1 CORINTHIANS 1:10-18
What foolishness says the world! Those who are perishing think it is foolishness, and many of those who are being saved don’t understand it. I’m talking about the cross. Paul wrote, 1 Corinthians 1.18, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Yes, we put the cross at the focal point of sanctuaries and chapels. We dangle it from our ears, wear it around our necks, hang it on our rear view mirrors. Some even burn it in front of houses where it becomes a symbol of hatred. Whether it is decoration or hatred, the meaning is lost.
The priest of a Roman Catholic Church in North Carolina placed three crosses out in front of his church on Good Friday, all draped in black. Soon he received a call from the Chamber of Commerce. “Look preacher, we’ve been getting complaints about those crosses out in your church yard. They are offensive. The retired people here don’t like them; they find them depressing. The tourists will not like them either. It will be bad for business. People come down here to get happy, not depressed.”
Popular American religion is a cross-less religion. We would rather trust in positive thinking or possibility thinking. We don’t want to be reminded of pain, suffering, death, weakness, rejection. The cross, as we just sang, is an emblem of suffering and shame, stained with blood. The cross was the method of execution used in those days. Who today would wear an electric chair around their neck? Or, a gas chamber, or a syringe, or a noose?
What is the message of the cross that is so difficult to grasp? Continuing in 1 Corinthians we read, 1.27, “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world.” Paul says that the power of God is revealed through the foolish, weak, low, and despised. The humiliating execution of Jesus on a cross is how God is saving the world. God’s power is revealed not by armies, not by wealth, not by greed, not by hatred, but by what those who are perishing call weak and foolish.
Jesus did not come to save the world by leading an army, even though some of his followers wanted him to lead a revolt against Rome. We still haven’t learned. We try to set the world right with our armies and our might only to cause a bigger mess.
No, Jesus did not come to conquer. Jesus did not come to get rich. His values did not include greed, graft and corruption. He was foolish, according to our world’s values. The devil tried to tempt Jesus . He showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4.9) But, instead, Jesus chose the way that led to the humiliating cross. The big shots of Enron, who are Christians, active in their churches, do not grasp the message of the cross. They lied, deceived and stole, and then retreated to their mansions in Florida with their millions while cheating their employees and stockholders, and exploiting California customers. All for greed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for opposing Hitler, wrote, “The figure of the Crucified invalidates all thought which takes success for its standard.”
Bigger and better is not the way of the cross. Jesus taught (Matthew 5), “Blessed are the humble, blessed are those who grieve, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers.” The values of Jesus are upside down, according to those who are perishing. And, those of us who are being saved still have a difficult time understanding the message of the cross.
Yes, Jesus stood up for justice. Jesus stood up for the underdog. Jesus stood up for the poor. Jesus fought against the sacrificial system; he overturned the tables in the temple. But, notice, Jesus did not fight for himself. Jesus did not defend himself against those who ridiculed him as being weak, despised, rejected, a man of sorrows. Jesus humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. Paul concluded, Philippians 2.4-5, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
When the Japanese invaded China, they found Christian missionaries at work, and imprisoned them in a special camp. The Japanese commander of the camp was a kind man. He did his best to secure food for his prisoners, which he fairly and painstakingly divided among the missionaries. One day a shipment of food arrived from the American Red Cross. The Japanese commander proceeded to divide it equally among the missionaries, until he was approached from a delegation of American missionaries who felt that because the food was from the American Red Cross, it should only be distributed to Americans! The harmony of the camp was destroyed. They didn’t understand the message of the cross.
One who does get the message of the cross is poet, S. Ralph Harlow, who wrote:
O young and fearless Prophet of ancient Galilee,
Thy life is still a summons to serve humanity;
To make our thoughts and actions less prone to serve the crowd,
To stand with humble courage for truth with hearts uncowed.
We marvel at the purpose that held thee to thy course
While ever on the hilltop before thee loomed the cross;
Thy steadfast face set forward where love and duty shone,
While we betray so quickly and leave thee there alone.
O help us stand unswerving against war’s bloody way,
Where hate and lust and falsehood hold back Christ’s holy sway;
Forbid false love of country that blinds us to his call,
Who lifts above the nations the unity of all.
Stir up in us a protest against our greed for wealth,
While others starve and hunger and plead for work and health;
Where homes with little children cry out for lack of bread,
Who live their years sore burdened beneath a gloomy dread.
O young and fearless Prophet, we need thy presence here,
Amid our pride and glory to see thy face appear;
Once more to hear thy challenge above our noisy day,
Again to lead us forward along God’s holy way.
© 2008 Douglas I. Norris