“The Word of the Cross, the Power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:12)
As many of you know, these past two weeks I was at our seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to take a continuing education course on the life and work of Bo Giertz. Who was Bo Giertz, you ask? Let me tell you. He was a very important churchman, theologian, and author who lived in Sweden during the 20th century. He was born in 1905, and he died in 1998 at the age of 92.
When I was in seminary, I read a book by Bo Giertz called “The Hammer of God.” It’s a historical novel about several pastors who served in a certain parish, and this book made a deep impact on my life. It’s a terrific book. So I wanted to read more by this author, but at that point not much else had been translated from Swedish into English. As a result, I became part of a small team of translators who are working to bring more of Bo Giertz’s writings into English. And that’s why I was in Fort Wayne for this course about his life.
For 21 years, from 1949 to 1970, Bo Giertz served as the bishop of the Gothenburg Diocese, which happens to be where my family comes from and where many of my relatives still live. When he became bishop in 1949, there was a custom for the bishop to have his own coat of arms, with a motto that he would pick out. On your bulletin insert, you can see an image of Bishop Giertz’s coat of arms, including the motto. It’s in Latin, and it reads: VERBUM CRUCIS DEI VIRTUS. Translated, that means, “The word of the cross, the power of God.” This is what Giertz wanted to emphasize, this is what he was saying would mark his ministry as bishop. And so it was. Bishop Giertz was always preaching, teaching, and writing about the cross of Christ, the atonement that Christ accomplished there, for our salvation–indeed, for the salvation of the world.
“The word of the cross, the power of God.” Now Bo Giertz did not come up with this saying on his own. It was not original with him. No, it comes from one of our readings for today, the Epistle from 1 Corinthians. Actually, that particular phrase comes from last week’s Epistle, but since I wasn’t here last week, today I’ve woven together last week’s and this week’s readings for our text, since they work as a continuous unit. And in this section, St. Paul begins by saying, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Thus Bishop Giertz’s motto, and thus our theme for this morning’s message: “The Word of the Cross, the Power of God.”
Three things I want to talk about this morning: 1) The cross. 2) The word of the cross. And 3) The power of God. Let’s begin.
First, the cross. It may seem obvious, but let’s ask anyway: What is a cross? What was it used for? I’m sure you know. The cross was an ancient method of execution, employed by the Romans. The criminal would be nailed to a wooden cross, which would then be placed upright. This made it excruciatingly painful, not only from the nail wounds, but also excruciatingly painful for him to breathe. It became increasingly difficult for the crucified man to draw himself up to take a breath, and eventually the combination of shock, exposure, blood loss, and inability to breathe would kill him. It was a brutal method of execution.
And this is something we celebrate? That our guy Jesus got himself crucified and died in such a hideous way? What, are we crazy? Well, that’s what the world thinks. St. Paul even says this. He says the world thinks this whole cross business is “folly,” that is, foolishness. It doesn’t make sense to them. They don’t understand how a cross could be a good thing. It doesn’t seem very wise. It doesn’t seem very powerful. In fact, it looks like downright weakness, not power.
But they miss the point. They don’t get it, these people of the world who think they’re so wise, wiser than God. Their unbelief blinds them. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
How so? The cross, you see, the cross of Christ, is the one and only way by which any of us can be saved, saved from perishing as lost and condemned persons. There was a big barrier between us and God that kept us from being right with God, that kept us from entering into his presence. That barrier was our sin. It consists of all our rebellion against our Creator, which can take all sorts of forms. It’s the outward vices, the clear and blatant breaking of God’s commandments: loving other things more than we love God; dishonoring God’s holy name; not going to church to hear God’s word; dishonoring our parents and other authorities; hurting, and even not helping, our neighbor in his bodily needs; not respecting marriage; stealing from others; tearing down our neighbor’s reputation; envy; greed–all those things and everything like them, in thought, word, and deed, in what we do and what we fail to do. All that is sin.
