I once had someone criticize Christians for our veneration of the cross. They weren’t accusing us of idolatry or of general religious wrong-headedness. Rather it was the obscenity of venerating a means of torture and execution that was just too much for this person – and they had a point. What would you think of a person who mounted carvings of electric chairs on their walls? Or hung gold guillotines around their necks? Or encrusted machine guns in precious gems? All without a trace of irony or political commentary?
I, for one, would be scandalized – and maybe a little nervous – but this is what we do. We take a tool of violence and oppression and empire and turn it into a thing of beauty and value. And all to often, we forget about the political commentary that is in fact inherent in the cross.
We venerate not a tool of violence and oppression but the tool that God used to bring about reconciliation and freedom. For this is what God does – takes things that are low and lifts them high; things that are scorned and makes them precious. God doesn’t do this to celebrate suffering but end it; not to honour oppression but to reject it. God is not simply saying we have things backwards – God is saying we have the whole thing wrong.
And that’s a hard thing to hear.
In the opening paragraphs of the first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul reminds them: “It is written: I will destroy the the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” This is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah, in a time of political upheaval and catastrophic power games. At the time, Israel was no longer – it had become Judah in the south and Israel in the North; and the northern kingdom of Israel had already been swallowed up by the Assyrian empire. Judah was seeking power and security for itself; making alliances and playing according to to the rules of empire. This, the prophet warned, was a path to death not life – the wisdom of the world could lead no other place. And, sure enough, the Judeans joined the Israelites in defeat – their wisdom could not save them.
But God’s could. Who knows what would have happened had Judah heeded Isaiah – perhaps they would have never found themselves in Babylon at all. Or maybe they would have. Because the point isn’t that God’s wisdom brings us power. God’s wisdom frees us from power. And even after defeat, God could – and did – turn the exile into a fruitful time (which is not the same as an easy or happy time) of learning and teaching about faith; about community; about identity; about hope. The wisdom of the people said that exile would be the end; that the loss of power would be their death. But God’s wisdom is not ours; God’s wisdom transforms ends into beginnings.
And, no matter how many times God does it, we forget. We return to our widsom; to our rules. And so, some 700 years later, Paul had to remind the Corinthians of this basic fact.
Paul goes farther. Paul tells the Corinthians that God has chosen a particularly ridiculous thing on purpose in order to break through to us. The good news that God has given Paul, and the Corinthians, and us is that we have been freed from death…by way of a death of our own making. Because God allowed us to play it out our way first. And we executed Jesus on the cross. We killed life in order to preserve our power. And we called it wise. Whether “we” are the Roman officials anxious to protect their power and their expanding culture; or the Jewish leaders anxious to protect their people from a dangerous rabble-rouser; or the disciples so anxious to protect their own necks that they abandon their friend – we chose the wise course.
But God rejected our wisdom and brought life out of death; forgiveness out of sin; freedom out of captivity. God took what we thought was an ending – happy or sad as may be – and turned it into a beginning.
God destroyed the wisdom of the wise.
And yet, it didn’t take 700 years for us to forget again. Not long after that letter was read out in the Corinthian church, we began to bejewel the cross; we carried it into war; we planted it on other people’s land and made it ours. We took God’s tool of reconciliation and freedom and turned it back into our tool of violence and oppression.
And that, I think, is the obscenity. Perhaps that is actually what that critic was actually reacting to – to the fact that we have this gift, this opportunity to do it all completely differently, an alternative to the wisdom of empire, of selfishness, of fearfulness, of hopelessness – and far too many times we have ignored it. We’ve done worse, in fact, we’ve twisted it and turned it into a weapon.
But the cross still stands, no matter how many times we try to break it. It still stands as a testimony to God’s wisdom, God’s faithfulness. It still stands as an invitation to us to turn away from the sure death that human wisdom rains down in favour of the salvation of God’s wisdom.
So when the wise thing to do is recognize our insignificance, we should march and write letters and make phone calls. When the wise thing to do is to lock our doors and shut our eyes, we should turn on the lights and stand with our neighbours. When the wise thing to do is to save our pennies, we should give generously. When the wise thing to do is make our power felt, we should listen with humility and compassion. For in this foolishness is our salvation.
Today, on the feast of the Holy Cross, we must face the question: which cross do we truly venerate? Our cross – turned into an object of beauty and value because of the power it represents; the tradition; the tribe; the wealth? Or God’s cross – turned into an object of beauty and value because of the rejection is represents – God’s rejection of our rules; our values; our wisdom – in favour of God’s rules of perfect love and freedom?
Let us choose God’s. Over and over again, let us choose God’s. Let us reject the logic of power and security; reject the logic of empire that says our ease is worth another’s suffering; reject the logic of tribalism that says we only need worry about those who belong to us; reject the logic of our consumerist society that says our only value is found in our shopping.
Choose God’s cross. Take up God’s cross; make it your cross; and, foolishly, follow Jesus.