By Neal Windham
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
Even believers sometimes struggle with the fact that an instrument of execution is the dominant symbol of the Christian faith.1 So it should come as no surprise that many ancient Jews and Greeks found the cross unacceptable. Generally speaking, the religious quest is, after all, about life, not death. It is the ultimate search for health and peace, the beautiful and the good, both in and beyond this world. But the Romans used crosses to execute thieves and insurrectionists. Impaled and bloodied, they were left for days as a notice to the public: Don’t mess with this empire. So what on earth does a filthy Roman cross have to do with the Christian life?
Just this: faith rises on the wings of suffering. Our deepest struggles and greatest sins demand more than glib cliché. In that unthinkable moment when life finally yields to death, no one wants pie in the sky. It’s just not the time for messing around. What we do want—what we most need, not merely at the end of life but throughout it—is a large, durable, growing awareness that we are not alone on this earth, that there are divine, empathetic resources for ultimate healing and wholeness beyond anything even the best and brightest among us can contrive. More than this, we need real assurance that beyond the pain we experience here—much of it self-inflicted—there awaits us a pervasive, knowing, and knowable source of love and life, the mystery of whose pardoning goodness is more than any of us could ever possibly comprehend.
This is why “we preach Christ crucified.” The cross means that God, the Son, knows our sin-scarred lives intimately, personally, and totally. At the cross, Jesus entered the most dreaded, secret chambers of our troubled existence with his own deep suffering and there blew the enemy right off the map! Such is Paul’s “power and wisdom of God,” a power and wisdom completely incomprehensible by human standards.
And that, of course, is precisely the point: salvation has nothing to do with human standards, be they Jewish, Greek, or any other, for nothing on earth will do. No, our salvation is forever anchored exclusively in the love of God.
1As an example, see Susan S. Phillips, Candlelight: Illuminating the Art of Spiritual Direction (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 2008), 33.
Neil Windham is professor of spiritual formation at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.