I wonder if anyone knows what the earliest picture of Jesus is? The answer might surprise you. The earliest known artistic depiction of Jesus dates from the second century. It is not in a church. It’s not an artwork on a catacomb, nor precious jewellery. It’s a piece of graffiti, scratched by Roman page boys on the wall of their boarding school.
The legend says Alexamenos Worships His God. And you can see a cartoon of Alexamenos himself. A little figure holds his hand up in an attitude of worship towards the crucified Christ on a cross. But in the picture Jesus is not as we know him. He has the head of a donkey. The meaning is clear: look at Alexamenos, worshipping a crucified fool. What an idiot! A God who is crucified – what’s that about?
In 1st Corinthians chapter 1, verses 18-31, Paul urges not to be ashamed of the cross. Do not be embarrassed by the message of a crucified Saviour, for it is the power of God. What appears to be foolishness on God’s part is wiser than the greatest human wisdom. The cross appears to be folly, but it addresses our deepest needs.
From our reading you get the impression that the people in the church at Corinth wouldn’t have appreciated the Alexamenos graffiti. They wouldn’t have laughed it off nor taken it on the chin. For the Corinthians were very concerned with appearances.
They took pride in their education and their achievements. They noted who had spiritual gifts, and who didn’t, who had the power of persuasion and influence. The Corinthians admired people who were self-sufficient, not depending on others; they valued connections and the esteem of the wider community. Had there been Facebook in those days, they’d have spent all their time on it, updating their status with sunny holiday destinations, pictures of their children’s latest awards, and namedropping their connections. They did it ‘their way’
They wanted their leaders to model success. So Paul the tentmaking unmarried itinerant apostle was a bit of an embarrassment. Next week we’ll hear the criticisms against him – all the areas where he was deemed lacking and not the right sort of apostle for a place like Corinth.
Now Paul could have stood on his dignity. He could have asserted his right to lead, or argued that he was as good as any other of the leaders. Instead Paul challenges the very base of their value system. What they cherish does not matter – Jesus upends the worlds’ values. The Kingdom turns the tables upside down – just look the prime example – the cross.
In v.18: ‘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’. This surprising wisdom was foretold in the Old Testament, and Paul quotes an example from Isaiah 29. Verses 19-21 observe that what humanity did not guess, God revealed. Did any of the scribes or philosophers foretell the cross, God’s way of saving us?
Paul says that there are Biblical truths which are so far beyond our understanding, so counter-intuitive, that they must be revealed by God himself. God tells us the deepest things through Christ and the Bible.
Our human understanding is limited, it is also tainted by sin. So the power of human reasoning: logic, science, philosophy cannot unaided discover God’s deep plan. Of course, once it is revealed to us, God’s character and plan do not contradict science – God’s two books of Scripture and Nature are not opposed to one another – but we need God’s revelation to show us the whole truth. And sometimes that revelation, truth from God, will look like foolishness to the world.
What does that mean? In verse 23 Paul says ‘We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.’ The cross was foolishness to the Greeks because it didn’t resemble any philosophy they recognised. Instead of being mystical speculation, the Christian message is about events that happened in this physical world: God became man, he died on a cross to save us and rose to life again.
The Greeks understood moral guidance and there is instruction in the good news. But morality wasn’t the main point. The cross is not about how to live a moral life, but about how God himself deals with the problem of our sin. It is a rescue. On the cross Jesus takes sin upon himself, he bears the burden of evil, he suffers the consequences of human wrongdoing. Our sin deserves punishment but Jesus willingly takes the penalty for us so that we do not have to endure it. That is the power of the cross – Jesus standing in our place – but the idea that God might actually do something was a huge thing for Greeks to accept.
There are plenty of people today who like their religion philosophical, without the call to act and follow a crucified a Saviour. The church would be very popular if all it did was preach morality – but Christianity without the cross is empty of power, not really Christianity.
