Having called out the Corinthians in last week’s text for the fact that they have fallen into the trap of splitting up into groups and following different leaders and bickering over who has it right and who has it wrong, Paul now takes a very interesting approach to explaining why the various groups are irrelevant.
It is important to note at the very beginning that Paul does not take sides or even try to point out the good and bad qualities of the various groups. He is going to make a theological affirmation which simply takes all the rest of that stuff off the table as unimportant.
What Paul does it to lift high the cross and demand that the Corinthians focus on it. When you do that, the power struggles and squabbles and arguments over issues and practices just become side shows, white noise off to the periphery. Today we are going to look at what the cross reveals. It is an urgent question for today. When you arrive at this building, a cross stands at the top. When you worship in this sanctuary, a cross draws all eyes in the center position. What is that all about?
So let’s join Paul and lift high the cross today. The first thing we need to be reminded of is that the cross was an instrument of capital punishment in the Roman Empire, reserved for the worst criminals that they wanted to make a public example out of. Crucifixion required building a cross, nailing or tying the criminal to it, then standing the cross up and securing it in the ground. It was ordinarily a slow and painful death, gruesome for bystanders to watch and horrifying for family and friends to watch. Usually the body was left up for days after death in order for birds to feast on it. The Romans were trying to keep order in lands they occupied and ruled, so putting insurrectionists to death in this manner was an effective means of intimidation and deterrence.
The closest we can come to understanding this is to imagine having a friend or loved one whose execution is televised live, using an electric chair or gas chamber or firing squad. And those are all really very quick ways to die and not adequate examples. But the principle works. You have to imagine having a contemporary die in this manner who you view as God. The hymns would be: Lift High the Electric Chair; In the Gas Chamber of Christ I Glory; The Old Rugged Firing Squad.
The point is that the cross has become just a symbol for us, a grand and glorious symbol for our redemption. It is interesting how that transformation began. C.S. Lewis commented that depicting the crucifixion in art did not begin until after those who had seen the real one had died off. Indeed, church fathers forbade depicting the cross in art until the 300’s. What happened then? The Emperor, Constantine, had a dream in which he saw the cross and heard the words “in this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine converted to Christianity, made it the state religion, banned crucifixion as a means of execution, and had crosses painted on all his soldier’s shields. Thus began the transformation of the cross from a symbol of shame and humiliation and weakness to being a symbol of power and victory.
Paul’s ministry and letters come from a time far earlier than this transformation, and it is clear from his writing that the cross was not glorified but was an obstacle to faith for many. He says that the cross is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” That covers pretty much everyone he was writing to in Corinth. He said the Jews were looking for signs and Greeks were looking for wisdom. What is he talking about?
Let’s start with the Jews. As you read the Old Testament, you find that much more often than not the Jewish people were in positions of powerlessness where they needed someone to save them. Ultimately it is only the power of God that delivers them, but they have people to associate with being God’s instruments – Moses in the Exodus, the judges, King David, Cyrus the Persian from the Babylonian exile, the Maccabeans from the Seleucid empire, Elijah and Elisha, and so forth. They expected the Messiah also to be a man of power, who would work the mighty acts of God to save the people. They responded well to feeding stories, thinking of Moses and the manna, and the healings. But the crucifixion, that was business as usual. That’s the sort of thing they needed to be saved from, not the sort of thing they thought they could be saved by. This seemingly weak end was a stumbling block for the Jews, who were expecting to see God’s power at work.
The Greeks on the other hand had the recent history of being world conquerors under Alexander the Great. People all over the known world spoke Greek, even now during the Roman Empire, and had a great admiration for Greek culture. One of the proud things of Greek culture was the power of the cultivated human mind. The highest expression of this was philosophy, and there were many schools of philosophy and wisdom in Greece. Think about Plato and Aristotle and Socrates and Epicureus. Each was a great teacher with many disciples and was greatly admired by all. If the Greeks imagined a new great leader coming, it would be in terms of a tremendously wise person who could spellbind you with a system of philosophy that explained everything. To talk about cross and crucifixion, Paul said, was nothing but foolishness to the Greeks.
