The Power of the Cross
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Like the churches we’ve just seen (in the images on the screen) the Cross is clearly a central and unifying symbol for the Christian community wherever it is located and in whatever tradition.
There are crosses of every description, some enhanced in design for what seems to be no better reason than that of improving their aesthetic appeal.
In other cases the elaboration has been a deliberate attempt to highlight a particular meaning for a certain tradition as is the case with the Celtic cross.
Here the Cross is superimposed on a ring (a depiction of the sun?) … the Cross taking precedence over the sun which is likely to have been the object of worship in Ireland before St Patrick is said to have brought the Christian message there. For this tradition, the important message/meaning is that the Cross relativises all other divine authority and power.
From the very earliest the Cross has represented an event so reality-shifting that it has fascinated and intrigued the minds of Christian leaders in plotting the scope of its meaning(s). The conviction emerged from the pages of the New Testament that what took place on that particular Cross was somehow transactional, an event that was thoroughly and profoundly “for us”…
Later this morning we will hear again the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper when Jesus took bread and said:
This is my body which is for you
This conviction held by each of the NT writers gave rise to metaphors that sought to bring Christian worshipers into closer understanding, even a lively connection with its power, of how the life of the believer is discoverable in that event in a way that goes beyond creedal formulations and the reflections of theologians.
Mark’s Gospel, for instance, uses the metaphor of redemption (10:45) … as in the freeing of prisoners or hostages. But we understand, too, that there are other things which confine us in our living and from which release is promised through the Cross.
Paul in Colossians pictures Christ, in his death on the cross, as victor over the principalities and powers (Col 2:15) and in other of his letters as a sacrifice, a blood sacrifice, by which sins are forgiven.
The metaphors, by no means exhaustive, help to edge us closer to an awareness of how that historical event connects us in life-altering fashion to the here and now… a sense of belonging on the inside of the story or as we might say how I ‘have some skin in the game’, when I hear the words ‘take up your cross and follow’. Follow where, and into what?
Without that deep awareness I’m left with simply holding on to historical and theological claims.
So, symbols and creedal statements do help to hold great truth before us. They can help to fire the imagination about possibilities for our own “following” but they take us only so far in leading to a deeper understanding, even experience, of that new reality that has dawned in the event of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
At stake? Our very identity, our existence, as being shaped by that new reality without which we are left with a reliance on what Paul refers to as routines and practises and wisdom of this world with which to deal with the challenges of everyday living.
For the Christians at Corinth this mindset has led to a factionalism that breaks their unity, the cultivation of identities that are competitive, even combative.
‘Look out for yourself. If you have knowledge, make sure you don’t let it go to waste – use it to maintain your “edge”’. Defend your position at all costs, even to the denigration of those who would challenge you’.
In our more honest moments we might have to acknowledge that on occasions the Corinthian attitude of living has a real and persistent appeal. We might have to admit to a natural inclination to frame responses to life on the basis of the “signs” and the “wisdom” that lie so readily at hand to us, the responses that most people offer to unexpected challenges, ones that are justified on the basis that they are ‘logical’, ‘reasonable’, ‘sensible’ or even, ones characterised by so-called ‘wisdom’.
The property or investment considerations about ‘planning for the future’ … the calculations made about what I have a right to, what I deserve, in a world of scarce resources (think right now of the availability or not of coronavirus vaccination across a world where inequalities abound) … the “natural” defensive stance I automatically adopt when my actions or opinions are questioned … and so on.
And yes, there are spiritual aspirations and identities that are no less seductive. Closeness to God as practised by … possession of certain spiritual gifts … or down-to-earth ‘justice/action’ spirituality.
So Paul’s appeal to the world-shifting reality of the message of the Cross is bound to threaten our very modes of thinking about, well, everything.
There is the objective reality that Paul holds before us:
… Christ crucified … the power of God and the wisdom of God; … God’s foolishness … wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness … stronger than human strength.”
But there is a subjective response that Paul fleshes out throughout the letter:
It is the taking hold of the Cross by each one of us:
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
That “being saved” (present continuous tense) has personal and present time relevance.
Paul has already marked in their experience a beginning: Faith which expressed itself in baptism, the entrance into life in Christ (v16).
The section we heard read to us (v18ff) then points to the event of the Cross. The letter is bookended, as it were, with the entrance into new life of faith at the beginning and, at its end, Ch. 15, the conclusion of faith, the resurrection. The chapters in between deal with all sorts of issues relating to life lived “in between”.
We find ourselves today at the beginning of the third week of Lent this season which invites us to reflect where we are in the “in between” of the Christian journey.
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters” V.26
Understand who you were:
‘Not many of you were … wise … not many powerful … not many upper crust …’
In order to achieve something IN you and in the world you serve:
God chose what is low and despised in the world … to bring to nothing things that are. V.28
The bringing to light in the midst of life’s “normal”, a community animated by the otherness of God who makes something new and hopeful and dynamic out of the scandal and foolishness (v.23) of the Cross of Christ.
Lenten reflections on that will call us to truthfulness, starting with facing the truth about ourselves and resisting the temptation of turning away from less-than-welcome emerging truths. And on the basis of those realisations, repenting, and turning to the grace and forgiveness of God.
So what will be the process as I explore what the “power of the cross” means for me as I sit with this experience of “being saved”? The work of God within that seeks to loosen my grip on the ‘this-world-order’ of things and the coming to be increasingly at home in the new reality.
Whatever the specifics of the process it will involve a going slowly, seeking some solitude, prayer and a willingness to be vulnerable to the possibility of change. There is one other picture that I took of church, St Paul’s Bendigo, I recall.
This image captured my attention. The events that prompted the installation (there were other crosses on which hung representations of children, pregnant women, etc. and the medium used, barbed wire) which will be familiar to us given our own involvement with refugee and asylum seeker history in recent years.
I bring this image really, though, because it is a reminder to me that the Cross is an event that is ever-present in its power to strip bare our self-seeking approaches to others.
As Jesus was made a victim to the political and religious coalition of his day supported by a crowd of plain ordinary folk much like you or me who were swept along by ‘what seemed reasonable’, so victims are still offered up to fix in place some imagined ‘good’ of our own devising.
If nothing else, the cross that I see every time I enter this space, is a reminder that I cannot, I must not, be a participant in the sacrificing of others for my own comfort, my convenience, my gain.
In that regard the German liberation theologian, Dorothee Söelle, reiterates the New Testament’s protest against a ‘spirituality’ without conflict, against the illusion that God is to be found apart from Jesus crucified.
The Christian meets pain in acceptance and hope; he or she confronts it, identifies with those experiencing it, and then struggles through it to grow into a new human-ness, ‘more capable both of pain and of love’. In suffering, the believer’s self-protection and isolation are broken: the heart is broken so as to make space for others, for compassion. *
We’ve been confronted once again, this week, (particularly in light of Grace Tame’s address to the National Press Club) of the pain and suffering of women who have not only been the victims of sexual abuse but of the ongoing suffering and unresolved trauma because a ‘community’ chooses to avert its gaze so that life can go on as the undisturbed “normal”.
Paul’s words to the Corinthians urge these believers, and we, too to push our way into the deeper awareness of the Cross which for us who believe,
… Who are being saved, is the power of God. (v.18)
Who is the source of your life in Christ Jesus (v.31)
May we keep one another prayerfully in mind as we continue in our Lenten reflections over the next couple of weeks, and beyond.
* Dorothee Soelle, Suffering