The Word of the Cross

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany                 January 29, 2017

1 Corinthians 1:18-31            Matthew 5:1-12

So Paul has begun his letter by calling the Corinthians, calling us, “saints”; he has proceeded to call them out for their quarrels and disunity; and now today he is reminding them – reminding us – of the core of our faith, of the one thing that brings us together and gives meaning to what we do here. And what does he choose?

It’s not the warmth of our community and fellowship; it’s not our joyous worship of God and excellent music; it’s not the good family values we pass on to our children. It’s not the comfort of Christmas, that the child has come among us; it’s not the victory of the resurrection, taking away the power of death; it’s not the sending of the Spirit among us, giving us power to do more than we can ask or imagine. All these things are important, but they are not the key. It is not anything that we or any other church would be tempted to put on our website to attract new members. It is the cross that Paul puts front and centre; it is the “word of the cross” that unites us and gives us meaning.

Now no doubt that already sounds like a bit of a downer. But I’m not sure we really hear how truly offensive this really is. Because the cross has become for us quite empty and abstract. Over the centuries, it has been turned into the corporate logo of Christians, our own version of the Nike swoosh. We put it on our signs, our stationary, we wear it around our necks. We have because so used to it that we have come to forget what it means. When a lady in my first parish went to the jeweller’s to buy a small silver cross for her granddaughter, the clerk asked her: “Do you want one with the little man on it?”

Or we have theologized the cross out of all recognition. For many people, when they hear of the message of the cross they think of a particular theology of the atonement, of the idea that God sent Jesus to the cross to pay a blood sacrifice for our sins. We have taken one of many partial explanations for the cross – and a deeply faulted one at that – and substituted it for the deep mystery of the whole. Let me be clear: when Paul talks about the word of the cross, he does not mean that.

Again, we can only make the mistake of over-theologizing the cross, of turning it into a particular theory, because the cross has become too abstract for us. It was not abstract for Paul, or for the people of Corinth. It was not abstract for any of the people of the Roman Empire. Because the cross still meant for them what it originally was: a means of execution, an instrument used by the Romans to control an unruly empire. As a means of terror, crucifixion was brilliant. It got the job done, got rid of “undesirables”, of anyone the state might consider a threat. It did so in a terrifying way, a way that was agonizingly slow. It robbed the victim of all dignity, nailing them up naked in this grotesque stick-figure shape, taking their very humanity. And, best of all, it did so in an obscenely public way, impressing Roman power, and the crushing of Romans unworthy and subhuman opponents, in a kind of general civics lesson. Crosses with dying men went up on the margins of the city, like billboards. Sometimes it was drastic: when the slave revolt of Spartacus was crushed, 6000 rebels were crucified, lining the Appian Way for 200 km. Mostly, no doubt, the threat was much more muted. Presumably for the people of Corinth, that prosperous and teeming city of commerce, the thought of the cross was more in the background, a vague threat of violence at the edge of consciousness.

And this is what Paul tells them is at the centre of the faith? It’s beyond bizarre, there is something obscene about it. It’s like a black church placing front and centre an image of a lynching tree; like a synagogue worshipping in front of a picture of Auschwitz. No wonder the word of the cross is a scandal to the Jews, is foolishness to the Greeks.

So what is he doing? What happens when he takes an instrument of Roman terror, the very way in which our own beloved Jesus was killed, and puts it at the centre of our faith? Well, a number of rather revolutionary things happen.

First of all, whatever else it is, the word of the cross is a huge middle finger raised in the face of the world’s authority. The whole point of the cross as a means of execution was to strike terror into people’s hearts. And now the people were reclaiming this symbol, and setting it up as a symbol of hope and redemption. It was a way of looking authority in the face and saying: we’re not afraid of you. When the tyrant’s final and most drastic weapon is suddenly no longer effective, then the tyrant begins to look powerless. Reclaiming the cross was a brilliant act of resistance.

Secondly, it served to reveal the truth about the powers that be. The threat of crucifixion hovered in the background; but the real power of the Roman Empire was that threat coupled with the propaganda that Rome was a peaceful and orderly society, where everything worked for the best interests of its people. Putting the cross front and centre, taking it from the edge of the city and the edge of our consciousness, and putting it right in the middle of our temple, is a way of stripping away the facade of respectability from the powers that be, and calling them to account for their violence.

