The message of the cross
Paul begins by telling us about the message of the cross - but to any contemporary of Paul living anywhere in the Roman and Greek world the “message of the cross” would have been as clear as day :”Don’t mess with Rome.”
Used to punish political agitators, pirates, slaves, reserved for those with no civil rights it was the most shameful and disgraceful way to die. It was deliberately public and ignominious you were named with a wooden notice and there were at times rows and rows of crosses - most famously following the slave revolt which was led by Spartacus in 73 B.C. After the Roman army subdued that insurrection they crucified more than 6000 slaves and lined the Appian Way the main strategic road into Rome for 130 miles with their bodies. There was nothing ambivalent or difficult to understand about this punishment which was used by the Persians, Carthaginians Macedonians, and Alexander the great for enemies of the state. The image of the cross was crystal clear.
Paul, so dramatically converted on the road to Damascus has now come to preach to overturn all this, to say NO, this crucifixion was totally different, none of this applies, this, the crucifixion of Jesus is not what you think and it has the power to transform everything. In this letter to the church at Corinth Paul anticipates the arguments of the coming millenia and those of our own age. Worldly people will marshall the instruments of logic, science, rhetoric and insult to argue against the resurrection and Jesus’ identity -Oh yes they say I am sure that he was a good man but all the same, surely ….
Ben the chaplain at Maisons Lafitte came years ago to dinner and at the time we lived in an open plan house with the bookcases lined around a mezzanine surrounding the dining room - Looking upwards between courses Ben said “Why have you so many books - you only need the one!” Now I have not yet come to entirely agree with him on that but I do agree that being saved is not a question of knowledge. Paul paraphrasing Isaiah reminds us “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise, where is the scribe, where is the debater of this age? Winning the arguments using the all the philosophic brilliance of a Plato or a Socrates so beloved by the Greeks will not save you.
As for his own people, the Jews he criticises them for always demanding signs - as recently as the mid 1500’s at the festival of Hanukkah a small dark man, his bony frame taut from habitual fasting fetched up in Venice proclaiming himself to be David, son of king Solomon and an ambassador from the lost tribes of Israel - he got a long way, with his imposture including having an audience with the Pope - but looking for signs will not save you.
Yes a man upon a cross, hanging and helpless, looks foolish and weak not wise and strong but God upon a cross is another thing entirely. In the hospice on Friday a young lady just eighteen held my hand and asked me “Will I go to heaven?”
And in her question is the answer - for as Paul says “God decided to save those who believe.” That is what we have to do, to believe that God’s son hung on a cross to save us - to save us all, the eloquent, the tongue tied, the professor, the expelled from school, the rich, the poor, the slave, the freeman, all these and more - and we need nothing do but truly and with all our hearts believe.