What is it about the cross that is controversial? Or, what’s “the offense of the cross” as Paul puts it?
I recently heard a pastor exhort Christians to not “underestimate how serious Paul was when it comes to the offensiveness of the cross.” We need to hammer this point home as preachers. Don’t back down from cultural pressure to dilute the offense of the Christian gospel. Interestingly, I also heard a different pastor say that was the most they’d been “yelled” at in a long time.
And so I've been reflecting: what is the offense of the cross?
There are a few spots that the apostle Paul talks about the offense or foolishness of the cross:
Gal. 5:11: “Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.”Is the offense the cross itself? Is the offense that God, in Jesus, took unto himself the sins of the world, enduring a brutal death? Is Paul’s intention - writing to a group of squabbling Christians, let’s remember - to emphasize just how vicarious Jesus’ physical death was?
1 Cor. 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
1 Cor 1:23: “But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
While no doubt offensive - God dying!?! - I’m not sure the details of Jesus physical death is the main offense. Sorry Mel Gibson. For Paul, a major component to the offense is actually the effect of the cross: uniting all people under God. The cross is foolishness in its claim of inclusion in a divided world. All sinners can be saved. Not just Jews. Not just Greeks. Not just individuals. Not just me... (Gal. 3:28)
We know Paul wrote to Christians who weren’t getting along. There was disunity that ran contrary to their beliefs and commitment to Jesus. Jewish Christians were excluding non-Jewish Christians (Gentiles). If Paul had agreed with these divisions (ie. circumcision of all men) people wouldn’t have been mad at him. There would be no offense in the cross if it didn’t challenge people’s concept of in and out, belonging and exclusion.
In a world as divided as ours and in a Christian faith as divided as ours, perhaps we need more of the “offense of the cross.” Let’s just be sure we get the right offensiveness, declaring and reflecting the “foolishness” of God’s love revealed in the cross.