January 29, 2017
The Fourth Sunday in Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Rev. Ryan Slifka
If you were here last week, you’ll remember that our scripture passage for this morning is a letter by the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. A church he had helped establish three years earlier. The community has experienced successful growth in that time period. But it’s also experiencing growing pains. Conflict, division. Some are throwing their lot in with charismatic leaders. Some are engaging in unsavory activities. Some people see themselves as spiritually superior to others. You’ll remember from last week that, in response, Paul reminded them of their original reason for being, their purpose. Which they’d forgotten. And Paul did that by reminding them by lifting high the cross. He reminded them that they are a community gathered around the cross of Christ. The death and resurrection of Jesus. And that in giving themselves over to conflict and division, they were missing the point. Their original reason for being.
For us modern, western people with a Christian history this all makes sense. The cross is all over the place. Sometimes with Jesus on it, sometimes empty. But it sits on top of millions of churches. It hangs around our necks as jewelry in smaller and larger versions. I even saw a bottle of soy sauce once that had in really tiny letters the New Testament verse “John 3:16” with a little fish picture with a cross in it. Obviously a Christian company trying to get out the good news. It’s all over the place. Effectively the brand logo for the Christian church. So of course it makes sense to us that Paul would tell a Christian community to put it at the center of things. Because anyone who looks at it thinks immediately “Christianity” or “church.” It’s our brand.
The cross may be the most recognizable brand in human history, in fact (take that Coke and Starbucks!). It’s so familiar to us, though, that it doesn’t occur to us just how strange this symbol is.
This didn’t occur to me until a few years ago. I was spending time with a former co-worker of mine. Really smart guy, IT systems analyst. His wife is a church-goer. He goes with her. Smart guy, nice guy. But flat-out atheist. God is a fairy tale, no evidence. Christianity is a nice thought, but doesn’t ultimately make sense. One day we were chatting, and this friend tells me he was watching this documentary about early Christianity. And he said the earliest symbol of Christianity wasn’t the cross. It was the fish. This is from the gospels where Jesus calls his early followers saying “I will make you fishers of men.” You see, this friend came to this whole question with completely different eyes. He told me he thought the fish was a way better symbol than the cross. Because, he told me, “a guy got tortured on the cross. It’s gross. All these people walking around with torture devices around their necks. It’s kind of creepy.”
Now, I don’t personally think the cross is a creepy thing to wear. Creepy people wearing crosses, maybe. But he had a deeper point. We don’t think about just how strange it is for the world’s largest social movement to choose this as its symbol. But this is the place that we’ve chosen to begin. And this is the place that Paul begins, too, with the “message of the cross.” Paul knows just how odd it is. He says the cross is a “stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks.” Those who Paul was speaking to would have found it as jarring as my atheist friend. A theologian, the late William Placher puts it like this:
“How odd a place for faith to begin. The beauty of golden crosses and Renaissance paintings tempts us to forget that this most basic of Christian symbols was first of all a particularly brutal means of execution. Crucifixion was a terrible way to die—excruciating pain, slow suffocation, the shame of dying naked or nearly so, with nature’s processes running their course, out by a garbage dump near one of the lesser gates of the city. Imagine,” he says. “Imagine some new religious cult in [North America] claiming that its founder was unjustly put to death, and placing a working model of an electric chair at the front of each of their places of worship.”[i]
Add to that that it was the method the Romans used to make an example of enemies of the state… and you’ll be able to understand how offensive the cross as a symbol would be. For us it’s become a brand. Kind of like seeing the Golden Arches when you drive down the highway. It’s become so familiar that we may recognize it. But it’s a symbol of utter defeat. “You’re going to put what on the church sign?” Maybe it doesn’t have to be creepy. And even if it’s not shocking for us, it’s at least moderately strange. And yet, this is where Paul starts today’s passage. And where the symbol, the public face of Christianity begins. With this symbol of criminality, treason, torture. A symbol of ultimate shame, suffering. And human degradation.
In a lot of ways it doesn’t make sense. But in other ways it does. It makes sense that Paul would begin here, that Christianity would begin here. Because this is where the first Christians began in terms of their own experience. As people who know suffering, shame, defeat.
