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The cross of Christ IS the power of God (sermon)

January 23, 2011

1 Corinthians 1: 10-18

Matthew 4: 12-23

Our gospel begins with the expectations of great things afoot. Jesus arrives and is likened to the light shining in the darkness of the gentile world. Isaiah’s dream is coming true. Jesus announces the reign of God and everyone’s energy levels are pumping. The rumour is that God is about to rule in Israel and bring light to the nations of the world. Fishermen doing ordinary work, up and leave their everyday life for something more important.


I don’t know about you, but in our security-minded world I find it hard to imagine up and leaving anything, let alone the ordinary routines. We live in the sense that our world is the grand finale of a historical process. We have reached a kind of heaven – we call it the liberal democratic state. It may have lots of crime and increasing poverty (which is nothing compared to the third world). But, in spite of all that, we sort of assume that it’s the best possible system, which just needs a little tinkering. No one’s going to up and leave the normal world of ‘now’ for something called the ‘kingdom of God’. Anything that we might call the reign of God nowadays, is a private matter of good living within this world – which may be troublesome but nevertheless, is still the best of all possible worlds. Anybody feel like that?


In that sense we cut ourselves off from the biblical world. We pride ourselves in our science, and we think we’ve grown up.


It’s that sense, in the gospel story, of anticipation, dis-ease, the willingness to up and leave one’s normal world that catches me… In contrast to the world of our colonial ancestors who came out from Britain, there’s no newly-discovered territories for us to run to now (now that we have reached democratic heaven)

“Follow me”… says Jesus. Leave the fishing and join the fishing-for-people-world of God’s rule. It must have been mysterious. And yet the persuasiveness of the rabbi Yeshua ben Joseph (aka Jesus) must have really captured their imagination. Why do people up and follow someone like that? What is the buzz in the town?


And yet the story of his life is the story of how the upbeat energy of their expectations, the hype and excitement at the ‘new thing that God is doing’ met the downbeat of his death, and his sense that his part in the coming kingdom was to be killed on a cross by the rulers and the powerful.

It’s the story of how ‘follow me’ becomes ‘take up your cross and follow me’.


At the beginning of a new year we often like to build up the hype. It does feel like a fresh slate. We have a bit more time in our day. The sun is shining longer. And at church we get excited about the new thing God is going to do… And perhaps we should.


But before we get caught up in hype, let’s remember the vision that shaped Jesus as he announced the reign of God. Let’s look at the vision that shaped the first Christians…

Jesus lived and breathed Isaiah. When Isaiah announced that God was about to do a new thing he looked forward to someone he called the Servant of Yahweh (chap 42).

Behold my Servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break

and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.


The quiet servant. The publicity-shy servant. The gentle servant. The non-violent servant. Now that would be new thing, in the midst of all the hype.


Our Epistle reading for today finds Paul addressing some excitement in Corinth. People are aligning themselves with various leaders. It’s not clear whether the leaders themselves are vying for ascendancy. But certainly the people are dividing themselves up according to preferences and loyalties. They are saying to each other, “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas”. In other words, whether the leaders intend it or not, there is a power struggle going on, between different groups of people. Paul and Apollos and Cephas have become symbols of people’s identity over against others.


What is lost in all of this is that belonging to Jesus is a different matter altogether than this struggle. To belong to Jesus should undo all these kinds of divisions and struggles for power for my group. You see, Paul says, Jesus was crucified for you and Paul wasn’t… And if you understand that, then you understand what is wrong with the division. You understand how different it is to belong to Jesus and to follow Jesus from, say, belonging to Paul or following Paul. When we say ‘Jesus died for me’, we don’t mean that Jesus entered into a special transaction with God which did a deal that purchased me a new status. We don’t mean that I am now a member of the tribe called ‘saved’, over against those who are unsaved. This kind of thing is very easily just another kind of power trip, a security measure, a way to keep some perceived enemy at bay.


The point about belonging to a man who was crucified is that his effect on us is that of someone who gave away all power-trips, all struggles to have power over others. He gave his life away in the face of the powerful forces in our world, the forces who maintain power over others. And the ultimate expression of this kind of power is the ability to kill. Jesus gave his life into their killing power…. Because he knew it was a false power… and he wanted us to know it also… and be set free from it.


Jesus redefines power. Jesus demonstrates the power of God. The power of God, is the power to give oneself to another.

To really belong to Jesus, rules out the kind of power-over-others that was going on in Corinth. It would be untrue and naïve to think that you and me a no longer vulnerable to that kind of thing. Of course we are. But the new thing that God is doing is different.

Paul understood that at an amazing depth. He goes on,

“For Christ did not send me to baptize (in the tribal way that was creating division in Corinth), but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power [key phrase]. 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.”


To ‘raise one’s voice’ in the public sphere, to tailor one’s speech with ‘eloquent wisdom’ in a way that is really a subtle (or not so subtle) bid for power over others… it is easy to get caught up in the hype of a new year and to fail to remember the difference it makes to follow someone whose defining identity is his crucifixion. It is so easy, says Paul, to be sucked into ways of operating which ‘empty the cross of its power’. Jesus has a different kind of power from anything else. The cross is a different kind of power. And for those who are perishing, says Paul, it will only appear as foolishness. It will seem a short track to nowhere. It will appear like giving up on responsibility. But Paul says it is the power of God. Love is not just a sentiment, not just a personal quality. The love demonstrated by Jesus is ‘the power of God’.


What I want us to hear this morning is simply this ‘the cross of Christ has power’. It is the definition of power. Getting killed by the apparently powerful people was the most powerful thing God could do. It teaches us that we are wrong about power.


If I were to ask you who was in power in our country at the moment, who would you say? (John Key?)

What about the world? (Obama, Gates, Zuckerman…)

And all those answers would be wrong, from a Christian perspective. What God is doing in 2011 is hidden. The power of cross-shaped love is our secret to be shared. When we think about grabbing people’s attention, growing our church, managing our resources… it is easy to forget that we exist for one reason only… and that reason is to bear witness to the real power of God.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew Bayne permalink
    March 22, 2011 6:01 am

    I’ve been thinking about how and whty the cross came to be the recognisable symbol of the Xian church. Why not the dove, or the sun, or the fish….? The cross brought so much negative baggage with it but then i realised the total centrality of the cross to the Xian message. For this reason………

  2. January 30, 2012 9:34 am

    I am so much interested to know more about Power of the Cross. I think I will need more sermons on it.

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