1 Corinthians 1:18-25 New International Version (NIV)
18 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. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Can someone explain to me why it is that when we gain an hour, my young children miss the message and fail to sleep in, but when we lose an hour, they are still up at 6:30am? I’m not sure that they quite understand this spring back and fall forward thingJ.
I recently watched a video that a parent took with his cell phone while sitting in the car on a chilly day as he waited for his child to come out of school. There was a patch of ice on the sidewalk and this father thought it was absolutely hilarious that every child that walked along the sidewalk on their way out of the school was stepping on that ice and falling down. On the video you can hear him narrating the story: Here comes three boys, annnnnndddd…yep they each fell down. Here’s some girls. Boom! Just as expected.
With only a few exceptions, each person that walked across that section of sidewalk fell to the ground. Some fell with grace, others fell with a thud. And after the man’s child got in the car, he too sat there watching the kids falling on the ice, and laughing at their expense.
We have a theological term to describe the father and his filming of the children as they fall down. We call him a jerk. But I think that the story serves as an example for our message this morning because the ice is a bit of a stumbling block. People walking along, minding their own business hit that section of ice and stumble to the ground.
As Christians we must recognize that there are obstacles involved in following Jesus. There are stumbling blocks and icy patches along the way, things that keep others from following Jesus. But notice that in today’s passage, Paul doesn’t say that we are to remove all stumbling blocks. He doesn’t ask Christians to make the onramp to Christianity as easy as possible. He is saying that there are stumbling blocks and there will always be stumbling blocks. But Paul never invites us to make more stumbling blocks along the way. And I would add that rather than sitting there and laughing at the people as the trip or slip, we are called to help people navigate the stumbling blocks and icy patches of this world. Because there will come a time when we all need a helping hand to get past these difficult places in life.
In our scripture for this morning, Paul uses the metaphor of the stumbling block to describe the challenges involved in becoming a Christian. Remember that the Christian movement began in the Jewish community and the first Christians, including Jesus, were Jews. But as we saw last week, the Jews had Messianic expectations that did not match up well with what Jesus was teaching. He was heading for a cross, the symbol of pain and suffering inflicted upon anyone who would dare oppose the Roman system. But the Jews expected that the Messiah would be a great military leader who would overtake the Romans by force to allow the Jews to live and worship in total freedom. However, it is a bit difficult to lead a revolution if you are nailed to a cross.
So for a Jewish person, the cross is a stumbling block. Not because they don’t understand what a cross is or don’t believe in crosses. This was a part of their daily existence. The Romans were executing people all of the time. The stumbling block is that Paul is proclaiming Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah. And a crucified Messiah cannot fulfill their messianic expectations. The cross was a symbol of failure. The cross was a symbol of Rome’s power and dominance. The cross to a person with 1st century Jewish messianic expectations is a patch of ice. It will trip you up every time.
Paul also speaks about the foolishness of the cross. Following Jesus is a challenge for the Greeks of the 1st century particularly because of their culture, which placed a high value on reason. Think of the great Greek philosophers: Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. The father of geometry, Euclid, was Greek, as was Pythagoras, who developed a theorem which allows us to find the lengths of a side of a right triangle. You remember the Pythagorean Theorem, right? The Greeks placed a high value on knowledge and reason. If something made sense, it was worth exploring. But that God would come to the earth in the form of a human being only to meet his eventual demise at the hand of creatures that he had created? For those of us that grew up in a church, this might not sound too far out there. But if you really think about it, it is against conventional knowledge, isn’t it?
There are religious traditions, even some Christian traditions that attempt to bypass this whole idea of an all-powerful God who created the world and everything in it suffering and dying. One tradition picks up on the passage that tells us that while he was carrying the cross Jesus needed help, so Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry it for him. This particular tradition says that it was actually Simon that died on the cross, that they forgot to switch Jesus and Simon back to their rightful places. Some even claim that God changed Simon’s appearance to look like Jesus so that he would take Jesus’ place because God can’t be killed!
Another tradition says that Jesus was not really God, but that God simply dwelled within Jesus for a period of time. This tradition says that at the baptism of a man named Jesus, the Spirit of God descended upon this man—who was fully human—and the Spirit lived within this man Jesus for about three years. And then, just before his crucifixion, the Spirit left the man on the cross. This, they would say, is why Jesus calls out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God did not die on the cross that day. God went to heaven before the crucifixion was completed. The man Jesus died on the cross that day.
