“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

Iona crossA 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. Continue reading

Willis Elliott on Atonement vs. Reconciliation


My friend and Confessing Christ co-conspirator Willis Elliot, who is a polymath, Biblical language scholar, churchman, provocateur, nonagenarian, and a long-time interlocutor, is the guest poster today.

I asked, somewhat rhetorically, in an earlier post why so many in the church like the word reconciliation, but do not like the word atonement, even though they translate the same Greek word (Katallage)?  My answer was that reconciliation is something that we need to do, and atonement is something only God does, and that we tend to prefer the things we have control over rather over the work of God in Christ, not that they are in any way unrelated.

Willis’ response (on the Confessing Christ Open Discussion), as per usual, was thick with insightful word study, and is not for the faint of heart.  But you atonement scholars and fans who visit this blog, and you know who you are, will find his insights useful.
Willis writes:

“ON TARGET, man!  “Reconciliation is something that we need to do, and atonement is something only God does.”

Katallage – the word you mention as for both – had, as its street-meaning, money-exchange. No matter how high & wide a plant grows, it never loses the reality of its SOIL: no matter how diversified the meanings of a word (its “semantic domain”) become, it never loses its contact with the STREET (by which I mean its origin in common, earthly life).

Now, Rick, I’m probably about to tell you nothing you (an “atonement” scholar) don’t know. I’ll call it “How to access [enter into] a word.”

Back to the plant metaphor: first, I want to know the ROOT(s) of the word. Kat[a]-all-ag-e is the action (ag) of interchange (kata) with another (all-os). Second, I want to know the STREET meaning(s): (1) money-exchange, commerce, business; (2) the change from enmity to friendship; reconciliation, restoration. Finally, I want to know the CHURCH meaning(s) – “church” in the broad sense of special, particular.

The Greek general & Christian lexicons note a special Christian meaning of katallage: reconciliation with God through Christ, at the divine initiative (“by God alone,” & therefore “received” [*lamban-*] as a gift by believers – believing receivers). / But I found none using “atonement”: that technical word seems limited to Greek theological dictionaries. The Eng. wd. (says Mer.-Web. Online) – earliest, 1513 – meant “reconciliation” (now obsolete); means “the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ”; & (3rd meaning), “reparation, satisfaction.”

Synonomies expand from verbal “semantic domains” to conceptual domains answering the question What word-group relates the word-meanings to what “central truth” (the phrase on p271 of R.C.Trench’s Synonyms of the NT (1854; my copy, 1906). In article lxxvii, he’s discussing apolytrosis/katallage/hilasmos– “three grand circles [or ‘families’] of images” of the Cross’ verbally “inestimable benefits.” “Scripture . . . approach(es) the central truth from different quarters,” which “supply the deficiences of one another.”

The article is six pages, assumes a reading knowledge of Latin, & uses extensively the Greek & Latin Fathers. Here, I’ll only mention the first word (redeeming from captivity through payment of a ransom; cessation of bondage from sin as slavery) & the last (Christ as both “priest and sacrifice” propitiation: it’s “richer” than katallage – which states only THAT we enemies have become God’s friends: hilasmos explains HOW this came about [“satisfaction, propitiation, the Daysman, the Mediator, the High Priest”]). / Now for the middle word, KATALLAGE – reconciliation (“the making up of a foregoing enmity”); “atonement” in its original sense (but it has come to have the full meaning of hilasmos: propitiation). (For the meaning-change, Trench refers to Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language.)  Rick, I’ve hit the high spots of Trench’s article, which uses Greek/Latin/German. A classic widely-deeply researched & profoundly thought through, written while carrying on his day-work as an Anglican archbishop!

Trench’s article fights those who want so to translate these words as to delete “the wrath of God.” Today, we have to fight what you well call a “bloodless theology.” Not just “God is love,” but (as a Methodist pastor, a niece of mine, wrote me a few days ago), “God is only love” (her description of the theology of the BOM [Board of Ordained Ministry] on which she serves). Said she to me, “when [against that narrowness] I mentioned obedience, sacrifice, and accountability,” there was “only silence.” “Few speak on behalf of the Scriptures, . . . honoring the Lord, who has so graciously given them [the Scriptures] to us.” / If God is “only love,” he’s not fully personal, with the full moral sense & full range of emotions. Note how Trench (156 years ago!) insists that without God’s wrath, theology trivializes sin, which is no longer an enmity against God setting God in enmity against sinners.

In katallage, God “laid aside his holy anger against our sins, and received us into favour, a reconciliation effected for us once for all by Christ upon his cross” (p273; the “secondary” meaning is that we are “daily,” “under the operation of the Holy Spirit,” to dispose of “the enmity of the old man [within us] toward God”: “‘Be ye reconciled with God‘ [2Cor.5.20]”). The anti-wrath-of-God crowd make the secondary meaning primary “to get rid of the reality of God’s anger against the sinner,” & “sin as a state of enmity (echthra) with God (Ro.8.7; Eph.2.15; Jam.4.4), and sinners as enemies to Him and alienated from Him (Ro.5.10; Col.1.21; which sets forth Christ on the cross as the Peace, and the maker of peace between God and man (Eph.2.14; Col.1.20).” On pp275-6, Trench goes into detail (with a flood of texts!) on the NT deleting of blood sacrifice for the appeasement of deity: “priest and sacrifice,” previously divided, were “united in Him, the sin-offering by and through whom the just anger of God against our sins was appeased, and God, without compromising his righteousness, enabled to show Himself propitious to us once more. All this the word hilasmos, used of Christ, declares.” (Hilasmos is sacral, its context sacrificial; katallage is only reconciliation-restoration, without the later sacral meaning of “atonement.”)

