Christ Crucified is Lowliness Made High
A sermon based on I Corinthians 1:18-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on January 29, 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I grew up in the mild weather of the Bay Area of California, so getting cold was not usually much of a concern . . . at least not until I discovered backpacking the mountain ranges. I’m talking mountains 8 to 12,000 feet high, mountains that even if you hike in the valleys below them you have to acclimate a day or so at a base camp to avoid getting altitude sickness. And it can be Ohio winter cold up there, sometimes even in the summer.
When I was nineteen I went on a week long back pack trip in the Cascades range. It was hot and then sure enough, a storm rolled in, the rain turned into snow and we got stuck in our tents for a couple of days. When it stopped snowing the next day it was hot again so I had the bright idea of diving into a nearby lake to refresh myself. I’m told I bounced back out of the freezing cold water so fast it looked like a cartoon. That glacier lake got my attention fast. I have never been more surprised in my life.
I mention that shocking surprise as an image, a metaphor, for the shocking surprise anyone in the First Century Roman empire would have had to overcome when they were told the savior of the world, the Son of God was a crucified criminal peasant Jewish rabbi. The image of the cross to us has a lot of positive, inspirational, loving meaning. We wear it on our necks, hang in on our walls, hold it in our hands, sing about it, pray and worship before it. To anyone in Paul’s time and place that would have seemed very strange and unwise, foolishness to say the least. In the First Century Roman Empire the cross was intended by Rome to mean one thing, state torture and terrorism. 1
Crucifixion is what happened on a cross. It was a very cruel punishment reserved for two types of criminals, “chronically defiant slaves” and “those who challenged imperial rule.” 2. These two types of criminals “rejected Rome’s imperial domination, ” and so they were terribly killed. Crucifixion was a very public, prolonged and painful form of execution that sent the message “Don’t you dare deny imperial authority or this will happen to you.” 3
The cross was intended to be a place and a sign of crushing anti-imperial rebels. That was its purpose, along with warning off all other potential rebels and rebellions . . . “Oppose us and die a horrible death and become the lowest of the low in our culture forevermore.” The cost of rebellion was understood by all to be a godforsaken shameful and brutal death, the mark of the worst kind of worthless criminal in the Empire. Rome intended the cross to be a very scary sight that put an end to rebellions and rebels and evoke fear. The cross was both Rome’s propaganda tool and savage killing site.
Applying this all to Jesus’ case, the Roman Empire intended the cross to be the final place where the world said “NO!” to Jesus and Jesus’ Way. The “NO!” was meant to be resoundingly clear to Jesus. The “NO!” was meant to be resoundingly heard by his followers. The “NO” was meant as a resounding stop to Jesus’ teachings. 4
That Friday in Passover when Jesus died on the cross was meant to create, as the Good Friday story retells, a darkness over the earth– only not just for hours that day, but for all time Rome intended to utterly destroy Jesus . . . and his Way. To be crucified was to be labeled the lowest thing on earth and treated as such and shown to the world to be as low as low can be, defeated, dead – lights out and dark. Everyone who lived in the Roman Empire knew that. I am emphasizing it this morning because we need to understand that in order to fully grasp the meaning of Paul’s words in our lesson today.
See, it was absolutely bazaar, a shocking surprise for everyone when Jesus’ disciples – and later followers like Paul – claimed in the cross and Christ crucified we can find the wisdom and power of God. It made no sense. This was more startling than a hot summer dive into a glacier lake. It was more foolish sounding and unwise. It still is if we apply human wisdom. The cross, the very lowest place anyone in the Roman Empire could go, is somehow the opposite of low.
Paul is claiming the cross was where God’s self (incarnate on earth!) chose to go and grow a whole new way of accessing love and peace and justice . . . and to make God’s very own presence glow.
Can you hear how that is a head scratcher? It seemed such a very unwise and very foolish thing to claim. The cross as a source of glory is impossible . . . or impossible to imagine, especially to anyone in the Roman Empire. The cross as a sign of hope, love, justice and peace made absolutely no sense in the context of that time and place. The cross was the opposite of all that! It was designed to be a sign of no hope for any way but the imperial Empire’s way; no love for anyone but Caesar; no justice for the oppressed; no peace, but by submission of the masses through government imposed violence and threats of violence.
But for Christians even just the symbol of the cross has a whole new meaning now.That’s how powerful the message and Jesus’ life of love continue to be. Jesus and his Way did not end with his execution. God vindicated them both by giving them both new life. Easter sees Jesus living on, it results in an understanding that they could not and cannot be extinguished by petty human power. The result is that God made an instrument of execution shame and despair, a symbol of eternal life, love and glory. The cross now means that Jesus was vindicated by God, not destroyed by Rome. The cross now means that Jesus is Lord not Caesar. The cross now means God went as low as any culture could ever put anyone and not only survived, but flat out thrived!
Low as you can go, low as you can be. Oddly you cannot be better than a criminal executed as a low-life rebel on the cross. That’s cold water to reality. The lesson is whatever it is we think is less, God can be, and is, in it. God is in it all! There is not a dark place or a dark being or a dark act that God cannot emerge out of.
The evidence in the Bible and 2,000 years of history proves that the human Rome tried to make the culture’s absolutely lowest, God has made the culture’s absolutely highest. Nonetheless, that the Word became flesh in a shamed crucified criminal is foolishness and unwise to the worldly way of thinking.
Paul is brilliant in pitting the opposites of God’s way with humankind’s way in our reading. He writes:
Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (vs 20-25)
Then Paul addresses Christians:
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. [God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (vs 26-31)
See, Paul is teaching what Jesus taught over and over that the low shall be made high and the high shall be made low. Since God incarnate came and died as the lowest possible sort of person to the culture, no one who claims to be higher than that lowness can be actually be high, and everyone who honors that lowness honors God.
Rome did not execute Jesus so he could die for our sins. They executed him because of their sinful and evil ways. God remarkably, I would even say miraculously, transforms Rome’s sinful evil effort into glorifying Jesus and making the Way Jesus created, a path to God. Jesus’ death and resurrection become a portal for personal and communal transformation.
The sacrifice Jesus made in standing up to Rome’s way with God’s way–and Rome’s brutal response leads to salvation of the world. It’s not a sacrifice God demanded, but an execution Rome demanded. God made the very best out it. Out of the ash heap of human evil God raises a phoenix, Christ, Jesus resurrected out of death on a cross as savior of us all. That may seem like foolishness to earthly power’s way of doing things, but heavenly power has shown how brilliantly it works! The cross is a sign now of hope, love, peace and justice for everyone including, of course, those the culture oppress, the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, and the alien . . . and even those of other faiths.
Jesus has lived on and on and on, seen by most in a very positive and lofty place. He is whom millions and millions want to live to be like
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.
Neither Rome, nor any other empire on earth, can out maneuver God. From terror and terrible torture on a cross, God can and will and has made glory and goodness and miraculously Christ Crucified a portal to God, a way to the reign of heaven on earth. Jesus’ Way the path we try to follow.
The path that began with Jesus’ teachings were vindicated at cross, because it is there that God said “No” to the wrongful ways of earthly power, and “Yes” to Jesus and the Way to God through Christ Crucified.
God is love and love wins any place any time, for you, for me for everyone including the poor, the sick, imprisoned, alien . . . and even those of other faiths.
1. Borg, Marcus, and Crossan Dominic, The First Paul, p 131
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