The Beauty of the Cross

Sermon for March 11, 2012
Based on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
By Pastor Michael Cromer

On a hill far away, stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame.”
These are the words from the first verse of one of the most beloved hymns ever written.  When I was a chaplain in a retirement home, it was this hymn; “The Old Rugged Cross” written in 1913 that most of the residents would tell me was the hymn they most loved. Sometimes I would invite them to sing this hymn with me.  As they sang it in their feeble barely audible voice they would weep. The cross is seen almost everywhere but is not always worn as a symbol of Christianity but sometimes as fashion jewelry around the necks of pop singers.  Crosses can be found made from crystal, wood, stone, iron, gold, silver, resin, and plastic. There are many versions of the cross.  There is the anchor-shaped cross, the Byzantine cross, the Greek cross, the Jerusalem cross, the Latin cross, the St. Anthony’s cross, the swastika is actually a cross, there is the Maltese cross, the Egyptian Ankh, the Papal cross, the St. Andrew’s cross to name a few. For most of us as Christians it is the Latin cross that we are most familiar. It is the Latin cross that is symbolic to us as the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

There were several versions of the cross used for crucifixion, one of the most cruel and barbaric forms of execution known to man. Crucifixion probably originated with the Persians but it was used by a number of cultures including the Egyptians. Crucifixion was so dreaded in its day that the troubles of a person’s life were compared to a cross. We still say when someone is going through a difficult time in their life “We all have our cross to bear.” Crucifixion was a form of execution used by Alexander the Great, adopted by the Romans and finally abolished by the emperor Constantine. It was Constantine who declared the cross to be a symbol of Christianity in 325 AD. Sometimes crucifixion is referred to as a person being “hung on a tree.”  But that expression meant that crucifixion was a public display of someone being cursed by God in the same way as being publicly stoned to death.

For the Romans, crucifixion was a way to deter people from rising up against the government. Crucifixion was preceded by scourging.  The person would be whipped with leather embedded with pieces of sharp bone and metal. It was a common practice for the condemned person to carry the cross beam of the cross to the place of execution.  The expression “take up the cross” refers to that custom. The condemned person would be stripped and mocked before being nailed or tied to the cross further humiliating them. A body hanging on a cross after a long period of time developed a high fever. Eventually the blood dropped rapidly to the lower body.  Within six to twelve minutes the blood pressure would drop to half while the pulse would double.  The heart was deprived of blood and fainting occurred. Death was due to heart failure. Death did not usually occur for two to three days.  Sometimes a fire would be built below the cross so that its smoke might more quickly suffocate the person suffering on the cross. The body was usually left on the cross after death for scavengers to eat such as vultures and dogs. The compassionate Jewish women of Jerusalem had a tradition of offering a particular drink to the condemned person that would dull the pain. Jesus refused to accept the drink that would lesson his pain.

Crucifixion for many Christians, myself included, is a hard thing to think about and accept because it so disgusting and cruel. And yet crucifixion and the object that was used to carry out the crucifixion of Jesus, the cross, is an important symbol of our faith.  There are those who don’t understand why a cross, which represents something so horrible, an instrument of torture and execution could be a symbol of Christianity.  Why does the church hang a cross on the front of its sanctuary and place a cross on its altar? Why is there a cross on the lawn in front of many churches?  Why is a cross prominently placed at the pinnacle of a church steeple for all the world to see? Why have there been endless hymns written about the cross? The Old Rugged Cross, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Lift High the Cross, Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross, and many more hymns whose lyrics mention the cross. All of these things created about the object that killed the son of God.

In our scripture reading this morning Paul, one of Jesus’ followers, and one of the most influential people in spreading the gospel, is writing to the Christians in the town of Corinth. It is the church he himself founded. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul has addressed many issues that these new Christians are dealing with.  It has been hard for them to let go of many of their past behaviors, their old ways of looking at life, their old ways of understanding the world.  The people of Corinth were often led astray by people whose wisdom and intelligence stole their minds away from what Paul has taught them about Christ and what is means to be a Christian.  Paul must again take the people of Corinth back to the basics of Christianity that he originally taught them.  He must again explain to them the meaning of the gospel that brought them together as a community of faith.

Paul describes to them two kinds of people in the world; “those who are perishing” and “us who are being saved”.  The people who are perishing and those who are being saved are perishing and being saved at the same time in the same world. He tells the Christians of Corinth that they should be identifying themselves as the people who are being saved. They should believe that God began a new world, a new creation for them when Jesus came into the world, died and returned from the dead.  Because from that time on the old world that was filled with sin began to pass away and a new world was beginning to emerge.

But the non-believers, whose lives continued to be led by sin, could not understand or see that God had begun a new creation in the world through his son Jesus. For non-believers any mention of the cross, that ultimate symbol of shame, humiliation, and rejection seemed silly to them.  But to those who believed, for those who saw that a new creation had begun in the world, the cross was a not a symbol of shame and humiliation.  Instead it was a symbol of the very power of God’s love that was changing their lives even though the world had not yet become an entirely new creation.

