Notes for a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona) on Sunday, March 4, 2018.
What do we see when we look at the cross?
I am sure that everyone of us would answer this question in differing personal, theological, and spiritual terms. I am no less sure that we here today share something in how we behold the cross. After all, it has been the principal symbol of our faith since the 4th century. We know about Jesus’ death on the cross. We decorate many of our churches with crosses of all descriptions. Some of us make the sign of the cross. Many people wear crosses on their persons.
The cross is all around us. When a symbol is so all-pervasive, it can become a constant reminder of the reality behind it or … sad to say, it can become wallpaper. We live with it, but it rarely affects us.
When Paul came to Corinth, he did not come carrying a cross, but rather bearing “the message about the cross.” Some people received the message he proclaimed, but many others dismissed it.
Depending upon their background, they heard Paul’s message as a “stumbling block” or simply “foolishness.”
Foolishness? If you expect your God to be a mighty and victorious warrior, immortal and invincible, proclaiming the divinity of a person who died a shameful death is nonsensical. “Real” Gods don’t do that kind of thing!
Stumbling block? If you expect your Messiah to be visibly blessed and honored by God, the assertion that a victim of crucifixion is the Christ is outrageous. More than that, it is scandalous, in the Hebrew sense that it is heard as something that causes a person to sin. (Note that our word “scandal” comes from the Greek for “stumbling block” — skandalon.)
Whichever way people heard it, the actual story of the cross of Christ was clear and immediate to the people of Corinth—a city of the Roman Empire, a regime which kept the peace through violence and intimidation. Rome’s ultimate means of punishment was crucifixion, which was reserved for the worst enemies of the state. In 2018 it is an act about which we must remind ourselves, but in the year 50 in Corinth, it was a common presence in people’s lives. No one needed to be told what it meant.
And today? Can we still be scandalized by the cross? Do we ever see it as mere foolishness? I would suggest that the answer to both questions is “yes,” in the wider world to be sure, but also among folk who are seeking to follow Jesus.
Our Thursday morning study group has just read a book by the late Christopher Lind, entitled “Rumors of a Moral Economy.” Lind wrote of how contemporary society is dominated by a competition-driven economy, which when allowed to function without restraint leads to greater and greater concentration of wealth, and a diminution of the common good.
In pure competition, there are only winners and losers: a system at best indifferent to human needs. In a competition-driven world, proclaiming Christ crucified can easily be heard as exalting a loser.
Lind’s book also pointed to how a moral economy must be rooted in community and a sense of the common good. When community breaks down (as it easily does in a purely competitive situation), people become isolated, and spiritual needs often end up being expressed in questions about what God can do for us. When faith is all about meeting our own needs, nothing less than a totally divine saviour will do, and then we stumble over the idea that Jesus ended his life rejected by all. Some of them will say, “Well, Jesus really was God, so the crucifixion didn’t really matter.” This is an ancient heresy, called “Docetism,” the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human.
Make no mistake: Jesus was as human as you and me. He ate and drank, he slept, he wept, he felt all the things we do. And just as surely, he died as all of us will in our own time.
Jesus gave up his life on the cross to reveal the power and the wisdom of God—already embodied in his own person.
As Paul wrote:
… though he was in the form of God,
(he) 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. (Philippians 2:6-8)
The cross defies any ordinary human explanation. There’s no logical deduction, no “standard wisdom,” no simple text-book answer that leads us to the truth of the message Paul brought to Corinth.
God’s power and glory is revealed here, not in a mighty triumph, but in the death of one who was sinless, who gave up his life as a holy sacrifice on behalf of all of God’s people. It is the ultimate act of self-identification with us: all whom Jesus came to redeem.
So: what do we see when we look at the cross?
Let me rephrase the question: what do we see not when we look AT the cross, but when we look THROUGH it?
It is not so much the cross that should demand our attention, but the reality that lies behind and beyond it: the loving-kindness of the God who loved us into being, who loved us enough to send his Son, and who loves us and all humanity every day of our lives.
Let us then hold the cross before us.
Let us see in and through it how Jesus laid down his life for us, in the ultimate and defining act of love, in words from the 1st letter of John.
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:16)
And Jesus said
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)
The message of the cross is the power of God, and the power of God is love. May this be our proclamation in word and deed, today and always.