The Foolishness of the Cross

A meditation on the cross which I shared at the Morden Good Friday Community Service, April 18, 2014, slightly revised since. It is based on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

A few years ago I was fortunate to be able to go to Israel-Palestine with a study group. It was an amazing experience: hiking in the wadis west of the Dead Sea, climbing in the hills around the Sea of Galilee, baptizing a former student of mine in the Jordan River, listening to stories around a community oven in a Palestinian village, getting violently sick in my first days there. Well, that wasn’t so amazing, but it certainly was memorable!

Olive Wood CrossOf course, I brought back mementos of my trip. Stones from different parts of Israel-Palestine, beverage containers with Hebrew and Arabic on them, a ram’s horn. And some plain wooden crosses like this one, simple, carved out of olive wood.

It’s the universal symbol of Christianity, the cross. We set them outside our churches and everyone can see at a glance that we’re Christians. We have them at the front of our churches, focusing our attention in worship. Many churches in Europe are built in the shape of the cross. We place crosses over our graves. We cast crosses in silver and gold—or carve them in wood—and wear them around our necks.

The cross is pervasive among us Christians as a visual symbol for our faith. But you might be surprised to know that the cross wasn’t widely used as a visual, public symbol by the early Christians, probably for at least two hundred years after Jesus. The reason is a simple one—and it makes you think.

The Scandal of the Cross

You see, the cross was not in any way a positive thing for Jews or Christians in those early centuries of the Church. Even sophisticated, respectable Roman citizens thought crucifixion too distasteful for polite conversation. Cicero, a Roman philosopher and politician who lived just before the time of Jesus, said that “the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears…the very mention of [crucifixion]…is unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man” (Pro Rabirio 16).

A real cross, the kind that people were crucified on, was normally just a rough-hewn beam of wood that the condemned criminal would carry outside the city, right on the busiest road where everyone could see. There it would be attached to something vertical—a post set up for such executions, or even just a tree. The person would be hung from it, arms outstretched, sometimes for days, until they died an excruciating death, usually of asphyxiation. Crosses were not your ordinary punishment; they were reserved for the worst of criminals, for treasonous rebels, for conquered peoples.

A real cross, then, the kind that Jesus died on, was an instrument of death, a horrific thing, an image of deep shame. It was like a giant billboard displaying Rome’s power and highlighting the subjugation of all other peoples. Cicero might not have wanted even to speak of crucifixion, but his Rome was built on the backs of crucified men.

Christians using the cross as a symbol, then, would be like African Americans in the Deep South of the early twentieth century placing a beautifully woven noose at the front of their churches, or like Jews of 1940s Poland casting a miniature golden gas chamber to wear as jewelry.

It’s disturbing to think about, isn’t it?

But once you get this then you can start to appreciate the Apostle Paul’s words in our passage from 1 Corinthians: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

Christ, of course, is Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, who walked those dry and dusty roads of Galilee, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching love of God and neighbour, healing the sick and raising the dead. But “Christ” is a title, not a name: it means “Messiah,” or “anointed one,” and refers to the ancient practice of initiating priests and prophets and kings by anointing their head with oil. When Paul calls Jesus “Christ” he is essentially calling him “King,” the promised Messiah in the family line of King David who was to bring about God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Of course, for Paul, there’s more going on in Jesus’ story. For Paul, Jesus the Christ was “sent” from God the Father: he perfectly represented God, God’s person and purposes. For Paul, Jesus embodied God in the world: as Colossians puts it, “in [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19).

So this is Paul’s claim, then: the man Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the promised King come to bring about God’s kingdom, perfectly representing God to us, even embodying God for us—and this God-King has died on a Roman cross, executed in torturous pain and shame and oppression, in utter weakness.

If you were a Jew in Paul’s day, like Paul himself and all the first Christians, what would you think of this? The Messiah, the Son of David, was supposed to liberate God’s people from their oppressors, not succumb to those oppressors! The Messiah was supposed to come with mighty signs and wonders in triumph over God’s enemies, not be crucified by them! There was little room for a suffering and dying Messiah in Jewish thinking of the day.

There was also a persistent view among at least some Jews that those who were crucified were cursed by God; it comes from Deuteronomy 21:23, “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” How could the Messiah be under God’s curse? The Messiah is blessed by God, not cursed!

No, a crucified Christ just could not be—and this was an enormous stumbling block for Jews in Paul’s day to believe in Jesus.

Alexamenos GraffitoWhat if you were a Roman? The Romans had their own stories of divine kings. Caesar Augustus and all “good emperors” after him were deified after their death, viewed by many in the Empire as divine kings. Some emperors along the way couldn’t wait until after they died to be deified, and insisted on being considered divine while they were still alive. So the Romans could understand a god-king. But a divine king being crucified at the hands of his enemies? Impossible! Such a king is not worthy of divinity!

And how about the Greeks? In Paul’s day, some at least thought of God as static, unchangeable, immune to shifting human passions and outside the fluctuating tides of human events. For these Greek thinkers, it was impossible that the divine being should experience suffering, let alone suffering on a cross.

But even for Greek thinkers who didn’t view God this way, they still had no room for this. They all liked their tidy system of thought, their sophisticated reason, their seamless, undisturbed way of understanding the world and our place in it. Stories of a crucified god-king? Too messy, too disturbing, too irrational.

