For many of you, this is the first time you will hear me say a few words about faith. Allow me to tell you a little bit about myself. I grew up in West Virginia. I spent the first 23 years of my life in the Mountain State, learning everything from the proper way of eating a hot dog – that would be with mustard, ketchup, coleslaw, chili, and onions – to how to look away from a West Virginia basketball game that doesn’t seem to go your way.
One of the most lasting impressions West Virginia and its culture gave me was a strong work ethic. You worked hard at what you did. There was a strong emphasis placed on proving yourself, showing your worth, and getting the most out of life. You were taught to earn everything you have in life.
Even though this is an ethic I learned in West Virginia, I do not think it is too far from the norm for many of us. We value hard work. We want to earn what we have and prove our worth to people. This is true whether it is in our jobs, our families, or in any other situation that comes before us. We want people to know us by what we do, by what we know, or by what we’ve accomplished.
I wonder how this ethic affects how we approach God. For many of us – and I would include myself in this – we sometimes approach God with the idea that it is all about what we do and who we are that determines whether we receive God’s gift of grace and salvation. We believe we have to earn God’s grace or salvation. We come to God and say, “Look at me. Look at what I’ve done. Look at the good things I do. Look at what I’ve accomplished. Look at all the things I know about you. Doesn’t this make me one of your children? Am I not saved by these acts?” We believe our work determines whether we receive grace.
How does God respond to our effort to prove ourselves before him? What we see from our passage from 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 is that God looks on our attempts at proving ourselves as foolishness. Our efforts to earn God’s grace and love does not do what we hope it will. Only God can do that. What God does is take our foolishness and recreate the world in his image. The world’s foolishness is the very means of God’s grace for a broken and hurting world.
Paul writes to the church in Corinth that God uses the most foolish thing ever imagined to bring forth a new order of grace and a new covenant with all. He uses the cross as the instrument of grace. For us today, the cross is a symbol of hope and redemption. It’s a symbol we wear around our necks, place in our sanctuaries, or place in our yards. In Jesus’ time, the cross was not a celebrated symbol of faith, but the most horrific form of execution ever devised. Still today, it is the most inhumane form of punishment the world has ever created. It is a means of punishment and torture where the worst of the worst were hung, sometimes for days, as a way to express the might of the Roman military upon the people. Crucifixions were graphic and painful in ways words cannot fully describe.
If you lived in Jesus’ time, you would have a difficult time understanding how something so inhumane and torturous could accomplish anything but death of the worst criminals. You would especially have a difficult time seeing it as something that was the tool used by Jesus to bring salvation to all people. Salvation was more likely to be accomplished, they believed, through expression of power – such as military strength or the ability to do certain things before God – or knowledge and the ability to fully understand things.
Yet God uses the foolishness of the world to bring about hope, redemption, reconciliation, grace, and love for all people. God takes it upon himself to change the world and usher in a new way of life – a new way of grace – by taking the most horrific death ever imagined and letting it become the way of hope through Jesus’ self-sacrificial offering of his own life. God took it upon himself to bring hope in the midst of the darkness of our lives. God took it upon himself to bring hope through our wrongs, through the hurts done towards us, and through the entire world. This hope could only be accomplished through the life of Christ and the gift of grace through Christ’s death on the cross.
We preach a message that is as scandalous then as it is today. This message that one person, Jesus, voluntarily gave his life up for the sin of all humanity is hard for some, but it is the message of hope for all. Hope that on the cross Jesus took on this most inhumane form of punishment and used it as the instrument to stand in our place for our disobedience towards God and to allow grace and forgiveness to pour like rain on us all.
Jesus did not come to offer forgiveness and reconciliation for all in the ways we would prefer. He did not offer military strength that would overthrow the systems of injustice in the world. He did not offer signs to prove who he is on the cross when the people demanded it. He did not use his rhetorical skills to offer salvation. Instead, he gave his body – his entire self – for the sins of everyone. He gave his life for you, for me, for the people who haven’t heard of the Good News yet, for the people who wonder if God has something for them, for the people who believe that God is not there. The cross is the message of hope for a broken and hurting world. Jesus went to the cross – this horrific thing – and offered grace to all who would look to the cross and see that Jesus died because of our wrongs, our hurts, our pain and he offers forgiveness and love in their place.
This forgiveness and love, given through the cross of Christ, is offered to us all. It is given freely to us for simply accepting what Christ did for us. It is the gift that breaks us free from the chains of our past, our hurts, and the wrongs we hold onto. No matter what we have done, Jesus was willing to go to the cross for us and offer grace and the opportunity for us to experience a new life. That is grace. That is hope. That is good news for the world today.
Because of this good news, because Jesus paid the price for our sin, we find our boast in Jesus and in Jesus alone. But we are more comfortable when we can boast in ourselves and not in God. We live as if we our boast – our salvation – comes not from a cross, but from what we can do or who we are. We still want to believe we can earn our salvation and God’s love.
A lot of this has to do with the culture that we live in. We live in a time that promotes the self to the extreme. Culture tells us that we are the most important thing and it is up to us to make sure others know how great we truly are. So we spend a lot of time proving ourselves, either by all the great things we accomplish, by the belief that we are on the right side of every issue, or by what we know in our head.
We touched on this in the beginning, but this really impacts how we view the cross and God’s love. We want salvation to be by what we do, or based on how we act, than on faith in Jesus and his sacrifice. Through our actions, we say that since we know everything in the Bible or have the right theology, instead of that we are in God’s graces. Through our actions, we say that if we go on the right mission trip, then God will let us into heaven. Through our actions, we say that if we preach the message well enough, then God will think we are holy and blessed.
To be honest, the way we often live is backwards to the desires of God. All of those things we just listed, and many others, are what we do in response to our faith in God. They are not the source of faith or salvation.
Only God is the source of our salvation and faith. It is only God who can do the work of redeeming us. It is only God who can save us. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot earn our salvation. It is only when we receive the greatest gift of God – experienced through the foolishness of the cross – that we can live into the joy of God’s grace and a new beginning for our life. It is only when we see that Jesus looked upon us on the cross – even with all the brokenness that can exist in our lives – and says, “I love you and I forgive you,” that we can be free of the bondage that our hurts bring. We can cannot heal ourselves. Only God can.
We cannot boast in our own efforts for salvation. They won’t do what we want them to do. Our only boast comes in Christ the Lord.
So let Jesus be our only boast. May we boast in Christ. May we boast in the foolishness of the cross. May we boast in the fact that Jesus took it upon himself to free us from sin. May we share that boast with every person we meet so that one day “every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord.”