So if you wanted to be a Christian in Corinth but you didn’t want to focus on the cross, maybe you talked a lot about who had the most amazing spiritual gifts in the community or who seemed to have the most advanced philosophy based on Jesus Christ or who was the most eloquent, mesmerizing speaker, or something like that. In our day maybe you talk about who has the most members or the best music or preacher or youth program, or who has the right philosophy about the various social and moral and political issues of the day. Anything to avoid talking about what the cross reveals.
And what is it that the cross reveals? It reveals that God does not act in the way that anyone expects or can control when God chooses to change the world and its history. Beverly Gaventa says that “instead of meeting the expectations of the world, either Jew or Greek, God offers the good news of ‘Christ crucified,’ good news in the form of a scandal… The cross, for Paul, is not a human error that God corrected through the resurrection or an embarrassment to be overcome. It is, instead, the point at which God’s own and God’s wholly other wisdom and will are revealed.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, pp. 123 and 124)
A lot of us still want to hurdle right over Good Friday on the way to Easter. We are embarrassed by the cross, we explain it away, we want to protect God from being blamed for requiring the death of his son. If we want to talk about the cross we tend to do so as a magic talisman that protects us as Constantine wanted it to protect his soldiers, whether our battles are religious, political, or cultural.
And not only does God choose to do things in a way that will challenge every person’s ability to believe it, he also chooses a motley crew to be a part of his movement. Paul says, “Look at yourselves, brothers and sisters. Not many of you were particularly smart or powerful, nor were many of you born to upper class families. God chose what is foolish, what is weak, what is low and despised. Why? So there would be no doubt that God alone could pull this off – no one else can boast that it was their doing.
Richard Hays writes, “In Paul’s view, the relatively low status of most of the Corinthian Christians is a sign of what God did in the cross and therefore is doing in the world: overturning expectations. God is creating his new community out of unimpressive material precisely to exemplify the power of his own unmerited grace. The social composition of the church is an outward and visible sign of God’s paradoxical election.” (Interpretation, I Corinthians, p. 32)
Here is the crux of Paul’s passage: “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Living by what the cross reveals is a very unnatural thing to do in an age which believes it can learn everything and explain everything and conquer everything. Therefore we are in constant need of reeducation away from the truths which the world holds to be self-evident toward the truth which is evident in the Gospel. Did you listen to the Beatitudes as they were read earlier?
This is a great struggle for us Presbyterians, who tend to be among the best educated people in the world as a group and believe strongly in education and developing our minds to their fullest capacity. We love to study and analyze and debate things; we appoint boards and committees and subcommittees to dissect and study issues; we crunch numbers and use the world’s view of reality to decide the right thing to do; we like to know everything we can before making a decision on anything; then we like to debate passionately and eloquently and we like to win and feel as though we are right. When Paul confront us and tells us all we have to know is Christ crucified and understand the message of the cross, it sounds ridiculously simple and scandalously simplistic.
Paul tells us not one thing about the healings Jesus did, never talks about the stilling of the storm or the feeding of the 5000; he tells us nothing about the teachings of Jesus or the parables or the wisdom in answering questions about taxes and divorces or anything else. He tells us about the messiah who died a criminal’s death on the cross in utter weakness and obedience. He wants us to believe that the cross, a symbol of weakness and shame, is the wisdom and strength of God which makes all the difference for our lives and our world.
God at his weakest – seen in the suffering servant, the crucified God, the Christ – is stronger than the greatest strength of humans. This is the astonishing way in which God chooses to win the battle, to win our redemption, to win our hearts – he does it through weakness and suffering, pain and death. “God demonstrates his great love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us,” Paul wrote to the Romans.
What is called forth from us as Christians in response is to lift high the cross in our lives, unashamed of the weakness and foolishness others find there – not boasting of our own power and wisdom and accomplishments, but in the Lord’s power and grace alone. We are called to believe what we have loved to sing from childhood but often only half believed during adulthood: that I am weak, but he is strong; that I cannot do it on my own, but that if I will trust in him there is one who can carry me through.
When we come to the season of Lent next month we will be reminded that authentic Christian discipleship models what the cross of Jesus reveals. That if anyone would follow Jesus, that person should deny self, pick up their cross, and follow him. But the message for today, and the most important message of all, is about what God has done in turning the world’s expectations upside down using a cross. All of us have to overcome letting that be a stumbling block or utter foolishness in order to accept this, give thanks for it, and learn to boast in nothing other than God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.