In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul is writing to a church in conflict. They are divided. They are split. We could even say, they are broken into pieces. What’s the problem? Well, a bunch of things but at the center, they are arguing about who is the better preacher – Paul or Apollos. Which one knows more. Which one speaks with more confidence and poise. Who is wiser. To which Paul, essentially says to them, “Who cares! It doesn’t matter who is a better preacher or who uses more eloquent words. What matters is that the gospel found in the cross of Christ is preached.”
And then Paul goes on to say, “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.” The cross. It’s foolishness, Paul says. Who cares which preacher has more wisdom or a better speaking style. We live by a different kind of wisdom. The wisdom of the cross- which looks crazy to everyone else.
Paul calls the cross foolishness. In fact, he calls it God’s foolishness. That the cross is kind of a ridiculous idea. And this is Paul we are talking about here – likely the most influential Christian missionary and leader of the early Christians. The cross is foolish? Ridiculous? That kind of stings – with all the crosses we have hanging around. Dangling crosses around our necks. Stoney crosses in cemeteries. Watery crosses on a baby’s brow. Shadowy crosses on our foreheads.
The cross is at the center of our faith and yet Paul calls it foolishness. Why? And what is foolish about it? In order to discover that, maybe we need to ask – What is the cross? Why is it so important to Christians and what does it mean for everyday people in everyday lives? What does it say about Jesus? What does it say God?
These are the questions we are going to be wrestling with over the next couple of weeks. Some of you might be thinking, why should we ask questions about the cross? Can’t you just leave the cross alone? Why ask questions about it?
The truth is, sometimes the things that are most familiar to us, those things right in front of us are the things we know the least about. And then we can feel embarrassed asking questions about them because we think we should know a lot about them already.
So, what is the cross? What is it a symbol of? Sometimes I think the cross has become simply a symbol for God and for being a nice person. That’s why you see so many people who you know haven’t darkened the door of a church in years wearing crosses. It’s their way of saying, “I believe in God. I’m a good person. I just don’t like church that much.”
But the cross is so much more than that. What does the cross mean for you? Is the cross about forgiveness? Is it about sacrifice? Did Christ die on the cross as payment to the devil for your sins or is Christ punished on the cross by a god who is angry about your sins? Is the cross a sign of God’s love for you? If it is, if it is all about love, then why is it so violent? Why does someone have to die in order for me to be loved? What does that say about God, if God would kill God’s own son? Did Jesus have to die? And how does one person dying take away my sin – even the sins I haven’t committed yet?
These are the big questions about the cross. And truth be told, not everyone has always agreed on what the cross means.
For example, have you ever noticed that the four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ death on the cross differently? Jesus says and experiences different things in each gospel. In Mark and Matthew, Jesus cries out in pain and grief, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But in Luke, Jesus doesn’t say that. He says, “Father, forgive these people, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And in John, Jesus says to his mother and his disciple, who are at the foot of the cross, “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” Even Paul speaks of the cross differently than the gospels do.
Faithful Christians have been asking questions about the cross for the past two thousand years. And here’s why: no one expected it. No one saw the cross coming.
When the people of Israel talked about God sending a Messiah to rescue and restore them, they imagined this Messiah coming like a warrior. With power. And might. But instead they get Jesus – this mild-mannered Jewish rabbi who came teaching and preaching the kingdom of God, had compassion for people, healed people. And he ended up offending the religious and political authorities and he was crucified.
A Messiah who dies? A God who comes in suffering and death, not power and strength? Not only did Jesus die, he died as a common criminal. The cross was the Roman death penalty reserved for criminals they wanted to make a public example of.
But then, when Jesus’ followers experienced and heard about the resurrected Jesus, their whole world was turned upside down and they wondered if God was up to something on the cross that they never expected. Soon enough, everyone began to wonder what it meant that God would be found in a man hanging on a tree.
We often think of God as all-powerful, all-knowing, all-just. I don’t know about you, but that god seems hard to relate to. A god that is distant and cold. I mean, it is that image of god – a god that is all-powerful and all-loving – which people are angry at right now at Michaelson’s funeral home as they walk beside an 18-year olds casket. But a god who dies? On a cross? A god who experiences tragedy, and pain, and death? It sounds like a god no one expects. And no wonder Paul calls it foolish. But maybe that is a god we can relate to and even believe in – since we too know of tragedy, pain, and death.
That is what tonight is about. Recognizing the painful truth about our lives. We are a sinful and broken people in a sinful and broken world where there is tragedy, there is pain, and there is death. And we all experience it. You are dust. And to dust you shall return. How vulnerable we all are.
But this God. This God found in a man nailed to a tree is also vulnerable. I know, it sounds foolish. But a god that is vulnerable rather than powerful, suddenly becomes a god that is approachable rather than distant. Which means maybe we can count on that kind of god, one who knows first hand what we experience, to give us mercy and grace rather than judgment and punishment. This is what Martin Luther calls a theology of the cross – which means in order to know who God is and what God is like, we must first cast our gaze to the man on the cross.
Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to be exploring how the meaning of the cross has developed over the centuries and how it might still be meaningful for us today.
Each week will not be tidied up into a nice little gift wrapped box that contains all of the answers in it. Instead, they are going to be open ended. Inconclusive. But if you come along and take the journey seriously, you just might discover a path in the woods of faith you’ve never seen before. Or you just might realize the path that you have always been on.
When you think about it, tonight is kind of foolish. We come together to begin the sad and dark season of Lent by smudging black, dusty ash crosses on our foreheads. And later we will feverishly wash it off in the bathroom or dab at it with a tissue in the car before anyone outside the church sees us. It’s kind of foolish. A friend of mine invited her Confirmation students to come to the Ash Wednesday service, and to receive a cross of ashes on their foreheads. One student who had never really been exposed to church growing up, looked up at her terrified and said, “Who’s ashes are they??” It’s kind of foolish, isn’t it? Which is why Ash Wednesday is the only major day of the Church season that Hallmark and Hersheys hasn’t gotten their hands on. Ash Wednesday hasn’t been commercialized yet. You don’t see any commercial on TV saying, “Only 11 days until Ash Wednesday. Have you got your shopping done yet?” There are no non-toxic packets of ashes being sold in the children’s section at Target. You know, to play Ash Wednesday on a play date or something. No, Ash Wednesday has not become commercialized and it never will be because who wants to talk about death. And it all seems a bit strange and foolish.
And maybe that’s true. Maybe to the world, it is foolish. But it is also real. Because tonight is about naming our mortality. That we live in a fragile world. Tonight we name the truth. As earthy ash is scraped into our skin, we remember that death will come to us all. But we remember it in the form of a cross. A baptismal cross, long dabbed and dried into invisibility, that is sketched once again in a shadow across each of our foreheads reminding us that this God found in the vulnerable cross promises to be near to each and every one of us, even in our death and that which is beyond death. May this be a promise to which we can cling. Amen.
Note: Much of this sermon is based on the first chapter of David Lose’s book – Making Sense of the Cross