Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, in Greece, several times. We have two of those letters as 1 and 2 Corinthians. Paul started this letter – 1 Corinthians in our New Testament; written around 55 A.D. – with words of joy and confidence in the Corinthian church. His sincerity was authentic, but the warm words were only the beginning of the letter. While there was much spiritual good in the Corinthian church, it was also troubled in significant ways. As Paul began to address those problems, he emphasized the foundation of his teaching: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.”
We should re-read that last phrase again and again: “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” It is stunning. It would have been stunning to any one in Paul’s time. At first reading, we may miss the stunning paradox, for we are accustomed to the cross as ornament – as gilt on our prayer books, gold in our churches, colored stone in our jewelry, and many other adornments. For first century Mediterranean residents, the cross meant nothing like an adornment. It meant terror, torture, death. Paul and his contemporaries would have fully understood the sense of our English phrase “excruciating pain.” The Latin for “cross” is nailed into the English.
Because they understood “cross” in the sense the Romans used it, his contemporaries would have started at the innovation in Paul’s phrase: “lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” True, the cross meant power for the state: power to terrorize, to torture, to kill – to excruciate. But for Jesus and thousands and thousands of other excruciated figures over the years, the cross meant utter powerlessness. The cross was hopelessly empty of power for them. For them, there was no power to empty from it.
But that perspective would be conventional, human wisdom. Not God’s wisdom. True, in terms of human wisdom and power, a savior on a cross is utter foolishness and weakness. Yet God’s foolishness and weakness mean more than any human wisdom and power. In God’s foolishness and weakness, the cross of Christ overflows – overflows with goodness and life, not with evil and death. As followers of Christ crucified, let us live in God’s foolishness and weakness – in the cross of Christ, the fountain of true wisdom and power.