Believe it or not

Would you be willing to admit that you believe in something foolish?

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed,” Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.  “But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved” (1 Cor 1:18, CEB).

There may have been mutual mistrust and even hatred between Jews and Gentiles in Paul’s day, including in the city of Corinth.  But there was one thing that many from both sides could agree on: the idea of a crucified Savior was the most ridiculous story they’d ever heard.  The cross effectively redrew social boundaries.  What mattered was no longer the distinction between Jew and Greek, but between those being saved and those being destroyed, between those who believed the foolish message and those who did not.

Paul takes the point further:

Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.  But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom.  (1 Cor 1:22-24, CEB)

There are numerous examples of Jews asking Jesus for signs in the gospels.  Offended by Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple, the Jews asked for a decisive demonstration of God’s power that would have authenticated his authority to do such things (John 2:18).  In making the demand, they sounded less like spiritual seekers than suspicious teachers imperiously asking a kid for a hall pass.

It’s not as if such a sign would have compelled them to believe (e.g., Matt 11:20-21).  Indeed, the most powerful sign of all–the raising of Lazarus, a man who had been four days in the tomb–resulted not in faithful worship, but unbelieving consternation over the trouble Jesus was causing.  The fretful words of the chief priests and Pharisees, as given to us by John, are damning: Oh, no, he’s doing real miracles!  Everyone’s believing in him!  What will happen to us?  Fertile ground there, apparently, for a self-righteous murder conspiracy (John 11:47-53).

And if that weren’t enough, the message of “Christ crucified,” of a Messiah who dies on a cross, would have been scandalous to the Jews, who viewed the cross (a Roman rather than Jewish method of execution) in light of Deuteronomy 21:23.  The crucified one was under God’s curse.  The Messiah, cursed?  Impossible.  To Greeks, proud of their culture and on the lookout for the next bit of philosophical wisdom, a cross-centered gospel was lunacy.  But to the Jews, it was downright blasphemous.

Who could believe such a story?  One looking for the mighty hand of God would see in the cross only humiliation and weakness.  One looking for a philosopher-king would see only a failed and discredited has-been.

Who would put their faith in a humiliated, crucified Savior?  Only those, Paul says, whom God has called.  Only those in whom God has plowed the ground in which the curious message of the cross would take root.

And that idea may be the greatest offense of all.

Our definition of open-mindedness is the attitude that says, Okay, let’s see what you’ve got.  Do a miracle.  Lay out your argument.  Impress me.  Convince me.  Then I’ll think about it and get back to you.  But in C. S. Lewis‘ memorable image, that puts God on the witness stand and us in the position of judge, deciding from on high whether God is to be believed.

No, Paul suggests.  God is the one who initiates.  God is the who calls, powerfully so, through the apparent weakness of the message of a crucified Messiah.

Believe it or not.