2nd Febuary 2014

“Christ’s cross: a problem?” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the name of Giles Fraser. He is an Anglican Priest who often speaks on the radio and writes regularly for the “Guardian” newspaper. Today he is in charge of an ordinary London parish; but he is better known as the Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral who resigned in disgust at the Cathedral authorities’ cautious response when their churchyard was invaded by the “Occupy” protesters who were demonstrating against the world’s financial systems. You may or may not have felt that his comments were correct or that he did the right thing by resigning; but we can all agree that it cost him dearly to stand up for his principles.

A year or so later, Giles wrote an article in the “Church Times”. In it, he talked of a phrase which had been much bandied about during those difficult days: the phrase “reputational risk”, or the suggestion that the Cathedral staff had to be very careful what they said or did because of the poor impression that might possibly be given. He wrote, “The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. What would the man who was attacked for hanging out with prostitutes and tax-collectors have made of this phrase? Surely he would have had no place for it. So how is it that the Church built in his name has become so concerned with its own reputation? In a sense, if the Church does not have a bad reputation, it is not doing its job properly. This is something that PR agencies and ecclesiastical spin-doctors have a hard time getting their heads around. Respectability can be subtly corrosive; it does not point out the way of the cross”.

Well, I suspect that St. Paul was not very concerned with being respectable! After all, we tells us how he was perfectly prepared to be called a fool if it meant that the message of Jesus was proclaimed; furthermore he encouraged his readers to imitate Christ who “made himself of no reputation, took the form of a servant, and humbled himself to death on the cross”. And, as we shall discover today, it is in fact the cross that is the nub of our problem as a church in the world of today. For, as Paul writes to the fractious and immature church at Corinth, the cross is often a source of misunderstanding, contention and even disgust to people who hear and think about it – yet it must always remain as the very heart and foundation of our faith.

I daresay you know quite a bit about the church at Corinth – one which, I think, exhibited virtually every defect and problem which can arise in congregational life! It was situated in a commercial centre, which meant that it drew its members from a variety of different backgrounds and lacked the unifying influence of the historic Jewish faith which kept other churches together. Although this church was inordinately proud of its spirituality, in fact its worship was chaotic and self-centred, it greedily abused the fellowship meal we know as Holy Communion, it seemed totally unable to resolve personal problems without recourse to a Court of Law, and it was divided into political factions which championed one apostle over and above the others. It also felt that it had worked out a good intellectual approach to the Christian faith; the only problem with this was the stumbling-block or inconvenience caused by the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

In order to understand why the Cross of Jesus was such a problem for the people of Corinth, we need to think about who they were and what had shaped their thinking. The city’s inhabitants seem to have fallen into two main groups: Jews, and Greeks – or other Gentiles – with a pagan background. Clearly the Gentiles in the church had travelled along a longer spiritual path to come to Christian faith; but believing members of both communities were keenly aware of the difficulty and embarrassment which the Cross seemed to present.

Thinking first of the Jews, they had been brought up to expect the coming of the Messiah as a heavenly figure riding on the clouds, or a great warrior king, or a supreme High Priest: Jesus of Nazareth didn’t fit any of these pictures. Furthermore, the Jewish faith declared that God sat above all human pain and injury, that he was utterly perfect and so could never be deformed or harmed in any way. Indeed, the mere suggestion that God might ever suffer was blasphemous – yet here was the Church saying claiming that Jesus, God’s Son, had received hideous wounds at the hands of his tormenters.

And there was more. Ever since Moses’ time the Jewish community had believed that death by crucifixion was not just a gruesome punishment but also a sign of God’s grave displeasure, a divine rejection or curse. Finally, there was a political element to consider: crucifixion was the Roman Empire’s tool for quelling subversion or insurrection, a sign that its power could not be resisted and that it would stop at nothing to uphold social order. With all these thoughts swirling around the minds of Jewish people when they heard about Jesus, it’s quite a surprise that any of them were ever converted!

Moving now to the Gentile community, its members were influenced by the popular philosophical ideas of the day. Indeed, one gets the impression that they were proud of being up-to-date with their sophisticated views. Two ideas in particular seem to have stood out. The first of these was Stoicism, which stated that unruly emotions resulted from human errors in judgment, and that a sage, a person of “moral and intellectual perfection”, would not suffer such emotions. Furthermore, there was a belief that a true sage would be immune to misfortune. How could these ideas fit in with a picture of Jesus who not only demonstrated strong emotions of both love and anger, but also suffered the ultimate misfortune of being arrested, tortured and murdered. For most Stoics, these facts would disqualify Jesus from being a proper sage; so why on earth should they want to follow him?

The followers of Plato, on the other hand, believed that the ultimate object of human knowledge was “Good” itself. The exact nature of this “Good” is hard to pin down and I am not clear as to whether Plato thought that it was an entity or being that actually existed. However Platonists did believe that notions such as justice, truth, equality and beauty derived from the “Good”, although the world always fell short of its ideal. I think we can see that a bleeding and crucified Jesus could never have fitted into this vision of beauty and perfection.

