Do you like giving a speech? Most people do not. Psychologists say that fear of having to give a speech ranks only behind fear of illness & fear of death as making us most anxious. There is nothing more humiliating than standing before a group of people & having your joke fall flat, your main point fails to get across, or your punch line fail to be appreciated. Believe me – I know!
Like the guy who told a golf joke at a reunion of coal miners. He got to the punch line & waited. Stone cold silence. No one laughed. He tapped the microphone to make sure it was working. The joke was a bust. Few – if any – of those coal miners or their children had been to a country club or golf course. He failed completely to connect with the audience.
Any minister who preaches on a regular basis has experienced a sermon that fails to connect to the congregation. A significant sermon that failed to get its point across was that given by Paul in Athens. Paul never mentioned the cross of Christ, which should have been his central point. Paul missed a great opportunity. He got caught up in the importance of the people he was speaking to. He spoke philosophically. He tried to be wise. The sermon we find in Acts 17 most likely almost put the audience to sleep. Paul went on & on about an unknown god. He waxed poetically about humans being God’s offspring. It was polished. It was wise. It was logical. It was inclusive. It was eloquent. It even quoted a poet everyone in the audience admired. He used terms like in God we live, move, & exist. Some of the people there responded by saying, we’ll hear from you about this again. It was like a lecture. It did not mention the cross. Paul made very few converts so he left Athens & went to Corinth.
Paul later admitted that his sermon in Athens had failed. He said to the Corinthians, when I came to you, brothers & sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom. I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, & to preach him as crucified.
From Paul, I take it that we Christians are people who should speak about the cross. Yet the cross is a subject that demands much thought. Some voices claim that we should do away with the cross as a symbol & stop preaching about it altogether. Many worship services view the worshiper as a customer & do not have crosses because they want everybody to feel positive & happy when they leave church.
You can look hard & not find a cross in some megachurches. The pastor is usually an attractive man, woman, or married couple standing in front of a revolving globe or an empty stage & preaching a shallow message about self-actualization. The message is usually a blend of pop-psychology & hero worship. They don’t want the ‘customers’ to experience anything negative, especially a cross.
Others do not want a cross because they have seen it misused. From the emperor Constantine & the Crusaders to the KKK to modern politicians, righteous indignation has killed people in the name of Christ. Killing in the name of God marks every fundamentalist call to arms.
Sometimes the cross has been used to demand self-sacrifice & suffering from the weak & sanctify abuse by the powerful. These situations deserve our attention. Any use of the term “cross” today needs context.
But we Christians have no choice but to preach the cross. Without the foundation of the cross, a sermon can become merely advice for self-improvement, a marketing ploy for getting people to give money, or an angry diatribe against perceived enemies.
A theology of the cross is critical today. It is the only symbol we have that opposes the ‘prosperity gospel’ present in Western culture & philosophies that support individual greed, despite mass human need. Therefore, a theology of the cross may encourage Christians to see reality through the eyes of the suffering & be moved to address the world’s needs as Jesus did, through belief in a loving & forgiving God. The cross reveals God’s love for all. People often claim that they have God on their side in a war. Yet I believe God is on the side of the innocent victims, those who suffer, not those who inflict suffering.
The cross not only affirms God becoming flesh & living among us, but it also affirms God dying as we die - & coming out on the other side in total victory. When we preach the love & forgiveness of God, lives get changed at any age. Paul did learn to preach the cross, & he helped transform a little Jewish sect into a faith for the whole world. Martin Luther preached the cross & started the Protestant Reformation. MLK, Jr, preached the cross & nonviolence & transformed social & political life in America. You & I needed someone to preach the cross to us & transform the way we felt about death, since the death ratio, despite modern medicine, is still one out of one. There are a lot of people hurting in our world – & there are a lot of illnesses we have not cured.
Most Christians walk into churches that have a cross on top of the steeple. Most sermons are delivered in front of a cross. Every gospel proclamation is shaped by the awareness that a God of love & forgiveness always triumphs – always has the last word. Hatred, violence, & illness, as we know, have no problems in announcing themselves to the world. Love, too, must announce its intentions to the world. If churches do not do it, then who will?
The cross was used by the ancient Romans to put an end to political uprisings. They discovered that not only is the cross a slow & painful death, but it is also public. It would serve as a deterrent to others. If you had a problem with a group, a cross out on the highway would make them scatter. The cross would put an end to this God business.
And it appeared to work. The empty tomb of Jesus did not make much difference to either the Romans or the disciples. Empty tombs were not that uncommon in those days. People were always stealing bodies. They said that happened to Jesus’ body. Somebody obviously stole it. An empty tomb did not necessarily proclaim Jesus as resurrected. But the cross did. The cross came back as a strategy for building a new world.
Christians began to live & die as Jesus had lived & died. People began to love as Jesus had loved & forgive as Jesus had forgiven, even when their lives were going downhill in terms of health & resources. The cross came back in the lives of Jesus’ followers, & it changed everything. Suddenly, people were scratching it on coins over the faces of the Roman emperors. People were painting crosses on the walls of their homes & in caves. People were going to their deaths in the coliseum in Rome & making the sign of the cross & forgiving those who had done them harm.
A missionary was working in the jungles of Africa. He was introducing the natives to the wonderful story of Jesus. He gathered with a tribe one beautiful moonlit night in a jungle clearing. The missionary told them, in vivid language, of the life of Christ & the miracles he did. Then he began to tell them of his death on a cross. The chief, seated in the front row, had listened intently to all the missionary said. As the missionary told of how Jesus was nailed to the cross, the chief jumped to his feet, yelling, “Stop! Take him down from the cross! I belong there, not him!” He realized he was a sinner, & that Jesus was the sinless one. Yes, Jesus took the nails & died for us. It is not a pleasant story. Yet it is wonderful, for Scripture assures us that Christ died for our sins, the just for the unjust, that we may become the children of God.
Friends, what is it that makes a church what it is? Is it the music? Is it the worship? Is it the people? All of these are all important, of course. But I think there is something more at work. Churches bear witness to God’s power to lift up people from their crosses & redeem them at any age, regardless of their mistakes & despite their weaknesses, illnesses, or lack of understanding. It is the love of God as experienced on the cross that gives us peace & hope in a world that desperately needs some peace & hope.
So, don’t be ashamed of the cross. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved. (1 Cor. 1:18)