March 4, 2013 by jmar198013
I began a series in January for my monthly table talks at Jacks Creek Church of Christ. My aim in this series is to explore other ways of talking about the Cross than satisfaction/penal substitutionary models. My jumping off place in January was S. Mark Heim’s observation that the Cross embodies a paradox: “Christ’s death saves the world, and it ought not to happen” My talk from Sunday March 3 takes up 1 Cor. 1.18-30 as a way of reconciling that paradox and applying it to the life of the church. This talk was also heavily influenced by the chapter “Christ the Reconciler: 1 Corinthians 1-2” from Peter Schmiechen’s book Saving Power: Theories of the Atonement and Forms of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 271-87.
To those on the road to ruin, the language of the Cross is gibberish. But to us on our way to deliverance, it is saving power from God. Thus it is written: “I will frustrate the wisdom of the wise and unravel the schemes of the schemers.” Now that God has exposed the foolishness of human cunning, where does that leave the wise? Where does it leave the experts? Where does it leave those who like to argue over the latest ideas? God determined, by his wisdom, that the world would not know him by its wisdom. Instead, God chose to save those who believe in this foolish thing we preach. So while Hebrews clamor for miracles and Greeks pursue wisdom, we’re talking up a crucified Messiah! Alas–that’s an obstacle the Hebrews can’t overcome, and to the Greeks, it’s downright absurd. But to those who hear God’s call, this crucified Messiah is God’s power and God’s wisdom. My brothers and sisters, you are a perfect example. Remember what you were when God called you. Not many of you would have been considered intellectual heavyweights by your peers. Nor were there many of the elite and powerful among you, either. No–because God chose what all empirical evidence says is foolish to confound the wise. And God chose what looks powerless to human eyes to overpower the dominant. God chose the outcast and the overlooked–a crowd of nobodies!–to outshine those who think the world revolves around them. So humanity has nothing to boast about to God. But you–God has given you a share in Messiah Jesus, who God has made our wisdom and our virtue, our holiness and our freedom. Thus it is written: “Let whoever boasts, boast about the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1.18-30)
Recently, I stood by this table and presented the Cross as a paradox: it is both an evil act that shouldn’t have happened and God’s plan to save the world. I chose 1 Cor. 1.18-30 as my text today because it helps reconcile this paradox. Furthermore, the manner by which Paul reconciles our paradox there speaks to the character and vocation of the church.
In our passage, Paul stages the Cross as a dramatic showdown over power and wisdom between humans and God. The crucified Messiah constitutes the wisdom and power of God. But those who crucify Jesus also make claims to wisdom and power, and assert those claims by killing Jesus. In fact, Paul writes that the killing of Jesus represents the best of collective human wisdom. After all, Jesus wasn’t the victim of a random act of violence. He wasn’t killed by terrorists or thugs. He wasn’t hung by a lynch mob. No, Jesus was killed by the wise and powerful of this world. He was put down for the common good, to restore order, in defense of national security, to conserve traditional values. For Paul here, the crucifixion is a damning indictment of human forms of wisdom and power. They promise life and salvation, but are only able to deliver unhappiness and death. We intend good by them, but inevitably commit evil in their name. The killing of Jesus, Paul argues, exposes the ignorance of human wisdom and the impotence of human power. Those who confess the crucified Messiah as risen Lord must also concede that human wisdom and power are defective. Jesus was killed by the hubris common to mankind. The Cross was an evil act that ought not happen.