Now you may have been totally bored – or become very confused – by what I have just said. But I hope I have convinced you that the beliefs and philosophies held by the Corinthian people meant that the Cross was a real impediment to them coming to faith. What we must realise is that nothing much has changed since then; the Cross is still a hindrance to faith today, albeit for rather different reasons.

For who is the Jesus we talk about? We know that he is the preacher who spoke about God in engaging stories; the healer who was prepared to touch people that everyone else shied away from; the political rebel who championed the cause of the underdog; and the radical teacher who constantly pushed at people’s religious comfort zones. We may be more comfortable with some of these pictures of Jesus than others, but we don’t have any real problems with them. However there is another image which we would really prefer to get rid of and wipe from our minds: the convicted felon, paraded before a kangaroo court, whipped and mocked, and ultimately hung out to dry on that horrifying cross. There is something shocking, primitive and disgusting in the suggestion that this is the scene which lies at the heart of our faith. And that is the scandal that Paul is talking about.

I’m sure you’d agree that anyone who wanted to start a popular religion would not choose an instrument of execution to be its central symbol; that would be the worst possible marketing ploy imaginable! And, indeed, the Church does all sorts of things to soften or even dispense with the impact of the Cross. For we often beautify it, coating it with fine gold or jewels, turning it into a work of art and removing its harshness. Or else we simplify it into a sleek symbol, rounding off its rough edges and removing the figure of the Saviour – perhaps the Catholic Church can help us get back to the man who should be the centre of our attention, rather than the two pieces of wood. Equally, we may minimise the Cross when we present the Gospel message: “Come to Church”, we say, “so that you can find a home among like-minded people”, or become more fulfilled in your life, or feel more valued as a person, or enjoy the aesthetic experience of worship. None of these things are bad – but they draw our focus away from the Cross (and the salvation being offered by the Christ crucified upon it); they also give a very strong hint that the Cross has become an embarrassment to us, Christians of this modern age.

Now it is true that the sight of a mangled human body hanging on a cross repels us – and that applies as much to Christians as to non-believers. For it is a horrific sign of violence, of mutilation and death rather than an object of beauty. Having said that, it does strike me that many people are quite prepared to look at much worse images when they go to the cinema or play video games, so perhaps it is not the violence of the scene which is it so repugnant to us; there must be something more. And I actually think there are at least three other reasons why we avert our gaze from the harsh reality of the Cross.

The first of these is that it forces us to think about sacrifice, the idea of shedding blood to atone for sin. As I suggested earlier, that is a notion which we find very primitive and superstitious, one which seems to have no place in these enlightened times. We have become used to the idea of using human intellect and reason to solve our problems; the idea that blood has to be shed – and human blood, at that – in order to put right our spiritual status seems to take us back to far less sophisticated religious ideas. Yet Paul – and indeed Jesus himself – are entirely unambiguous, although they don’t give us any explanations: without the shedding of blood there can be no release and remission from sin. For some reason that is how God works.

The second reason we dislike the Cross is that it brings us face-to-face with the harsh realities of our failure and sin. For most of us like to think that we are doing pretty well in life; while we know we all have our petty foibles and shortcomings, we also know that we are not bad people who go around robbing banks, killing people, committing child abuse or getting involved in other kinds of vice. However, the Cross does not let us indulge in that kind of complacency; it brings us up short with quite a shock and tells us that we are nothing like as virtuous as we think we are or (to quote Isaiah) that all our supposed goodness is no better than a filthy dishcloth. That critical verdict comes to us like a spiritual “slap in the face” and its pulls the rug of self-confidence out from under our feet.

And that brings me to the final reason for disliking the Cross: it challenges our pride and tells us clearly that, whatever our social status and despite any success we may have achieved in our lives, we are all on exactly the same level before God: as supplicants abjectly pleading for his mercy. We may think that we are clever people with sophisticated and intellectual way of making sense of life; but the Cross tells us, “You are wrong; your understanding of how things work is tiny in comparison with mine – for am I not the Creator of the universe?” Yes, the Cross may appear foolish to our way of thinking; but, as Paul says, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”.

So God has, you might say, got us in a strong grip. We might well want to turn away from the Cross in all its raw simplicity; this is especially a tendency for Christians such as ourselves who like to be called “liberal”. But we must not do so. For, although the Cross is at best distasteful and at worst repugnant, it is God’s appointed means of salvation. It shocks us and forces us to think about life and death. It pulls us up short and confronts our human pretence and pride. It speaks to us all too clearly of the horrors of sin. It demands a response of complete commitment. And it shouts out over the rooftops that there is a God who loves us enough to have made the ultimate sacrifice of his Son.

I began today by quoting Giles Fraser, worried that the Church might be too concerned for its reputation and respectability. I think that he is right; for the Cross at the heart of our faith is both absurd and deeply unrespectable. And, as the Danish thinker Kierkegaard said, we must never remove from Christianity its ability to shock, because that will destroy it and turn it into something tiny and superficial, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them. What we need to remember is that this ridiculous and grotesque thing, the Cross, is God’s device – in fact his only device – for making us whole.