Paul described Jesus crucifixion as a scandalon, a Greek word that means “a stumbling block”.  It is the word that the English word “scandal” comes from. Jesus’ crucifixion was a scandalous event that is offensive and repulsive to people.  When someone hears it said that Jesus’ crucifixion is the center of the gospel it is shocking to them.  How could anything as horrible and shameful as a person’s crucifixion be at the center of the good news of the gospel?  Crucifixion and good news don’t go together. Wasn’t someone who was crucified cursed by God? Jesus’ crucifixion is a scandalon, a stumbling block that makes people want to run from the gospel, not embrace it. How something like a crucifixion could be such an important part of the gospel message makes no sense to the rational mind.  But God’s power and how God display’s his power is not only different from the wisdom of the world; it is the opposite of the world’s wisdom. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are an example of the power and the wisdom of God. In the eyes of the world the cross was a symbol of weakness and futility. But the power of God is measured by a different standard. Those who simply believe are saved but not by their intellectual understanding.  They are saved by their understanding of a new power in the world.

The Greeks were often attracted to Christianity more on an intellectual level than on a spiritual level. They had a great love of wisdom. But they were often more receptive to new ideas than they were to spiritual or moral ideals.   They were often eager to hear what some new eloquent speaker might have to say who came into town, someone with some new philosophy they hadn’t heard before. The gospel of the cross did not interest many of them.  It did not satisfy their intellectual cravings. Paul knew that it was not possible to understand God through human wisdom and philosophy. The Greek people wanted clear answers that made sense to them. This gospel with a horrible crucifixion at the center of it made no sense to them. It could not be rationally explained in a way that made sense to the human mind. The ancient Greeks, like many people even today, wanted clear-cut answers about God.

Paul said “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” The Jewish people of that time had been expecting God to send them someone who would help them conquer the cruel and oppressive Roman government they lived under. Someone who would rise up the Jewish nation.  If only Jesus had led them into battle when he was alive they would have surely succeeded in defeating the Roman government. To have him now dead, shamefully crucified was a joke, it disgusted them.  They wanted nothing to do with any of it. But what they didn’t understand was that the message of the Cross has a wisdom and power of its own.  It is an example of the power and wisdom of God. The gospel is not a product of human wisdom. The Cross represents weakness, tragedy, pain, suffering and failure. So how are we to put our trust in a God who reveals his power to us this way?
By allowing himself to be crucified, Jesus revealed God to the world, the one whom he served until death. Jesus’ death on the cross was his last act of conquering the darkness of the existing world.  He obediently went to the cross with all of his goodness, his love, and his grace. And from the Cross a new force began to grow like mankind had never known before or since, a force of life, love and goodness that would change the world forever.

To understand the power of God that sprung from the Cross we need to understand God’s desire for this world. God’s desire is to create a commonwealth, of God, a world of nations of the earth in which every single soul in the world is a part of. God’s purpose and desire is to bring all of the people of the world together into the kingdom of God. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The real hope for the world lies in this happening; that all people come together as one into God’s kingdom. That will occur when all people respond to the gospel and begin to live the gospel. God chose to use the death of his Son on a cross as a sign of his great and eternal love for us. When the power of darkness had done its worst in the world, to go on loving the world, loving us, was the true victory.  The ultimate quality of love is that it must endure the worst and yet remain true to itself; it must sustain the worst defeat and still be love. There is no power in heaven or on earth like the power of love that suffers to the utmost, is battered, beaten and bruised, humiliated, spat upon and crucified and yet remains love. For Paul the cross of Jesus was the bridge between humanity and God.  The Cross broke down the barriers between all people. It united heaven and earth.

It was Jesus’ insight into God’s plan that drove him to the Cross. He might have allowed himself to be killed by the sword which was the Jewish custom of execution. He could have called together an army of his followers who would have risen up in an instant against the Roman government, defeated it and made him king. Instead he refused the crown of a king for the Cross. He could have just said “no” I won’t allow myself to die this way. But Jesus chose the Cross because it was the only way to bring his kingdom, God’s kingdom into the world. It was the only way that would win and change people’s hearts. That example of God’s wisdom, of God’s love for us is hard for the spiritually wise to ignore.  It calls us to repent, to turn back to God.  It calls us to allow our lives to be renewed, to be reborn. 

To those who witnessed Jesus crucifixion his death was a sign of weakness and defeat.  To them his life and his message were over and would soon be forgotten. But Jesus remains the most influential man who ever lived. The greater power of God’s love for us by way of the Cross has outlasted the power of the Roman Empire, and every empire since. The Cross and its purpose have withstood the criticism of two thousand years. The message of the Cross still has the power to change people’s lives.
As much as the world has changed in two thousand years it has in many ways remained the same.  People still want intellectual answers to their questions about God, answers that make sense to them. But God does not operate by the world’s standards of intelligence and wisdom.  As people of faith we must accept that or we will be forever frustrated trying to figure God out instead of just accepting the peace that comes from knowing that God loves us and knows what is best for us.  In simply believing we come to understand the true beauty of the Cross. Perhaps the hymn “The Old Rugged Cross” is so beloved by those who have reached the end of their lives is because they have come to understand the true meaning of the Cross. Having lived many years of life with its ups and downs, it disappointments, its tragedies and pain they see that the Cross has been the one enduring symbol of God’s love for his people, the one great thing we can cling to in this world that will never let us go.

“I will cling, to the old rugged cross, and exchange it someday for a crown. Amen.