The other side to the paradox is that the Cross is God’s plan to save the world. At this point, we need to understand that the two sides of the paradox qualify each other in crucial ways. For instance, if the Cross is only an evil act that shouldn’t happen, if all it does is expose the failure of human wisdom and power, there is no good news in it for us. We are left with only despair and damnation. On the other hand, what if we minimize the human evil of the Cross and focus on it only as God’s plan to save us? What if the meaning of the Cross really is the satisfaction of divine wrath? What if the purpose of the Cross is exhausted by its being the mechanism through which God imputes righteousness to us? What if that is all Paul meant when he wrote that God made Jesus “our wisdom and our virtue, our holiness and our freedom”? See, I’m afraid that isn’t really good news, either. If the Cross saves us because God deflects his wrath on Jesus and imputes to us his wisdom, virtue, and holiness in the exchange, there is no change in the human condition. We’re still hell on wheels and the world is still a hot mess. We don’t have to be confronted with any uncomfortable resemblance we may bear to the Roman bureaucrats or Jewish power elite who killed Jesus. Besides, they were just doing their jobs, right? And if, in the end, God sees Jesus’ holiness and virtue when he looks at us, what does it matter if we live by human wisdom and power now? Admittedly they are flawed, but we require them to make our way in an imperfect world. An imperfect world God is about to destroy, anyhow. See, that isn’t good news–it’s sugar-coated gibberish.
We can’t appreciate how the Cross is God’s plan to save the world until we concede that it is also an evil thing that ought not happen. The very reason the world needs saving is because it is the sort of world whose wisdom and power crucifies Jesus. The Cross is God’s judgment against the world’s power and wisdom. But the purpose of that judgment isn’t to condemn the world. Rather, God exposes our ignorance and impotence in order to reveal his perfect wisdom and power in the person of Jesus. We simply cannot understand why we would need Jesus until we have killed him. That’s what Paul meant by writing, “God determined, by his wisdom, that the world would not know him by its wisdom. Instead, God chose to save those who believe in this foolish thing we preach.” Namely, a crucified Messiah who is the resurrected Lord. The Cross is how God reveals to us that our wisdom is ignorant, our virtue is corrupt, our holiness is blasphemy, and our freedom is a trap. Until we are confronted by these truths, we cannot be saved because we cannot know what we are being saved from. But having exposed the sham that is human wisdom, God then invites us to share in Christ’s life. It is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we learn about wisdom, virtue, holiness, and freedom. And our share in Jesus does effect a tangible change in our condition, in how we relate to God, to one another, and to the world. In how we evaluate the world’s claims to wisdom and power. God is God precisely because he is able to save the world by an evil act that shouldn’t have happened.
I suggested at the outset that Paul’s way of reconciling the paradox of the Cross as both an evil act and God’s plan to save the world speaks to the character and vocation of the church. It has to do with our being a people that relies on God’s wisdom and power for survival rather than on the world’s. Near the conclusion of our reading for today, Paul describes the church, the people gathered by, around, and in the crucified Messiah, as “a crowd of nobodies” whose only boast is Jesus. How have we come to be in this condition? Because the wisdom and power of the world have been exposed to us as failures through the Cross. Being the church means being those who recognize the hubris of human wisdom and power, and divest ourselves of any share we might have in them to claim the wisdom and power God revealed in the Cross. In the world’s eyes, it really does make us “a crowd of nobodies.” But we can receive the wisdom and power God extends through Jesus no other way. A happy consequence of this choice, which makes us a “crowd of nobodies” to the world, is that we learn to live by gifts and not by our own smarts and achievements. Since God has made Jesus the source of our wisdom and virtue, our holiness and our freedom, it means these things come to us as gifts. They are not something we have achieved, and we don’t get to decide what forms they take. This is saving power. We have been saved from the forms of wisdom claimed by the world, which are inevitably divisive and can’t see beyond themselves. We have been saved the struggle of attaining virtue for ourselves. We have been saved from systems of holiness that seem ever bent on excluding others from our care. We have been saved from freedom that requires the sacrifice of lives for its survival, because the only sacrifice that needs to be made for our freedom has been made. The challenge of 1 Cor. 1.18-30 to us as we gather around this table–which is also God’s gift to us–is to consider what human claims to wisdom and power we might still be clinging to; and what it might mean for us to receive wisdom, virtue, holiness, and freedom as God’s gifts through Jesus. My prayer is that our meditation on these things would animate ongoing and creative conversations among us that continue well beyond today and extend far beyond these walls.