But then, just when you try to be spiritual and clean up your act, you discover that you can’t get rid of the hard stony ground that still resides in your heart. You see that pride has entered in. Religious superiority and self-satisfaction. What a wretch I am! I have tried to be a good Christian, but I can’t ever get there. I’m not as humble and loving as I know I should be.
You see, this is why the cross was so necessary and always will be. We cannot rescue ourselves. God has to do it. I cannot make up for all my sins. I’m not righteous enough. But, dear friends, Christ is. Jesus Christ, the very Son of God come down from heaven–Jesus Christ, who became man for our sake and went to that cross, willingly, for our sake–he is the one who rescues us. His holy blood, shed for us in our place–this is all the atonement we will ever need. He puts us right with God. The debt has been paid. Our sins are atoned for, your sins and mine. It happened on the cross. And this is why the cross of Christ is so important, so necessary, for every one of us.
“The word of the cross, the power of God.” Notice, St. Paul says “the word” of the cross. The cross is a done deal, but now we need to hear about it. The word needs to go out. It needs to be preached and proclaimed, taught and brought home, so people can hear about their Savior who died for them, so they can believe in him, trust in him for their salvation. The word of the cross: This is the message that St. Paul preached and wrote about, that Bo Giertz preached and wrote about, that faithful pastors all around the world, throughout history, whether it’s popular or not–this is what we will preach, for this is what you need to hear. As Paul says, “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.”
“The word of the cross, the power of God.” Power? A message about someone dying on a cross is power? It sounds pretty powerless on the surface. How can it be power? Power to do what? As Paul says in Romans, the gospel is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes. And here in 1 Corinthians, likewise, Paul says that through the preaching of the word of the cross, God is actually saving those who believe. This word that we preach is alive. It is powerful. This message is calling you, moving you to repentance and calling you to faith. God is drawing you through this word, drawing you to Christ, so that you put your trust in him for your salvation, and not in anything or anyone else.
This word of Christ, the word of the cross, has power to give you life. The word preached, the word sacramented in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion–this Word of God is powerful. It accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to give you life. Through this word, God has washed away your sins and joined you to Jesus your Savior. Through this word, God has given you the Holy Spirit, to keep you in the faith and to give you new life and purpose and power to live as God’s child. This word of the cross, this word of the gospel–this word will give you a blessed end, to die in the faith, in peace. And when Christ comes again on the Last Day, he will speak his powerful word and raise you up bodily, glorious, to live with him forever. Eternal life in a restored creation, with all the saints of all times and places, in the presence of our exalted Lord–this is a powerful word indeed!
And this word of the cross also has the power to sustain you in the midst of all the difficulties and hardships of this life. It’s this word that sustained Bo Giertz in the midst of his hardships–and he had them. He was widowed three times in his long life. As a bishop and later in his retirement, he faced the difficulty of living in an increasingly secularized and unbelieving nation, Sweden, where the Christian faith has been undermined even by those within the now very liberal Church of Sweden. Yet Bishop Giertz found his enduring refuge in the cross of Christ–as will you.
Verbum Crucis Dei Virtus. “The word of the cross, the power of God.” In his novel “The Hammer of God,” Bo Giertz relates a conversation between two pastors who had been hammering away at the sins of the people, but without recognizing their own sinful pride and without preaching the forgiveness found in the cross of Christ. The one pastor, though, has now come to that realization, and so he tells the other pastor that “every man has the corruption of sin within him. “ The other pastor exclaims, “What will become of our cherished work of revival? And what will become of us? Don’t you realize how dreadful it is?” The first pastor replies, “Of course it is dreadful, and still I am so full of joy that I should like to take the whole world in my arms. This is the great secret of redemption, you understand, that God has drawn a cross over all the sinfulness of the world both without and within us.”
“God has drawn a cross over all the sinfulness of the world both without and within us.” What wonderful good news this is! Dear friends, this message is the word of the cross that we proclaim. We preach Christ crucified. And this word is the power of God that will save you for eternity. For to us who are being saved, the word of the cross is the power of God.