“But We Preach Christ Crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
You’ll notice that the color of our paraments today is red–in other words, something different from the ordinary green that we use in the non-festival half of the church year. This means that we’re observing a special festival today, one that happens to fall on a Sunday this year. And this festival is called Holy Cross Day. What is Holy Cross Day, you ask? Well, let me tell you the background of this observance.
Back in the early 300s, the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. Then in the year 326, his mother, Helena, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and there she discovered what was believed to be the true cross of Christ. So they began to build a church on the site of that discovery, and, nine years later, it was dedicated–the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem. It’s still there, by the way; I’ve been there. So it came to be that on September 14, in the year 335, the holy cross itself was brought outside the church for the people to see. At least that’s how the story goes. And that seems to be the origin of Holy Cross Day. And this festival continues to be observed on this date among churches all around the world.
Now whether or not St. Helena discovered the actual cross of Christ is really beside the point. The main point of this festival, as it is observed among us now, is to emphasize the central importance of the cross of Jesus Christ for our salvation and in our preaching and teaching. That’s what we are doing here today on this Holy Cross Day. And so our theme this morning: “But We Preach Christ Crucified.”
“But we preach Christ crucified”: These words come from our Epistle for today, from 1 Corinthians 1, particularly this verse, where St. Paul writes: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Now what is Paul saying with this business about Jews and Greeks and what they would prefer? He’s saying that not everybody wants to hear the word of the cross. Not everybody wants to hear the message of Christ crucified. They’d rather hear something else instead. The word of the cross is not very appealing to them. But, Paul insists, even though other messages might be more popular, we will continue to preach Christ crucified.
“Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” That’s what people were looking for back in Paul’s day. The Jewish people wanted to see a display of power, miraculous signs from God, or else they didn’t want to listen. The Greeks wanted to hear interesting philosophical ideas, the wisdom that man can come up with, or else they didn’t want to listen. And here comes the Christian gospel, and it doesn’t seem to suit either audience. To the Jews, the message of the cross seems like utter weakness. A man dying on a cross? And you say this is our Messiah? Where is the power? Where is the glory? No thank you! To the Greeks, the word of the cross seems like so much foolishness. A man dying on the cross? What does that have to do with using our reason to attain to higher levels of knowledge and enlightenment? No thank you! But Paul says, even so, we will stick to preaching Christ crucified.
Is this relevant for us today? Oh, you bet it is! We live in a time and in a culture where it is a great challenge to remain true to the word of the cross, to remain faithful in preaching Christ crucified. Such preaching is not very popular at all. No, we live in a day and age when most people would much rather hear something else. Preach Christ crucified as the heart and core and center of your sermons, and it’s very possible your church will be small and struggling when it comes to attendance and offerings. Preach a different message, how-to sermons–well, don’t even call them “sermons,” that sounds too churchy–preach how to live a more successful, happy life, and your numbers will increase. That’s what people want these days, and you’ve got to keep the customers satisfied, if you want to have a successful megachurch.
“Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” What do Americans demand? What do they seek? Americans demand practicality. Americans seek entertainment. Americans seek advice for achieving their goal of a happier life now. Americans seek excitement and bright shiny things that will hold their attention. Jokes and stories, sentimental stories, principles for successful living and self-improvement–that’s the ticket! And so that’s what their preachers give them. Not Christ crucified, not the word of the cross, but those other things. St. Paul predicted this, you know, in 2 Timothy 4: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.”
So there is pressure on preachers today to tell people what they want to hear, rather than to stay true to what God would have us preach. Pastors can even feel the pressure from their own church members. “Pastor, it sounds so depressing, all this ‘dying for our sins’ stuff. Can’t you preach something more uplifting?” Well, I can’t think of anything more truly uplifting than the message of the Son of Man being lifted up on the cross, which forgives our sins and lifts us up to heaven. “Pastor, can’t you lay off the cross and sin and grace, and instead tell more funny stories? That’s what people want these days. That will grow our church and increase our offerings! And you know what that means, don’t you?” Yeah, it means I will have forsaken my calling, robbed Christ of his glory, and robbed people of the comfort they need. And so, like St. Paul, we will resist the culture and stick to preaching Christ crucified.
Why is the word of the cross so offensive? Because it goes against our grain to have to admit that we need the Son of God dying on a cross to put us right with God. We don’t think we’re that bad that we need such a solution. We’d rather do it ourselves–if indeed we even think we need saving. But we do. The truth is, each one of us, you and I–we all have sinned and fall short of what God would have us be. This sinful nature, and the actual sins that we commit–these condemn us to death. And death would be our lot, death under God’s judgment, if not for the cross. We need more than we can muster on our own.
We need Jesus, the Savior sent from heaven and lifted up on the cross. There he died, the innocent for the guilty, shedding his holy blood on that holy cross. This was God’s hidden wisdom, his great plan to redeem sinful mankind, but in a way that looks weak and powerless. The Son of God, suffering in shame and silence, taking the punishment that you and I deserve.
And that is why Paul says so strongly, “But we preach Christ crucified.” Why does he insist on this? Is he being obstinate? No, rather, it’s about salvation–your salvation. Listen to what he says: “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.” And again: “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.” You see, Christ did the dying, on that cross, long ago. Now the message of the cross needs to be preached, so that people can know their Savior and trust in him and thus be saved. God saves people through the preaching of the cross. He doesn’t save them through good advice and self-help messages and funny stories. He saves people through the word of the cross. This is what preachers are commanded to preach. This is what you as hearers need to hear, whether you realize it or not.
Now, to be sure, we can and do preach practical messages of Christian daily living, of the new life of love and good works. Paul himself does so, usually in the second half of his letters. But that message of sanctification is always rooted in and tied to the gospel of justification, that is, the foundational message of how our sins are forgiven and we are put right with God purely by the work of Christ on the cross. The gospel is not to be assumed or taken for granted. No, it is to be preached, explicitly, clearly, as the hinge, the pivot point, that enables and empowers Christian living.
Christ crucified, the power of God, the wisdom of God. Here is God’s power to save you for eternity, by Christ’s death for your forgiveness and his resurrection from the dead. The word of the cross, the gospel, is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, Jews, Greeks, and even us Americans. This word of the cross, this gospel preaching, is what you need to stay strong in the faith and not drift away. This is the word that will be your anchor when everything else in your life is spinning out of control and you’re not sure that God loves you anymore. The word of the cross will assure you that, in spite of everything else that appears to the contrary, God does indeed love you. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” The word of the cross, the preaching of Christ crucified and risen from the dead and coming again to raise us up and restore creation–here is hope for you to hold on to, hope that will not disappoint.
And so, on this Holy Cross Day, we will not be ashamed of the cross. No, “In the cross of Christ I glory, tow’ring o’er the wrecks of time. All the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime.” On this Holy Cross Day, we will not downplay the cross. No, rather, we will lift it high, for all the world to see. “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adore His sacred name.” Yes, dear friends, although it will appear as weakness and foolishness to some, to us who are being saved, we know that the word of the cross is the power and wisdom of God. And so it is with great joy and gladness that we will continue to “preach Christ crucified.”