(Thank you Willis. Used by his permission.)

Ambassadors of Reconciliation

The theme for today’s meeting is reconciliation. It’s a big word for Christians, for it lies at the very heart of our identity. From the beginning the biblical story makes it clear that we humans are at enmity with God and with each other. The harmony of a God–given paradise quickly gives way to disobedience and death. Adam and Eve soon separate from God and their offspring soon have blood on their hands.

And still the mark of Cain can be seen in the human family, as Tsutsi’s and Hutus, Irish Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus, Arabs and Jews, Bosnians and Serbs murder each other each day. In our own land great rifts remain between blacks and whites, hostility to aliens grows daily and guns seem to be the problem–solving method of choice for many.

We are increasingly a tribal culture: each of us preferring the enclaves of those who share our ideas, our class, our skin color, our ethnic heritage, our prejudices. In the business community, downsizing produces a culture of survivors, a bunker mentality that fractures community, creativity and innovation. In politics the infighting and rhetoric of abuse so dominates that the final victor is unable to govern effectively. Even in the church we are a fractured people, separated by walls of our own making, walls of race and sex, of creed and ideology. We meet in our small caucuses and interests groups and label those unlike ourselves, building ever higher and more complex walls to keep us apart from each other.

The biblical word for all this is sin, which means separation from God and one another. It would seem that from a human point of view there is no reconciliation. Yet it is into this broken and estranged world that the Word of God breaks forth with the message of reconciliation. “Hear the good news!” God declares. “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us!” What we cannot do for ourselves God has done for us.

The Christian story is a story of reconciliation and its very center is the cross of Christ, where God’s reconciling work is accomplished. In fact, the Greek word we translate as reconciliation also means atonement, at-one-ment, the bringing together of that which was separated. The biblical story is quite clear that the basic rift is between God and us and that our inhumanity to each other is a symptom rather than a cause. That rift is not something we can overcome by ourselves, but God could and did. On Calvary all the hatred and enmity of the world were nailed to the bloody cross with Jesus, and in that saving event Jesus represented us to God and represented God to us in a freely chosen act of obedience which is an atonement for the sins of the whole world. As John the Baptist said of Jesus at his baptism, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

The Easter faith we profess is that God has come among us in Jesus Christ, and has died and been raised for us so that we may now live a new kind of life. “If anyone is in Christ,” Paul says, “there is a new creation: everything old has past away; see everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. Not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

This reconciliation was no abstraction for the church in the first century. A church comprised of Jews and Gentiles struggled to be reconciled against the weight of hundreds of years of custom and tradition reinforced by numerous religious laws. The potential for division was enormous and we can see the working out of it throughout the New Testament where the issues get joined. Must Gentile converts to Christianity be circumcised? Do they have to observe the dietary laws of Judaism? We see the separation of rich and poor in 1st Corinthians, where the rich come and eat the supper for the communion before the poor can arrive.

Which is to say that it has never been easy to be the church, the community of reconciliation.. Reconciliation means hanging in there with those you would just as soon write off, but can’t because they belong to Christ as you belong to Christ and so they are your brothers and sisters in Christ. The church is to model for the rest of the world the reconciliation that God intends for the whole world. That is why it is such a scandal when the church itself is divided.

I believe our own United Church of Christ is in for a very difficult struggle for the next generation. We are no longer a homogeneous church but exhibit a dizzying variety of folks, many who come from other religious traditions. The United Church of Christ means many different things to different people. There are many issues in contention among us at this time, including such core questions as what theology is appropriate for our church and what language shall we use to express our faith in liturgy and hymnody. Feelings about these issues are very strong. There seems little room for compromise between the opponents. Who will be the winners and the losers? A friend of mine who is a historian at Harvard tells me that the German Reformed Church, one of the predecessor bodies in the United Church of Christ, endured fierce debate over their liturgy in the 19th century, but somehow they stayed together. Can we stay together in covenant?

From a human point of view, it seems doubtful. And yet, how can we be a voice and witness to reconciliation in our society, to schools and businesses, to our decaying cities and streets of wrath, to marriages and families in turmoil and children at risk if we cannot live among ourselves? How are we to be ambassadors of reconciliation if our own household is at enmity?

The challenge before us for the days ahead and for a long time to come is to be the church, to live in such a way that we are a living witness to the message of reconciliation that has been given to us. This means tolerating a fairly high level of conflict for a long time. It will test our faith. We will need the gifts that God’s Spirit sends to the faithful. It will require that we tell the truth in love. It will require soul–searching and the capacity to give and accept forgiveness. In other words, it will mean being the church, which was never easy and isn’t easy now.

Formerly we may have regarded some people as our enemies and opponents, and perhaps they are as the world sees it. But from now on we are to regard no one from a human point of view, because if we believe our own gospel then “by God” there is a new creation, the old has passed away, behold the new has come. So we entreat you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, by the power God gives you “be reconciled to God” and be the church, the community of the reconciled. And be the church as hard as that is and as long as it takes, which may be a long long time. Which is perhaps why, before Jesus left the disciples, he promised to be with us even to the end of the age. Amen.

(A sermon to the Berkshire Association, United Church of Christ, Annual Meeting on April 21, 1996, meeting at First Church of Christ (UCC) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where I was, at the time, the Pastor.)