The hymn we just sang as the hymn of the day, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” was written by a young Englishman by the name of John Bowring who eventually, toward the end of his life, became Governor of Hong Kong. As the story goes, Bowring was moved to write the words to the hymn upon seeing the bronze cross that sits atop the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Macau, China, when he was just 33. The Cathedral of St. Paul in the Portuguese territory of Macau, once the largest church in all of Asia, was damaged by a typhoon in 1835 and all but the façade and its large bronze cross burned to the ground. The intricate carvings on the stone façade were fashioned by Japanese Christians in exile in Macau, and bones of other Japanese martyrs have been discovered in the crypt. One of the remaining uppermost carvings depicts Christ’s conquest of death. Never to be reconstructed, thanks to a decline in the Christian population due to the demise of colonialism, this façade now looms over the town of Macau, a mere shell of the glory and grandeur it once possessed. With that back story in mind, one can perhaps better appreciate Bowring’s opening lines:
“In the cross of Christ I glory, tow’ring o’er the wrecks of time.
All the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime.”
But, before we get too carried away, we must remember that people have not always gloried in the cross of Christ, nor have folks recognized that all sacred story gathers round its head, sublime, or otherwise. In fact, Paul tells his congregation in Corinth that the message of the cross is foolishness for those who don’t believe or understand it, like local pagan Gentiles and Jews. The Greek word for “foolishness” is where we get the word “moron.” In the eyes of non-believers, Paul says, only a moron would allow himself to be identified with Jesus’ crucifixion, and who would want to be associated with a moron God? For a world that has learned almost from its birth to measure strength in terms of the ability to inflict violence and injury, to assess intelligence in terms of the ability to outsmart the opponent, to award success to the brilliant and the beautiful, Jesus’ death on the cross makes absolutely no sense at all. And if God’s ways have their culmination around this event, much like a bronze cross adorns the pinnacle of a grand cathedral, then God himself runs the risk of making no sense at all. “Will the wise debater please stand up and take the mike?” Paul jokingly picks a fight. How about the one with all the fancy credentials behind your name…B.A. B.S., M.Div., why don’t you give this a whirl? Can any of you smartypants make heads or tails of this?” “I don’t think so,” Paul answers his own rhetorical question, because using human wisdom as the standard, God’s going to just look moronic.
Yet, even in that, God is wiser. And God, even at his weakest, at God’s sorriest, at the point of God’s most stinging defeat is still somehow capable of victory.
Paul is very direct with his style and language here, right off the bat, because, surprisingly, the Corinthians had begun to forget this plain fact. They shouldn’t have, given that, as Paul points out, none of them had gotten into the family of God with their smarts or their looks or their powerful connections. Yet they were apparently beginning to be enamored with things other than the gospel—things like social status and economic privilege and intellectual pedigree—and it was even creeping into the way they related to each other. Paul points out that if they weren’t careful, the Corinthians would run the risk of contradicting their own message of the cross. That is, allowing these external measurements of wisdom and wealth and status to creep in and infect their community and how they related to one another would necessarily infect their message, their proclamation about the Jesus. It’s not just that division and conflict would set in, but that they would begin to proclaim human wisdom and human power as the gospel, and that would be far inferior to God’s wisdom and power made known in the cross. What made that wisdom and power so life-saving, so world transforming was that it was built on weakness.
I always hesitate to make a reference to a movie for a sermon illustration because these days there are fewer and fewer movies that everyone has seen, but there is a clip from the 2006 film “We Are Marshall” which has stuck so clearly in my head that I can’t help but share it. The movie “We Are Marshall” tells the true story of the athletic department of and the community around Marshall University following the horrific plane crash in November of 1970 that all but wiped out the football team, the coaching staff and key alumni.
The plot centers on the university’s reluctant decision to rebuild the team from nothing and the obstacles they face in a struggling town whose main pride is linked to the fortunes of the football team. When they win, times are great. When they lose, people grow restless and depressed. From the start, the new coach brought in for the task, Jack Lengyel, played in the movie by Matthew McConaughey, faces an uphill climb in his attempt to form a team with no scholarship players. His most formidable criticism, however, comes from his own assistant coach, Red Dawson, played by Matthew Fox, who is embarrassed and mortified at the weekly trouncings the new Marshall team is taking. Red, who was not on the plane that went down, is convinced that continuing to play, even though they are by far the weakest team in the conference and therefore completely unable to win—much less score on a regular basis—is a desecration of the dead players’ memories and of the former head coach’s philosophy, which was “winning is everything.”
At the turning point in the movie, Coach Red has abandoned the team, humiliated by the team’s loss and convinced that Coach Lengyel is doing the wrong thing by continuing to field the team. One night, Coach Lengyel tracks down Red on campus to talk him back into returning. In a moving scene, Coach Lengyel concurs that for sports teams, winning is important, if not primary. But in the circumstances of Marshall’s situation, he explains, he has realized that winning looks altogether different. Rather than defining winning by the tally on the scoreboard at the end of the game, Coach Lengyel suggests that their team wins just by stepping onto the field, in a way, by acknowledging their weakness. For their situation, embracing the team’s obvious weakness will be victory, in and of itself.
The setting for this conversation between the coaches is what makes the scene totally effective: they are sitting together in what appears to be the university chapel. And, as their talk draws to a close and Coach Lengyel has said all he can about redefining the concept of winning and he gets up to leave Coach Red in prayer, the camera pans out over their shoulder to focus on the wall behind the altar where there hangs, plain as can be, a cross.
I’ve been meaning to look up to see if that cinematographer was Lutheran, because the message of grace is so blatantly clear. Winning does look different now. Not necessarily in football…but in a life lived by the message of the cross. When we take to heart the message that victory is won when Jesus fully embraces his weakness—our human weakness—and dies on the cross, then all our attempts to appear powerful or clever or connected really fall flat. “Where is the debater of this age? Where is the one who is wise? Could someone take the microphone and give it a go?” Paul’s old questions ring out, but we know the answer.
My sense is that the world still hasn’t quite made sense of the cross, present preacher included. It’s not like two thousand years later we’ve suddenly realized what the Corinthians hadn’t. We try to talk down the importance of the message of the cross, thinking there surely might be other reasons we should hang out together: it’s a great place to network, it’s a social club; it’s entertainment. We clutter the route behind Jesus’ footsteps with all kinds of gimmicks and programs that we think will help the community of Jesus win in the surrounding culture but in the end which do little but hide the fact that we all stand in need of this grace. We set up all kinds of ways to impress each other, and, we hope, in the process, God. We forget that because God won victory in handing over his Son to weakness and brokenness, the way of that victory involves simply stepping on the field of life, in all our human weakness, and letting the power of the resurrection have its way there, too. Most of all, we neglect to consider our own calls, that no matter who we think we are, we all started—perhaps even kicking and screaming like I’ve heard I did—in the same wet marble basin, with the same words, “you’ve been marked with this cross of Christ…forever.”
In the end, that will be the cross that towers over the wrecks of time, gathering the light of sacred story. Not a bronze cross that adorns a fallen cathedral, no matter how shiny…not even a bigger wooden cross that towers over the end of Monument Avenue, but the cross that marks the lives of the people who have been chosen purely for their losing status. The people who broadcast, primarily through their own weakness and lack of wisdom, that God has won. It is an odd way of winning, perhaps. It has been called foolish before. But God is victorious, indeed.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.