14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. 16 Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. 18 For 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. 19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” 20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
On August 25, 2003, The New York Times ran a story by Andrea Elliott entitled, “Thieves Take Figure of Jesus, but Not the Cross.”
Who made off with Jesus?
The question hung in the air of the Church of the Holy Cross in Midtown Manhattan on Sunday after caretakers noticed that a 200-pound plaster rendering of Christ had been removed from a wooden cross near the church’s entrance.
Three weeks after a metal money box disappeared from a votive candle rack at the church, the fact that a statue was stolen was less surprising than how it was stolen.
”They just decided, ‘We’re going to leave the cross and take Jesus,’ ” said David St. James, 49, a caretaker who helps maintain the sacristy of the church, on 42nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. ”We don’t know why they took just him. We figure if you want the whole crucifix, you take the whole crucifix.”
I recall reading that headline when it first appeared and be struck by the eerie similarity between that crime and what happens in many churches today…between that crime and what I often see in my own life.
I have been guilty of taking Jesus but leaving the cross. Perhaps we all have been at times.
I will offer an explanation for that confession in the form of a thesis. My thesis is this: most Christians want the cross for the benefits we receive through it but do not want the cross as a lifestyle of sacrifice to God and death to self. Put another way, we like the cross when Jesus is carrying it, we just do not want to carry it ourselves.
In this way, the cross morphs into a kind of ATM machine. We go to it to withdraw salvation but we do not go to it to learn how to live. But Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). American Christianity bears all the marks of not having really considered what it means to take up our cross. Calvin Miller put it like this:
I’m but a cash-card saint in celluloid.
Can I afford to call this Jesus, King?
I’d like to follow him and yet avoid
Cross lugging and a naked death. I sing
Therefore to harmonize and think of all
I’ll eat when singing’s over with. Born twice,
By hundreds, then, we gather at the mall
And bless the church, or clap, or criticize.
Grace by installment – total faith – and we
Can spot a bargain when there’s one in town –
The maximum of everything that’s free –
With nothing but the minimum paid down.
It makes his love so interest-free! Not hard!
Like taking up your cross by Mastercard.
Wilbur Rees approached the same reality from a different angle by professing his desire “to buy $3 worth of God, please.”
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,
But just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
Or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want the warmth of the womb, not a new birth.
I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Against all such distortions of what Christ intends for His Church stands the cross. In a day in which it seems that the Church is trying to figure out what she needs to be in a world that seems to be increasingly chaotic, the cross beckons to us. Our greatest need today is the need to return to the cross, to consider what it means, and to be willing to take it up and follow our King.
The message of the cross must be the central message of the Church and anything that would obscure the reality of the cross must be done away with so that it might have its full effect.
The cross stands at the heart of the gospel. As such, it must be the central message of the Church. Furthermore, Paul argued that anything that would obscure the reality of the cross must be done away with so that that the cross might have its full effect.
14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. 16 Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.
Paul begins by pointing out that there were two potential obstacles in his own ministry to the cross having its full effect. The first potential obstacle was the obstacle of his own name, of him creating, inadvertently or not, disciples who followed him instead of Jesus. This is what is behind Paul’s unusual words about thanking God that he had not baptized very many of them. The thought appears to be that had Paul baptized many of them, he would have created a party of Paul whether he wanted to or not. It was likely that those baptized by the famed apostle would have taken an inordinate pride in that fact and would have worn it as a personal badge of honor. In this way, Paul’s name would have been elevated, potentially above Christ’s own name. This thought was horrifying to Paul.
Immediately preceding our verses, Paul wrote:
10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
Here, Paul acknowledged the propensity of the Corinthian Christians, and, indeed, of all Christians, to divide themselves into camps around prominent personalities. Secondly, he called for the Church to be united around only one name: “the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul wanted no part of fostering these kinds of divisions, and for that reason he publicly thanked God that he did not have his name personally attached to the baptisms of very many of them.
