The Foolishness of the Cross

Written by Joel on February 1st, 2011

Jan 30, 2011
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:18-31


Catholic school crucifix math joke – grades improved. “When I saw that man nailed to the plus sign, I knew they were serious.”

I grew up in a Christian tradition in which the crucifix was not a common symbol. In the church where I grew up there was a simple cross which hung over the baptismal in front of the church. It had an Alpha and Omega on the left and right points; a Chi and Rho at the top and bottom points. There was a simple dark red trim that ran along along the border and down the middle of the cross. It was quite large – I bet it could fit a man three times the normal size. It was simple, it was clean, it was neat, and it was empty. There was no body on that cross. This is the symbol of choice for Protestant Christians when referring to the crucifixion. We like to emphasize the empty cross, remembering that Christ came down and that he rose again; making the empty cross not a symbol of defeat but rather of triumph. But, I wonder if we as Protestant Christians might prefer the empty cross because it avoids the gruesomeness, the messiness, even the scandal of the cross. Yes the cross is scandalous, even for his followers who have wrestled with this idea for some 2000 years.

Paul says the cross is a stumbling block for some. It might be helpful to think of that in terms of scandal. Scandals are events, actions, or modes of conduct which are so outside the normal bounds of expectation for people put in positions of trust that they give the public pause. It brings shame and humiliation. It causes people to question those involved in the scandal, questioning whether they deserve that position of trust. That if they are not trustworthy in this one area of their life, how can we trust them to govern a state, pass legislation, judge fairly, lead a company, pastor a church, or lead a country? Think of the famous scandals over the years: (politics are an easy target) Governor Blagojevich and the alleged sale of President Obama’s senate seat or the Water Gate scandal. The cross is Christ’s great scandal.

Remember that the cross was an instrument of torture. Imagine if instead of a cross adorning our sanctuary those chairs up front were replaced with electric chairs. Or instead of a chalice on our communion table a syringe for lethal injection. Instruments of death, of execution. And the cross, an instrument of torture came to be one of our primary Christian symbols.

I know that the crucifix is not a common symbol for many Christians in Protestant traditions, so I brought in one from home to share with you today, to invite you to contemplate on just how strange the notion of the crucifixion may be. Paul preaches Christ crucified – that is the body of Jesus nailed to a cross. God suffering. We cannot skip directly to the resurrection and the glory of the empty and defeated cross without first passing through the crucifixion.

Crucifix at St. John's Catholic Church in Harpers Ferry, WV

I think I remember the first time I saw a crucifix. Or at least it was the most memorable. It is amazing just how shocking this image is anytime, and especially to someone who had not seen it before. It was at St. John’s Catholic Church in Harpers Ferry. I believe we were on a middle school trip to the National Park. We went through the required tours, lessons, and lunch and now the teachers let us explore the place on our own. Some how my group wandered up to the hill to the church, up those stone steps which were hand carved and made our way into the church. The crucifix was hidden in the back (which is odd for a Catholic church). This is the only crucifix I have ever seen (and I haven’t seen another one like it since) which showed blood. And there was blood every where. In tiny little drops all over Jesus’ body – perhaps remembering the scene from the garden when Christ sweats blood. The nails were in his wrists, where they would have needed to be in order to support the body weight. Christ’s head dropped down, and a deep bloody gash in his side – perhaps from the spear; I wondered if this was a scene of Christ already dead.

And then looking up, above Jesus head was the full inscription scripture speaks of in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. This is another feature that is often lacking in many crosses and crucifixes I have seen since. It reads “This is Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews.”

The scandal of the cross as clear as day; in black and white: This is God – dead on the cross! God who bled. God who suffered. God who died.

Can you understand how the cross is a stumbling block and foolishness for many? You’re trying to tell me that God, the creator of the universe, the one who with an outstretched arm saved his people from slavery in Egypt, who dictated the 10 commandments from Mount Sinai, who led his people in a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night, who fed his people with mana from heaven, who brought them into the promised land…That God put himself on a cross? God suffered? God died?

Yes, God choose what is weak, what is foolish to shame the strong and the wise – because God alone is strong and wise. In fact there is no wisdom and there is no strength but the Lord – in him and in him alone is the glory.

It is scandal for those who are perishing – for those who by whatever means attempt to save themselves. Whether it be through idols made of wood and stone or material possessions made of wood and stone. Seeking salvation in things which perish is foolishness.

And we might be called fools for following our God, our savior on the cross. But it is wisdom for us who have nothing to do with our salvation. We don’t have the wisdom and strength nor the glory. God’s is glory, and he is mighty to save.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Melissa H-K says:

    Joel, this is awesome. Thanks so much for writing it and for linking to it in Facebook.

Leave a Comment