Our friend, Joe Blosser walked into his local Wal-Mart. He couldn’t help but lift up his eyes to a large poster suspended from the ceiling. He saw grass, beautiful grass, the kind of brilliant green grass you only see at the beginning of spring. He saw blue sky with little white clouds, and written across it, in large yellow letters, the word EASTER.
Oh, the promise of new life after the long winter – Joe lives in Chicago, where it’s been grey, windy, and cold for months, so we forgive him for having a tender moment of hope in a Wal-Mart box. But it didn’t last. I knew it couldn’t last. Printed below the happy word, EASTER, was a line of text in white letters:
More Easter for your money. Guaranteed.
Really? You’re gonna give me more Easter for my money? Guaranteed? What makes you think Easter is for sale? What makes you think you can pack Easter into a shipping container in China, and I’ll be waiting here to buy a little more of it? You may know a lot about logistics and global sourcing; but you know nothing about Easter. You may know a lot about cutting costs and squeezing out the competition; but you know nothing about Easter. And you certainly know a lot about becoming bigger and dominating the neighborhood and keeping unions out of your stores and building a retail empire; but you know nothing about Easter. Or have you thought about a poster for your Good Friday sale? Have you thought about an ad campaign around the self-less love of the One who gives himself away for the life of the world? Without the cross, Easter is nothing but more chocolate, bigger bunnies, and cheaper lilies for my money. Guaranteed. Thank you very much, but I have no use for your promises.
Corinth in the days of the apostle Paul was a cosmopolitan city. Situated between two sea ports, it was an economically vibrant and culturally diverse community where many languages were spoken, many traditions blended together, and all manner of goods, services, and ideas were exchanged. Corinth was an economic, cultural, and political hub in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it ranked persistently among the best places to live in the Roman Empire.
The church in Corinth was a microcosm of the city, but things didn’t look good. Competition among members had plunged the community into conflict. Some bragged about belonging to Apollos, others about the greatness of Cephas, and still others about the prominence of Paul. Each faction praised its own apostle and disparaged the others. Imagine something with the energy of a presidential primary process, but without an election. They didn’t have candidates, only campaigns and Super PAC’s; and each campaign praised the theological insight of their apostle, significantly bolstering their own egos as well, since they were the ones recognizing true greatness!
Corinth was a hub in the Roman Empire, and Corinthians knew a lot about global trade, logistics, smart business deals, and how to sway others with the right word at just the right time. Rhetoric was a major part of the education among the elites, and people identified eloquence and cleverness of speech with power, wealth, and success. Correspondingly, the lack of refined and polished speech was a sure sign of low status and of a lack of wealth and power.
When David Sedaris wrote, Me Talk Pretty One Day, he was only reflecting on his attempts to learn French. In Corinth and in other cities of the empire, that line would have been a song about upward mobility, about success and belonging. Me talk pretty one day: Clever speech was seen as a ticket to the top.
And how did Paul respond to the heated debate in the church about who was more eloquent and hence the greater apostle? He masked his anger with a serious joke.
“So, I understand some among you shout, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and others, ‘I belong to Apollos;’ and still others, ‘I belong to Cephas.’ Who then is shouting, ‘I belong to Christ?’ Huh?—Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name?”
And then he held up a single word against the surge of clever speech.
A young friend of mine a few years ago was shocked by the sudden realization that the cross was an instrument of torture and of executing the death penalty. “Isn’t that like putting an electric chair in the middle of the chancel,” he asked. “Isn’t that like hanging a noose above the baptistry?”
Twenty centuries of usage as a religious symbol, as jewelry and decoration have dulled the impact of the words cross and crucifixion.
As a particularly horrible form of public torture and execution in the Roman Empire, crucifixion was designed to demonstrate that nothing but complete surrender to the power of Rome would be accepted. Crucifixion was reserved for non-citizens, for slaves, prisoners of war, and insurgents—anyone who threatened the divinely sanctioned order of Rome. The cross had connotations of contempt, degradation, humiliation, and shame, and crucifixion was a virtual obscenity not to be discussed in polite company.
In a speech defending a Roman senator against a murder charge for which the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty and was apparently suggesting crucifixion, Cicero sought to sway the jury, declaring, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.”