The second potential impediment to the cross having its full effect was Paul’s preaching ministry. Had Paul been a phenomenal preacher, a powerful orator, a suave pulpiteer, then any growth or success the church might have had, not to mention the growth of the individual believers in that church, might have been attributed by people to Paul’s wisdom. For this reason, Paul pointed out that not only had he not baptized many of them, but his preaching could not be called polished or having “wisdom of words.”
17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.
What is most telling are the last words of verse 17: “lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.”
Paul said that the cross of Christ has an effect. And what is its effect? Its effect is revealing to humanity that it is lost in its sin and under the just judgment of God but also revealing to humanity that God loves the world and has given His Son to lay down His life so that lost human beings could be saved. The cross says all of that mankind: you are a sinner…but you are loved this much!
That is the message of the cross. This is the message of the gospel. And this is why Paul told the Corinthians that absolutely nothing should be allowed to obscure this message. In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul wrote:
1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
The gospel is all we have.
The cross is our greatest offering to the world, for it is the way of life and salvation.
The Church much proclaim Christ crucified. The cross must remain its central place.
George MacLeod argued that the cross must be the center of our proclamation and the center of our lives. It must be proclaimed here, but it must also be proclaimed out there.
I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church, I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write His title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek … and at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where He died, and that is what He died about. And that is where Christ’s men ought to be, and what church people ought to be about.
Amen and amen!
The message of the cross is a message of scandal and paradox: that God in Christ submitted Himself to death and that His embrace of death is His greatest demonstration of power and our only hope.
What is the message of the cross? What does Christ crucified say about us and about God?
18 For 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.
Paul begins his exploration of the message of the cross by noting that it is seen in two quite distinct and, in fact, contradictory ways by two different peoples within the world. The first group is defined as “those who are perishing.” To these, says Paul, “the cross is foolishness.”
Why? Why is it foolish? It is foolish because, to human reason, it is utterly absurd! The very notion that almighty God would be born of a virgin, would live among His own creation, and would then submit Himself to be killed by His own creation in order to save His rebellious creation through this horrific death and, then, resurrection is a notion that, by any reasonable human standard and reckoning, is abjectly abhorrent. Were the natural human mind to concoct a God, he would not concoct this! No, he would concoct Zeus! He would concoct a God with lightning bolts at his disposal who would hurl them wherever we pointed. And he would give us things. The God we would create would be willing to give us riches and kill our enemies but otherwise leave us be!
But the cross?! The cross is foolishness to the carnal mind! This is not what we would have imagined…but it is exactly how God has come to us!
Paul defined this second group as “us who are being saved.” This is a reference to the Church, those who have bowed heart and knee to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith. And how does the cross appear to us? To us “it is the power of God”!
Thus, what the world finds scandalous and shocking and detestable, the Church finds beautiful and saving and true: the cross! The cross is life to us! The cross is power to us! Yet even the Church struggles at times to fully embrace the cross of Christ. Even so, we must!
Stanley Hauerwas once opened one of his classes at Duke Divinity with this prayer.
Bloody Lord, you are just too real. Blood is sticky, repulsive, frightening. We do not want to be stuck with a sacrificial God who bleeds. We want a spiritual faith about spiritual things, things bloodless and abstract. We want sacrificial spirits, not sacrificed bodies. But you have bloodied us with your people Israel and your Son, Jesus. We fear that by being Jesus’ people we too might have to bleed. If such is our destiny, we pray that your will, not ours, be done. Amen.
Yes, we shrink from the cross even as we need the cross. But, once embraced, the cross is our salvation before God and our life before men. We must embrace it and we must live it. It is the door, but it is also the path.
The way that these two groups (“those who are perishing” and “us who are being saved”) view the cross in such contrasting and conflicting ways leads to one inevitable conclusion: what the world calls wisdom is really foolishness and what the world calls foolishness is really wisdom. Paul put it like this:
19 For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, And bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.” 20 Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
Paul practically mocks the alleged wisdom of the world in light of its rejection of the cross. What the world has rejected as foolish, God has called wise: the cross. What the world has called absurd, God has called saving: the cross. The cross is the dividing point between the world’s view of reality and the reality of the Kingdom of God. The cross therefore exposes the world’s so-called wisdom for what it is: foolishness.