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters,” says Paul. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”
You’ll remember that this community in Corinth is a mixed bag. This group that has assembled in the church was not chosen, was not called together because they are PhD candidates. Or titans of industry, professional athletes, or even spiritual gurus. But they are mostly poor people. Immigrants. Outsiders. Refugees. People with little or no formal education. People weak in body. People who are at the fringes of society. People who have gone through a lot. People know what it’s like to be embarrassed about themselves. By the world’s standards, there’s nothing special about them. And yet, Paul reminds them that God has come to them, God has made all the difference for them. God has come to them in their places of shame and heartbreak, brokenness. In spite of their foolish decisions, their ignorance. And God has worked powerfully to heal their lives, the mend their spirits. To give them meaning, hope, and a sense of belonging.
On the cross, Paul says, God took the worst human life could dole out. God entered in to and endured suffering, shame, and humiliation. And in the end, God used it to bring life, to bring all blessing. Just like at the beginning of creation God, where God’s spirit hovered over the deep and called forth light out of darkness. Paul begins at the cross because in this same way, God has used this ragtag group of people who know shame, who know suffering and humiliation. Has come to them in their own darkness, and has brought forth light. God has made somebodies out of nobodies.
Paul begins at the cross, Christianity begins with the cross. Because the cross—the place of weakness, shame, humiliation. The place of violence and hurt and hatred. The place of utter darkness, abandonment. It all begins with the cross, because this is the place where God begins. And this is where God’s power, though hidden, is powerfully at work. Most powerfully at work.
Look around at this community. Look around at all of us gathered here today. At one point in Canadian history you might have seen the church filled with the most important, most influential people in town. A place where socially respectable people, where society’s movers and shakers would hang out. For the most part that’s changed. Look around. We’ve got plenty of gifts, talents, skills for sure. But look around and you’ll see that a lot of us are old people. Whose bodies are slowing, weakening. A lot of us look back on the old days when we and our friends were at our prime, at our most useful or important. Some of us are unemployed or underemployed. Some through retirement. But some of us just can’t get a job or hold one down. Wishing we had some purpose, some direction. Some of us have mental illnesses or personality traits that freak some people out. And turn others off. Some of us come with a deep sense of shame about who we are or what we’ve done. Some of us come either thinking we’re unlovable, or (on the other hand) we want to know how to love more deeply. And some of us… we just look at life and wonder if there’s just more than we see.
And yet, Paul says that yet, this is exactly the kind of stuff God uses. And the kind of people that God uses to plant her kingdom. To reveal his glory and love to the world. And to mend it with mercy and grace. Right here, in this place. Right now. A community like us, people like us. If you are tired, weak, old, not sure if you have anything more to contribute or give. The cross says that you have a future in Christ, you are exactly the kind of person God can use to bring health and vitality to this community of faith. If you are caught in cycles of depression, mental illness, addiction, or despair. The cross says that you are being drawn closer to Christ, and you are exactly the kind of person God can use to bring hope to the hopeless. If you’ve never felt like you belonged, or someone whose never felt like their life has had much meaning or purpose. The cross says that you are loved, you are named and claimed for a purpose way bigger than you. And you are exactly the kind of person God can use to drawn others in, and help change the world.
Because this, Paul says, this is what God was up to in Jesus. This is how God works. And is at work. It all begins at the cross. Because it begins with our weakenesses. All the places we hurt, all the ways we fall short. All the places where we experience shame and humiliation (perhaps that’s why we start early with a prayer of confession). It begins there at the cross, it begins with death, and it ends with resurrection. New life, healing, wholeness and the hope for a brand new day. And a whole new world. It’s why it’s our brand. Because it’s so much more than a brand.
So friends, as you leave this place today. As you walk out on to the street. As you walk or drive home. Past stop signs… under golden arches. Walmart smiley-faces and “for sale signs.” As you are bombarded with so many symbols, logos, signs. When you see a cross, any old cross. Whether Jesus is hanging on it, or it’s empty. Remember that this is the one that matters most. Because for you, this is where it all begins. Because this is where God begins. In pain, suffering, and darkness. In order to make all things new.
And for this, thanks be to God. AMEN.
[i] William Placher, Jesus the Savior: the Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 111.