We Proclaim Christ Crucified, I Corinthians 1:18-25
Today’s sermon is the second of a two-part series on the cross. Last Sunday we considered Mark 8:31-38 and how Jesus’ teaching about the cross became the turning point in understanding his identity as the Messiah. Part of Jesus’ teaching about the cross included a new call to discipleship as he invited his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross, as they lost their lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel.
It is in the reality of Jesus’ new teaching about the cross that we hear Paul’s teaching today about the cross from I Corinthians 1:18-25. Like Jesus, this teaching by Paul reveals an understanding of Jesus’ identity as the Messiah. Like Jesus, Paul’s teaching about the cross would have been a scandalous message for his day.
18 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. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
To fully appreciate Paul’s statement to the Corinthians, it is important to understand a bit about the city of Corinth that was located in what we today identify as Greece. Darryl Dash, in his blog, DashHouse writes that Corinth was known for its prosperity, diversity, and progressive thinking, a city that had great pride in its wisdom. It has been defined as “the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world.” (Gordon Fee). Corinthians would have defined themselves as people of great sophistication.
When Paul wrote to them about God’s power being revealed through the cross of Jesus Christ, he was challenging their whole worldview and their understanding of wisdom. The cross was a sign of power used by the Roman government intended for capital punishment and deterrence of rebellious acts. Primarily reserved for criminals and foreigners, the cross was a radical and deadly punishment. In fact, the word, cross or “crux” in Latin was considered to be a curse word used in phrases such as “May you be nailed to the cross!” or “Go to an evil cross.”
Paul’s statement about the cross revealing the power of God must have seemed foolish to the Corinthians and that was Paul’s exact point. Just the mention of the cross would have been repulsive. The Corinthians would have been insulted by the idea that a Messiah who could not save himself from the cross could be the instrument of God’s salvation. This is why Paul wrote, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
The notion of the cross as a symbol of God’s power was so scandalous that the cross did not become the defining symbol of the Christian faith until the early part of the 4th century. Prior to that time, the symbol of a fish, ichthus, was the most widely known symbol of the Christian faith with the Greek letters of the word, ichthus¸ forming an acronym for “Jesus Christ, God, Son, Savior.” About 300 years after Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in 313 AD, the Edict of Milan declared tolerance for all religions, in the Roman Empire. Following this edict, the cross became widely used as a symbol of Christian faith as it went from being a “repulsive device for executing slaves, foreigners, and Roman citizens of low social standing into a revered, public symbol.” (Bible History Daily, March 2018 Dr. Steven Shisley)
Even in today’s world, however, the cross is still scandalous as it distinguishes the Christian faith from other religions. Several years ago, there was a Newsweek magazine article about the different ways religions of the world see Jesus through the cross. In concluding the article, the author wrote the following:
“Clearly, the cross is what separates the Christ of Christianity from every other Jesus. In Judaism, there is no precedent for a Messiah who dies, much less as a criminal as Jesus did. In Islam, the story of Jesus’ death is rejected as an affront to Allah himself. Hindus can accept only a Jesus who passes into peaceful samadhi, a yogi who escapes the degradation of death. The figure of the crucified Christ, says Buddhist Thick Nhat Hanh ‘is a very painful image to me. It does not contain joy or peace, and this does not do justice to Jesus.’ There is, in short, no room in other religions for a Christ who experiences the full burden of mortal existences – and hence there is no reason to believe in him as the divine Son whom the Father resurrects from the dead.”
- 60, “The Other Jesus,” Newsweek, March 27, 2000, Kenneth Woodward
The wisdom of the cross that Paul proclaimed over 2,000 years ago is still scandalous for persons who stand outside faith in Jesus. However, for those of us who are being saved, the cross is the power of God through which we experience the foolishness of God that is wiser than human wisdom.
As C. S. Lewis put it, “Only the cross reveals a God who stoops to conquer.”
On the morning of Oct. 2, 2006, the unthinkable descended on a sleepy little town. Something snapped in the mind of a 32-year-old milk truck driver in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, an area known for its Amish population. Suffering from apparent and unspecified mental illness, the truck driver wrote out suicide notes for his wife and three children.
In one note he mentioned the unresolved rage he felt against God for the death of his infant daughter. Then he loaded a 9mm handgun and other weapons in his truck and set out for a one-room schoolhouse in the Old Order Amish community of Nickel Mines. The trucker, now a gunman, took 10 young Amish girls hostage at the tiny schoolhouse, allowing other adults and young boys to escape. He told some that he wanted revenge against God.
Then the dire situation became horrific. Just 30 minutes after the hostage situation began, the gunman unexpectedly opened fire on the helpless young girls, who were between the ages of 6 and 13. Two minutes later, as state police stormed the school, the assailant turned his gun on himself. Two girls died instantly. Three others died shortly afterward. Five miraculously survived. The community and soon the people of America were stunned, horrified, and outraged. Any school shooting was horrible enough, but the thought of innocent young children of an Old Order Amish group being murdered in cold blood was too much.
Yet out of this darkness came a light—a freeing way of thinking and living in line with that laid out to us long before in the pages of Scripture. As both locals and people around the world tried to make sense of the awful event that had happened, an unexpected miracle began to take shape. A grieving grandfather of one of the murdered girls warned other family members not to fall prey to hatred, stating, “We must not think evil of this man.”
Astonishingly, unrelenting forgiveness swelled up from the Amish community. Amish neighbors intentionally sought out members of the shooter’s family to express comfort and forgiveness. Some visited the shooter’s widow, his parents, and his in-laws. A private fund was set up for the family of the shooter.
The result? A sea of wonder washed over the community. In the face of unspeakable horror, this response of love from the grieving Amish overwhelmed all who heard about it.
Instead of focusing on the horrible details of the event, 2,400 media stories about forgiveness erupted around the planet (Ann Rogers, “Nickel Mines Legacy: Forgive First,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 30, 2007).
The widow of the shooter later wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors: “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this, we sincerely thank you” (quoted by Damien McElroy, “Amish Killer’s Widow Thanks Families of Victims for Forgiveness,” The Daily Telegraph, Oct. 16, 2006).
In reflecting on this event, Victor Kubik writes in Beyond Today Magazine, July-August 2020) “I have read this story several times. Each time I not only shudder at the horror but am speechless at the incongruous reaction of the Amish community and the families of the victims. I’ve asked myself: How would I react? Could I ever forgive such senseless horror perpetrated against my loved ones and the permanent loss? This level of forgiveness is totally out of the sphere of natural human behavior and reaction.”
Kulak is right, this level of forgiveness is totally out of the sphere of natural human behavior and reaction. Some might even call it God’s foolish wisdom or perhaps God’s powerful weakness. Some might even say this is why we proclaim Christ crucified.
March 7, 2021