“The Powerless Power of the Cross”
In a time and place where crosses adorn our bodies and buildings, it is hard to fully appreciate the grotesque power of crucifixion for the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was a punishment usually reserved for seditionists and other low-life criminals who had dishonored Rome. But it was not simply a means of physical torture and death. The whole event, from being publicly flogging, to carrying your cross through the crowds, being mocked, heckled, and spat upon, to finally being stripped naked and hoisted up for all to view your crimes and powerlessness, was an instrument of shame meant to deter others from similar acts of rebellion against the Empire. It was an effective weapon that gave its wielder control over the masses. When the leader of a rebellion was crucified, his followers usually denounced him for fear of similar punishment. After all, why would anyone want to claim a crucified “criminal” as their leader; this would bring shame upon you and any movement for which you were a part.
Prior to Paul meeting Christ on the Damascus road, his own disgust over other Jews claiming that this crucified Jesus was Israel’s long-awaited Messiah led him to pursue and persecute Christ-followers. The old Paul would have used the words of Deuteronomy 21:23—“for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse”—as a way of shaming these Jewish followers. Likewise, Paul, well-schooled in Greco-Roman culture and customs, understood the absurdity of a crucified savior for the Gentiles. As he writes in our passage, “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). But all this changed for Paul when he experienced the wisdom of God. He came to understood that it was him who had been the fool and that in God’s wisdom “Christ (had) redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). He could now confidently proclaim: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; (for) it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
I once heard a pastor give a comparative illustration of how a cross neckless in the first-century Roman world would be akin to an electric chair neckless today. It would not compute. Why would anyone choose to wear an instrument of torture and a symbol of shame as an ornament around their neck? Like so many things, it is a matter of perspective. From a Kingdom perspective, the cross has been repurposed; Calvary has become a “swords into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4) kind of event. The cross has changed everything and turned our world upside down.
Yet, there are still billions of people who do not recognize the significance of the cross and the seismic shift that it inaugurated. Even within the church, we have often tried to lessen the impact of the cross and to sanitize it of its gruesomeness and injustice. Perhaps we have done this as a way of drawing the world toward a more palatable experience with Christ. Nevertheless, rather than allowing the cross to free us from our shame, we have felt the shame of the cross and tried to hide from its long shadow. We have embraced the world’s wisdom rather than God’s. We have desired signs and wonders—spectacular miracles, entertaining worship, well-organized programs, beautiful buildings, effortless service, health, wealth, and prosperity—rather than a cross and the inevitable suffering it brings to those who would “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow (Christ)” (Luke 9:23).
In our text, Paul addresses a community that is facing significant divisions, which are mostly along social-economic lines. Those learned and prosperous people in power believed they understood God and God’s ways; they believed they had the right to do as they pleased, even if it hurt others in the church. They even used (OT) Scripture and theology to make their case (sound familiar?). Paul needed to help them see the error of their ways by helping them to recognize God’s kind of wisdom and power over and against human wisdom and power. And there was no better way than to point to the cross. The cross as a means of displaying God’s love, saving humanity, and ushering in a new creation reality, defied all logic. It “destroyed the wisdom of the wise” and thwarted the “discernment of the discerning” (1 Corinthians 1:19; quoting from Isaiah 29:14). It gave humanity a new perspective by which to view who God was and how God operated.
When preaching the text, our goal should not be to shame people, quite the opposite. We must highlight the absurdity of the cross and, in so doing, emphasize God’s extraordinary love that changes everything. We must help our people name the human power and wisdom constructs that are currently at work in our world, and moreover, in our churches. We must seek to delve deep into our knowledge of and application of God’s kind of power and wisdom. Guided by the Holy Spirit and discerning and acting together as the Body of Christ, the Church must embrace the radical powerless power of the cross. The world can never understand the wisdom of God until it experiences the love of God; the kind of love that is willing to be emptied for the sake of the other, that is willing to let go of power for the sake of the powerless (see Philippians 2:5-8). We must always remember that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25), and also that God’s “grace is sufficient for (us), for (God’s) power is made perfect in (our) weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). This will not be an easy task, but it is, nevertheless, that with which we are tasked.
 All Scripture quotations are taken from the NRSV.