The View from the Cross (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
2nd Sunday of Lent
A few years ago I heard a preacher say in a sermon, “I know only Jesus Christ and him crucified. That’s all I preach.” I heard that and I thought, “Gosh, that’s pretty limited. There is a lot more to say than that, important as that is.” Then, in recent weeks, Heather and I were going through the Bible passages for Lent. She said with enthusiasm, “You should preach 1 Corinthians 2, ‘I know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’”
Here it was again. Why was she was she so jazzed up about this verse? For that matter, why did Paul write this? He certainly knows a lot more than just the story of the cross. In 1st Corinthians, he talks about marriage and celibacy. He writes the most expressive New Testament passage on spiritual gifts. He writes the brilliantly eloquent “love chapter.” Love is patient. Love is kind. He writes one of the most definitive descriptions of resurrection.
“I know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” Why throw out this statement when it appears not accurate?
To understand, I pose a personal question. What does the cross mean to you and to me? My sense is that when most Christians think about and talk about the cross of Jesus Christ, they think in terms of what they get out of it.
It goes like this. I know I am a sinner. I know my sin cuts me off from God. I want to be with God in relationship. I want to be assured I won’t be eternally punished by God for my sins. Jesus died on the cross as a covering for sins. So, in my mind and heart, I give my worship and my allegiance to Jesus. I receive the forgiveness he offers and I acknowledge him as my Lord and Savior. Now I know my sins are forgiven. Now I am not cut off from God but rather am adopted as God’s child.
I hear Christianity summarized in various ways but the key components are always what I have laid out briefly here. The cross means I am defined as a Christian and more importantly, it means I go to Heaven when I die.
What I have said is very reassuring. It gives Christians hope. It comforts us as we think about people we dearly love who have already died. “Cross = blessed afterlife;” it is true and it is good. We should not let go of this. But I think we totally misunderstand Paul’s writing if we think this is all there is regarding the cross and what Jesus accomplished on it.
We think about the effects of the cross, the results. More specifically, we focus on what we think are the results for us. But, in actuality, what I have talked about thus far involves results at some unknown time. I just turned 43. If I live to be 80, I have 37 more years before the death of Jesus on the cross has any real impact on my existence. Between now and then I can live in hope. But, does Jesus Christ crucified mean anything to me today, right now? Or to you?
I encourage us to shift in our understanding of what the cross means. Yes, Jesus made a way for us and part of how he did this involves his sacrificial death on the cross. However, his action there is more than just a path-creating mechanism. When we “know Jesus and him crucified” then the crucifixion becomes a transforming event. We enter Christ and he enters us and that joining makes us entirely new creations. We are transformed from the inside out. So, everything that is true in our lives changes because we are not who we were before we knew Jesus.
Kenneth Keathley writes “union with Christ is the core truth of salvation” (A Theology for the Church, p.687). United with Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection become ours. In citing the gospels, the book of Hebrews, and 1st Peter, all New Testament writings from other authors, not Paul, theologian James McClendon writes, “the resurrection and the cross constitute” the essential New Testament proclamation (Systematic Theology: Doctrine, p.198). Everything we say about Christian faith stands on the truth that Jesus was crucified, his death accomplished our salvation, and he rose from death. Everything we think and do in terms of living the Christian life is dependent on the truth of the crucifixion and resurrection. To be Christian is to be in union with Jesus and to be in union with him is to share his cross.
“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Paul doesn’t mean other topics won’t come up in his speech. Other topics must arise. The Corinthian church had numerous problems and he had to address them specifically. He did so, from the cross. We have 1000 questions. How do I as a Christ-follower spend my money? Whom should I marry? Should I get married? What’s the best way to raise my kids? What career should I pursue? How do I handle conflict? All these questions are relevant and Christianity should help us with them. We answer them all from the cross.
The crucifixion of Jesus determines how Paul will see all other things. The cross shows us how to see the world and act in the world. It is in this sense that religion professor Alexandra Brown says that Paul’s “Word of the cross is an active agent of God” (“Apocalyptic Transformation in Paul’s discourse” in Word and World, Fall 1996, p.432).
Simply put, Jesus was fully God, and at the same time fully human. As a man, he did what no humans did. He lived a sinless life. In his life, he claimed to be Israel’s true king and Messiah, and he claimed that his kingdom was the supreme authority for all people everywhere. Political leaders in Jerusalem reacted to the claims of Jesus. He was arrested, questioned, flogged, questioned some more, and then sent to the Roman cross.
The cross was meant to humiliate those who were nailed to it. They would be crucified naked, hung high for all to see. They were taunted by soldiers and by people passing by. They died slowly. Sun-burn, wind-burn, exhaustion, and ultimately suffocation (when their legs were broken) were all the things piled on top of the pain of hanging by your hands and ankles being nailed. The cross was intended to dehumanize the victim and magnify the power of Rome.
