22 January – The cross and the power of God

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Epiphany 3

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Psalm 27
Matthew 4:12-23

In a sentence:
The power of the cross is that it “levels” us, given as our common situation before God

Paul’s account of the situation at Corinth is sadly familiar. With our Protestant and Catholic, liberal and conservative, high church and low church, traditional and contemporary, exclusive and open communities, the problem Paul names remains today, if now on a much larger scale.

Yet it’s noteworthy that we don’t hear in Paul’s response such simple encouragements as “Love one another” or “Do try to get along”. He sees that the issue runs much deeper than simple moral failure. What is at stake is not a social, moral, psychological or motivational deficiency but is specifically theological; it is a failure to identify correctly what is at the heart of Christian life and so of human life more generally. Christian division, then, is a crisis in doxology: a crisis in the correct praise of God.

Because of this, Paul casts these divisions in the light of the cross:

“I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. … For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” [NRSV]

The “power of the cross” to which Paul refers is its function as the great leveller of humankind. Power and wisdom are how we distinguish and rank ourselves in relation to one another: stronger, smarter, richer, older, prettier, or whatever. But such divisive power and wisdom dissolve away if the crucified Christ is the reference point for all the meaning, power and wisdom the world needs. If the thing which matters most – the “thing” we call “God and Father” – identifies itself with the rejected and outcast human being Jesus of Nazareth, then no rankings in human knowledge and ability will impress God. God is “happy” with the nothingness of the cross. The saving power of the cross, then, is not that it adds something to us to make us better, wiser or stronger. The power of the cross is that it takes something away.

What is taken away are the additions we are tempted to make to Christ himself, marked by one of the most potent and problematic of theological concepts. This concept is the little word “and”. The “and” appears as a supplement to the crucified Christ. Fellowship at Corinth revolved around Christ “and” – Christ “and” Paul, Christ “and” Peter. If you did not have the same “and” as your neighbour, it becomes less clear that you are truly one with each other. At the Corinthian communion table, it was Christ “and” having food to eat – having no food to bring to the meal meant no real participation in the fellowship of the Lord’s supper (1 Corinthians 11). In civil society, it was Christ “and” the law courts (1 Corinthians 6); common Christian conviction was not thought to cover how to deal with disputes between believers. Again at the table, it was Christ “and” maturity – the “mature” in faith feeling free to eat meat which had been offered to idols, the apparently “immature” being greatly troubled by this, perhaps even to the point of losing faith (1 Corinthians 8, 10). A similar confusion arose around speaking in tongues in that community (1 Corinthians 14).

So it went in that church, each issue a manifestation of the same problem: community built on the kind of power and wisdom which is “added” and so which some have and some do not. What more I have raises me above you: Christ “and”…

Paul’s correction is that each of the “ands” we append to Christ has to be subject to the levelling effect of the cross. The cross unites by levelling. It marks the lowest common denominator among us – godlessness – and, from there, opens up the power of grace which builds upon nothing. Our calling is not to be clever, not to be wise or powerful. It is not, that is, to accumulate as many “ands” as possible. Our calling is to be faithful and to trust the one who has determined that the cross, and no other “helpful” addition we can imagine, will be the way by which God is effective in us and in the world.

What does this mean for us? It means that we are free before God. If the word of God in the Crucified is an assault on all things by which we would supplement ourselves or Christ, so also is it a liberation from the need to supplement ourselves before God. If I don’t have to be right in order to have the fullness of God in Christ, I need not be anxious about whether or not I’m always doing the smartest thing. And if anxiety is stripped out of our work, then our work approaches something more like play – be it our work as individual persons or our work as a Christian community. We can try this or that – not because it’s the cleverest thing, but because we are free to do so in Christ, the wisdom and power of God.

In our personal lives, we are free to do it differently – start a business, retire early, get a divorce, give away a lot of money, buy a puppy, or whatever. In our common life as a congregation, we are free to experiment – playing with worship styles, or times, or locations, or mission investments, or whatever. In the next couple of weeks, this is just what we’ll be doing as we begin conversations with the theological college about what relocating into a partnership with them might look like. In all that, we need to keep in mind that the college is a mere “and” to us, and is not the gospel promise itself – is not any kind of salvation for us. And we have to ensure that the college sees us in just the same way. If it doesn’t work, whatever we might lose we don’t lose that which is most basic. We don’t lose what binds us to God and is the possibility of our being truly bound to each other: the Christ who died by our wise and powerful hand and yet who graciously returns to us to speak of a different wisdom and a different power.

The crisis with which Paul begins at Corinth is human division, but the response is the grace-full heart of the gospel. The church is called to unity not because unity and love are “good things”. We are called to unity because what we have in common in Christ exceeds all things that distinguish us from each other. Our human wellbeing is not secured by our own efforts and allegiances, but by the God who names us as his own, giving us himself and a common humanity by seeing us in the Christ we rejected. God sees us through Jesus. If we are in the Christ who is rejected, we are in the Christ whom God raised to life. This is grace.

There is, then, no place in the reign of God for division through merely worldly and selfish preferences and concerns. We are called out of ourselves to discover our lives hidden together with Christ in God.

Let us, then, open ourselves to this grace and, little by little, ever become something of this grace to those around us.