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Cross Stem of Salvation
February 3, 2002
I COR 1:18-31
No one wants it. Most of us fight it. We do almost anything to rid ourselves of it. Fat. We are fat-phobic. Christians chant, "Jesus diet for my sins," or try to shave some poundage by signing up for "The Fourteen Day Beauty Boot Camp Diet," "The Miniskirt-Is-Back Workout," or the "Fat Flush Diet."
Historically though, fat is beautiful. Cleopatra was a chunk: At five feet tall and 150 pounds, she was the first spokesperson for size acceptance. The artists Rubens and Titian had no time for anorexics. Or just ask Camyrn Manheim of ABC's "The Practice." Her book, Wake Up! I'm Fat, is on the New York Times best-seller list and was one of the most requested books on NPR.
There is even a kind of a Haiku in praise of fat:
Big is Beautiful!
Fat is Fabulous!
Sweet Happiness is Hefty!
But for all that, we still sometimes wonder what fat is good for. Not any more. The scientific community is now transforming cells from unwanted fat into muscle, cartilage and bone. They are changing blubber into body parts.
The secret is stem cells.
Say did you hear about the person that sought help from stem cell research. This man was bothered with continual ringing in his ears, bulging eyes, and a flushed face. Over a period of three years, he went from doctor to doctor to find out what was wrong. One took out his tonsils, one his appendix, another pulled all his teeth. He even tried the goat gland treatment in Switzerland. As a last resort, he tried stem cell therapy--to no avail. The doctors told him there was no hope, that he had six months to live.
The poor fellow quit his job, sold all his belongings and decided to live it up in the time he had left. He went to his tailor and ordered several suits and shirts. The tailor measured his neck and wrote down 18. The man corrected him: The tailor measured again: 18. But the man insisted that he'd always worn a size 15.
"Well, all right," said the tailor, "I will get your shirts in that size, but don't come back here complaining to me if you have ringing ears, bulging eyes and a flushed face!"
On a more serious note, researchers now believe that fat may be a rich source of stem cells - unspecialized primordial cells that can be coaxed into becoming any number of tissue types. The procedure could offer a potential treatment for broken bones, damaged joints and even life-threatening neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease. The beauty of this approach is that it involves only fat, not the human embryos that have been at the heart of recent ethical controversies.
What a deal! You can go to the doctor's office, fix the hole in your knee and lose 20 pounds, all at once. This is such a surprising place to find life--in fat. If we were not impressed by the research, we would scoff and laugh.
Like the Greeks, and others referenced in I Corinthians who scoffed and laughed at the notion that the cross could be a source of life.
The Source of Christian Unity
First Corinthians addresses a church divided by personal loyalties to different teachers and by interpersonal tensions. Some in the church arrogantly claimed special knowledge and spiritual wisdom (3:18, 8:1-2).
In 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Paul proclaims Christian unity to a church festering with disunity. Previously, in verses 10-16, Paul dismissed any special claims that Corinthians might make based upon loyalty to any one preacher or leader. Paul now turns to the even more divisive issue of theology.
Corinth was a relatively new settlement. The old Greek city of Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans. Corinth was rebuilt in 44 B.C.--and a large percentage of her citizens were drawn from the "freedman" class of Rome. As recently freed slaves, their status was only slightly better than that of a slave. During Paul's day, Corinth was a boomtown, both a seaport and a crossroads city. Without the social obstacles that an old, aristocracy might have imposed upon them, these freedmen, as well as a considerable diversity of other peoples, were relatively free to "pull themselves up by their own bootstraps." Money, prestige, and knowledge were still fluid commodities, and attaining power was a possibility for anyone with sufficient motivation. In other words, of all the cities of the ancient world, Corinth is probably the city that Americans can identify with the most. Perhaps that is why Pauls letters to the Corinthians seem to speak most directly to us.
Foolishness of the Cross
The Corinthian church specialized in individuality and one-upmanship. Whether by claiming special associations (v. 12) or special knowledge, everyone was anxious to attain status. Paul responds to these wrong-headed notions in today's text with two decidedly unlikely arguments:
Words from the Old Testament
And the blatant foolishness of the cross.
