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The Cross: A Stumbling Block

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 

Rev. Garry E. McCaffery

          There are some things that make us go “hmmm.”  There are some things that don’t easily make sense to us, such as, “pie r squared” because I always thought “pie are round”.  Certain things are just difficult to fully grasp.  This could be said of the cross.

          There is something about the teaching of the cross that creates difficulty in some minds.  There is something about the teaching of the cross that stirs up stubbornness and resistance in people’s hearts.  Some label the teaching of the cross as foolishness.  Others regard it as an insult to their intelligence.  How can one man’s death on a cross do anything for me and the rest of humanity?  There is an antagonism that comes as a result of the cross.  But, whatever the form of antagonism, the teaching of the cross must endure.  This antagonism to the teaching of the cross is really no surprise.  It was predicted and expected by both Jesus and his apostles.

          Long before there appeared any possibility of the cross figuring into Christ’s life, he said, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of me” (Matthew 11:6).  In the American Standard Version this verse reads, “Blessed is he whosoever shall find no occasion of stumbling in me.”

          Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, states that the teaching of Christ is “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.”  Even the prophet Isaiah presents the Messiah as a Suffering Servant who would be despised and rejected by humanity. (ch. 53)  On another occasion Isaiah presents the Messiah as a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence (Isa. 8).  The scripture is clear that the teaching of Christ and his cross would create controversy.  The cross would become a stumbling block to faith.

          First, let’s look at the Jewish mindset of the Messiah.  The Jewish mind viewed the Messiah as a miraculous conqueror for the Jewish nation.  The idea that He was to suffer and sacrifice himself was the farthest thing from their mind.  They could not even conceive of that as being a possibility.

          The disciple, Peter, furnishes us with a good example.  On one occasion, when Jesus had spoken about his approaching suffering and death, Peter took him aside, as we heard this morning, and rebuked the Lord saying, “Far be it from you, Lord; this shall not happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22).  Suffering and death did not figure into what Messiah was supposed to be.

          Again, in the upper room during the celebration of the Passover, Peter objected to Jesus kneeling down and washing his feet.  The thought of the Messiah, the Son of God, performing such a menial task a foot washing was unthinkable.  The Jewish mind stubbornly refused to see more than God’s greatness, majesty, and righteousness.  It believes that humanity must make the sacrifice, not God.  It holds that humanity must love God, not that God must suffer in love for humanity.

          These ideas are found among non-Jews as well.  People with this mindset stumble at the idea of God having to suffer at the hands of men.  They insist on working out their own righteousness rather than accepting the righteousness of Christ as a gift of grace.  They are willing to admit they should love God, but have difficulty in grasping the idea that God suffers in love for them.  The cross is a stumbling block for them because it stands as a reminder that they can never be good enough on their own.  Being good enough, strictly adhering to the law, is simply not enough to bring us in to right standing with God.

          Now I want us to take a look at the Greek, or Gentile, mindset.  The Hebrew psychology and mindset was rooted in the realm of morals, the Law.  The Greek and Gentile mindset was rooted in the realm of beauty and wisdom.  To those of this mindset, an ugly cross could not be reconciled with the spirit of beauty.  How can an ugly, blood-stained cross mean anything for us?  Certainly we are much more “cosmopolitan” and “clever” than to need such an ugly object and the bruised and beaten man upon it.  What does that do for us?

          The Greeks were truly offended when Paul preached the cross of Christ to them.  When Paul addressed them they expected some clever explanation of religion or some really beautiful sentiments.  But instead, they heard about an old rugged cross.

          The Greeks thought themselves to be very wise, but they could not see that the beauty which they so highly prized was corrupt.  The beauty and truth they prized was physical rather than spiritual.  Sadly, they were not as wise as they thought they were.

          This is true for us as well.  We are never as wise as we think we are, and we always need Christ far more than we think we do.  While the Greek and Roman minds were different in some respects, they were alike in regarding the cross as foolishness.  They both, just as many do today, viewed the cross as something below their advanced civilization and thinking.

          In the ruins of the Imperial Palace of the Caesers on the Palatine, one of ancient Rome’s most desirable neighborhoods, was found a rude caricature of the crucified Christ.  Before the figure of the crucified Christ there was another drawing of a Christian standing in a worshiping attitude.  Below the crude sketch was inscribed these words, “Alexamenos worshiping his God.”  One servant of the Emperor was taunting a fellow servant who was a Christian.  And he could think of no more effective way than by using the contemptuous sign of the cross.

          E. Stanley Jones, an American Methodist Christian missionary, theologian, and author, showed how the difficulty of the cross can still be seen in the world.  He quoted a principal of an Islamic college as saying, “A God who would stoop and suffer is not perfect.”  A Hindu is reported as asserting, “If Brahma would suffer, he would be unhappy, and if he were unhappy, he would be imperfect, and if he were imperfect, he would not be God.”

          There are many today who still regard the cross as foolishness.  They ridicule the teaching of the cross by calling it superstitious, and ridiculous, and nonsense.  They say they will find their own way to come to God and look to the beaty of nature to do so, while failing to see the true beauty revealed in Christ and his cross.

          Admittedly, we cannot fully grasp or explain the power and wisdom of the cross, but we know that if human beings can shed their blood in battle to save a worthy cause, or pour out their blood in a blood transfusion to save a person who is sick; it ought not to be impossible for Christ to give His life as a sacrifice to save us from sin and eternal death.

          Mock and ridicule Christ and his cross as people may, the fact remains that when people have accepted it in faith, they have been cleansed from sin, revitalized, and energized.  Rotten people have become good, (I sight the example of Paul whose letter we are examining today), weak people have become strong, and discouraged people have been filled with courage.

          Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23-24).  If the message of the cross were purely human power and wisdom, it would have no regenerating power, no power to save, no power to transform.  It would leave things the same way it found them.  However, all Christian experience agrees that the cross is the power of God and the wisdom of God.  It is for this reason that the Church of Christ goes out into all the world, even to those who seem the most hopeless and hardened, bringing the message of the cross that God in Christ reclaims men and women from sin and reconciles a wayward race to Himself.

          Jews have stumbled and Greeks have scoffed at the gospel message.  Yet, a perpetual miracle is taking place.  Do you know what that is?  The miracle is this: Jewish minds and Greek minds, Russian minds, Ukrainian minds, and American minds, as they come to a relationship with Jesus, are transformed.  And, in their place, we find the mind that is in Christ.  For in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, because all are?    ONE in Christ Jesus our Lord!

          In Christ there is a new creation!  The old is gone and the new has come.  The stumbling block of the cross has been transformed into a steppingstone to God.  What was considered foolishness becomes living truth.

          Yes, the old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame, and the symbol of God’s love and grace.  The cross, the power of God and the wisdom of God, for our salvation and transformation as His people.  Amen.

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