St. Paul's Lutheran Church

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Holy Cross Day (observed)

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

September 12, 2023 (winkle)

In the August edition of Lutheran Witness there is a series of articles exposing the different heresies that have bounced around the Christian church over the centuries. You’ve got your Gnosticism; your Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism; your Prosperity Gospel; you have your ancient Arian heresy; Nestorianism; Pelagianism, and finally Calvinism.

I think there’s a few heresies missing in this list, the most prevalent being the heresy of theological indifference, you know, the idea that it doesn’t really matter what you believe about God, Jesus, the Bible, the Sacraments, whatever…as long as you got the basics, then don’t worry about all that theology stuff, do what makes you happy, believe what makes you happy. It’s a reflection of our Post…Postmodern society, isn’t it? But there’s also Pietism, there’s also legalism, there’s also antinomianism. There’s the Ray Comfort/Kirk Camron heresy called Lordship Salvation, and if you watch enough Ray Comfort videos you start to believe it; I got a brother who’s into that stuff.

But the one thing you find if you study these heresies, and it’s true across the board, is they all chip away at the cross. One way or another these heresies marginalize or do away with the cross and they instead elevate human reason or human experience. Gnosticism is obvious. The religion of knowledge, of knowing, of seeking the great Sophia and separating oneself from the oppression of Demiurge…and that’s ancient Gnosticism. Modern or NeoGnosticism is as bad or worse. Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism is about changing behavior and feeling good about life while believing in some distant god. Prosperity Gospel? It’s all about getting stuff and filling one’s barns with possessions and wealth. And I could go on; we could consider every aspect of these heresies and see how they trivialize the cross for something else.

We humans have this bad habit of looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. We look for Jesus in our emotions and experiences. We look for Jesus by way of the most attractive, most hip and dynamic preacher or teacher. We look for Jesus by way of a great worship performance…I mean experience. We look for Jesus by looking in the mirror and trying to see, trying to shape and mold a Jesus that looks a lot like us, don’t we?

But the last place we think to go to find Jesus is to a hill draped in darkness where upon its peak a man suffers and dies on a cross. How can that…mess…that display of blood and gore profit us anything?

Over the years I’ve noticed that a lot of Lutheran/LCMS churches fell for the protestant fad of displaying a “barren cross,” a cross without the corpus, without Christ. “Can’t display Jesus on the cross because we celebrate a risen Jesus; He ain’t on the cross no more, so we shouldn’t display Him on the cross!” And how even Lutherans fell for that silliness, I don’t know. You can’t teach salvation and the forgiveness of sins by showing people a barren, shiny, nonintrusive lowercase T on a stand or on a chain.

For the word of the cross that Paul talks about in or Epistle today isn’t a barren cross, a sanitized cross that’s easy on the eyes and that doesn’t exhibit the clear and bloody cost for sin. The cross is not merely an empty symbol; the cross is an instrument of death and punishment. The Romans weren’t the first to use a cross or an instrument like a cross to punish the wicked or demonstrate dominance over people, but the Romans perfected crucifixion for sure. And when compared to our modern methods of capital punishment, of execution, death by cross/death by crucifixion still holds the award as the worst way to die.

It’s painful, it’s bloody, and it takes a long time, and if it takes too long, the legs of the crucified are broken which results in sudden death.

It’s no wonder that, for the Greeks of Paul’s time, they would hear the message of the cross and conclude it folly, a foolish and useless death, that someone so great and with such wisdom and teaching could die on a cross. For the Jews, there was nothing magical, no encounter with the divine, no pillars of fire, no clouds of smoke, no parting of the seas or burning bushes or talking donkeys…just a silly, outspoken man who they wanted out of their lives.

And today, little has changed. Most people will look at Jesus as a philosopher, a wise teacher, an example setter, someone to follow. They will consider the things He taught in His sermon on the mount or on the plain, His parables, but like Peter and the disciples, they will shun Jesus whenever He speaks of death and suffering and crucifixion. “That’s not pretty, that doesn’t make me feel good or give me wisdom.” Or they’ll skip over the crucifixion by three days and focus on His resurrection, as if the crucifixion is too shocking or too painful to spend any time on.

