"The cross alone is our theology" – Martin Luther
Right now (and I would add, for quite some time) there has been a debate within Christianity about the whole issue of culture. What I mean is if you open up any Christian magazine or website, chances are you are going to find thoughtful (and unthoughtful) Christians dealing with the question of how we are to deal with the culture around us.
On the one side there are those within Christianity that take a look at the world around them, see the sin that so pervades the culture and decide that the only right thing to do is to completely disengage from it. Taking their cues from Scriptures that emphasize the Christian’s “separateness” and “difference” from the world, these folks have decided that they will dress differently, listen to different music, watch different television (if they watch television at all) and generally speak about the culture around them only in terms of “worldly” or “evil”. The problem with taking this tack of course is that although the Scriptures do emphasize our holiness and differences from the world, they also emphasize our need to work in and among the world through our vocations. So we see the Apostle Paul in his ministry quoting pagan poets and writers and we hear Jesus say, “You are in the world, but not of the world.”
On the other hand, there are those who overemphasize the importance of cultural engagement by making themselves basically look just like the culture. So we unthoughtfully consume everything that everyone around us consumes. We watch everything our neighbor watches, read everything their reading and generally on the whole, look no different than the culture surrounding us. The problem here of course is that Jesus did indeed say over and over again that we are not of this world and are called in some way to look different, or to use a buzz phrase often used in our day, be counter-cultural.
You can see that there are elements of truth in both these tendencies, but I want to suggest that what makes us countercultural is not our dress, or our sports, or our music. What I believe we see in the Scriptures primarily makes us countercultural are our beliefs about God, and the way He operates in the universe. Who you are is not defined by outward appearance but by inward conviction. It is defined first and foremost by the word you believe- specifically, what you believe about the cross. There is nothing more counter-cultural than the cross
Because the cross is scandalously weak
That was certainly the majority view of the Jews Paul encountered in his day. You must remember that for the Jewish people, when they thought of their Savior, they did not think of a Savior whose kingdom was not of this world. No, they thought of a conquering king, who was supposed to ride into Jerusalem, take His throne and make the Jewish people rulers of the world. We see this attitude play out even amongst Jesus’ closest disciples as he gets closer and closer to his impending death. When he talks about it, they have no category for it. Right up until his arrest, they ask him things like “When you gonna take the throne Jesus?” This was just the taken for granted view of how the Jewish Messiah was going to work. So we can understand why the message of Christianity didn’t necessarily appeal to most Jews. Paul writes, “For Jews demand signs”. What do we present them with? “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews….” The word “stumbling block”, can literally be translated, “scandal”. The idea of the savior being hung on a cross was absolutely insane to them. After all, remember the cross in Jewish theology was a clear sign that one was cursed!
Those outside of the church today are just as scandalized by the cross. For example, in the Muslim view of Jesus, he never actually died there, but was somehow miraculously able to escape. Jews historically saw it as an evidence of his condemnation. Atheists refer to it as a silly myth about divine child abuse.
Even those within the Church's life many times want to move right past the whole cross thing. I can remember after I had been preaching for a little while someone came up to me and said, “You know Pastor, I get why you talk about the cross so much, for potential new believers, but I need more meat. The Christian life goes so much deeper than the cross.” The idea being behind this request, “Tell me about the new power I have to follow good advice.” The Old Adam always hopes we can move beyond the cross.
Here’s the thing: the cross is scandalous; it is weak. Just think about the message we’re presenting to the world: When God, who breathed the universe into existence, and holds every galaxy in the palm of his hand, became one of the members of His creation, He did not blast away evil. He did not ride and conquer. He did not gather an army. Rather he made himself poor, had nowhere to lay his head and was crucified as a criminal for criminals, and other sinners. Instead of killing sinners, He was becoming like them (though without sin Himself)! It is the equivalent of us pointing you to a man hanging from the gallows and saying, “Behold, the power of God!” It’s scandalously weak!
The cross is counter-cultural because it’s embarrassingly foolish
6 times in 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5, Paul uses the word “folly” or “foolishness” to describe the message of the cross. You see to the other half of the world, the Greek speaking world, they were influenced deeply by philosophy. When they spoke of the deity, they reasoned that matter, the physical stuff of the universe was bad. In their thinking, God would never take on flesh. He would never stoop so low. When some of them would describe this Deity, the main word used was "Apatheia" which means apathy. God was said to not care about human affairs. He was utterly unfeeling and remote.
Indeed, there are still many in the world today that would like to see God like that. He is “far away” or “distant”. A god like this is convenient, because it gives us an explanation for the universe’s existence, (he created it), but we don’t actually have to relate or have anything really to do with this Being. This kind of deity is just far enough away that He doesn’t really care what we do morally and won’t hold us accountable.
But now here comes the message of Jesus’ cross: It tells us that rather than being unfeeling and remote, this God is so invested in His creation that he takes on flesh. He so identifies with His creation that he endures hunger, temptation and pain just like us. In order to save humanity, the message of the cross says, “God was so concerned about justice in this world that He endured that justice and was crucified for your sins.”
Of course this message was seen as utter foolishness to the Greek speaking world. Surely the true God would never do anything like that. The early church must have felt tremendous pressure to accommodate their message to their audience: “Don’t emphasize the God becoming man stuff too much, emphasize his power and glory far beyond our universe.” But again, Paul says, “Proclaim this foolish message and watch God work to meet people where they’re at and save them.”
The cross is counter cultural because it takes the whole ball of wax out of our control
Why? Because to those “who are being saved IT is the power of God. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” -1 Cor. 1:18, 27-29
The cross takes away all human boasting, because it is all God who does the work! Because there at the cross, Jesus wins for us righteousness (how? By offering up His perfect life in our place). There at the cross, Jesus wins for us sanctification (setting us apart with Him). There at the scandalous cross, Jesus redeems, buys back a world of fools and weaklings and makes them his brothers and sisters.
In short, the cross means that God does it all and that we are entirely dependent upon His grace.
There isn’t a message on earth that is more counter-cultural than that…..