Isaiah 58:1-9a; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; Matthew 5:13-20
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
Paul’s description of his preaching is enough to stop any preacher in her or his tracks.
It is certainly enough to stop this one.
What do I regard as essential in my preaching? Do I rely on sounding scholarly or worldly wise? Do I trust in having something new and captivating to say?
What goal am I aiming at as I prepare my message? Is it to be identified as a powerful and effective speaker? Is to gain the esteem of my hearers and burnish my reputation?
What kind of gospel do my preparation and style of delivery (and not just my actual words) testify to?
Is it a gospel of anxious striving, of certainty and self-confidence? Is it a message of professionalism and accomplishment?
More generally, Paul’s words raise questions about the way Church performs her ministry in the world. Jesus’ descriptions of the Church as the salt of the earth and the light of the world in the Sermon on the Mount have inspired believers to take up great missionary works. These are forceful images of the Church “making a difference” in the world. In the soil of American optimism, Christians has excelled in envisioning a gospel of triumph and acclaim. Our ministries aim at “making the biggest bang for the buck.” Nearly a century of unquestioned American supremacy in the world has encouraged us to believe that anything worth doing is worth doing big and loud.
But Paul insists that the inescapable starting point of gospel ministry is the cross. And we wouldn’t dare argue with Paul. But the apostle pushes the cross as the one and only starting point for all proclamation and mission past even where other New Testament writers would. Paul’s letters testify that his assertion about knowing nothing except Jesus Christ crucified is not stretching the truth too far. His writings make little mention of Jesus’ life and ministry prior to the crucifixion. Where we and the authors of the gospels would derive our knowledge of Jesus, the Church, and her mission from Christ’s authoritative teaching and miraculous signs, Paul seems genuinely to believe that all anyone needs to know about Christ begins with the cross. Everything else finds its source and coherence there. Christian character finds its source there. Mission finds its beginning there. Our preaching finds its content there. Human sexuality and wealth find their purpose there. Reading the wide range of topics Paul takes up in his letters to the Corinthians is enough for us to see that the cross is the lens through which Paul sees every facet of existence.
And were this not enough, the cross also defines the continuing contours of the Church and her message. In our American triumphalism, we can easily assume that Easter erases the shame and the horror of the crucifixion. The weakness of the cross was only momentary and can therefore be cast off in favor of the triumph of Resurrection. We can graduate from crucifixion humiliation to resurrection victory. However, Paul does not use the simple past tense to refer to Jesus Christ the “crucified”, as if that were just a phase in the life of Christ that is over and done with. Paul utilizes a verb tense that asserts a past event that has continuing force into the present. For Paul, the risen and glorified Jesus Christ is still the crucified. The weakness of the cross continues to define who our Lord is. When resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples (and presumably Paul himself), he still bore his wounds and showed them not merely as proofs that he died a shameful, disfiguring death but now as proofs of God’s glory and power triumphing in weakness and shame. If the Son of God can freely show proofs of his humiliation publicly even on this side of Easter, then what have we to fear? If Paul can put the words “crucified” and “the Lord of glory” into the same sentence (v. 8), then what deadly event can God not redeem?
The Church’s preaching and mission do not live by her capacity to put inadequacy and failure behind her. But by beginning and continuing on in weakness, the Church shines forth as the light of the world. Our salty distinctiveness does not result from becoming a forceful or accomplished community, but precisely in our capacity to remain in the blessing God pours out on the poor in spirit, the meek, and those reviled because of Christ.
As John Stott so clearly puts it, “We have a weak message (Christ crucified), proclaimed by weak preachers (full of fear and trembling), received by weak hearers (the socially despised). For God chose a weak instrument (Paul), to bring a weak message (the cross) to weak people (the Corinthian working class). But through this triple weakness the power of God was—and still is—displayed.”