First Mennonite Church
November 16, 2014
Text: 1Corinthians 1: 18-25, 30-31
The message of the “cross” stands for or means the decisive action of God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ according to the Gospels. The cross, in essence is the gospel message in which God had intervened bringing salvation to the world. Through the gospel, God was creating a new humanity, out of two peoples—the Jews and the Gentiles. While the Jews divided humanity between Jews and Gentiles, and the Romans between Greeks/Romans and Barbarians, the gospel divides all of humanity into two categories also: those who are perishing and those who are being saved. This abiding truth of the gospel has not changed. Today there are only two groups of people before God: those who are being saved and those who are perishing. However, the way in which God, once and for all, brought salvation is nothing as the world expected. God took the wise and intelligent by surprise. He destroyed the wisdom of the wise and the intelligence of the intelligent. The Jews knew so very well how God had worked on their behalf. They knew God had worked through wonders and miracles. They knew that God has worked for them with outstretched arm and brought the Egyptian Pharaoh to his knees, He opened the Red Sea for them to walk on dry land, He gave them bread from heaven and water from a rock, etc. They expected the Messiah to come. And when He would come He would also deliver them by defeating the Romans and rule the world with an iron rod. They expected the Messiah to reestablish the monarchy in the line of David, as well as the true worship of God in the Temple. Therefore to Jews, the message that God’s salvation had come through the death of Jesus on the cross, was utter nonsense! They did expect the coming of a glorious Messiah, but not a Messiah who would die a shameful death. They could not accept Jesus to be that Messiah. To many Jews, the birth of Jesus seemed illegitimate, his teaching unauthorized, lacking all proper credentials, and his comrades and close friends were no better than the worst of his society. The Jews had well preconceived notions of what the Messiah would do. They were wise enough to reject anyone claiming that Jesus was God’s Anointed One. They were way too intelligent to accept that the cross was the way God would bring salvation. To them the word of the cross, the message of the gospel, was simply madness! It was the stupidest thing they had ever heard about God. Therefore, for the Jews the message of the gospel was a stumbling block.
Paul knew firsthand how ridiculous the message of the cross sounded in the ear of his fellow Jews. He himself was grieved and pushed to the limits of his religious zeal when Saul (which was his first name) heard the apostles preach that Jesus is the Messiah. Before Saul was encountered by the Lord on the way to Damascus, he found the message of the cross so disturbing. He honestly believed that Peter and his fellow apostles were utterly wrong and were being shamelessly blasphemous. Paul was greatly troubled to hear this new group of people say that the Almighty Yahweh was working through that untrained, itinerant, and dubious teacher; but worst of all was that God was offering salvation through the shameful death of Jesus. How could someone who had died on the cross be God’s anointed one, when God had clearly stated that any such one is cursed? That was impossible! That was farthest from the ways God works. How could these men dare say something so offensive? Even Paul found the message of the cross extremely offensive before he was converted.
The gospel was also foolishness to the Greeks. Gods do not suffer, so thought the Greeks. Gods make humans suffer if these do not please them. Men cannot kill God. But the worst thing about the gospel was that it presented one God, through his Messiah. And this God did not acknowledge equality with the other gods. The Greeks could not let go of their many gods to embrace a suffering God and much less one who would cause them to lose all their other gods. Who would want just one God when the wisest thing to do was to have as many and you could? Who would like a God who dies on a cross, while they are used to having Zeus the might god who thunders? Who would like a God who shared human form and befriended the lowest caste in society? The message of the cross was foolishness, which only the weakest and simple-minded could believe.
The gospel was also foolishness to the Romans. It was foolishness in the sense that confessing Jesus as Lord was like begging the sword of Caesar to one’s neck. It was a dreadful thing for anyone to confess that the “rebel” and “inciter” who was crucified under Roman authority is “Kyrios” –Lord. The gospel declared that Jesus is Lord and not only Lord but Lord of lords. Therefore, only those who openly wanted to be at odds with Caesar would confess Jesus as Lord. Only those who were seeking for trouble with the authorities would be willing to believe the gospel. To accept the message that Jesus is Lord, the only Lord, was religious blasphemy and treason. It would mean that the believer in Jesus openly rejected all other gods and their earthly representative who was the Caesar. It was treason because the believer had offered loyalty to a foreign Lord and not to the Roman emperor. To the Romans Christians were atheists because they refused to believe in the local pagan gods. The testimony about Polycarp, a second century church leader, is a good example of that view.
