“Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adore his sacred name.” We sang these words this morning as we began worship. “Lift High the Cross” is a powerful nineteenth century Anglican processional hymn. Apparently, it was inspired by Constantine’s vision that invited him to conquer his enemies under the banner of the cross. However, the version we sang is not as militaristic as some of the other hymns I grew up with. Maybe you remember singing on a regular basis: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.” Or maybe you enjoyed singing: “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross; Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss. From victory unto victory His army shall He lead, Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.” These last two hymns are no longer in our hymnals, because they offer us more of Constantine than Jesus, even if we may remember them fondly.
These hymns of my youth were popular because they supported a vision of Christian mission that set out to conquer the world in the name of Jesus. They were written during the height of European colonial expansion. Where empires spread, the cross went forth as a sign of Western civilization. Not only did the cross proclaim Jesus, it served as a sign of imperial conquest in the name of the Christian God.
In the beginning things were different. When Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church, he spoke of the scandal of the cross. Whatever power the cross had, it wasn’t rooted in the sword. In fact, to both Jew and Greek, it signified the weakness of God. So, it became a stumbling block and a sign of foolishness in the eyes of the wise. So, why do we lift high this symbol of God’s foolishness?
As we continue our Lenten journey, which will take us to Easter by way of Good Friday, what should we do with the cross? How is God revealed in this instrument of torture and death that was meant to humiliate as much as punish its victim?
Although many Christians think of the cross as an appeasement of God’s wrath toward sinners, that understanding of the cross doesn’t seem to be prominent in the New Testament. So what should we make of the cross? What power does it hold?
Isaac Watts was an eighteenth century pastor and hymn writer, who surveyed “the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died,” and what he saw there “from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down!” Yes, “did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown.” Do you see in this hymn a different vision of the cross from the one revealed in a hymn like “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus?” If you do, then what do you see when you survey the wondrous cross? What does it inspire within you?
As I read this letter from Paul, which he wrote to a church that was divided by power struggles, I see him pointing to the cross and telling the church that the cross reveals the true nature of God. He also tells them that the cross reveals a different vision of power from the one the culture embraced. The power of God we see revealed in the cross looks to the world like weakness. Theologian Jürgen Moltmann writes that “if God the Father was in Christ, the Son, this means that Christ’s sufferings are God’s sufferings too, and then God too experiences death on the cross.” [Jesus Christ for Today’s World, p. 37]. This may look like weakness to the world, but it is an expression of God’s wisdom.
The idea that God suffers death has always been a stumbling block to the world. It is foolishness to the wise and powerful of this world. How can the creator of the universe, taste suffering and death? What good is a God who cannot crush those who stand in opposition? Yet, Paul embraces a message that God’s love is noncoercive and uncontrolling. As Tom Oord puts it, “God’s power is essentially persuasive and vulnerable, not overpowering and aloof. We especially see God’s noncoercive power revealed in the cross of Christ, which suggests that God’s power is cruciform.” [Uncontrolling Love of God, p. 155]. The cross reveals God’s incarnate love, which brings healing and wholeness to those who grasp its meaning. This may not be the kind of God many of us signed up to worship, but this is the God we see revealed in the cross of Jesus.
Over time we have sanitized the cross, removing much of its scandal. We have turned it into a sign of glory rather than foolishness. But maybe it is time to hear the Gospel anew and embrace the foolishness of God rather than the wisdom of this age.
Now, all this talk about the foolishness of God being “wiser than human wisdom,” might look like anti-intellectualism, but I don’t think that is what Paul has in mind. What I think Paul is doing is reminding us that the gospel is very different from the human philosophies of his day. Maybe Paul learned this lesson during his brief stopover in Athens. He tried to convince the Athenians, who loved to talk philosophy in the marketplace, to follow Jesus. He tried to argue with them on their own terms, but he didn’t get many converts. That’s because his message of the cross didn’t make sense to the “cultured despisers” of his day. In other words they weren’t impressed with his message of the crucified savior (Acts 17).
We Disciples have from the beginning embraced a reasonable faith. Alexander Campbell was one of the great debaters of his day. He founded Bethany College not just to prepare preachers, but also to educate people from all walks of life for life in the world. That makes me happy, because I believe that a mind is a terrible thing to waste. I’m glad I don’t have to check my intellect at the door when I come to church. But, I also recognize that the message of the cross doesn’t fit with human wisdom or our culture’s embrace of power and might.
Our culture seems to have embraced the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, who emphasized the “will to power.” His message was this:
Every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power) and to thrust back all that resists its extension. But it continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other bodies and ends by coming to an arrangement (“union”) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they then conspire together for power. And the process goes on. [The Will to Power, sec. 636].
It is no wonder that the cross was viewed as foolish. If you believe in the importance of gaining power over others, then the cross will be a sign of a weak and powerless God. Over the years, as Christianity found an ally in the Roman government, this symbol of suffering and death became a symbol of conquest. We may not know for sure whether Constantine really had a vision in which Jesus told him to conquer his enemy under the sign of the cross, but over time the church embraced that interpretation of the cross.
This morning, as we continue our Lenten journey, Paul invites us to reflect on the cross and the God who is revealed in the crucified one. While the cross may be a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others, “to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is that message of wholeness that a fragmented world is waiting to hear. We hear this message of God’s love revealed in the cross in a hymn written by Barton Stone titled “Behold the Love, the Grace of God.” The final stanza declares:
What love has done, sing earth around!
Angels prolong the eternal sound!
Lo, Jesus bleeding on the tree!
There, there, the love of God I see!
[Chalice Hymnal, 205]
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)