And most people today want a God, want a savior who does tricks. “How could there be a God when there’s all this suffering. If God were real, He would intervene and end famine, stop the hurricanes, silence the earthquakes; He would show Himself to me that I might experience Him through a sign or a wonder, a miracle.”

For our world today Jesus is a philosopher or He is miracle worker, but He is no savior and His death is at best sanitized and shined up with brass polish.

There’s a church in Birmingham, and this church is about 2 miles from the little Lutheran church I served at for a time. It’s called the “Church of the Highlands.” Biggest church in Birmingham. Thousands of members between its 26 campuses, and its main campus, which was down the street, houses 6 to 7 thousand people. The church needs its own stoplights at the entry, and police officers have to direct traffic. The city actually had to rework the road upon which the church is connected from a two lane to a four lane because of the traffic.

And you want to know what you will find at this church and its 26 campuses? Smoke machines, million-dollar sound systems, huge projection screens, hip worship leaders and pastors, lots of coffee and comfortable seating, and a 2-hour Sunday morning show to beat the band. You know what you won’t find in any of the campuses, with the exception of one small building they call their “chapel”? You won’t find a cross. You’ll find a weird symbol of a river with a sun rising out of it. You’ll find random impressionist art and strange colorful shapes…but you won’t find a cross. You won’t find the name “Jesus” on any of their websites except for a couple of times. You’ll find a lot of therapy and deistic ideas in their sermons, but not a lot of Christ crucified and risen.

And yet this is where a majority of folks in Birmingham who attend church…attend church. Isn’t that something?

The message of Christ and the cross is STILL a foolish message to much of the world. It lacks encounter and it lacks wisdom. And the preachers who are supposed to preach the cross, they preach the cross no longer because it turns people off and doesn’t result in 20 plus campuses throughout the greater Birmingham area, it doesn’t result in a stadium church with 50,000 people all being told they can have their best life now if they buy a new book.

And of course, for us, the temptation is there too, isn’t it? Maybe the cross is…too foolish, too offensive, too much a turn off. Maybe we can get more people in church if we preach on how to deal with stress in life or how to manage personal finances more effectively, or how to really know the Holy Spirit’s at work…practical, no-nonsense sermons where people can grab their notebooks or cell phones and jot down these 5 or 6 steps and be therapized into a better life. It’s so tempting, isn’t it?

What does our Lord Christ say to all this? He says what He’s always said, doesn’t He?

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out.  And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Jesus doesn’t bury His purpose behind subtleness and an exercise in trying to keep people’s ears from getting too uncomfortable. Jesus, in the midst of the Jews who demanded signs and the Greeks who came to seek wisdom and philosophy, Jesus cuts through it all and says, “No, and I will offer you no sign but the sign of Jonah, and no, I will give you no wisdom but a fallen grain of wheat.”

Those two Greeks who came to see Jesus must have laughed at such foolishness…and we know what the Jews did. The Greeks laughed and the Jews sent Him to the cross. And at the death of this foolish man who offered no signs from heaven, the greatest and most earth-shaking and grave-opening sign was given.

The Son of Man gave His life and by His cross, by His death, by His sacrifice for sins we are drawn to paradise.

We are drawn to see Him suffer and die upon the tree, to see the devastation and horribleness of our sin to look upon those drops of blood and acknowledge that every drop shed was because of our sin. That with contrite hearts, broken hearts, hearts so desperate for His mercy that we can do nothing but cry out, “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and then to hear Him say, “Hey, here’s a 6 week series on how you can have a better life right now and make the pain go away…”, no, but to hear Him say, “Today YOU will be with me in paradise.”

What else matters? Signs and wonders? Great wisdom and philosophy? Feelin’ good about yourself through weekly therapy worship? No, because we have the cross! We have our Lord who says, “You will be with me forever, you who follow me and die with me in baptism, will live forever with me.” Is there any teaching, any sign in this universe more important and more comforting and more life changing than the cross? Amen.