"The Foolishness of the Cross"

3 Lent.B.24
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

One of the dangerous things about spending so much time in church, is that it is easy to begin to think it all makes sense: the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. The cross.

The great Christian theologian and philosopher Soren Kirkegaard says: “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd,…. Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.” In other words, it’s when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry. And this is what brings us to today—and the importance of maintaining what St. Paul refers to as the foolishness of the cross.

Certainly, the ancient graffiti artist on the cover of today’s program would agree that the cross is absurd. The rough incision on a palace wall shows a crucified man with the head of an ass. Next to him is a smaller figure with an arm extended in his direction. Nearby are the crudely carved words “Alexamenos worships (his) God.” At first glance we might think it a mean-spirited attack on a fellow slave who is a Christian (and we’d be right) but it is a bit more than this. This drawing is also the earliest known pictorial representation of the crucifixion of Christ and the adoration of Jesus upon the cross. Absurd..truly.

With all our education, monetary success, belief in science, technology and reason, we might think our modern generations are the only ones who have doubted the efficacy (the saving grace) of the cross. If so, we’d be wrong. The historian Garret Fagan summarizes how the Romans (the culture encountered by the early church) viewed the values of strength and weakness. He writes: “Ideas of universal human dignity were almost all but nonexistent and large swathes of the population were seen as …. inherently worthless. Weak members of society were objects not of compassion but of derision. More than most, Romans lionized strength over weakness, victory over defeat, dominion over obedience. Losers paid a harsh price and got what they deserved, and (resisters) were to be ruthlessly handled…. Roman politics was a ruthless game of total winners and abject losers …. The drive to dominate and not be forced to bow before a rival was paramount.” Perhaps not so different from many parts of our society today.

The cross’s display of God’s power stands in stark contrast to the Roman’s display of power (or, even…of our display of power). Yet St. Paul speaks, not as a way of convincing people as to why they should rationally believe in the cross. Instead, he glories in what he calls the “foolishness” of the cross. And here he is absolutely right, because in terms of the world (both of Paul’s day and our own) the cross is utter foolishness.

William Willamon, in an article “Looking Like Fools” writes: “Along with the world, we expected to see a savior coming to take charge on our terms. Then the parade comes, and we find that we are standing in the wrong place to get a good view. Here comes the carpenter’s son, bouncing on the back of a donkey – not coming for breakfast with the president and his wife, or dinner with Congress or consultations with members of impressive think tanks. The smart ones, the ones who are well adjusted to the status quo, the ones in the know, neither see nor know—so the story goes. Here is a messiah who does not make sense. Only the very young, the very old, the women and the simpletons see him. They are (the ones) standing in the right place to get a proper view. Along with the poor, the maimed, the blind, the lame, the prisoners and poor old crazed men like Paul, these “fools” are the ones who see things as they really are. As for us smart ones, we tell ourselves we know better. We know that if we work hard, achieve, get advanced degrees, adjust to the way things are in the world and act sensibly, we shall be in the know. It all depends on how you look at it.”

Which brings us to a story about a little girl who proudly wore a shiny cross on a chain around her neck. One day she was approached by a man who said to her, “Little girl, don’t you know that the cross Jesus died on wasn’t beautiful like the one you’re wearing? It was an ugly wooden thing. It is just foolish to have a shiny cross represent Jesus.” To which the girl replied, “Yes, I know. But they told me in Sunday School that whatever Jesus touches, He changes.”

And that, ultimately, is the point. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power (and the glory) of God.” By itself, the cross indeed, is an ugly instrument of torture and death. No more, no less. But Jesus came to give life to the dead; to those in the tomb, and others whose souls are gasping for life—and it is precisely because of Jesus, and those whose lives he touched in the first century and those whose lives he continues to touch in our own day and age, that we are able to see in the intersecting beams of the cross—not ugliness, horror or death, but hope, promise and life. It is an encounter with the risen Christ that makes all the difference as to how the cross is seen. The cross moves from being an instrument of death to one of life; not because of the cross—that’s just wood; but because of Jesus. What our Lord touches, he changes.

In truth, proclaiming a crucified and risen Lord is still countercultural. Following the way of Jesus continues to run against the grain of modern logic and expectation. Yet—every Sunday we gather in our congregations and “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”, we recite the creed and pray that God’s kingdom will come. If you think about it, it’s really quite ludicrous, that it is the power of God, not ourselves, that saves us. What good and gracious news this is, that we’re fools who see in the cross, not death, but life, hope and glory. In the name of the crucified and risen Son of God. Amen.