to a reality-centered life, every Christian must undergo a kind of death and resurrection. As Paul himself wrote elsewhere, in his letter to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Earlier in his letter to the Philippians, he writes in a similar vein:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
In this early Christian hymn, Paul lays out the path of self-emptying, the path of the cross, which leads to resurrection and exaltation by God. And this, he says, is not only the journey of Jesus himself, but also of every Christian who claims to bear his name. Paul begins his hymn with the exhortation: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”.
A Christian then, in Paul’s eyes, is one who walks the path of the cross, who dies to the old, self-centered life and rises to the new, reality-centered Life. One could say that a Christian is a “friend of the cross of Christ”.
By contrast, those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ” are those who refuse to walk this path of metaphorical crucifixion and resurrection. The Buddha might call them “unenlightened”. Muhammad might call them “infidels”. Harry Potter would probably call them “muggles”.
What can we learn about these “enemies of the cross of Christ”? Well, since this status has more to do with one’s way of life than with one’s religious affiliation, I think we can say that they might belong to any tradition or no tradition at all. We’re just as likely to find them in pews as in bars.
Here’s what Paul has to say about them: “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly”. This is an interesting way of putting it. When Paul says, “their god is the belly” he obviously doesn’t mean their physical abdomens. The belly is where one’s food goes after it is consumed. The belly, in this sense, is the seat of desire. The people who refuse to let go of their small, self-centered lives are worshiping their own desires and addictions. What they want/need is most important to them.
For them, the primary concern is “my food, my money, my country, my church.” Everything is all about I, me, my. There is no big picture or larger context in which they see their lives. That which benefits them is universally good. That which hinders them is universally bad. In every story, these folks never fail to cast themselves as either the heroes or the victims. They’re always on the side of right. They have all the answers. Anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic who deserves to be burned at the stake. This is what self-centered worship looks like. These folks are what Paul refers to as “enemies of the cross of Christ.” There is no self-sacrifice for them. There is no denial of desire for the greater good. There is no responsibility beyond one’s responsibility to one’s own self. Self-centered existence.
What is the end result of this way of life? Paul says it quite clearly: “Their end is destruction”. This self-centered way of thinking and living can only lead to pain and death. This is not some mysterious, mystical idea. Think about it: what kind of world would this be if neighbors never went out of their way to help each other? What if friends and family never forgave each other? What if no one answered the call of charity or the obligation of justice for those who suffer? I don’t know about you, but that’s not a world I would want to live in. That selfish mentality can only lead to destruction, as Paul warns us.
The way of the cross is the way of sacrifice. Jesus could have called upon his mass of followers to rise up and fight if he so desired. Instead, he chose to walk the path of nonviolence. He chose to suffer pain, rather than cause it. He chose to die, rather than kill to protect what was rightfully his. In so doing, Jesus set himself apart from every other revolutionary movement leader of his time. His selfless sacrifice did not go unnoticed or unremembered. He left his followers with a symbol and an image that would change the way they look at the world.
Christ’s willing submission to crucifixion, according to Paul, is the basis for his sovereignty over all creation. For his followers, it is the model we follow for living our lives in the world. The end-result of crucifixion is not death, but resurrection. “Humiliation”, according to Paul, is transformed into “glory”. Followers of the way of Christ must befriend the cross because it is the only way into the “abundant life” that Jesus intended for us to have.
Paul’s warning about the “enemies of the cross of Christ” is not a wholesale condemnation of those who hold different theological views from Paul’s, or John Calvin’s, or mine. Paul’s warning applies to all of us, no matter what religion we espouse. With tears, Paul is pleading with us to realize that our little lives, ruled by our own selfish desires and preferences, lead only to destruction.
The flip side of Paul’s warning is that those who befriend the cross, who walk the path of self-sacrifice for the greater good, like Jesus did, are sure to receive resurrection, salvation, and enlightenment. These are the true saints, the blessed ones who discover the meaning of life. These are the real Christians: the friends of the cross of Christ.
May it be so for you, for me, and for all who seek the greater good, the life abundant, in the name (or the spirit) of Jesus Christ.