For his primarily Gentile audience, enamored of Hellenistic philosophies, the weight carried by Jewish scripture was probably zero. For a population concerned with making as much economic and social headway as possible in the relatively fluid culture of Corinth, holding up the apparently defeatist symbol of the cross seemed self-defeating.
But Paul chose these two avenues to lead the church toward a better understanding of Christ. He admits that the cross appears as "foolishness," but he defines those who perceive it that way as "perishing." Only those who accept the cross, the sacrifice of Christ, are among the "saved." To such believers the cross is "the power of God." The Greek love of logic and dependence upon human insight is pilloried by Paul as he cites the prophecy of Isaiah 29:14. Human wisdom and discernment are destroyed by God's power. Paul continues to cite Isaiah (19:12) as he declares his own ministry as one of the greatest examples of foolishness God has chosen to use. The apparent foolhardiness of the cross as the path to God's wisdom is now compounded by God's choice of one such as Paul--not some wise scribe or witty debater--to feebly (v. 17) convey the message of salvation.
In verse 22, Paul pinpoints the potentially fatal flaws that characterize Jews and Gentiles. Jews, as the Old Testament amply demonstrates, demand "signs" from God--signs of power, deliverance, chosenness. Greeks, or Gentiles, do not want to see, they want to know--to be filled with self-acquired wisdom. In response to those separate desires, Paul offers a common solution--Christ crucified.
Because Christ crucified is the common solution to all problems, we all have equal standing before the cross. This equality in the church flies in the face of worldly status seeking. To be nothing before the cross is to be everything in the eyes of God. Paul declares that in this genuine relationship, "no one might boast in the presence of God."
We cannot boast of the cross as something we did. Rather, it is a surprise gift to us from God.
[Take up the gift previously wrapped.]
Now I do not have any problem accepting gifts. Most of us do not. It is not Christmas and it is not my birthday, so this is surprise gift. We all enjoy good surprises. Good surprises make us feel special, loved, and happy. This is a gift from God, a cross. The cross of Jesus was an unexpected surprise, one that no one was expecting. But for Christians, the cross shows that God loves us so much that he would give up his only Son, so that our sins could be forgiven.
How do you feel when you make a mistake, and then someone tells you that you are forgiven? You feel special and loved. Forgiveness is a wonderful gift, and we are reminded of it every time we are surprised by the cross.
The cross--unlike the momentary insights of human perception or the social points gained by claiming membership in some popular cliqueis an eternal gift. Those who receive this gift are those who celebrate the "foolishness" of God in Christ. Thus, the Apostle Paul drastically reorders worldly concepts of success. He emphasizes that in Christ there is no room for status-seeking or oneupmanship. He finishes the section citing Jeremiah 9:23-24, and declaring that if the Corinthians must glory in anything, then they should "glory in the Lord" (v. 31).
Symbol of Execution
Paul knows that the message about the cross is "foolishness" to many people around him, for they cannot see God in the crucifixion (1 Corinthians 1:18). The cross is the ultimate symbol of death and defeat, a total embarrassment--no more desirable than an extra 50 pounds of fat. For Jews, the cross is a stumbling block, and for Gentiles it is silly folly, but for Christians, the crucified Christ is nothing less than "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1:23-24).
Think of the cross as a surprising source of life, like therapeutic stem cells from unwanted fat. The cross is the ultimate stem of life. Call it the Cross Stem of Salvation.
We have lost some of the surprise of this divine stem of life. The cross is no longer a scandal. We see Britney Spears, Eminem, and Madonna wearing cross necklaces. We install carefully polished brass crosses in our sanctuaries. We buy our loved ones gold crosses to hang around their necks, and we tell them they look terrific. We put crosses on T-shirts and bumper stickers and note cards, shaping and stylizing and coloring them for maximum charm and effectiveness.
But what if we were to put a hangman's noose in our sanctuary? Or a tiny gold electric chair on a necklace? Or a picture of lethal injection on a bumper sticker?
That would be shocking!