Jesus could have summoned 12,000 angels to wipe out Rome in an instant. He did not do that. He looked to Heaven and embraced the cross, awful as it was, so that your sins and my sins and the sins of all people would be washed away forever. He went willingly and God used the shame of the cross the show the world the power of His love for us.
To know the cross as Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 2 is to commit ourselves to sacrificial living. George Whitefield, one the Great Awakening revival preachers of the 18th century, described Paul as swallowed up in his knowledge of the crucifixion. Seeing the world from the viewpoint of the cross became for Paul the governing principle for his life. This requires an intentional effort. According to Whitefield our whole lives become “one continuous sacrifice; … whether we eat or drink, whether we pray to God, to do anything [with other people], it must all be done out of a love for, and knowledge of him who died and rose again, to render all, even our most ordinary deeds, acceptable in the sight of God” (selected sermons of George Whitefield – Christian Classics Ethereal Library). When I know the cross, I give of myself as Jesus gave of himself.
To know Jesus Christ crucified is to be aligned with the downtrodden and unimpressive people around us. From 1st Corinthians 1: “Consider your own call, brothers. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many powerful, not many were of noble birth. But 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, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (v.26-29).
Jesus, and we along with him, see the poorest of the poor, the downtrodden of the world, and identify ourselves with them. Paul is at pains to point out that no one is great before God no matter how great he or she may appear in comparison to other people. Thus from the cross we see life with humble eyes and we are driven to live humbly. When I see with the eyes of Jesus and him crucified, I place myself among the people the world would see as nothing.
To know Jesus and know the cross is to live by the Spirit. “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,” the apostle says, “but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (vs. 4-5). As we have seen the cross leads to living with a bent toward self-sacrifice and identifying ourselves with the needy and living in solidarity with the poor. This takes us out of the mainstream of thought. The cross is an unconventional approach to life. “Foolishness,” the Bible says. Alexandra Brown writes that the Holy Spirit helps us live as we find ourselves out of the mainstream of human thought. We don’t hold the popularly held attitudes of our day. To be in Christ is to be different. But, the Spirit now functions to “re-orient the destabilized hearer. It is as if the Spirit rushes in like a wind to fill the void left by the destruction of the old world” (Brown, p.434). When I see from the cross, then, I find myself living in complete dependence on the Holy Spirit.
It is not always easy. The Holy Spirit is not some force controlled by a Jedi Knight or Binny Hinn. The Holy Spirit is personal manifestation of the living God like the Father and the Son. The Spirit works on the Spirit’s agenda. To know Christ crucified is to submit ourselves completely to the Spirit’s agenda.
So then, because of the cross, we give of ourselves; we live sacrificially. Because of the cross, we align ourselves with the poor and we reject what the world considers great. Because of the cross, we live in dependence on the Spirit and at the pleasure of the Spirit. To know only this – Jesus Christ and him crucified – is to see everything in life from the view of the cross.
Our Lenten spiritual practice is to know. Thus far in Lent we have listed the following practices or disciplines: (1) We acknowledge the impact of sin on the world. (2) We confess our individual sins. (3) We receive the grace of God.
Today, a fourth discipline or practice I commend to the church is knowing what Paul knew when he wrote 1st Corinthians. A first step is to know the story. Read one of the four gospels a couple of times to get the story into your mind.
Next, meditate why Jesus accepted crucifixion. “For God so loved the world,” it says in John 3:16. Prayerfully contemplate the love of God that expresses itself in the cross.
Having gotten into the stories so that we know the facts and having prayerfully meditated upon the love that drove Jesus to the cross, then comes the third and most involved part of our “knowing Christ and him crucified,” as Paul did. We know imaginatively.
To fully see the view from the cross is to love the world even as the world rejects you. Where are the places that God is inviting you to live in this deep, sacrificial love? It is not a matter of trying to become Christ. Only Jesus can die for the sins of others. We appreciate what Jesus has done and to the point that we are so dramatically shaken that our lives are irreversibly altered and we cannot go back. Where does the sacrificial love of Jesus come to life in your life?
A Lenten challenge that can only be met when we see from the cross of Christ is for each of us to identify someone who needs us to show God’s love. It could be a Christian or a nonbeliever. It could be someone familiar or a stranger; rich or poor. The key is once we’ve identified the person we then, in the power of the Spirit go beyond whatever limits we thought we’d never exceed in extending Jesus’ love. Essentially, we say, “I’ll go this far and no farther.” Then, we are moved to look from the cross and in doing that, we find ourselves going beyond the limit because Jesus is leading us.
In that moment and in that relationship, we know more fully what it is to see all things from the cross. Then it is obvious that we know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.