Text: 1 Corinthians 1:22-25
Theme: We Preach Christ Crucified
It was an article I will never forget. A church marketing newsletter was describing a campaign that had been developed to attract new visitors for Easter (by the way Easter Sunday is four weeks from today). The article suggested that the cross be removed from the sanctuary, and the thinking behind the change was that a new generation of churchgoers would consider the cross to be too “churchy.” One pastor who was interviewed gave his wholehearted endorsement. He said: “We are going to concentrate on the resurrection, not on Jesus’ death.”
What do you think about that? What should we think about that? A quick look around the church might provide some food for thought. During this time of year, during the weeks leading up to Easter, we don’t take down any crosses. We actually put more up. There is, of course, the giant cross above the altar. But there are more crosses: on the purple paraments, on the pastors’ stoles, on the banner over my shoulder.
When Easter comes some of those crosses will come down, but the big cross will remain. It will stay up after Good Friday. It will be here on Easter Sunday. This cross will remain a fixture in this sanctuary throughout the Easter season. Why is that? Is it because that’s the way we’ve always done it? Is it because it would be no small task to take it down? Or maybe it’s because seeing the cross helps us remember the words of Paul in our text for today.
I know what Paul would have thought about that church marketing idea. He would not have considered it for a second. He would have tossed that newsletter in the circular file. Or he might have bypassed the recycling bin and passed it through the shredder.
I can hear Paul saying: “I could never separate Christianity from the cross, even though there were plenty of people who wanted me to try. They came at me from different angles. They came to me with different agendas. They pressured me to change my message, but no matter who I was talking to my answer was always the same: ‘We preach Christ crucified.'”
We preach Christ crucified. That would make a pretty good sermon theme…because Christians today are facing some of the same pressures. We are being told that the cross doesn’t market very well. It’s too bloody. It doesn’t make people happy. It might be a good idea for us to put our crosses away.
How should we respond to that? What should we say to that? We don’t have to come up with anything new. We can say what Paul said. With the strength God provides…
WE PREACH CHRIST CRUCIFIED
I. A stumbling block and foolishness in the minds of some
II. A message of wisdom and power in the hearts of others
Sometimes I wonder if we have developed an overly romanticized view of the early church. We imagine that those were “the good old days.” There weren’t as many temptations. There weren’t as many problems. Life was simpler. Life was better.
It sounds so nice. If it sounds too good to be true that’s because it wasn’t true. The situation in first century Corinth was extremely complex. The church in Corinth was dealing with all kinds of internal problems and divisions (just read the first chapter and you will agree).
And as if that wasn’t enough, there was also tremendous pressure being applied from the outside. Specifically, two very different groups of people were insisting that Paul needed to modify his message. Paul identifies those two groups by name: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom” (22).
Remember that Paul was a Jew. He knew his Old Testament. He knew the Old Testament prophecies predicting that the coming Messiah would prove himself by performing signs and wonders. And Jesus did just that. He made the lame walk. He made the blind see. He even brought the dead back to life.
Greeks, on the other hand, weren’t looking for miracles. They were more interested in wisdom. They were hoping that Paul would persuade them with his superior intelligence. They wanted to be able to understand his teaching before they would accept it.
Instead of making Jesus into a miracle worker (like the Jews wanted), instead of pretending to be some kind of philosopher (like the Greeks wanted), instead of telling people what they wanted to hear, Paul told them what they needed to hear. Paul preached the simple gospel of a suffering Savior.
“We preach Christ crucified “(23a), Paul proclaimed. And everyone believed in Jesus and died and went to heaven. I wish the story had that kind of ending for everyone, but unfortunately it didn’t. Some believed (and we will talk about them in a minute), but for others the message of the cross created a very different reaction.
For many Jews, the gospel became “a stumbling block.” They desperately wanted a Messiah. Some of them were really pulling for Jesus to be that Messiah. And he started out so well. He had gathered a large following. He had performed all kinds of miracles. He was gaining momentum…
But then he was arrested. And then he was convicted. And then he was executed like a criminal, along with the worst kind of criminals. And many of his own people just couldn’t get over that. Crucifixion didn’t fit into their picture of the Messiah. He wasn’t supposed to be killed by the Romans. He was supposed to defeat the Romans. He wasn’t supposed to suffer. He was supposed to free other people from suffering. But he did suffer and he did die, and because he did many Jews came to the conclusion that he couldn’t be the one.
