First Corinthians: A Cross Runs Through It
Topic: Bearing Our Cross Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:18–1:31
The church in first-century Corinth had an ego problem. There was a lot of jostling for first place, a lot of contempt for fellow Christians. The little congregation was divided into rival factions, and so it was a real mess. Had they forgotten the message of the cross - the message that had brought them together in faith? It would seem so. Paul puts the cross front and center, and says, “Here is the solution to your problems.” How can you be self-promoting when Jesus gave himself for you? The passage challenges us to identify, then to embrace, then to redeem the cross in our lives. Some of us have no problem identifying our cross. It's right there in front of us, each day, in the form of pain or suffering. Some of us might not be aware of any particular cross, we’re carrying right now. As Christians, though, we’re always bearing the cross of Christ. To the extent that I’m able, I put self aside: my preferences, my ambitions, my convenience, and my hurt feelings. We are to keep the cross in front of us, especially in the everyday interactions. I can choose not to “win” every argument, I can choose not to strike back verbally.
Once we identify the cross, we can embrace it. My human tendency is to run away as fast as I can from the cross. Yet, the great spiritual teachers urge us to realize the value of every crucifixion experience. Prayers for relief are always good, but can we also say “Thank you, Lord, for what we are going through together”? St. Paul regarded his considerable sufferings as somehow completing the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:23). I don’t fully understand that, but it signifies our participation in Christ. This comes with a caveat. Too often through history, down to the present day, people have been told, on religious grounds, to accept their lot in life. Sometimes this “acceptance” has been used to silence slaves, people of color, women, gay people, and people with disabilities. “Just do as your told, and don’t try to change your situation. That’s your cross to bear.” No, that’s not Christ’s intention.
All people are meant to enjoy the fullness of life in the love of God. The famous prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr summarizes our call: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The theology of the cross is not a counsel to helpless resignation in the face of wrong, but a summons to action. In response to school shootings or attacks on our democracy, too often there’s a shrug of the shoulders and a helpless “Nothing I can do about it.” Embracing the cross means accepting the call to mission, and doing what we can to bring righteous change. “Take up the full armor of God,” writes Paul in Ephesians, “so that when the day of evil comes, you will be able to stand your ground and, having done all—to stand.” Have we done all? Your country needs you. The Lord needs you. The old patriarchal hymn says, “Rise up O men of God, have done with lesser things, give heart and soul and mind and strength, to serve the king of kings.” My updated version might be an epic fail: “Rise up, O couch potatoes, put down your I-Pad now, go out and love with Christ-like love, till all say ‘Holy cow!’”
Lastly, we are to redeem the cross in our lives. How do we do that? How do we redeem the suffering of those around us? Kind words, the sympathizing tear, financial help, social justice, a hot dish or casserole.
In this sesquicentennial year for our church, we’re honoring our past and embracing the future. Our neighbor congregation, Second Pres, was founded as an anti-slavery church. So: Second Pres came several years before First Pres. How did that happen? Well, there used to be a First Presbyterian Church of Bloomington, and Second Pres was founded after that one. First Pres of Bloomington no longer exists, it’s part of St. Luke Union Church now. Historically, it is of interest that Second Pres was born out of the conviction that the gospel means slavery is wrong and should be stopped. They were part of redeeming the cross that African-Americans had carried for centuries.
I close with these words of Thomas a Kempis, author of “The Imitation of Christ.” “In the cross is salvation; in the cross is life; in the cross is protection against our enemies; in the cross is the joy of the spirit. In the cross is the excellence of virtue. Rejoice in the cross whenever it comes your way.”