A minister friend and mentor of mine, Herb Davis, once told me that every preacher has only one sermon in him, or her. According to Herb, every Sunday the preacher serves up that one sermon in a variety of ways. It may look like a different sermon, but at the heart of it, there’s just the one!
When I was growing up my family always had some sort of a roast at Sunday dinner, which was usually served in the middle of the day after we came home from church. Then the remains of that roast would reappear in various guises throughout the week. For example, let’s say it was a pork roast. The roast might reappear on Monday night in a soup, and on Tuesday night as my Dad’s signature roast pork chop suey and so on. So is that really the way it is? Do the people of God get fed leftovers every Sunday?
I hope not. I think what Herb was saying is that every preacher’s one basic sermon provides the core convictions out of which that preacher delivers the Gospel. And if Herb is right about the one-sermon theory, than I suppose today’s epistle lesson would have to be the text for my one sermon. Let’s hear it again: Paul writes, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger that human strength.” (I Corinthians 1: 23-25)
This is what Paul calls the message of the cross. Paul believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and that God raised him from the dead. The cross on which Jesus had died became for him the symbol of that Good News of God’s vast unconditional love for all humankind. Paul believed that in Christ’s dying and rising two important new things had occurred. First, there was now a new age of God’ activity, and, secondly, there was now a new community, the church, made up of both Jews and Gentiles.
But this radical message of the cross had not been accepted by everyone. Paul writes that it had been rejected by his fellow Jews as a scandal, and by the Gentiles as foolishness.
And I need to say a word about how we hear this text today. When Paul speaks of “the Jews” we must be aware that he is not speaking about our Jewish friends, neighbors and family members here in Westport in the 21st century. He is speaking about the “good religious people” of his time, his own people.
And in his setting, Gentiles meant everyone else who was not Jewish in this Hellenistic world. He uses Gentiles and Greeks as synonyms.
So now let us take a look at the context for this extraordinary passage. There apparetly is an argument in the Corinthian church, a church Paul himself founded and knows well. Their argument is about what constitutes wisdom and power.
First, the Corinthians wanted to know who was wise? The Greeks placed a high value on human wisdom. As we know Greece is the birthplace of philosophy, the homeland of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The Greeks held eloquence and sophisticated arguments in high esteem. And Paul himself had been criticized for being unimpressive in his bearing and personal presence. So Greeks seek wisdom, but it is not human wisdom that Paul brings them!
And what about power? If Greeks sought wisdom, Paul’s Jewish listeners, the good religious people of his day, were seeking displays of God’s mighty power. Where was the God who parted the waters of the Red Sea and left Pharaoh’s army in the mud? Where was the Messiah who would come and drive away the Roman oppressor? To them, Paul, their fellow Jew, didn’t seem to be a particularly dynamic representative of God, not like the old prophets. Not like Elijah who dramatically demonstrated the mighty works of God, when he bested the priests of Baal by calling down fire from heaven. So the good religious people demanded signs, but it is not divine signs or displays of power that Paul brings them.
Instead Paul brings them the simple message of the cross of Jesus Christ, “a scandal to the Jews and nonsense to the Greeks, but to those who believe the wisdom and power of God.”
As I have said, for Paul the cross is a symbol of what God has done in Jesus Christ, a kind of shorthand for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But for Paul the cross is also much more than a symbol: it is a way of life. A way of life whereby the Christian lives “with Christ” and “in Christ” and shares the power of the resurrection as well as the suffering of the cross. A way of life where Christians live out their lives in this new age and in the new community, the church. And the sign of this new life is baptism.
And to understand how these Corinthian Christians would have heard this message it helps for us to know something of the way baptism was enacted in the early church. The candidates, after much preparation, were presented for baptism. They arrived at the water, perhaps a cistern in the earliest days, later in a formal baptistry, and were led to the water. They removed their clothing and were brought into the water naked. Then they were dunked under the water three times, once each “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and emerged, most likely gasping for breath, where they were given a new white baptismal garment. We see echoes of this throughout the epistles when Christians are admonished to “put on Christ” like a garment, or “clothe yourself in Christ.”
