Stumbling to Faithfulness to the Cross: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent

The oldest image of the crucifixion of Jesus is not one of worship or honor or veneration but rather one of scorn shame and derision it’s a small piece of graffiti, crudely scratched into a wall of an imperial school for slaves near the center of ancient Rome dating around the year 200. It depicts a man worshiping a figure on the cross and bears the roughly carved inscription Alexamenos worships his god.

The problem though is the man on the cross? He’s not a normal-looking man. Instead, he has the head of a donkey an animal that to Romans communicated, lowliness stupidity even.

In other words, the first image of our lords crucifixion is the equivalent of a mean-spirited schoolyard taunt, like an adolescent, putting up posters insulting one of the unpopular kids in class.

It’s a striking, even upsetting image. But what was intended as a blasphemous insult, in an odd sort of way, actually gets the message of the cross better than some of our more artistic or holy depictions of the death of Jesus.

The message of the cross is foolish, Saint Paul writes today. It’s a stumbling block to some, simple minded folly to others.

At first glance, the cross seems like the failure of Christ, not the triumph of God. It shows a God, who is weak, not strong, who dies at the hand of the powerful rather than vanquishing one’s enemies, who suffers torture and humiliation instead of smiting evildoers where they stand.

Everything about the cross seemed to go against everything everyone ever assumed not just about God, but about any god ever. 

To the ancients, the Crucifixion of God would have been more unbelievable, more scandalous, more earth-shattering than the Resurrection. 

Sure, as Christians, we are people of the resurrection. 

But without the cross, the resurrection isn’t just meaningless. It doesn’t exist. The cross stands at the center of the confession of the faith. Much as we might like to sidestep it, take it down and only have the resurrection, we don’t get to Easter without Good Friday.

Resurrection doesn’t cancel out the cross. 

We have to wrestle with it.

Even the early Christians seemed to struggle with it. Even after the resurrection, even after the gift of the Holy Spirit, even after all that, they still had to make sense of the cross and a God who would die on it.

And the cross wasn’t the symbol for them that it has become for us. For early Christians, the idea that we would hang a crucifixion scene in our worship area probably would have been horrifying. The crucifixion was absolutely not part of the imagery of early Christians at all. It would take a Roman emperor named Constantine adopting the faith in the fourth century and misusing the cross for militaristic conquest to finally normalize it as an image. Unfortunately, in doing so, he completely undercut its entire meaning. Constantine had a vision of the cross in battle and saw the words “under this sign, conquer” next to it, and began to use the cross as a military banner and image on soldiers shields.

And which is more blasphemous? Constantine’s use of the cross to make war and conquer in the year 300 or the crude graffiti scratched into a Roman wall 100 years earlier depicting the perceived foolishness of Christ crucified?

Which actually comes closer to the reality of the cross and a Savior who choose it as the means of salvation rather than drawing a sword and conquering the world like everyone, including his own disciples, wanted him to.

Sometimes I wonder if our familiarity with the cross has robbed us of just how much of a scandal it was. Forget about the theological meaning of it for moment and consider the sheer fact of it. 

No one in their right mind in the first and second centuries of Christianity would have sung about how they cling to the old rugged cross or about the call to lift high the cross … just like few of us would feel comfortable singing about clinging and lifting up our own methods of executing criminals. 

 Can you imagine singing about clinging to the old rusty electric chair? Or lift high the lethal injection needle?

No of course not. 

It would be utter foolishness to do so and a stumbling block to others.

And yet we proclaim Christ crucified. 

Christ executed. 

Because to those of us who are being saved by it, the cross is somehow the power of God. 

How exactly that salvation happens in the cross, of course, has occupied Christians and theologians ever since. Theologian after theologian have tried to come up with all manner of detailed mechanics about what exactly happened on the cross for it to bring about salvation. Christ defeated the power of sin and death, some suggest. Christ paid the debt of our sins, others argue. Christ was punished for our sins, still others insist. Christ was the ransom to Satan for our souls, some argue. We’ve come up with fancy academic names for them. Christus Victor. Moral Exemplar. Ransom. Substitutionary Atonement. And more. 

To parse an unfathomable mystery and inexplicable grace is the nature of human wisdom.

But of course, God destroys the wisdom of the wise. Because the cross is all those things and so much more.

Sometimes I think all the theological navel-gazing about the cross just our fancy version of graffiti, our own Roman shield intended to draw our gaze away from the crucifixion so that we only look at the horror, the scandal, and the foolishness of the cross out of the corners of our eyes. 

Rather than embrace what it is—the revelation of the wounded heart of God and that we wounded it. 

When God in Christ was most vulnerable, most in pain, suffering excruciatingly, dying powerless, naked, and humiliated, executed as a failed savior and insurrectionist criminal, that is when the true nature of God and God’s power was finally revealed … when power was made perfect in weakness and we finally witnessed the majesty of the holy weakness of God.

And perhaps that is why so many on the margins were attracted to Christianity in its early days. 

 Because they had finally heard of a God who could understand their lives, who knew what it was like to be abused, rejected, humiliated, scorned, derided, and despised. Indeed, it likely describes what Alexamenos’ life was like, who not only is being mocked in the graffiti, but is depicted in the garb of a slave.

Maybe it’s the reason why one of Christianity’s early critics, a Roman philosopher named Celsus, accused the faith around the year 200, of only being able to convince “the idle, the low born, the senseless, the slaves, and little children” to join the faith.

But to Paul, that is exactly the point. Not many of you were wise by human standards,” he writes, “Not many were powerful or noble. But God chose what is foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, the low and the despised to reduce to nothing the honored things of the world.”

Because, in the cross, God has drawn our eyes permanently to the least, the lost, and the worst, both in the world and in ourselves. 

To see the cross is to travel to the places in your own soul where you feel weak, foolish, despised, lowly, lost, forgotten, ignored, those places we have to hide from polite society, those things that make you feel like you’ve got the head of a donkey, to go there because that is precisely where the Crucified Christ waits for us, not with shame, not with condemnation, but with healing for what is broken in you, with companionship for what alienates you, with love and grace for what you loathe and hate about yourself. 

To see the cross is see the crucifixions that continue to unfold in our world and to know that the cross really hasn’t gone away. It’s just transformed. 

To proclaim Christ crucified and its saving power is to pledge our solidarity with and our unwillingness to look away from all the wounded and crucified places and people in this world.

When we encounter the cross in this way, we find salvation. We find strength stronger than our own in God’s weakness and wisdom wiser than our own in God’s foolishness.

It’s not easy work, but it is faithful and it is the way the faithful have walked for generations.

A few rooms over from the first known depiction of the crucifixion, in which Alexamenos is mocked for worshipping his foolish and weak, donkey-headed crucified God is another graffiti scratched into the wall. 

It’s not as well-known, but it’s just as important, if not more so.

It reads, “Alexamenos fidelis.”

Alexamenos is faithful.

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