The symbol has become so familiar to us, so common, that even the most faithful among us often see it without thinking.
I’m talking about the cross.
We see it in church every Sunday. We wear it around our necks. We often decorate it with fine metals and precious jewels.
It is so much a part of our lives that when we hear Paul telling the Christians in Corinth that the cross reveals “the power of God,” we probably don’t think he is saying anything remarkable.
But 20 centuries ago, when that statement was first made, it was a radical assertion.
In Paul’s day, the cross was the antithesis of power. Dying on the cross was a scandalous method of capital punishment, a death that was shameful and humiliating, reserved for slaves, criminals, and outcasts.
Only the powerless died on the cross.
To speak of the cross as having power of any kind, especially the power of God, was foolish and stupid.
And yet it is the cross, Paul says, that reveals the deepest and most ironic truth about the character of God, that God would use what was despised and worthless to bring about salvation for the world.
Paul is writing to a fledgling Christian community in Corinth that is divided by many quarrels.
There are arguments about who is the wisest, who is the most faithful, who are the best leaders to follow, about how to celebrate the Eucharist, and what the role of women in the church should be.
Paul has little patience with such bickering.
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” he asks. “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.”
Theologian Douglas John Hall gives insight into what it means to live by the kind of theology of the cross Paul is talking about, a life marked by humility, faith, hope, and love.
The faith of Christians, signed by the cross, is the opposite of self-righteous certainty and smugness. It is more about trusting than knowing.
“A theology of the cross has to be a modest theology,” Hall says. “As trust, faith knows periods of real confidence, but it is consistently denied certitude – the unflinching sureness of those who believe they have access to the absolute truth.”
Indeed, this kind of faith knows periods of serious doubt. It realizes that all knowledge of God and God’s will in this world is incomplete, and is ready to admit mistakes and listen to others.
“A triumphalistic religious community that confronts the world as if it is the one body that really ‘sees’ and ‘knows’ the truth about God is destined to be a divisive – and perhaps violent – influence in our diverse and volatile world,” Hall says.
“Only a faith that is conscious of how far short it falls of ultimate truth and goodness can contribute to the peace and justice of a planet as diverse and fragile as ours.”
A theology of the cross is also a theology of hope. But Christian hope is not to be confused with a blind optimism that proclaims with certainty that all of our religious or national undertakings will be successful and good, often disregarding all evidence to the contrary.
Christian hope does not ignore the suffering, evil, and tragedies of the world. It is ruthlessly realistic and honest about them and about ourselves. Without that honesty, there is no chance of righting the wrongs of the world.
Hope signed by the cross of Christ is first a hope for the victims of the world. It promises them liberation and an end to oppression.
For those of us who are not among the victims the cross is a reminder that Christians are obligated to aid in the liberation of the oppressed, to show honest compassion and care for our fellow children of God, no matter what their faith may be.
There is nothing in Christian faith or theology that says we should care for Christians first when others are also suffering or in pain.
Finally, a theology of the cross is a theology of love. Not love as a sentimental emotion, but a love that is willing to enter into the suffering of the world, to meet people where they are, and humbly work with them for healing and justice.
It is this kind of faith, hope, love, and humility, marked by the cross, that seems to be missing from much of what is portrayed as Christianity today.
I have a handy little book that suggests what hymns may go with each Sunday’s scripture readings.
The one that is recommended to go with this reading from First Corinthians is one that might be familiar to many of you — “Lift High the Cross.”
It begins with this refrain, “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim, till all the world adore his sacred Name.”
It is a powerful hymn with strong words and a triumphant melody. There was a time when it was among my favorites, and I have often sung it with enthusiasm.
You’ll notice we are not singing it today.
In recent years this hymn has gone from appealing to appalling to me, particularly because of this verse: “Led on their way by this triumphant sign, the hosts of God in conquering ranks combine.”
There’s a sense of arrogance, a lack of humility in this song about the cross — particularly when in recent years we have been engaged in two wars with religious overtones, when people are denied entry into our country because of their religious beliefs, and when some elected officials who claim to be Christian make threats against American citizens who are Muslim.
This is a time when we need to guard against even the perception of lifting the cross to use as a weapon against those who differ from us.
Instead of “Lift High the Cross,” we will in a few moments sing a hymn based on the words we heard today from the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
These words were addressed to a nation that had strayed from faithfulness to God, a nation that believed that military power is what makes it great, a nation that ignored the needs of immigrants and the poor.
The hymn we will sing at the offertory speaks the words we need to hear today:
“Rulers of earth, give ear! Should you not justice show?
Will God your pleading hear, while crime and cruelty grow?
Do justly; love mercy; walk humbly with your God.”