The foolishness of the Cross
One of our members, Pete Stevenson gave the homily a couple of weeks ago...he was beautifully prompt sending me the text; I was less so, remembering only today that I had not posted it. Many apologies.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Our first reading was about Moses being given the ten commandments, an event depicted by artists with Moses walking down the mountain carrying two slabs of stone with Roman Numeral bullet points.
Depending on how you interpret the first commandment, it’s conceivable that someone could keep all ten. But keeping these, largely speaking, do not guarantee to make us nice (if that’s what we are after) or even good. Not that these are rules that are ‘there to be broken’; if we break too many of them we will be neither nice or good, but they have their limitations. In the following parts of the Pentateuch there are many laws which are harsh and then there are those that relate to being kind. We can imagine a Hebrew picking and choosing their Scriptures to back up their personal opinions. Much the same as many Christians do today. But, if you take Scripture as a whole, there is a message of inclusiveness running like arteries in every part.
The Gospel reading where Jesus turns over the money tables, chases out the animals and the market traders selling them. It happens in the outer courts of the temple that were open to all, Jew and non Jew, the gentiles. Historian Josephus and the book of Revelation refer to it as the Court of the Gentiles, an inclusive place where anyone should be to be free to pray. Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus saying ‘My Fathers house was meant to be a house of prayer but you have turned into a den of thieves!’ Jesus is quoting from Isaiah, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations.’ All the nations... commerce and tourism had robbed the temple of an area where anybody should have felt free to pray. They were operating largely within the rules, but the rules had not made them good.
The late chief rabbi Jonathon Sacks views Jesus’ most important 3 words as;- ‘But I say...’ ‘You have heard it said do not commit murder, but I say...’ ‘You heard it said do not commit adultery, but I say...’. Other rabbis would seek to interpret and explain the words of Hebrew Scripture; no one ever dared say but I’m saying something different. The adulteress brought before Jesus expecting to be stoned, Jesus says ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. The woman who was cured of her bleeding by touching Jesus’ clothes, according to the Levitical law, shouldn’t have even been out in public, no wonder she wanted to keep it a secret. But Jesus stopped and it’s as if he’s saying to the crowd, I know the law – and it is wrong, or, if you think that is too strong, the law is so limiting.
We hear a lot about inclusiveness today, often from pulpits, and possibly our first reaction is ‘Yes! Bring it on!’. But like so many things, careful what you wish for. Our churches are mainly made up of people like us. If we are to be properly inclusive, we will have people who are not like us, people we disagree with and, heaven forbid, possibly not even like!
Debbi and I were once in a church made up quite traditional folk when we were joined by someone who was mentally troubled. We welcomed him but over a period of months he became increasingly disruptive. None of us could cope with him, Once, a very proper, disciplined man and our previous church warden lost his temper with him in public. A few days later, he was in tears apologising for what he had said. We all wished for quieter times. It’s a very long story but through the commitment of one family supported by the church and village this deeply troubled man received a good measure of healing. Oh Boy, he put us through the washer on a fast spin. We survived, miraculously, he survived and we all came out cleaner. It’s an extreme example and not one I’d choose to re-live; but let’s be an inclusive church and let’s be prepared for what we wish for.
There is an inclusiveness in the events of Good Friday when Jesus says to the thief beside him, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’; the Roman soldier acknowledging ‘surely this was the Son of God.’ Which takes us to our Epistle reading. The foolishness of the cross. Personally, this is something that has struck home to me over the last 20 or so years. I think evangelists in the western world up to about the early 1980’s had a comparatively easy task. Evangelists could communicate the Gospel by basically expanding and explaining the Nicene Creed.
We believe in one God,...For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven:.... For our sake he was crucified;...On the third day he rose again...We acknowledge...the forgiveness of sins....and the life of the world to come.
Thanks to the population’s general knowledge of Bible stories and some basic understanding of Christmas and Easter, this evangelism was genuinely effective. Since then our world has changed. Bible general knowledge dropped off quickly, some views and values in society changed and churches struggled to agree on what should change and what was sacrosanct. For instance, the validity of other faiths, sexuality, abortion to pick just three. These days it’s easy to find people who have not only lost respect for the Church and the faith it represents... they have come to disdain it. This was nothing new to the Apostle Paul. ‘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.’ Satirists find a rich comedic seam in those who wear crosses ‘Who would wear a symbol of an instrument of torture?’ And then draw modern day parallels. I don’t mind the satire, it can make us think. Imagine explaining to a Roman soldier around AD30 that, in time, people will be fashioning ornamental crosses out of precious metals. He would look at you in utter bewilderment. This was Paul’s world and he had an uphill battle.
Paraphrasing the Lutheran theologian Paul Carlson:-
In the cross God has chosen to reveal His own self and the goal of human salvation. The irony of the scheme is that the cross is the last place where humanity would expect to discover God’s ultimate wisdom and power.
The core of Paul’s preaching is the cross and the proclamation of Christ crucified. Yet this is not a message geared to win friends or influence people. The cross was, and is, a terrible marketing tool. The cross both embarrasses and embraces humanity in an inclusive way (there’s that word again).
God’s embarrassing action in the cross establishes its own way to encounter Him. In our reading; ‘Jews demand signs, and Greeks seek wisdom.’ Paul refers to attempts to encounter God, either through Jewish miraculous manifestations (something people sometimes seek in our mega churches) or in the Greek philosophical writings (which continues, and I expect has its place but, if I’m honest, I struggle to understand). The proclamation of Christ crucified does not fit such human criteria – it is offensive to Jewish sensibilities and idiotic to Gentile intelligence.
Many (many) years ago I was a teenage apprentice in a small engineering shop and got on particularly well with one character about 10 years my senior. He knew I was a Christian and one day challenged me to convince him to become a Christian. He stood there arms crossed waiting for my explanation. ‘Well come on, my eternal destiny relies on what you are going to tell me, here’s your chance!’ I really struggled, 50 years on, I’m not sure I’d do a much better job now. He wasn’t being unkind, quite the reverse, through humour and camaraderie he taught me an important lesson; this is by no means easy, especially if you try to avoid religious jargon. Words like servant, ransom, sacrifice, scapegoat may help us a little but don’t be surprised if others don’t get it. Sometimes we have to not so much explain the way of the cross... but to live the way of it.
I set the occasional homework and it’s probable that nobody does it. I don’t mind, humour me. Here’s this weeks suggestion.
Find a cross in your house, maybe a piece of jewellery, a cross printed on a Bible. If you can’t find one, draw two simple lines on some scrap paper. Nothing fancy. Look at the cross. Allow yourself questions, for instance, what does this mean to me? Or, why is it important? If you were talking to someone who was genuinely interested but didn’t understand, how would you explain it? If at the end you have more questions than you started with, don’t worry, maybe find someone to talk to. They may have answers but don’t be surprised if they don’t. It’s likely to be more important to find someone of a kindred spirit, even if between you end up with yet more questions. Treasure the question. The nature of a pilgrimage is, sometimes we stumble and our friend helps us up. Later our friend may stumble, and we help them up.
We are not usually asked explain the way of the cross but to live the way of it. Amen.