Our lection from 1 Corinthians today begins: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor. 1:18).
I know that most, if not all of you listening to me consider yourselves among the saved, or at least among those working toward it. I doubt many of you consider yourself to be among those Paul calls “those who are perishing,” and so, perhaps you take it as a given that the message of the cross is the power of God and do not see why it might be considered foolishness.
It has to do with power. At its most basic, power is the ability to cause someone to do something they would not otherwise do. For most of human history, ideas of power have been entangled with coercion or force. We have understood power as compelling someone to do something they do not want to do.
This is a model of power that struggles with the message of the cross because Jesus was tortured and executed. Jesus did not act in power, Jesus did not force Pilate and the Romans to bow, did not conquer Judea or even just Jerusalem. Jesus came and went and the Romans were still there. The Romans killed him. The Romans even forced him to carry his own cross to the execution site. If power only comes through force, the Romans won.
The message of the cross, though, is not the end of suffering. It is not the forceful imposition of divine will upon humanity. Force is not the only model of power, even as it remains the model most people, even most Christians, prefer.
I have spent the past two weeks talking about the promise of Easter: the promise that God made to Noah, that the rain will stop, the faith of Bach and the promise that the minor key moments of life will resolve to a major chord, the promise that death and suffering does not have the final word. In the midst of Lent, during a pandemic that has placed limits on our gatherings and behavior for nearly a year now, through our own illnesses and the deaths of those we love, even then the promise remains: this is not our final condition.
The Message of the Cross is more than this Easter promise, more than the promise that death is not the final word. The message of the cross is that we can choose a different kind of power, that coercion and force are not the only option available. The message of the cross is that God joins our suffering. There is a saying that “hurt-people hurt people.” We have all experienced this, from the tantrums of children who are scared and lashing out to, well, the tantrums of adults who are scared and lashing out. We have all felt those moments where we cannot see a way to make ourselves feel better and so we make someone else feel worse. If not worse than we feel, at least worse than they were feeling before. We have all, at some point, chosen suffering for ourselves and for others.
This is what we did with Jesus. Jesus walked among us and taught and modelled a different way of being, a different form of power and in response we threw a tantrum, said “you can’t make me” and killed him. We sought to prove that coercion always wins, but this is the power of God: it did not.
Jesus rose again. Jesus proclaimed that divine power is not coercion, is not force. Divine power is persuasion and modelling. Jesus teaches us, through his life, ministry, death, and resurrection, that we do not need to keep choosing force, we do not need to keep choosing suffering, neither or own nor that of others. The message of the cross is that we can stop choosing force, just as the promise of Easter is that, eventually, we will stop choosing suffering.
Thanks be to God.