Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are certain symbols that are instantly recognizable all around the world. Most are logos of famous commercial brands which have benefited from huge marketing budgets, while others have become popular because of their cultural familiarity. Consider the golden arches of McDonalds, or the whoosh of Nike, or the bitten fruit of Apple. You might note that the logo for Coca Cola is legible even to those don’t read cursive.
Surprisingly, in spite of the lack of a marketing budget, the cross has become, arguably, the most widely recognized symbol in the world. Not even Paul could have imagined its stellar rise in approval and acceptance. After all, the core of Paul’s preaching on the cross and the proclamation of Christ crucified was not intended to win friends or influence people. Nor was it intended to be popular. The cross was intended to offend and challenge Jews and Greeks alike.
Christians today might be bothered St. Paul’s notion that the cross is foolishness. After all, when athletes make a sign of the cross before or after a play, we recognize them immediately their confession of faith. Ornamental crosses are fashionable in the form of necklaces, earrings, and the like. A cross outside a building identifies it as a Christian church. With the cross’ familiarity, folks might be baffled by Paul’s words. But it is important to note that cross was not always well received. Believe it or not, tin the First Century, the cross was not a great marketing tool, and if we are honest, its message can be just as offensive today.
My friends, this morning I would like us to meditate on Paul’s words to the Corinthians. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” For if the cross is to have any meaning or power of hope in your life, it must be more than a popular and recognizable marketing logo.
While the cross for Christians today is a symbol of life, in the ancient world of Paul and the Corinthians, the cross was a symbol of capital punishment and death. As a public spectacle, crucifixion was an act geared to shame its victims through degradation, humiliation, and torture before, during, and even after death ensued. It was reserved for those disreputable individuals or groups such as rebellious slaves, such as Spartacus, insurrectionists and pirates who had threatened the sanctioned social order of the Empire. Thus the cross was the imperial instrument used to suppress subversion. Hundreds could be crucified on a single day. It was why Paul’s message was so difficult for the crowds to comprehend. Was the cross and Christ crucified really how people wanted want to identify themselves?
The cross raised troubling issues for Jews, and Greeks and Romans, who were all a part of the church in ancient Corinth. The cross of Christ seemed like foolishness to the Jews, who were expecting a powerful Messiah like King David, and to the Greeks, who placed a high value on human wisdom, and to the Romans who were loyal to the Empire. To the Jews, the cross appeared to be a sign of weakness, not strength. To the Greeks, the cross appeared to be foolishness, not wisdom. To the Romans, they simply wondered, how could the political authorities be wrong and put the Son of God to death by crucifixion? Yes, even sophisticated, respectable Roman citizens thought crucifixion was too distasteful for polite conversation. Cicero, a Roman philosopher and politician who lived just before the time of Jesus, said that “the very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.” Paul, however, insisted that this foolishness in the eyes of this world was really God’s wisdom.
It is one of Christianity’s most mysterious and shocking truths. God brings about salvation for the world through a crucified Christ. God rescues humanity and all creation from sin and death, and the power of the devil, through a Jewish king executed on a Roman cross, and through this selfless act, Jesus revealed to us us who God really is:
Our God is a God who would rather die than kill, our God is a God who comes in suffering and weakness rather than bold displays of power, our God is a God who would rather work silently through our distorted desires than force his own will on us. Yes, God is a God who loves us, who gives himself for us, who forgives us, and who is not against us. He is for us, and on our side, and right beside us in our own suffering.
For Paul the message of the cross is clear. It is at the cross where you will find a God who loves you and cares for you, just as you are. And it is at the cross, that he lays out a path for you to walk. You and I are to follow in the footsteps of our crucified Messiah, not in power but in weakness, we are to follow him not in glory but in suffering, we are to act not in hatred and violence but in love and peace. That is God’s wisdom and power. And ever since then, the cross has been turning the world upside down.
It was only 300 years, late the cross as a symbol grew in popularity. According to St John Chrysostom, St Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, after the Council of Nicaea in 325, which established the church, travelled to the Holy Land where she organized an excavation of the sites in Jerusalem. The diggers uncovered three wooden crosses at the site associated with Calvary.. They could not tell which was the cross of Jesus and which were the crosses of the two thieves crucified with him. Finally they brought a sick woman and a dead man who was being carried to burial. The three crosses were placed one after the other on the sick woman and on the dead man. Two of the crosses had no effect, but on contact with the third cross, the sick woman was healed of her infirmity and the dead man came to life. These miracles clearly indicated which of the three was the holy cross.
News of the discovery of the true cross quickly spread and believers gathered to see the true cross and to venerate it. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, Macarius, standing on a raised platform, lifted high the cross, for all to see. The people fell to their knees, bowing down before the cross and crying out repeatedly: “Lord, have mercy!” St Helena then commissioned a church to be built over the site. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was consecrated on September 13, 335. The feast of the finding and exaltation of the Cross was appointed to be celebrated annually on the following day, September 14th. Two years later in 337, the Roman Emperor Constantine abolished the practice of crucifixion and within a hundred years, the wooden cross had become a common decoration in church interiors.
1000 years later, however, the early Protestant Reformers, were not too keen on the worshiping or honoring the relics of the past including wooden crosses. Martin Luther once chided, “That there were enough wooden fragments of the Holy Cross lying about Europe to erect an entire forest.” The Reformer did not dismiss the message of the cross, nor did he discredit the merit of this day. Certainly, there are those who look up the cross as a magical sign insuring long life and prosperity. There are others who regard the cross as a superstitious symbol. There are some who use it to adorn empty walls and to fend off evil spirits. But it must be more than all of that.
My friends, the message of the cross must be good news. If you are burdened by guilt or overcome by shame for something you’ve done, remember the message of the cross. God is not standing over you, to condemn you. God is standing before you, arms open wide, ready to forgive you, to welcome you home. The message of the cross is that God is inviting you to receive his forgiveness, in order that you can find the strength to forgive others.
If you are walking in a daily shadow of pain and suffering, whether it is a physical sickness, an emotional wound, a mental illness, or whatever it may be, remember the message of the cross. God understands suffering and pain, and he is there beside you, in the midst of it all ready to walk with you through it offering you what you need day by day to make it through. The message of the cross is an invitation for you to open yourself to God’s love, and trust that he will take care of you.
Finally, the message of the cross demonstrates how we are to live. We are to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, the crucified Christ. God calls us to love, not to hate. God calls us to peace, not violence. God calls us to be humble with others, not proud. God calls us to forgive, not to harbor resentment or anger. God calls us to the weak and foolish cross, because it is only there in Jesus’ selfless and life giving death and resurrection, that we can find God’s true wisdom and power.
That, my friends, is why the cross endures to this day as such a powerful symbol of the Christian faith: The cross shows us so clearly who God truly is, and how we are to love and care for our neighbors. “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.