No, a crucified Christ just could not be—and this was seen as complete and utter foolishness for many of the Gentiles in Paul’s day.

“We proclaim Christ crucified,” Paul says. Really, it’s hard to imagine any message in his world that could have been more foolish than that.

The Power of the Cross

But here’s the astounding thing: Paul insists that this foolishness is really wisdom, this weakness is really power. God is foolish in our eyes, God is weak—yet it is only through this foolishness that we find true wisdom, and it is only through this weakness that we find true power.

It is one of the most mysterious—and shocking—truths of Christianity: God brings about salvation for the world through a crucified Christ. God rescues humanity and all creation from sin and death through a Jewish king executed on a Roman cross. God overcomes our greatest enemies—our insatiable greed, our arrogant pride, our overpowering selfishness, these deep-rooted distorted desires that push us to hurt others and harm creation—God overcomes this sin and death by bearing the brunt of our sin and giving himself up to death.

It’s as if Jesus on the cross absorbs into himself all the hatred and violence and guilt and shame and pain and suffering that humans can inflict—he absorbs it all. Instead of fighting violence with violence, instead of fighting power with power, like everyone expected a king to do, or even a god to do—Jesus absorbs it all. Jesus takes all these things—all our sin, and this all-encompassing death that results from our sinful attitudes and actions—Jesus takes all this and absorbs it into himself, as if sucking the poison from a snake bite.

Rembrandt Christ on the CrossThrough this Jesus shows us who God really is: God is the God who would rather die than kill, the God who comes in suffering and weakness rather than brazen displays of power, the God who would rather work silently through our distorted wills than enforce his own will on us. God is the God who loves us, who gives himself for us, the God who forgives us, the God who is not against us but for us, on our side, right by our side in our own suffering.

And in the process, Jesus also lays out a path for us to walk: we are to follow in the footsteps of our crucified Messiah, not in power but in weakness, not in glory but in suffering, not in hatred and violence but in love and peace.

The Good News of the Cross

I think we’re more like the Jews and Greeks and Romans of Paul’s day than we care to admit.

We think God comes to deal with our enemies—those other people, flesh and blood people who aren’t like us, who don’t like us. But the cross shows that God comes to deal with the deeper enemies we all face—our own selfishness and greed, our own arrogance and pride, our own sin and the wider evil and injustice that grows out of it.

We think God comes in power and strength, and so we revere strong and powerful people. We think God comes in wise words and clever arguments, and so we admire intelligent people. We think God comes in glittering glory, and so we idolize beautiful people. But the cross shows that God comes in foolishness and weakness, with nothing in his appearance to attract us to him. God comes in a helpless baby and a crucified king, God comes in the poor, the weak, the suffering, the least of these, Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

We think God makes the world a better place through his sheer will, his mighty power, and so we try to do good in the world by force, coercing others to do our will. But the cross shows that God changes the world through his weak power, through self-giving love and radical forgiveness—and so should we.

We think God only works in “God moments,” those times when something spectacular happens, something miraculous, something extraordinary. But the cross shows that God also works when tragedy strikes, when the worst thing you can imagine happens, when pain and suffering and despair and even death hits us. These too can be “God moments,” sometimes even the most powerful “God moments”—as God comes alongside you and walks with you through darkness and disaster.

We think God is unchangeable, unmoved by the ebb and flow of human circumstances and human experiences. But the cross shows that God knows the very depths of human suffering and sin. If there’s a solution to the problem of evil, it is this: God suffers with us.

One scholar has commented on our passage from 1 Corinthians this way: “The ultimate idolatry is that of insisting that God conform to our own prior views as to how ‘the God who makes sense’ ought to do things” (Gordon Fee, First Corinthians). But the cross shatters all our notions of “what God must be like.”

And in that there is genuine good news, for all of us.

If you are wracked by guilt, or overcome by shame for something you’ve done, God is not standing over you, to condemn you. God is standing before you, arms open wide, ready to forgive you, to welcome you home. Receive God’s forgiveness, and in that you can find the strength to seek the forgiveness of others.

If you are walking through pain and suffering—physical sickness, emotional wounds, mental illness, whatever it may be—God is not outside of all that, oblivious to your hurt. God is right there in the midst of it, ready to walk with you through it, to give you just what you need day by day to make it through. Open yourself to God’s love, trust in God to take care of you.

Road-to-the-CrossAnd if you have any kind of relationship to another human being—I think that pretty much covers all of us—remember this: God calls us to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, the crucified Christ. God calls us to love, not to hate. God calls us to peace, not violence. God calls us to be humble with others, not proud. God calls us to forgive, not to harbor resentment or anger. God calls us to the cross, the weak and foolish cross, because it is only through the cross—Jesus’ kind of selfless, self-giving love, that we can find God’s true wisdom and power.

This is why the cross endures as such a powerful symbol of the Christian faith: not because the cross was an instrument of such horrific brutality and terrorizing oppression, but because the cross shows us so clearly who God truly is. The cross shows us God’s deep and abiding love—for me, for you, for all of us.

Cross-posted from © Michael W. Pahl.

For some reflections on the cross and nonviolent atonement, check out my later post “‘Jesus Died For our Sins’: Sketching Out Atonement.”