Remember, the cross was an instrument of capital punishment. Jesus was executed by the state for the crimes of blasphemy and sedition, nailed to an instrument of torture between two convicted criminals. There is nothing charming or romantic about that.
And yet, Paul says that was "the power of God" (v. 18).
Stem Cell of Salvation
Stem cells can be found in fat. That is a surprise. The cross is just as much of a surprise. What the apostle has discovered is that human efforts to connect with God have all crashed and burned in complete failure. While some people tried to reach the Lord through religious signs, and others tried to connect through secular wisdom, both attempts spun out of control. God has destroyed the wisdom of the wise and thwarted the discernment of the discerning, leaving the scholars and scribes and debaters of the world to stand around and scratch their heads (vv. 19-20).
All that is left is "the foolishness of preaching," says Paul: preaching about the cross (v. 21). The crucifixion is not a plan that any human being would have devised, because it seems so absurd. No mere mortal would have proposed that God close the gap between himself and humankind by allowing God to die on the cross.
It makes no sense, It is absurd--according to the world. But then, that is the point. It is God's plan, not ours.
The cross stem is powerful, because, like stem cells, it grows stuff. The power of the cross grows wisdom, grows strength, and mediates the presence of Christ to us producing "righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1:31).
The cross brings new life, sometimes in surprising ways. In the late seventeenth century, George Fox and his fellow Quakers put themselves in danger of crucifixion when they began to read the gospels, Acts, and letters of Paul in a new light. In their reading, they rediscovered a blueprint for Christianity as a radical "society of friends," and found the theological courage to oppose slavery, prisons, capital punishment, and war.
Three centuries later, a supremely secular British curmudgeon named Malcolm Muggeridge was brought up short while visiting an Indian leprosarium run by the Missionaries of Charity. Muggeridge had always imagined secular humanism to be the ideal world-view but realized, while strolling through this facility, that no merely humanist vision can take care of lepers. As he saw Mother Teresa in action, he saw the work of the cross as an instrument of healing for those the world did not want to touch. To offer humane treatment to the outcasts of society requires more than mere humanity, it requires a cross-centered view of the world. Humanists, Muggeridge realized with the force of sudden insight, do not run leprosariums.
Only those who have heard the call of Christ would do something that foolish--that foolish at least in the eyes of the world. From the cross, Christ says to us, "Follow me." He speaks two words to us, two words that encompass a lifetime. But if we are to follow Christ, we must surrender all things, just as he surrendered all things for us.
If we wish to follow him, we must take up his cross. That old cross represents life in Christ. To the unbeliever, it is so much illogical foolishness, but Christ says he who does not leave all and take that cross is not worthy of him and is not his disciple.
Again, Christ said, "No one comes to the Father but by me." But the way to the Father by Christ is the way of the cross. What does this mean? It means that we must guard ourselves spiritually. We must conduct ourselves in a Christ way. We conduct ourselves in such a manner that words and thoughts do not live within us in ways other than those that are of Christ.
If we become aware that we are involved in something that is not of Christ and not fitting for a disciple of Christ, we should break off that involvement. This applies both to our outward and inward behavior. If it is a habit of ours that is not of Christ, we leave that habit behind. If it is something external, say, for example, a circle of acquaintances, that is not of Christ, then we leave that behind.
The point is that in our deportment, in our affairs, in our relationships with others, no one should see anything in us but Christ. Christ is the test of all things for a believer. We must not permit anything to arise or remain within us, or around us, that does not pass that test. When it comes to doing or not doing anything, thinking or not thinking anything, the question for us is would Jesus do it? Or, put it another way, If I were Christ, would I do it? Whatever takes place in our lives, inwardly and outwardly, should be all of Christ and nothing else but Christ.
A Shocking Inovation
So let's take what hope we can from the innovative therapies that promise to pull stem cells from fat deposits, but at the same time, we put our greatest faith in what is the most surprising and shocking of innovations--The cross of Christ. This is the key to our eternal health, the stem on which our relationship with God can grow forever. Fat cells are certainly promising, but only one Stem leads to salvation. It is the power of God, the cross of Christ. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 3/4/02