I don’t think that we can overemphasize what a big stumbling block this idea that God actually suffered and died on the cross is for some people. I don’t agree with either of those traditions, but they show us how big of a stumbling block the cross really is for some people from various traditions. It is easy for those of us that grew up as Christians to visualize God dying on the cross. But for those who did not, the cross is a stumbling block; it is foolishness.
Just by virtue of what a cross is, the cross is a stumbling block to people coming to Jesus. And I want to be careful that when we try to talk to other people about what it means to follow Jesus that we don’t try to make it too easy. I fully understand why people want to make this as easy as possible, but if we alter the cross so that it is not a stumbling block, then it is no longer the cross of Jesus Christ.
I was taught in college how to evangelize. We were given tracts and encouraged to go door to door, walking people through the four spiritual laws and inviting them to know Jesus. I respect this message, but Christianity is about more than just Jesus forgiving me for my sins. It is an entire lifestyle and worldview. And it is a stumbling block.
When people came to Jesus and they asked him what they had to do to be his followers, Jesus didn’t make it easier for them just so they would join him. Jesus tells one guy he needs to sell everything and give the money to the poor. He tells another that he can’t mourn his dead father. Another is told to forget about his newly acquired land. Still another is told that he needs to skip his honeymoon. Jesus doesn’t sugar coat this discipleship gig just to get more disciples. And we shouldn’t either.
But I’ve also seen Christians do the complete opposite. While some try to remove any obstacle, others put additional bumps in the road. Romans 14:13 says, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” Jesus also says something similar about putting obstacles in the way of children that are coming to him.
So on one hand, we shouldn’t make following Jesus too easy, but we also can’t just skip over the things that may be a stumbling block. Jesus really did say things like “love your enemy,” and “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of God.” Being a disciple of Jesus is difficult.
At this point you might be thinking that I making salvation something that we achieve by our works. But I’m not talking about grace; I’m talking about discipleship. I’m talking about following Jesus into this world and living out his kingdom message. As I like to say, grace is free, but discipleship is costly.
I want to come back to verse 18 from our scripture for this morning as we begin to wrap things up. Verse 18 tells us, “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.” You may notice that Paul speaks about those “who are being saved.” He does not speak of salvation as we often think of it in the church. We talk about “gettin’ saved” as a one-time event. People ask the question, “When were you saved?” in certain circles. I don’t want to say that this way of talking about salvation is completely wrong, but it also isn’t completely complete.
The Bible speaks about making a decision to follow Jesus as being saved. We find examples of this in the book of Acts when it says so many were saved that day. But if you look around, many of us are still in pain. We still suffer and deal with death and sickness and poverty. The Bible also speaks of salvation as something that will happen when we receive our new bodies and the heavens and the earth are renewed.
But what Paul says in verse 18 is that those of us who are Christians are being saved. It is an ongoing situation. The word in Greek is sodzo, and it is written in a very particular way. We talk about words being in past, present, or future tense in English. Greek is significantly more difficult. This is word is used as a dative, plural, masculine, present, passive participle. And you wonder why people don’t speak Biblical Greek anymore! To say that it is a dative, plural, masculine, present, passive participle is to say that this is an ongoing action. And we are not the actors. It is being done for us.
In some traditions this is referred to as sanctification. This is God making us holy, forming us back into God’s image. What in that sounds like it will be easy? What in that sounds simple? No, there are plenty of stumbling blocks along this journey.
Just because you are a Christian doesn’t mean that you are no longer tempted. It doesn’t mean that you are all at once perfect. And it sure doesn’t mean that life is going to be easy along the way. There are stumbling blocks that keep us from becoming Christians, and there are stumbling blocks that keep us from growing as Christians.
So I come back to the gentleman video recording the students, parents, and teachers as the exit the school and slip on the ice. Life is hard enough, let’s not make things worse. How about rather than recording one person after another falling on the ice actually getting out of the car, standing by the ice and helping people across? Offer a steady, helping hand. Because this world is filled with stumbling blocks and icy patches. And we can all use a little help every now and then.