Macho Jesus, Lent, and Youth Ministry

“…when we attempt to think of God as the one who communicates and expresses himself in the person Jesus, then we must always remember that this man was crucified…” -Eberhard Jüngel

The Good News of Suffering

If there is one ministry in our churches that is associated with fun and happiness, it’s youth ministry. This is no bad thing. After all, the gospel of Jesus is “good news!” Joy and happiness should be at the heart of youth ministry.

Macho Jesus

But the season of Lent is a good time for youth workers to remember that, even to the God of joy, suffering is no scandal in ministry. During Lent, youth workers should focus not only on their fantastic spring retreats (ours was last week—it was awesome!) but also on the theology of the cross.

The theology of the cross makes the bold claim that Jesus on the cross is the deepest and fullest expression of who God is. God isn’t any less God when God is in the dying Jesus. It is there that God is revealed to us, most fully, as the God of promise and resurrection. The cross is a lens for all other theological reflection, not just a pesky event that happened before Easter Sunday.

The Glory of the Cross

The theology of the cross is a contrast to the so-called “theology of glory,” as Luther called it, which “prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil” (Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 21). The theology of the cross sees God “hidden” in suffering, in self-sacrificing love, rather than expecting God to show up in glory or in our ambitious actions.

This does not negate God’s power, glory, and might—but it does mean to redefine them. The suffering of Jesus on the cross redefines glory. As the theologian Eberhard Jüngel has put it, “God’s mightiness is understood as the power of his love. Only love is almighty” (God as Mystery of the World, 22).

The theology of glory misses all the irony of this redefinition. And thus, the theology of glory has been wielded throughout history to perpetuate authoritarian power and to justify the use of coercion by those who have power. The theology of the cross is a theology of resistance, a theology which opposes such expressions of power and calls instead for the power of love. Even such a statement as “the power of love” sounds absurd and silly to those who are convinced by the theology of glory. But why else did Paul say, “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18)?

The theology of the cross is a theology of resistance, a theology which opposes such expressions of power and calls instead for the power of love.

Macho Jesus!

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look very far to see the theology of glory at work in our culture and in our churches. We can look to the various appeals of Christian politicians to justify war. We can look to the apocalyptic anticipations of some who seem to think Jesus was just kidding when he came the first time—when he comes THIS time, he means business. We can also look to what I like to call the “macho Jesus” phenomenon.

“Macho Jesus” is a reaction to some popular historical images of Jesus as a gentle shepherd, an introspective sage, and a poet. The macho Jesus contends that Jesus was tough. Real tough. Emphasizing Jesus’ anger, especially the passage in which Jesus drives out the money changers in the temple (again, they seem to have missed the irony), proponents of the macho Jesus argue that Jesus was manly, proactive, and even aggressive in his mission to save the world.

Saving Jesus from Himself

Concerned that the “traditional” notion of masculinity and the male “gender role” is fading in our culture, macho Jesus proponents present Jesus as a man’s man. He’s presented as triumphant …and usually with big muscles. There’s even one image I’ve seen where Jesus is on the cross, breaking its crossbeam with his huge biceps.

This Jesus can’t be the same guy who prayed, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Jesus’ association with those who aren’t tough enough to go on—with those who have lost the strength to muster a defense—is utterly lost in the macho Jesus phenomenon.

In youth ministry and in the church at large, the danger we face every Lent is that we’ll skip Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday—or, even worse, that we’ll divorce the resurrected Jesus from the crucified Jesus. After all, “the one who was raised from the dead is the Crucified One…” (God as Mystery of the World, 218). Jesus is actually the crucified Jesus, even in his resurrection, and only as such is he the God of glory and power. So we can look with hope not only in our moments of strength but even (especially!) in our moments of weakness. This is good news!

Jesus is actually the crucified Jesus, even in his resurrection, and only as such is he the God of glory and power.

As we arrive at Holy Week, let us remember what Jesus told the apostle Paul: “…my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). This is good news not only for us as individuals, but also for our youth ministries! How can you integrate the crucified Jesus into your ministry this week?

Recommended reading:

The Promise of Despair, by Andrew Root

The Cross in Our Context, by Douglas John Hall

About the Author: Wes Ellis

Wes Ellis is the Associate Pastor of First United Methodist Church of Toms River in New Jersey. He earned an M.Div. and an M.A. in Christian Education from Princeton Theological Seminary. He’s a husband, a father, and a youth worker.