Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Cross and Christ Crucified



 This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy on Sunday, 3/4/18. The text was 1 Cor. 1:18-25.

I’m wearing new earrings today, each with a cross hanging from it. We see lots of people wearing crosses around their necks, from their ears, as bracelets. 2,000 years of usage as a positive religious symbol, as decoration and as jewelry have dulled the impact of the words “cross” and “crucify.”

For the Romans, crucifixion made an example of those who disturbed the peace of Rome. This punishment was for revolutionaries, terrorists, the worst criminals and slaves. It was something people turned their eyes away from.

The believers at Corinth were a mess. There was in-fighting, immorality and other problems. Some valued intellect to the point that their understanding of the gospel was narrowed. Their stress on wisdom and knowledge had created elitism in the church.

The Corinthians had questions about how to live their lives and how to function as a church. Their situation was such that they desperately needed a renewed sense of how to live as God’s people and they needed the power to do so. Paul refocuses them and theologically recenters them on a new basis of self-understanding: the wisdom of God in the cross of Christ.

Right from the get go, Paul declares “the message of the cross.” For those who are not followers of Christ, the message makes no sense and is considered “foolishness.” For we who follow Jesus, it’s the power of God. That doesn’t always mean though that we understand God’s ways.

Right in the middle of this reading, Paul states, “…we proclaim Christ crucified…” (v. 23). A crucified savior was a contradiction of terms, an oxymoron. The God revealed to us in the cross does not and cannot fit into our ideas of how the world works. The cross reverses all our expectations, not just those that are evil or stupid. That’s Paul’s preaching and believing and should be that of any group of people who call themselves a church. It is one of Paul’s central convictions.

This message directs our lives and faith and centers us. It gives life to our baptismal calling and grounds us. Grace, forgiveness, new life, hope and more—we can live knowing that “the One who gave his all walks with us to forgive and renew again and again and again” (Macholz).

Sometimes all we see of God is what we consider “foolishness” and “weakness.” We ask ourselves where God was when the ocean waters flooded the streets of downtown Boston, when one who just finished cleaning up from a devastating storm in January has to do it all over again now. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying God caused all that to happen, but even in all the difficult things life throws one’s way, God is there with those on the east coast, just as he is with us.

Paul does not call on his churches to die for one another, but they are called to love their neighbors in such a way that they would rather relinquish their own rights than see their neighbor harmed or experience less than God’s abundant life. How will we help the latest victims of inclement weather? Will some of us physically go and help people restore their homes? Why not? Those who cannot go, can certainly give through ELCA Disaster Response or Lutheran Disaster Response. And always we should pray.

But sometimes, it’s so hard to understand what God is up to. In today’s lessons, we have rich ground for reflecting on God’s mission in his revealed Word. That mission must be predicated on “the unlikely wisdom of God” (Hunter). Just as Jesus overturned tables in the temple in today’s gospel, he overturns all of our preconceived ideas of just what our lives should look like if we follow him. God’s “unlikely wisdom” is often at odds with our own so-called wisdom.

Though God’s ways are unexpected, God’s ways are superior. God works in direct defiance of our human standards. Paul teaches that God’s work is so powerful that it incapacitates and reverses the established values of this world. The apostle declares these things as fact and then throughout this reading, argues to establish his case.

Let’s see, the cross of Christ is either foolishness or power, no in-between, no shades of gray. We are sometimes embarrassed by language that portrays some as insiders and others outsiders. After all, we are a welcoming church. Paul, however, contrasts two groups: “those who are perishing” and “us who are being saved” (v.18). What separates the two groups is the cross, particularly the preaching of it.

For those perishing, the message of the cross of Christ is foolishness. They cannot come to know or understand God through mere human wisdom.
For us, this message is “the power of God” (v. 18). Christ is the wisdom of God, as well as the power of God (v. 24). In the cross we find the power of God that saves. Those who believe, are called and grasped by God’s power. In this way we know the crucified Christ as God’s wisdom.

In the verses that follow, Paul takes shots at those who disagree with him—the wise, the scribe, the debater “of this age.” Whether they are Jews who cannot comprehend a crucified messiah or Greeks who pride themselves on their wisdom, the issue is that both groups presume that God works according to their presuppositions. The cross, however, turns both sets of expectations upside down.

It is not in spite of our weakness and frailty that God makes us his own. Through weakness God will continue to triumph. In the resurrection, our frailty will be vindicated. Although wrong may seem so strong today, the unlikely wisdom of the weakness of God will prevail.

God has called you to follow him in baptism and made you his own. If you were baptized as a child, promises were made on your behalf, which were reaffirmed by you at your confirmation. These promises are:

1.    To live among God’s faithful people,
2.    To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
3.    To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
4.    To serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
5.    And to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

We’ve been talking about these promises over dinner together on Wednesday nights in Lent. This week’s focus is “to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed.” Join us for delicious food and stimulating conversation!

The only way we can proclaim God’s good news in word and deed is as we let the cross be the criterion and benchmark for our understanding and grasping of reality.

The last verse of today’s reading succinctly summarizes Paul’s thoughts, “…God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25).

In the ‘90s, my marriage to my first husband broke up. I thought I had to do whatever needed doing to prevent that. I felt that it wasn’t God’s will for us to divorce, but God does not make people obey him. It seemed my life was ending in some ways. If I was still married to my first husband though, I would have never gotten my undergraduate degree, gone to seminary, made it through the candidacy process—and I would not be your pastor. All I could see was bad coming from divorce, but God knew better—surprise! God’s wisdom is beyond us. I’m glad God didn’t take my advice about what needed to be done with my first husband. I wouldn’t be married to Ray and we wouldn’t be here with you. I’m so grateful that we are. But I have to say, that God’s ways are often counter-intuitive. The supposed foolishness of God “renders worldly wisdom into true foolishness” (Soards, Dozeman & McCabe).

The Jews were looking for a King David type messiah. The Greeks were looking for esteem, power and beauty. What are you looking for?

Will you go sailing with God on an adventure into the great unknown? Will you let him turn your life upside down, leading you in unexpected ways? It can be a bumpy ride! Or do you find letting go of control of your life a bit frightening? The paradox of the cross may not make sense to outsiders and maybe not even to us at times. However, the gospel will “make sense of us” in a way that is truly unexpected and finally redemptive.

I’d like to share a prayer from the ELW that speaks powerfully to me whenever I wonder “What in the world is going on, God?”

Let us pray.
O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

References

M. Eugene Boring & Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary

Carl R. Holladay, Preaching Through the Christian Year B


John Macholz, Midweek Musings, Upstate NY Synod ELCA

Marion Soards, Thomas Dozeman & Kendall McCabe, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year B, Lent/Easter

Carla Works, workingpreacher.org

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