And that very word ‘cross’ is what Paul holds up for all in Corinth to see. Paul’s gospel is a scandal, an insult to the sensibilities of educated men and women, an ugly interruption of any polite conversation about politics, the law, or religion. Paul proclaims Jesus Messiah, and him crucified. He does not make pretty talk of the cross, or clever talk. All he can do is hold it up; the cross disrupts everything we think we can say about the divine, or about justice, or power, or love.
We want signs. We want God to do something big and spectacular, something like a Super Bowl of truth where Jesus wins 40:0 while the whole world is watching; instead we must look at the cross. We want wisdom. We want the gospel to be philosophically elegant and aesthetically pleasing; instead we must listen to the cross. The power of God is both hidden and revealed in the cross; it cannot be known by what we consider convincing evidence or a conclusive argument. Where we expect power, weakness is given. Where we expect wisdom, foolishness is given. But in the community that gathers around the cross, in the community shaped by the love and obedience of Christ, weakness, compassion, and humility are known as the power of God, and divine wisdom is spoken and heard in ordinary speech and song.
We know how the world works; power is the ability to inflict suffering or escape from it, not to undergo it. We know how the world works; knowledge is all about controlling things and directing them toward our own goals. But the cross both embarrasses and embraces us; it turns our world upside down and starts it over. Rather than proving the sovereignty of our empires, the cross shatters our systems of power. Rather than confirming what the smartest talkers already know, it shatters our systems of knowledge. The God who hides and meets us in the cross of Jesus does not fit into our ideas of how the world works; the cross is the end of “how the world works” and it is the beginning of the world to come.
Wal-Mart knows how the world works, how to compete, out-perform, and rule in the retail markets. Unfortunately, the numbers on the price tags and in the earnings reports don’t tell the stories of the people who can’t keep up.
Corinth knows how the world works, how to harness education, technology, and investments to become a great city. Unfortunately, the reports from the chamber of commerce can’t go into much detail about the social costs of growing economic disparity in the city.
We are part of that world, as citizens, investors, workers, and consumers, and we know how it works. But in the cross of Jesus, we recognize God’s judgment of that world and the promise of a better one; one that isn’t defined by the incessant race to the top, but by the mercy of God and the wellbeing of our neighbor. The world in which the crucified Messiah is risen calls for new ways of living.
Years ago, Bishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil gave us a timeless reminder that our primary mission is to be the good news. “Be careful of the way you live,” he said, “it is the only gospel most people will ever read.” Our life together is the proclamation of the gospel of the cross; we learn to walk before we talk. What might that look like?
Paul’s letters are full of examples; let me pick just one. A difficult issue for the first believers was the question of whether or not to eat food that had been presented as an offering in a pagan temple. Serving that kind of food was common practice at dinner parties, especially when meat was part of the menu. Some believers said, “No big deal; there’s only one true God, and those idols are no competition. We can eat anything we please, for Christ has set us free.” But there were also those who were worried about falling back into pagan ways, and they needed the support of a solid framework of rules to protect their fragile faith. And they stopped eating meat altogether, just to be safe.
Given Paul’s own faith and robust theology, you’d expect him to side with those who act boldly in Christ-given freedom. But he doesn’t. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” he says. In a community centered around the power of the cross, building up comes before personal liberty or theological correctness. I must not let my liberty become a stumbling block for my brother or sister. We must walk together in love before we talk about our liberty and what we know.
Now we don’t worry much about food that might put in question our relationship with God or with each other. But we are talking a lot about music these days, and it’s easy to think of the things that might get us all puffed up about our freedom to sing whatever we please or shouting, ‘I belong to Isaac Watts’ or ‘I belong to Fanny Crosby’ or ‘I belong to the Dooby Brothers.’
But it’s also beautiful to imagine what might emerge when we submit to each other in love. We will know more fully the power of the cross, and we won’t need a single trip to Wal-Mart to have a very happy Easter.
 The Speech In Defence of Gaius Rabirius, sec. 16, in The Speeches of Cicero, trans. H. Grose Hodge, The Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927) 467.
 See 1 Corinthians 8; the quote is from v.1