The Offense of the Cross
I was reading a bit in 1 Corinthians 1 this Good Friday morning and was once again struck by the conclusion of the chapter, Paul’s famous description of the “foolishness” of the cross. Paul describes Christ crucified as a “stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” I wonder if this is not sometimes also the case for those of us who “are being saved.” Do we, too, stumble over the idea of a crucified king or do we just turn it into another kind of “Christian wisdom?” Does God’s wisdom seem, at times, like foolishness even to those of us who have come to believe in the saving power of what was accomplished at that first Easter?
Last night a small group of us walked through a fairly somber Maundy Thursday service where we shared a simple meal, read through John’s account of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion in stages and blew out candles at each stage along the way. It was a dark service for a dark period of Holy Week. The previous Sunday I had preached about how Jesus enters Jerusalem as a very different sort of king than any the world has ever seen. Rather than overwhelming his opponents by force and triumphantly inaugurating his kingdom, Jesus is subjected to public humiliation and disgrace and is ultimately executed like a criminal. Some king. Some redeemer. Some rescue plan.
There are times when I find the cross to be a beautiful thing—an inspiring display of self-sacrifice, moral heroism, redemptive commitment, and judgment of evil. But there are also times when I, too, find the cross offensive (Gal 5:11). There are times when, like the disciples, I long for a less ironic and subversive display of power and for more concrete and obvious evidence that Israel’s king really is drawing all things to himself. There are times when the cross doesn’t seem all that victorious—when it really does seem like little more than a cold slab of wood where hope dies, where the inevitability of violence, pain, and death win yet another day. There are times when the cross really does seem foolish and offensive, and unworthy of the history of hope that has emerged out of the first Easter.
At this time of year we often hear some variation of, “you have to walk through Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday.” Usually this is meant to convey the importance of meditating on the extent of Jesus’ suffering, recognizing how awful it was for him, and not moving too quickly to the victory of Easter Sunday. Or something like that. Perhaps a rediscovery of the “offense of the cross” might also be a part of what Good Friday is about. Perhaps Good Friday is meant, once again each year, to “destroy the wisdom of the wise” (1 Cor. 1:19). The cross is not rational. It may not even be that inspiring. It may seem little more than tragic and futile.
Easter Sunday does change how Good Friday is understood and experienced—indeed, it’s the only reason the adjective “good” can be prefixed to all that is symbolized by that dark day. But like the first disciples, we still wait for the victory inaugurated by that first Easter to be consummated. The kingdom of God is real, and it does advance, but sometimes not as quickly or obviously as we might like. Because of Easter Sunday, we wait expectantly and hopefully for we believe that out of the deepest darkness comes the brightest light.
But in the meantime, we still have our dark Thursdays and Fridays.
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
1 Cor. 1:27-30