Sermon Series: What Happened on the Cross?
Third Sunday of Lent
I’ve learned over these past few weeks that there are those of us who have negative associations with the cross – folk who’ve felt as if the cross has been used to guilt-trip them, condemn them, manipulate them.
The interesting thing is that some of us who have negative associations toward the cross are the same general categories of people who 2000 years ago found the cross radically liberating, empowering and redemptive.
Apparently during the past 2,000 years we have taken a symbol of healing and hope and turned it into a symbol of oppression and guilt, at least for some of us.
So I am trying as hard as I can to get back to the cross’s original meaning, its original impact, the experience that caused the Christian movement to grow in the first place.
So I want to ask you to turn to someone near you, and discuss a question. The question is: “If you were God for a day, what is the first thing you would do?”
Who’d like to share your answer? Just call it out.
Anybody come up with the idea of doing a SurveyMonkey poll as to what the most popular thing for you as God to do would be? Anyone say, “If I were God, the first thing I’d do is a poll on what people want from me?”
No? We expect God to be in charge.
For the first Christians, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was their window into the way God thinks and feels. And central to it was the cross. The cross, they believed, tells us something critical about God.
The early Christians had different takes on what the cross meant. The early Christians disagreed a lot.
I want to focus on one thing the Apostle Paul said he learned about God as a result of the cross. In I Corinthians chapter one, Paul is talking about the counterintuitive nature of the cross.
He says the Jewish intellectual tradition expects signs—by signs, he means success. In this intellectual tradition something is true if it works. Success is proof.
The Greek Gentile intellectual tradition wants wisdom—a philosophically coherent argument. Rational coherence is proof. Doesn’t matter if it is successful operationally if it works in the class room.
For the Jewish intellectual tradition, it doesn’t matter if it works in the classroom as long as it works in the world.
The cross meets neither of these criteria.
It is not successful. The cross looks like failure. No bigger failure in life than to be executed as a criminal, especially in the Old Testament biblical tradition. Being crucified on a cross is not what most mothers would imagine as their child’s success story.
Neither is the cross intellectually satisfying. It doesn’t work in the classroom either. It does not fit the intellectual work done by Plato and Socrates and Aristotle, and whomever else Paul is thinking about.
Which brings Paul to the conclusion he draws from the cross. This is the statement I want to focus on for a few minutes before we take Communion.
Here’s the conclusion Paul draws from the cross:
“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (I Corinthians 1:25).
The cross reveals to us a whole different way that God thinks and acts than we would have ever imagined. If we were God this is not the way we would do things. This is what Paul says.
If we were God we would want to show everybody how smart we are and how powerful we are.
The meaning of the cross is that God enters the world to learn with us and to become vulnerable to us. Whoa.
What kind of God does that? Is this even the kind of God we’d want God to be? Not most of us.
We want a God who answers our questions, not one who joins us in our quest for answers. We want a God who fixes our problems, not one who shares the problem with us.
I have a friend who is an organizational consultant. Whenever I call him and ask him for advice, he asks me two questions: Whose problem is it really? And how can you give the problem back to them?
But when people come to the pastor they generally aren’t wanting him or her to give them their problem back. They want their pastor to fix the problem.
When I go to the doctor I don’t want him or her telling me the problem is diet and exercise. Give me a pill that will fix it, please. Don’t give me back the problem.
Who wants a Messiah who gives the people back the problem? The very meaning of a Messiah is someone who comes and fixes the problems.
So Paul says the meaning of the cross is that God, instead of giving us the answer, joins with us in the quest for understanding, truth and meaning. God chooses not to know the answer until we find it together. This violates every Greek philosophical understanding of God as omniscient and all-knowing.
God gives up being omniscient, and God gives up being omnipotent—all powerful. God becomes vulnerable on the cross and God joins God’s own fate and destiny to our fate and destiny. God shares with us power and control and becomes vulnerable to our decisions and actions.
The world will turn out the way we decide it will turn out. God does not have a magic- bullet endgame. God decides to invest in us, to trust us.
And this is ultimately wiser and more powerful than omniscience and omnipotence. That’s what Paul thinks.
This is not the kind of God most of us want. We want a God who answers our questions and fixes our problems. This is why religious people keep trying to turn the Bible into an answer book and a book of fortune telling. The Bible as Nostradamus.
Interestingly enough, Paul compares the cross to preaching. “God decided through the foolishness of our proclamation to save those who desire wisdom,” Paul says. (I Corinthians 1:21(b).
He says something similar in chapter two: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (I Corinthians 2:1-2)
Real preaching offers no absolute answers. It offers no easy solutions. It invites us into a relationship. It invites us into a journey. It is like the cross.
The cross is not an answer. The cross is not a solution. It is an invitation. And, God knows, this invitation is the answer and this invitation is the solution. We don’t know this and we don’t particularly want to know it. We want an easier answer and an easier solution. We want magic.
But God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than our strength.
So God knows the answer we truly need and the solution that will finally really work is an invitation… an invitation into a relationship and into a journey.