13 Feb A Cross-Shaped Life: The Power of God
A Cross-Shaped Life: The Power of God
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
February 14, 2021
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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But before I get to that, let us consider that we are living in a golden age of protest. Think back to last summer in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. The protests that erupted following that May 26 tragedy resulted in the largest protest in U.S. history—estimates range from 15-26 million people across all 50 states, and included marches and rallies in places, especially in small towns and rural communities that rarely had seen such activity before. Over the summer the protests spread, eventually taking place in over 60 countries across all seven continents.
The question about these protests—and all protests—is, do they have an impact? Do things actually change as a result? And, of course, the most honest answer is, only time will tell.
What we do know is that a number of protest movements have actually changed history. Consider these:
- In 1517 Martin Luther’s 95 Theses instigated both the Protestant Reformation and our modern democratic world.
- The protests against the Stamp Act of 1765 led to the creation of the United States.
- In the 1930s, thousands of Muslim women and men formed an “army of peace” to protest England’s oppressive occupation of what is now Pakistan.
- Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a segregated bus in 1955 ignited the civil rights movement.
- And even The Beatles had a social impact. In 1964, the rock stars refused to play for segregated audiences in Jacksonville, Florida. “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now,” said John Lennon. The struggle for racial equality in America inspired Paul McCartney to write the song, “Blackbird.”
So, yes, marches, rallies, vigils, and protests can certainly have an impact, and even change the world.
The cross: a symbol of protest
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, Paul makes a similar argument, calling the cross of Christ a protest against those who demand signs and wisdom. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (v. 18). Put another way, protesting against signs and wisdom is part of what it means to live a cross-shaped life.
But why is Paul so upset about signs and wisdom in the first place? He is speaking to the citizens of the powerful Greek city of Corinth. These are men and women who know a lot about “the wisdom of the world” (v. 20). Theirs is an educated and sophisticated society, and signs and wisdom are part of their religious culture. At first glance, that doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing. After all, God has shown many great signs over the years, and wisdom is a quality that is praised throughout the Bible. Signs and wisdom don’t seem to be deserving of marches, rallies, vigils and protests.
But here’s the thing: Paul has discovered that “the world did not know God through wisdom” (v. 21). Yes, it would be nice if Greeks came to know God through wisdom, and it would be great if the Jews of his day entered into a relationship with God through powerful signs from above. But they didn’t. Signs and wisdom are not enough, says Paul, and as a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” and a Roman citizen with a Greek education, Paul knows whereof he speaks.
Paul realizes that something else is needed, and that something is the cross of Christ. He believes that the surprising and shameful death of Jesus on the cross is what enables people to finally know God. And why is that? Because that “surprising and shameful” death on the cross is a message writ large of love and forgiveness. This, after all, is the meaning of the cross, a meaning that no amount of signs and wisdom can convey.
The folly of signs and wisdom
To the audience Paul was writing to this is as huge a shock as Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church door, or Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus. Paul is taking to the streets to proclaim, “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (v. 23). Or, to put it another way, the cross is God’s protest movement, a protest that changes the world forever.
The truth is that we need to hear and be part of this protest movement today because many of us still want to cling to signs and wisdom, as a shortcut to a relationship with God. Some Christians will ask God to give them a sign for everything from what kind of work they should do to what school they should attend to who they should marry to asking for a parking space.
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t pray about anything and everything that is on our hearts to share with God, but we do so recognizing that God is not a cosmic genie, granting our every wish and moving us quickly and painlessly from Point A to Point B. “God is more interested in developing a loving relationship with us,” says author Vanesa Pizzuto. She goes on to say that discovering God’s plans for our lives “is a natural result of a vibrant relationship with God, not its substitute. Otherwise, Christianity becomes a superstitious and shallow practice.”
In place of signs from above, God gives us the message of the cross. Loud and clear, the cross tells us that Jesus loves us so much that he will sacrifice himself to bring us forgiveness and new life. It sends the message that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).
God gives us the cross because God wants a relationship with us: one that is based on a loving sacrifice from below rather than an enigmatic sign from above. The cross is a mighty act of protest, one that turns the world upside down.
A cross-shaped life
When we live a cross-shaped life, we join this protest movement. We love as Jesus did, reaching out with compassion to the poor, the sick, and the strangers among us. We sacrifice as Jesus did, giving of our time, talents, and treasures in support of God’s mission in the world. We serve others as Jesus did, remembering that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
This kind of cross-shaped life is a protest against a world in which people usually act with self-interest. A decision to put the needs of others first is as radical as The Beatles’ decision to say no to the money being offered by segregated venues, and to bring their music only to places where blacks and whites could be together.
The message about the cross is a kind of foolishness to those who are perishing, says the apostle Paul. “But to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (v. 18). In the upside-down world of God’s protest movement, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25). Christians who have faith in a crucified and risen Lord know that there is nothing wiser than the teachings of Jesus, and nothing stronger than the Lord who sacrificed himself for us.
If we find these words surprising today, imagine how shocking they were to the Greeks of Corinth. After all, these men and women were part of a culture that valued the insights of the great philosophers. They spent their lives searching for wisdom, and then Paul came along and said, “We proclaim Christ crucified” (v. 23). This was foolishness, completely different from their expectations. But Paul challenged them to look at the world through the lens of God’s protest movement. “God decided,” said Paul, “through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe” (v. 21). Suddenly, a person didn’t have to be wise to be saved. He didn’t have to be a scribe. She didn’t have to be a debater. All a person had to do was believe.
Of course, there’s more to being a follower of Christ than belief which Paul will get to later in his letter when he will challenge the Corinthians to grow up: “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh” (3:1-3).
For now, Paul is focused on belief. Sola fidei. That’s brilliant, isn’t it? In the upside-down world of the cross, Jesus Christ alone is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (v. 24). Suddenly, you don’t need to understand Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. What you need is to believe in Christ and follow him in faith.
The Greeks received this message as good news, and so should we. Like the people of Corinth, by human standards, most of us are not wise, or powerful, or born into privilege. But this does not mean that we cannot enjoy the rich and full life that God desires for us. In the Lord’s protest movement, “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” (vv. 27-29).
Yes, we live in a golden age of protest, but no modern rally can achieve what God accomplished through the cross. God is “the source of your life in Christ Jesus,” says Paul, “who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (v. 30).
Wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, redemption. All of these benefits are connected to Jesus and are the results of God’s mighty protest movement. They are at the center of a cross-shaped life, qualities that can change us and the world for the better.
Thanks be to God. Amen.