In 1955, when the black teenager Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi, his mother insisted on an open casket, because she wanted the world to see what they did to her boy. Emmett’s tortured body, beaten almost beyond recognition as a human face, brought all the violence of lynching out of the darkness of the Mississippi night and right into the consciousness of a nation. It was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. In the same way, the cross of Jesus, placed at the centre of the church’s faith, was a pivotal moment in the history of humanity. It said to the powers that be – in Rome or in any age – this is what you have done. You have done this to the kindest, best, noblest human being who has ever walked the earth – this is who you are.

But of course Paul’s interests were not primarily in civil rights – his interests were theological, and what the cross has to say about God. This is what is most radical about the word of the cross, the gospel that Paul preached – “we preach Christ, and him crucified” – that it is the answer to the question, “where do we look for God?”

Paul is fully aware of how radical his answer is. It flies in the face of the accepted wisdom of not one, but two great religious cultures. Speaking in a city in the heart of Greece, he refers to the great Greek tradition of philosophy that lies at the root of Western culture: Greeks seek wisdom. The Greek tradition looks to the depths of subtle human thought to find God, to find the truth about ourselves and the universe. And speaking as a Jew, a proud heir to the strongest tradition of worshipping one God in the world, he says that Jews seek signs. Jews look to the signs and wonders that God has performed in the past, by which God delivered his people. And so – at least in the judgment of Paul on his fellow Jews – they await a Messiah, a saviour who will come with a strong hand.

So there we have it: wisdom and power, the two alternatives, when it comes to looking for God. And suddenly, Paul says, God has shown up in the most unexpected place, a place of senselessness and weakness. If we want to see God, then we need to look to a Galilean rabbi nailed to die on the cross. That is where God has chosen to reveal himself. And that is what the “word of the cross” means.

Paul is saying that the cross is not just one rather unfortunate incident in a story, that we should pass over as quickly as possible to get to the resurrection. He is saying it is the key to the whole story. Because it’s about where God chooses to meet us. The cross tells us that God has chosen, once and for all, to meet us in the oppressed, the vulnerable, the suffering, the marginalized. God has chosen to be with them – so that’s where we will find him. It is, I think, the most radical religious idea in the history of the world. And it is – I agree with Paul – the real reason behind everything we do here.

And, sadly, the word of the cross is as relevant today as ever. This past week we have watched the nightmare begin down in the States, as vulgar, ignorant, arrogant inhumanity celebrates its triumph. Apparently this is what it looks like when a president really intends to keep his election promises, or at least the worst of them. We have already mass detention of Muslims at American airports. Well, the question we need to ask ourselves is simple: where is Jesus in this situation. The answer the word of the cross gives is simple: in the words of quote I came across just yesterday, “Whenever we build walls to separate ourselves from those in need, Jesus chooses the side of the wall where the need is.” [Carlos A. Rodriquez]

I think it is quite wonderful that the lectionary has paired this passage with the gospel reading of the Beatitudes. Because really it’s the same message: the Beatitudes simply spell out some examples of the word of the cross, they tell us that God is with the poor, the meek, the bereaved, those who hunger for justice, those who make peace, those who are persecuted. They remind us that the word of the cross was not just Paul’s invention – it lies right at the heart of Jesus’s teaching.

It was the novelist Kurt Vonnegut who remarked how odd it is that those who want to claim we are a Christian country often clamour to have the Ten Commandments hung in courthouses and schools. Because there’s nothing particularly Christian about the Ten Commandments – they are Moses, after all, not Jesus, and in fact for the most part pretty common ground for every religion or civilized society. What if, Vonnegut asks, we had the Beatitudes hung there instead: “blessed are the merciful” hanging in courtrooms, “blessed are the peacemakers” in our military institutions, “blessed are the poor” in our corporate boardrooms. Then, perhaps, we might have some claim to be a Christian nation.

I do believe that the events of recent months have put us in a time of crisis – not just a crisis of politics, but a crisis of values, a fight for the soul of our modern liberal democracies. It is a theological crisis as well, a battle for the soul of our churches. Supposedly 80% of white evangelical Americans have just voted for a man who rather exactly incorporates the very opposite of everything Jesus taught and stood for. That to me suggests a church that has lost all integrity. And we liberal churches have been powerless to stop them, to change the narrative that Christians are uncaring bigots.

People have been calling for a new reformation for years, and it seems that if ever the time was ripe, it is now. How do we reform the church, how do we get back to a place where the church has integrity and a message of hope to offer the world? I think there’s a simple answer to that: we need to get back to the centre of our faith, to focussing on the word of the cross, on the Beatitudes of Jesus, on the insight that God chooses, today as in every age, to be on the side of the poor and downtrodden, the victims of prejudice and hatred and violence and indifference. The message is always the same, and it’s not rocket science. We just need to keep it at the centre of our life, and prayers, and witness.