The Greeks had a little different perspective. They didn’t need to be liberated. They needed to be convinced. And when Paul was given the opportunity to address them the best he could come up with was to tell them that the Son of God died on a cross and three days later rose from the dead to deliver them from their sins.
When Paul was finished I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those wise people laughed in his face: “You mean to tell me that a man, a man who claimed to be God, was crucified (and no reputable person was ever crucified), and that this man you call Jesus came back to life, and that because he did those things he is my one and only hope of salvation. That’s more than a little far fetched. That’s the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.”
It does sound pretty foolish, doesn’t it? There are plenty of people today who think so, people like Bill Maher. No one would ever confuse Bill Maher with a Greek philosopher, but he is a religious skeptic and the star of a snarky documentary called “Religulous” a film that makes fun of organized religion, especially Christianity.
Here are a couple quotes: “Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking.” “It worries me that people are running my country who believe in a talking snake.” “Anyone who tells you that they know, they just know what happens when you die, I promise you, you don’t. How can I be so sure? Because I don’t know and you do not possess mental powers that I do not.”
What if you had a chance to have a spiritual conversation with Bill Maher or someone like him. What if that person said to you: “I have read the Bible. I tried to understand it, and I have come to the conclusion that it is complete and utter nonsense.”
Now it’s your turn to speak. What do you say? I think I know what I would say. I wouldn’t try to argue. In fact, I would probably agree. I would say something like: “You’re right. There are lots of things in the Bible that don’t make sense. There is even a passage that says that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18). So in a sense I believe what you believe. But that’s not all I believe. I believe in something else. I believe in my heart that the message you consider foolishness is a message of divine wisdom and power.
That was Paul’s conviction. That’s why he wrote: “We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (23,24).
Paul trusted in God. Paul trusted in the power of God’s Word. And so he didn’t need to change it up. He didn’t need to water it down. He just shared the message he had been given. He preached Christ crucified and then witnessed how powerful that message was.
Paul saw the gospel shatter preconceived notions. Paul saw the gospel demolish human arguments. Paul believed what the Holy Spirit has led us to believe. The message of the cross transcends culture and time and place. Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross for all sin, for every sin, for your sin and my sin.
The only question we might have left is: Why? Why did God choose to rescue us that way? After all, he’s God. He can do anything. Why did Jesus have to endure so much pain and suffering? Why was it necessary for Jesus to die on a cross of all places?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’m not suggesting that I know exactly why God did what he did, but perhaps Paul sheds some light on those questions in the final verse of our text: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (25).
There are plenty of man-made religions in the world. On the surface they may look very different, but at their heart and core they are basically the same. Your eternal destiny depends on you. You have to say the right prayers. You have to offer the right sacrifices. And if you say and do enough of the right things, you will be rewarded.
Christianity is radically different. Christianity says that your salvation doesn’t depend on you. In fact, the opposite is true. Your hope of salvation depends entirely on God. Your eternal destiny depends on a man who lived two thousand years ago, an innocent man who shed his blood on a cross.
God doesn’t mind if people call that foolish. God doesn’t mind if some accuse him of weakness…because that too is part of his divine plan. God’s plan of salvation is so illogical, so utterly inconceivable, that no one else could have come up with it. And that means no one else can take any credit for it. Only God can find wisdom in foolishness. Only God can turn weakness into strength. Only God could make the cross, an instrument of death, into the place where sinners find eternal life, which is exactly what he did.
There is no ecclesiastical rule that says churches have to position a cross above the altar, but understood correctly, there is no hope without it. There is no forgiveness without the cross. There is no Easter without the cross. There is no Christianity without the cross.
This is the message God has led us to believe. This is the message God has called each of us to share. And so we don’t have to make excuses for it. We don’t need to make any changes to it. Trusting in God’s wisdom, relying on Christ’s power, we do what Paul did. We preach Christ crucified. Amen.
Pastor Steven Pagels