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Nonsense or Not?

1 Corinthians 1:18

4 Epiphany, A

"For the message about Christ’s death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God’s power."

What comes to mind when you think of a cross? A fashion statement? A confirmation gift? We see crosses worn by people who know little of its significance - it just looks nice. Part of the appeal, surely, is that the design is so simple. It contains just two lines, one horizontal and one vertical. It looks neat and tidy and clean!

But back in the days of the early Christians the cross was not something to be worn around your neck. It was a horrible, disgusting symbol. The kind of thing to make people shudder. To think of a cross was to imagine the worst possible way to die. First, is the pain. Nothing else was quite so awful, so agonizing, as being hung on a cross. It was designed both to create intense suffering and to prolong the dying process as long as possible. The pain was excruciating. But that wasn’t the only thing. Second, there was the humiliation of it. Hanging naked on a cross the victim was exposed to taunting and ridicule. Your family never got over the shame of it. For all intents and purposes, you, and your name, and your family were scorned and sneered at forever.

We would get much closer to what people in the first century thought if we substituted a symbol of an electric chair with its straps and a giant electrical lever mounted on the wall beside it. Or maybe a bed with straps and a series of automated syringes with their deadly poison sitting on a table beside the altar-turned-death bed. Maybe we could turn the front wall of every church into a brick effigy pock-marked by bullet holes and stained in the horribly tragic fashion that comes from a busy firing squad. Would these images be too offensive? If so then you can imagine the offense the cross must have caused in Paul’s time. If these modern symbols of execution, death and shame adorned our churches we would come closer to the meaning that the cross had in the minds of 1st century people.

The cross, simple wood and nails, was an instrument of torture and execution invented by the Persians but developed to cruel excess by the Romans. It was the meanest way to die - reserved for anarchists, insurrectionists, and slaves. The Romans flogged their victims nearly to death, then nailed or tied their hands and feet to wood. Crucifixion was particularly effective in subduing restless colonies and Judea was one of those restless colonies. The Roman writer, Cicero, called it the supreme capital penalty, the most painful, dreadful, and ugly. The Jews said that anyone who was hung on a tree was cursed. And yet in the hands of God the cross becomes the instrument of freedom, forgiveness, life, and salvation - the wisdom of God and the power of God.

It’s no wonder Paul calls the cross “foolishness”. An instrument of torture and death has become a sacred symbol of the Christians and the sign of God’s love. It was God’s love that caused the death of the most innocent and pure man that has ever walked this earth. He did nothing to deserve such a cruel death but the Bible says that he died because of God’s love.

Paul says, “We proclaim the crucified Christ, a message that is offensive to the Jews and nonsense to the Gentiles… For what seems to be God’s foolishness is wiser then human wisdom, and what seems to be God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:23,25) The word of the cross is folly - foolishness to those who are perishing. It is silliness, absurdity, nonsense, to those who are perishing.

If you have ever tried to witness to somebody who has an overly healthy sense of self-sufficiency, someone who feels that they are a self-made person then you will have discovered the folly of the cross. Try telling such a person that all his efforts and all his impressive record of achievement is worth nothing in God’s sight, that it does not make him one degree more acceptable. That it is nothing but wasted effort. It cannot rid him of sin or make him worthy to enter heaven. Yes, just tell them that and you will immediately run into the offense of the cross. “You mean to tell me that all this array of human knowledge and wisdom accumulated for centuries, with all the great achievements of mankind in the relief of human misery and the technological advances of our day is absolutely worthless? Nonsense!”

That is what they said in the first century and that is what they say today. But Paul is adamant. The nonsense of God’s salvation is only nonsense to those who do not really know God or themselves. The cross is God’s way of dealing with the seriousness of sin - of our sin. Many people today don’t take sin seriously. They pass it off as of no consequence. And what is even more frightening, many don’t take God’s attitude toward sin seriously. It’s as if the good we do can somehow make up for our slip-ups.

If you want to get good marks at school or university you have to work hard. If you want a promotion at work you have to demonstrate diligence and enthusiasm. If you want to win at sports you have to train hard and work on your skills. But if you want to be forgiven and to receive eternal life - God does it for you. That's the offense of the cross. That's what flies in the face of all other avenues of getting ahead in this world. The cross, the symbol of barbaric torture and pain, that suffering of an innocent man so long ago at the hand of the Romans, that death of a condemned criminal is our ONLY way to salvation. “Whoever wants to boast must boast of what the Lord has done.”

The crucified, suffering Christ is our Saviour. That might seem silly to some but “for us who are being saved it is God’s power” (1 Cor 1:18). In Holy Baptism we received the sign of the cross and the promise that Christ’s crucifixion redeemed us. In that holy Sacrament we have been nailed to the cross of Jesus, pinned to the crimson wood by the nails of faith. We are marked people. The cross is salvation for us. People think that we are crazy, that we are wasting our time coming here to church every Sunday. Such attitudes have always been out there, but it has rarely been as fashionable a position as it is today. Expect to hear a lot more of it.

St. Paul recognized that a powerless and dead Messiah hanging on a cross was a scandal, a stumbling block to his fellow Jews. He knew that talk of a crucified God was tasteless, unsophisticated folly to the wisdom-loving Greeks. The philosophers of Athens openly mocked him. The proconsul Gallio considered the heated dispute between Paul and the Jews to be nothing more than foolish religious bickering. Festus thought the apostle had lost his mind. Yet look what an important impact Paul had both on the church and on the world.

And what an impact you can have to the people around you and to the world if, regardless of what others say or think, we boldly bear the mark of the cross. Without that foolishness, we would be lost. In fact this foolishness is the best and wisest thing I know. And so we rejoice in this good news about a God who loves us and through his Son, Jesus, has saved us from our sin and given us eternal life. We remember the cost of our salvation. We rejoice in our forgiveness. And we experience new life once again … and all through the cross.

It may seem foolish to use an instrument of death to celebrate life, but that’s the irony - “the foolishness of the cross is the power of God.” May the reminder of the cross be that same power of God in your life.


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