In this way, the scandal of the cross becomes the only hope for the world. What is more, there is a paradox in the cross. The cross, a staggering display of weakness and death in the eyes of the world, is, in reality, the most majestic display of the power of God.
22 For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
What an astounding statement! “The weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Where do we see the weakness of God? On the cross. It was there that God-in-flesh submitted Himself to the agony and horror of the cross. It was there that God submitted Himself to the torture of scourging and the bloodiness of the crown of thorns. It was there that He gasped for breath, uttered his seven last brief statements, and then ultimately died.
The cross. The weakness of God!
And yet…the cross is the power of God, Paul says. How so? How so?
It is power because only one with unlimited power could be willing to set aside majesty, submit Himself to agony, and endure the curse of the cross willingly without snapping, without calling down avenging angels of wrath, without calling it all off and engulfing creation in furious flame!
Power is the ability to set aside power. Strength is the ability to set aside strength.
And this is what Christ did on the cross. He set aside power and embraced the cross. He set aside strength and embraced the cursed tree.
This is what God has done in Christ: embraced the cross. And this is what we must do through the power of the indwelling Spirit: embrace the cross.
What the world rejects, we must embrace.
What the world despises, we must love.
What the world calls foolish, we must call wise.
What the world calls weak, we must see as strong.
The cross! The cross! We must return to the cross and not be ashamed.
In 1857, a man named Raffaelle Garrucci was working in the ruins of the Domus Gelotiana of the Imperial Palace of Rome. While there, he noticed something chiseled into the wall. He studied it. He photographed it. He then took rubbing paper and created a rubbing of it. Here is what he found.
This image is now known as “the Alexameno graffito.” Ronald Huggins explains what we are seeing in this image.
So far as I know, no one has seriously doubted the authenticity of the Alexamenos graffito…The image in question consists of an amateurish drawing of a donkey-headed man, crucified, along with the picture of a boy (or perhaps a man) worshipping it. Accompanying the image are the crudely scrawled words in Greek “Alexamenos worships god” (alexamenos sebete [= sebetai] theon). This graffito is usually dated to around the beginning of the third century and is almost universally interpreted today along the lines suggested by the plaque that accompanies it in the Museo Palatino, or Palatine Antiquarium, in Rome, where it is currently housed: “Graffito con Crocifisso Blasfemo con scritta in greco: ‘Alexamenos adora dio.’” It was probably produced, in other words, as blasphemous mockery of a Christian named Alexamenos along with the object of his worship, Jesus.
This is utterly staggering, and it illustrates Paul’s point perfectly. This image is the earliest “artistic” depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus…and it is blasphemous anti-Christian graffiti. There is a story here the details of which we wish we knew. Who was this (presumably) young man, Alexamenos? Who were these boys who were mocking him?
We know that many critics of early Christianity mocked the believers of that time as those who worshipped a man with the head of an ass. This ugly slur was their way of blaspheming Christ and mocking what Christians held most dear: Christ crucified.
How badly did this sting Alexamenos, this bullying, this mockery, this cruelty? Did he cry himself to sleep while the boys in the next room laughed? Did he have any friends? Was he all alone? How long did he endure such taunting, such jeering, such belittling?
Who knows? Regardless, thirteen years after the discovery of the Alexamenos graffito, something else was spotted in a different room. Huggins explains:
God be praised! Alexamenos is mocked, but Alexamenos is faithful. Alexamenos is ridiculed, but Alexamenos is faithful. Alexamenos is laughed at, but Alexamenos is faithful.
Alexamenos may have stood without a friend…but not really. Alexamenos stood with Jesus. He stood with Christ crucified, Christ on the cross, Christ risen again, Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, Christ is coming again!
Alexamenos fidelis, Church! Alexamenos was faithful! Faithful!
Will we be faithful?
Are we faithful?
Will we stand with the Lamb who was slain?
 Calvin Miller, The Unfinished Soul (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman)
 Cited in Charles R. Swindoll’s The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart as George MacLeod, Focal Point (January-March), 1981.
 Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p.90.