And when finally he was brought up, there was a great
tumult on hearing that Polycarp had been arrested.
Therefore, when he was brought before him, the
proconsul asked him if he were Polycarp.
And when he confessed that he was, he tried to
persuade him to deny [the faith], saying, “Have
respect to your age” — and other things that
customarily follow this, such as, “Swear by the
fortune of Caesar; change your mind; say ‘Away
with the atheists!’”
But Polycarp looked with earnest face at the whole
crowd of lawless heathen in the arena, and motioned
to them with his hand. Then, groaning and looking
up to heaven, he said, “Away with the atheists!”
But the proconsul was insistent and said: “Take the
oath, and I shall release you. Curse Christ.”
Then Polycarp said: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” (Ed. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers p. 152)
Soldiers then grabbed him to nail him to a stake, but Polycarp stopped them: “Leave me as I am. For He who grants me to endure the fire will enable me also to remain on the pyre unmoved, without the security you desire from nails.” He prayed aloud; the fire was lit, and his flesh was consumed.
The early Christians faithfully embraced the gospel regardless of the trials, hardship, and danger it brought upon them. Their witness was so powerful also. When the Roman emperor Julian in the early to mid-fourth century wanted to bring forth a resurgence of paganism within the Roman Empire during his reign, he found a major road-block. Christians had made a powerful impact everywhere. He was forced to admit the following:
Atheism [i.e., Christian faith] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.
Regardless of the fact that the Jews viewed the gospel message as foolishness and a stumbling block, and regardless of the fact that to the Romans it was like playing with fire, those who believed in Jesus gave witness that it was the power of God for salvation. It was the wisdom of God which defeated the worldly wisdom. The message of the cross was the power of God, which emboldened the believers to face the most difficult challenges unfazed. Not the fire, nor the sword; not ridicule, nor imprisonment; not exile, nor beasts were able to separate them from the love of Christ, their Lord. And so Paul exclaims: But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength. That was why Paul could say: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile (Romans 1:16).
The gospel made the lives of those who have believed in Jesus radically different from the lives of those who have not believed.
The difference was clear as the day is to the night. Nobody could deny it, not even their enemies. Their enemies had to admit that these people possessed something that was not of this world. Their love for all was undeniably obvious. Their loyalty to Jesus was steadfast; not even the sword, the wild beasts, or the pyre could break. Their bold witness, their spontaneous praise and worship revealed their passion and love for Jesus their Lord and Savior. The message of the cross was indeed the power and wisdom of God for those who were being saved.
What is the gospel for you, my dear brothers and sisters? The gospel is more than a belief system. The gospel is not a set of doctrines you or I are to subscribe to. It is not a set of rules we have to obey. The gospel might seem simplistic to the learned. The gospel might seem foolishness to those who are perishing. The message of the gospel might seem too shallow, narrow, and dangerous to our relativistic society. The gospel might seem too shallow because our faith is anchored in someone who lived some 2000 years ago and whose life and death seem like a fairy tale and his teachings too naïve. The gospel might seem too narrow and exclusivist because our pluralistic world does not believe there is an absolute truth. Our post-modern culture tells us that truth is relativistic. Your truth is truth to you and my truth is truth to me. And what is truth here might not be truth everywhere, yet all truths are equally valid. The gospel might also seem a dangerous thing. If Jesus demands complete loyalty, every Caesar feels threatened, but we cannot share our loyalty between Jesus and all the other Caesars of today.
When Jesus came preaching, he said: “Repent and believe the good news—believe the gospel!” Mark 1:15. As each of us would say that we have believed the gospel, the questions we should ask ourselves are:
When our neighbors look at us, can they see the power of God working in our lives? Can our friends at work realize that our loyalty belongs only to Jesus, our Lord? Can we say with Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation?”
We should realize that although Paul carried within himself a burden to live and proclaim the gospel, he never trusted in his own strengths to do that. He acknowledged that his strength depended on his close and constant relationship with Jesus Christ, his Lord. He humbly confessed the following: Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12-14).
Let us make this our confession and goal also: to press on forward and take hold of that for which Christ has called us. Let us forget what is behind and strain forward to the heavenly prize in Christ Jesus. Let us allow the power of the gospel to transform our lives. The gospel is the power of God for us who are being saved, because God has united [us] with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. Therefore, as the Scriptures say, “If you want to boast, boast only about the Lord” (1Corinthians 1:30-31). Amen!