For Jews it was harder. How could a true Messiah end up like that? Today Muslims have a similar objection. Islam teaches that Jesus was just a prophet – and in Islam prophets always triumph. So most Muslims do not believe that Jesus was crucified – it’s a huge step to imagine that God could be human and offer himself to suffer for them. How amazing that love is – and yet it can be hard to grasp.
I wonder in what other ways the cross is a stumbling block or foolishness today? Last Easter there were newspaper reports about people who were deeply offended by an outdoors Good Friday service. It was a re-enactment and apparently the crucifixion bit wasn’t very nice. After all religion must be nice, mustn’t it? Never bring you up short.
Many of us struggle with the idea of the wrath of God. The belief that God is righteously angry at sin, and that he will ultimately punish evil is something that we naturally resist. But if God was not a judge who stood up for justice, could he really be a God of love? In other words if we want a God without judgement are we asking for a God who doesn’t care? And why would Jesus endure the cross if it weren’t necessary? The Bible tells us that what we see on the cross is God’s way of forgiving us.
In our society belief in God’s judgement on sin is difficult. Not least because we’ve all done wrong. As Rom 3:23 says ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…and are now justified by his grace’
Freely put right with God through his immense love. So the cross is good news for everyone. Anyone can come to Christ and be forgiven through him. The cross holds out to us the vast compassion of God. It shows his incredible sacrifice for us. Yet in order for the cross to be good news, people have to first understand that they need it. If we cannot accept that we need to be forgiven, the cross is a stumbling block. But if we know our need, the cross is the wisdom of God
There is wisdom in forgiveness. Jesus forgave those who were crucifying him, and taught his followers to forgive just as they had been forgiven. One person who showed that in her life was Jill Saward – you may have read her story which was widely publicised when she died a couple of weeks ago. Jill was horrifically assaulted when her father’s vicarage was burgled by three men in 1986. Later on she said:
‘If I had carried on hating, it would have destroyed me and I didn’t want those men to have that sort of power over me.” That is a very hard-headed approach to forgiveness – it recognises that forgiveness heals. The foolishness would be to carry on hating, to imagine that the hate in your heart is a way at getting back at those who’ve hurt you. Of course hatred has no effect on them at all. Instead, forgiving turns the tables – the one forgiving has power: to present the attacker with a choice – will they accept forgiveness and the responsibility for change, or will they stay locked in a prison of denial?
So the cross is the wisdom of God. In apparent weakness comes its power. It seems foolish but is wise. This is a principle God uses. He can use people who are weak – as Paul points out in verses 26-31 the Corinthians weren’t actually remarkable people. Not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. God chose what is weak to shame the strong, so that no-one might boast in his presence.
This isn’t to say that Christians should be incompetent! We should always give of our best to God. It’s good to try and understand what we believe and to communicate it in the best possible way. And Paul is not saying that God isn’t interested in capable or privileged people – we all matter to him equally. It’s just that those who are able can easily end up relying on their own ability, doing their own thing. Capable people have to be able to understand their own limits, their own need of God, before God can really use them. It’s when we apply the cross in our own lives that the power works in us, when we grasp forgiveness and our new identity in Jesus.
And so the cross has become the Christian symbol. Interesting that. The symbol of our faith could have been many things. The Trinity is central but the symbol of a triangle hasn’t caught on. Nor has an empty tomb for the Resurrection. I’m not sure how you’d represent the incarnation – it doesn’t help that there’s no record of what Jesus looked like. And while the ancient symbol of a fish has been popular recently it’s far from universal.
No, the symbol of Christianity is the cross. Twenty foot high on the face of a towering cathedral, painted on a rocky outcrop in India, a gold chain on the neck of a girl or scratched on a prison wall, the cross is the instantly recognisable reminder of a crucified and risen Saviour. It speaks of a God of love; of strength shown in forgiveness; of mercy triumphing over judgement; of compassion in suffering. The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, his weakness is stronger than human strength. Let us therefore proclaim Christ crucified.