“Christ crucified” seems like a strange thing to proclaim? According to Paul it is the heart of his proclamation. He did not need to know anything else in order to preach except Christ crucified. In these first two chapters of this letter he says the same thing in several different ways. He says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” A few verses later in the passage we just read he says, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified.” In the next chapter he says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” What does he mean by all this?
The traditional answer is that the cross is where Jesus died for our sins. The theological word for that is Atonement. Jesus atoned for our sins on the cross. There are several different ways to think about Atonement and how it works. How does the death of Jesus on the cross help us? One traditional way of thinking about it is called the ransom theory. It says that Adam and Eve, sold humanity to the devil when they ate the fruit in the garden of Eden. In order to free humanity God had to pay the devil a ransom. That ransom was the death of Jesus on the cross. So Jesus died, paid the ransom, humanity was released from Satan’s clutches so that we are now free of the power of evil in our lives and then God raised Jesus from the dead. If you’ve read or seen the movie “The Chronicles of Narnia” it is based on the ransom theory. Edmund sold himself to the White Witch by betraying his siblings. In order to free Edmund from the White Witches power, Aslan the Lion offered his own life. With his life, Aslan paid the ransom demanded by the witch. But, like Jesus, Alsan also rose from the dead after satisfying the payment.
This theory is helpful in that it highlights human inability to save ourselves without divine or spiritual help. It also has a strong biblical foundation. The Gospel of Mark has Jesus using the word “ransom” to describe himself. One weakness of the theory for us in mainstream churches is that it elevates the devil to a theological prominence that many modern people are uncomfortable with. It also relies on a God who is not all powerful and has to stoop to negotiations with the devil to accomplish something. Finally, it relies on the devil being kind of stupid and basically being tricked into thinking Jesus was going to stay dead.
Another way of thinking about Atonement is called the satisfaction theory. It is similar to the ransom theory but distinct. It says that God required something from us that we could not pay and Jesus paid it for us. In the earlier form of satisfaction theory the payment regards God’s honor. God has been dishonored by human disobedience. When Jesus dies on the cross he is honoring God on our behalf through perfect obedience and thereby paying our debt of honor. John Calvin and others take that a step further and say that God needed to punish humanity for its sinfulness and Jesus took the punishment on our behalf. The crucifixion was the punishment we were due. Either way there is a disturbing idea in these theories that God requires something from humanity in order to forgive us. By comparison imagine if a child were to break something in the house that was beyond their ability to replace, would the parent require that the item be replaced somehow, by someone before the child could be forgiven and loved again? Of course not. Also this theory is problematic, especially the punitive version of it because in the end God’s need for vengeance is being satisfied by the death of God’s own Son.
Finally, a third way of thinking about atonement is the moral influence theory which may be the most appealing to mainline, modern folk like us. It says that Jesus’ crucifixion was such a selfless, exemplary act of obedience to God that it inspires anyone who comes to know about it and study it. This is perhaps the most palatable for rationally or scientifically minded people because there is no spiritual or metaphysical substitution going on between Jesus and humanity in general and we understand the concept of being inspired by someone. It raises the question about how being crucified is such an exemplary thing for Jesus to do. But, there are reasonable answers to that question. The actions of Jesus at his execution were exemplary in at least three ways.
First, he held to the truth about who he believed himself to be. It happens in slightly different ways in different Gospels, but basically in all of them Jesus at his trial is given the opportunity to deny that he is the Son of God. He is given the opportunity to save his own life by denying the truth he knows about himself. He never does. He stands by his truth even unto death. A second exemplary thing about his death was that he never lifted a finger against his oppressors. He was non-violent to the end. He had the power to defend himself and probably call on his followers to mount a violent defense, but he refused the use of force and took the path of non-violence. Just as the moral influence theory suggests this action was inspirational to people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. And millions of people were saved from oppression as a result. Finally, even on the cross he offered his forgiveness and God’s to those who harmed him. “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” All of that is exemplary and inspiring. moral influence theory says that our study and knowledge of those actions will affect all of us in powerful and positive ways. The weakness of the moral influence theory, though some may call this a strength, is there is no distinction between the death of Jesus and the exemplary death of any other saint or martyr in history. Why should we lift up the unjust, exemplary death of Jesus over and above the unjust, exemplary death of others?
So then we come back to the original question what does it mean to proclaim Christ crucified? I believe at its heart the crucifixion is so powerful because it is a nearly perfect symbol of human brokenness and God’s gracious redemption of our brokenness. In the crucifixion we see a human brokenness from almost every angle. We see a broken human being. Jesus is physically broken. Emotionally broken. Relationally broken. Spiritually broken. In the crucifixion we see broken systems, including social, religious and governmental systems, that nailed him to that cross despite his innocence and exemplary life. In the crucifixion we see a broken humanity that either demanded his crucifixion or ran away because they were afraid to stop the injustice. Christ crucified is a powerful symbol of our brokenness.
In the crucifixion we also see God’s gracious redemption of our brokenness. God redeems us through the forgiveness of Jesus. God redeems us through the life Jesus lived up to that moment which proclaimed God’s love for all people even those most lost. God redeems through the resurrection on the other side of the cross. In the crucifixion we see that human brokenness does not have the last word. We see that pain and suffering is never meaningless. We see that on the other side of every cross is an empty tomb with the stone rolled away.
The Apostle Paul understands that the world whether Greek or Jewish or Roman or American wants more than a symbol of human brokenness and God’s graciousness from religion. The world wants certainty and signs and sensation. The world wants to be blown away with profound statements about the nature of truth. The world wants quick fixes and easy solutions. The world wants God to take away suffering forever. Paul knew that we, in religion, cannot provide those things to the world and we must try. We only know, through Christ crucified that God does not take away suffering and brokenness. God redeems suffering and brokenness. We only know through Christ crucified that truth is costly. It can cost you your life, but we also know it’s worth it. We only know, through Christ crucified that the power to change ourselves and others is only available if we let go of self and let go of resentment and expectation of others.
That’s why Paul identifies Christ crucified as the heart of our message to the world. Not because he thinks it what people wants but because it is what people need. The challenge we face is that the is message really only communicates when we live it. We proclaim Christ crucified when we are not afraid of suffering because we know new life is on the other side. We proclaim Christ crucified when we are not afraid to stand by truth because we know truth ultimately prevails against false, violence and death. We proclaim Christ crucified when we are not afraid to let go of selfishness because we know the denial of self means the resurrection of Christ within. We proclaim Christ crucified when we are not afraid when others do not think or act like we want them to because we know God is redeeming their brokenness too.
When we deny self, take up the cross and follow Christ we proclaim his crucified and we proclaim him resurrected. And our hearts, our loved ones and our entire world is changed.