This powerful experience drew a line in time between their former life and their new life in Christ. They had experienced in this sacramental death and rebirth what Paul was telling them in words, that in Baptism the Christian dies with Christ in his death and is raised with Christ in his resurrection.
The cross is the symbol of that death and new life. That we both die with Christ and are raised with Christ is a paradox and a mystery and remains hard to grasp even for grownup Christians. But God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s wisdom is not our wisdom.
I want to say a word about the distinction between wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom is not the same thing as knowledge. Our human knowledge is impressive. Your smartphone has more computing power than the computers that put men on the moon. If you told someone from a hundred years ago that you have a device in your pocket smaller than a pack of cards that accesses all the knowledge in the world they would be amazed, and might ask, “What do you do with such a marvel?” And the answer might be, “I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers!”
So our vast knowledge doesn’t necessarily correlate with the wisdom to use it rightly. We have harnessed the atom, but we have also made bombs with it. We have created an astounding network of information and communication technology, which allows a radiologist in India to read my x-ray, but it also allows hackers and cyber-criminals to find new ways to steal.
We have the knowledge to locate a truckload of suspected terrorists on a dusty desert road in Yemen, and send a drone to kill them. But does the young soldier sitting in a command center in Nevada have the wisdom to know it is not just a video game?
My point is that as impressive as our human knowledge is it cannot provide a single person with the key to real living, cannot answer the larger questions of life, cannot make us happy or satisfy our souls.
Paul is saying the message of the cross is not something we can arrive at by human knowledge; it is a different kind of wisdom from the wisdom of the world.
And what about power? Rome had the power in Jesus’ day. They had the military might, the technology, the political control. The cross itself, a brutal public execution, was an instrument of Roman power employed to intimidate the populace and keep them under control.
Many Jews of Jesus’ time were also looking for power as they expected a Messiah who would come to overpower the conquering Romans who had occupied their land. They expected a Messiah, but not a crucified one, not one put to death by the unchallengable power of the Roman war machine.
A crucified messiah was also violation of their law, which said, “Cursed be anyone who hangs on a tree.” So a crucified messiah was a scandal to them, a stumbling block. Our word “scandal” comes from the Greek skandalon, which was a small stone you might trip over as you walked, literally “a stumbling stone.” So Jesus’ cross was a scandal to his own people.
The Gentiles, too, could understand human power in the guise of a conquering hero, but they could not understand a failed Jewish revolutionary who was brutally executed by the Romans. They heard nothing wise about Paul’s message of God’s power made manifest in the weakness of the cross. This was not philosophy, it was not wisdom, it was just nonsense, pure foolishness.
So Paul’s message of the cross, a scandal and foolishness, was rejected by many.
And what about today? Isn’t the cross still a scandal to many and foolishness to even more, even sometimes in the church. Like the title of Roz Chast’s great new memoir, people ask, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
But we need to talk about the cross in the church. A Gospel without a cross has no good news to tell us, because it is the cross itself that shows us how deep, how high, how broad the love of God is, a love that will not let us go, even to death and beyond death.
We need the cross to continually remind us that God doesn’t work the way we do.
Think of how God has worked in your life? If your life is anything like mine, you have seen again and again, usually in retrospect, how God has worked through your failures and the tragedies to bring about quiet victories.
There was a time in my life that if I had been told some day I would be standing here and doing this, I would have either laughed or cried. I am one of God’s paradoxical acts. And so are you, sitting here as the people of God. “The people of God!” What a claim! What audacity! Couldn’t God have gotten both a minister and a congregation that were wiser and more powerful?
But God’s ways are not our ways. The Corinthian church was fighting over who was really wise. Paul told them God had chosen what is foolish to shame the wise; God had chosen what was weak to shame the strong, so that no one would have a cause for boasting. The cross reminds us of that.
