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St. Paul’s has used the phrase “we preach Christ crucified” as an unofficial slogan for many years. We’ve placed it at the top of our website home page. It’s on the front cover of our Sunday worship folders. Some people have expressed great approval of the phrase’s use. Others have questioned it.
Though I don’t know the full story of its beginnings here, I can easily see why our congregation would embrace it. First, it is a short and distinct statement made by our namesake – the Apostle Paul. In his first letter to the church at Corinth St. Paul begins his message by lifting up the importance of the cross. He says: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:17-18).
Paul knows that a message about a crucified savior is difficult for many people to accept. It seems rather counter-intuitive. Don’t saviors normally rule and reign? Many of Paul’s own people, the Jews, were waiting for a Messiah who would lead their return to glory. News about the death of Jesus meant an end to his movement in most people’s minds.
But Paul persisted in his message. Christ needed to die – and more than just die but be killed – so that he could become the sacrifice needed to atone for the world’s sin. In his letter to the church at Rome he explained: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). And to the church at Philipp he said: “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:8).
The cross is central to the Christian faith. New trends notwithstanding, crosses have been central features of most church’s architecture. The Christian faith, from the beginning, has been understood as flowing out of the message of Christ crucified.
This is not meant in any way to take away from the message of Christ’s resurrection. Paul would go on to write a whole glorious chapter (15) about the resurrection of Christ to those same Corinthian Christians. And he would begin his powerful treatise to the Romans by explaining that Jesus “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (1:4). Indeed, Paul’s own faith was grounded in the fact that he had seen the risen Lord Jesus appear to him on the road to Damascus. Likewise the Church’s greatest celebration is of Christ’s resurrection at Easter—a celebration that we recall each Sunday.
And yet, with all of this in mind, there is also a place for the so-called “theology of the cross.” Martin Luther used this phrase to contrast a true theology with that which can be described as “a theology of glory.” A theology of glory exalts man’s abilities or focuses on man’s strivings. A theology of the cross focuses on man’s need for God and God’s means of salvation. As Luther once famously said: “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”
It is certainly, in part, because of this Lutheran emphasis that St. Paul’s employs the “we preach Christ crucified” slogan. It speaks to our heritage and methodology. We don’t just skip right to Easter but emphasize all of Holy Week. We observe the season of Lent. We sing hymns in both major and minor keys. We endure suffering without panic or turning away. We’re not afraid of a little guilt. These things and others define a Lutheran practice and flow from our understanding of a crucified Christ. If we seem to over-emphasize it from time to time it’s only because it seems there is a dearth of such understanding in the greater Church today.
Luther understood that it is always tempting to focus on the things we can do and our desires for happiness. But such emphases lead us to forget God’s ways. True joy comes from knowing that God overcomes our human failures. He has forgiven our sins and called us to Himself. That is the life Christ offers. It flows from his crucifixion and connects us to his resurrection. That we might truly live!
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