And what did God accomplish through the cross of Christ? Tom Wright says that on Christmas we sing ‘O little Town of Bethlehem” which has a line, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” He says that when Jesus set his face to Jerusalem he went there to take on not just the hopes and fears but the “pains and tears of all the years.”
There on the bloody tree at Calvary, he took them all from us, our pains and tears of all the years, our failures, defeats and betrayals, our tawdry little sins and our great big ones, too. He took even our forsakenness, our alienation from God and each other, and it all died with him there on the cross.
Yes, I know, the world doesn’t always look and feel like he won the battle over death and sin, does it?
Our sins come back. Sin and death may be drowned in the waters of baptism but, as someone said, “they can swim!” But even if the life we know now is still subject to sin and decay and death the cross tells us that the final victory will belong to God and not to them.
Indeed part of our vocation as Christians is to share in God’s loving work of dealing with the pain and the evil in the world, caring for those in need, loving those who seem beyond love’s reach. The way of the cross involves taking on some of the pain into ourselves and giving it over to Jesus himself so that the world may be healed.
Our baptism is the sign that we work for Christ now and not for the world. And that is a good thing because the world isn’t doing so well right now in the loving department; doesn’t do so well in bringing about peace, justice, reconciliation and righteousness.
But the message of the cross reminds us that God is working quietly even now. God’s ultimate purposes will not be thwarted, no matter how hard it may be for us to see how that might be. The cross, as hard as it is to fathom and as difficult as it is to understand, is the sign of God’s real power and ultimate victory. A victory that gets played out right here, right now in our lives.
Jeff and Rebecca (the pastors here) can tell you that in ministry not a week goes by when they don’t see evidence of the power of God and the victory of God over the forces of the world that would hurt and harm us: the often unseen victories of faith over anxiety, of forgiveness over vengeance, of reconciliation over hostility, of love over hate, of life over the power of death. These are all God working in and through us in ways that the world wouldn’t recognize as either wise or strong, but they are. They are wise and they are strong because they are the ways of God’s wisdom and God’s strength, the way of the cross.
The cross, then undergirds all our work for God. “Without it, we would find the odds against us too heavy, and would be totally discouraged; or we might imagine that our own goodness, or political skill, or human shrewdness, or sheer power would eradicate evil from the world.” (N.T. Wright, The Crown and the Fire.)
And Christian faith without a cross often turns God into a dispenser of goodies, a kind of a cosmic Santa Claus who promises us health or wealth or success in return for our faith. The popular prosperity Gospel of some TV evangelists, who promise faith will make you rich is one example. And the various self-help and positive-thinking versions of the Gospel, that tell you you can pick yourself up by your own spiritual bootstraps and become healthy, wealthy and wise is another. These are versions of the Gospel without the cross.
But Jesus never said “Believe in me and life will be a bowl of cherries.” You remember what he said. He said, “Take up your cross and follow me!”
But we are always tempted by a faith without a cross. And the church is always tempted to look elsewhere for God’s wisdom and power, whether to our institutional strength, our wealth, our cultural standing, to the beauty of our services, the sublimity of our philosophy or the cleverness of our political insights.
But let us never be distracted from our focus as Christians. Let us keep our eyes, our hearts, and our faith on the cross.
It is true that the message about the cross is neither human wisdom nor human power. It is true that in the eyes of the world the cross is foolishness and a scandal.
But to those who believe, it is “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger that human strength.” (I Corinthians 1:24-25)
So if my friend Herb is right and I only have one sermon in me that’s it. And if Jeff invites me back sometime you can hear it again! As with a good pork roast, you can do a lot with a great piece of scripture!
“And now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
I preached this at Green’s Farms Congregational Church (UCC) in Westport, Connecticut (where my daughter is the Associate Pastor) on March 8, 2015.
I needed to hear this today. When the pain and anxiety of life seems more than my mind can bear. I needed to be reminded of the Power of the cross