In our New Testament reading for today, Paul is talking about the wisdom of God. It’s one of Paul’s homerun passages: the classic paradox of God choosing the weak and despised things of the world as the vehicles of wisdom. Throughout these beginning chapters of 1st Corinthians, he contrasts the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God: eloquence, social standing, and fancy philosophies are contrasted with weak and implausible words, homelessness, and foolishness. The wisdom of God, Paul argues, is not something that is couched in eloquent arguments or exhibited through material successes. The wisdom of God is blunt and astonishing: “I resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ,” Paul says, “and him crucified.” According to this, the wisdom of God is a person. And not just any person, but a person who has been crucified. The wisdom of God is the crucified Christ.
There is a question here. Why is the wisdom of God the crucified Christ, and not simply Christ, in and of himself? Or why isn’t it the Christ who was resurrected? Why focus on the crucified as the specific marker of the wisdom of God? What is it about crucifixion that tells us something about the gospel?
Human societies have always used specific social rituals of death as a way to defend the borders of our mental and physical worlds. This is why criminals used to be hung at the crossroads, to discourage other people from imitating their crimes; it’s why heretics were burned at the stake, so that the church could maintain its cultural and spiritual purity. These people’s bodies were turned into public spectacles of death that reinforced something essential about the social order—the community would gather to watch them as their bodies became public symbols of the triumph of order over disorder. The community gathered around them in a moment of perverse exaltation, and then erased them from public memory—they were buried outside of church cemeteries, or sometimes not buried at all. Normal life resumed; social expectations remained clear.
This is the type of death that crucifixion was. It was a spectacle for social control. It was a shameful event, the kind that people didn’t like to openly talk about. Usually when someone was crucified they were thrown into a ditch rather than buried in a tomb; this lack of a formal burial cemented their lack of personhood. Their bodies were erased from society and discarded; despised and rejected by men; cut off from the land of the living.
I grew up in an evangelical culture where the crucifixion was fetishized as a purely spiritual concept. We sang about being washed in the blood of Jesus and talked about picking up our crosses without ever thinking about the social offensiveness of a criminal death. In retrospect it feels like there was a thick glass between my spiritual obsession with words like blood and nails, and the cruel reality of a human being who was shamefully killed. I wonder now if this is actually the same mental move that makes the death penalty a theoretical issue rather than a question of bodies. I wonder now if my mental distance from Jesus’s criminal death is the same mental distancing that produces questions like, “maybe he shouldn’t have been walking there,” or “maybe he should have crossed legally,” or “maybe he should have thought about that before he decided to put his hands in his pockets”—all lines of thinking that deflect from the larger question about who we have the right to kill, and why. I remember how this distance began to close for me when I first heard of Jesus being identified with a lynched black man: Jesus as the person whose name had to be whispered; his death as an event that was dangerous to bring up or have open conversations about. This picture of Jesus taught me that death has a function in modern society too, and it is offensive when this function is questioned or disturbed. We are implicitly taught that to defend these bodies, to protest their deaths, is to attack the fabric of society: our own security, the meaning of citizenship, our cultural heritage. We are taught that these deaths serve an important function: to draw a border around the ideal human being, an ideal human being who is always determined by the state.
It is important, then, that Paul preaches Christ crucified. It is important that the lamb on the throne in Revelation is a lamb who has been slain. Because this tells us who Jesus is: one of those people who is supposed to be erased and excluded. He’s one of those people whose deaths we are not supposed to question, and the fact that he wears this death on his resurrected body is an affront to the social order that prescribed it. Maybe this is why Paul uses the language of offensiveness to describe Jesus’s relationship to the social order: he calls the crucified Christ a stumbling block to both Greek and Jewish cultures—an object of scandal that draws into question our wisdoms, our values, and the ways that we structure our societies. The wisdom of God is something that is supposed to trip us up, because it is organized around a crucified body that was not supposed to be resurrected or remembered. Our story of coming to Jesus, then, of drawing near to the stumbling block that is Christ, is the story of us learning to see the wisdom of God in what is foolish and weak, lowly and despised. It is the story of an illicit touch—of us learning to neglect the social boundaries of who we’re supposed to interact with, of having porous borders that are open to social contamination. It’s the story of us reconfiguring our understanding of where God is in our societies, and which bodies God can inhabit. Because in order for us to encounter this wisdom, in order to stop tripping over the gospel, we have had to see Christ in the face of the one who was murdered.
I wonder if this is what we call conversion. Because there is transformative power in the contaminating touch, a power that frees us. Think of Thomas, putting his hand in the intimate wounds of Jesus, or of the woman who had been bleeding for seven years, whose impure touch caused Jesus to stop in the middle of a crowded road to figure out what had happened. This woman was ritually impure—she was not supposed to be touching Jesus—but by preying on the lines of what was appropriate and by pushing on the boundaries that generated social cohesion, she was healed. Our laws of purity are different these days, but they are still around. We still have a pretty good idea of where we are supposed to live, and walk, and with whom. This is what Catherine noted last week in response to Isaac’s sermon: she recognized that in many ways our neighborhoods are already socially engineered, and already full of invisible boundaries. Our American way of life is designed to insulate us from certain neighborhoods and to control our encounters with certain people. We are born into a system that separates us into categories, often without our knowledge or any expenditure of our energy.
Yet our identities as Christians have been redefined by the wisdom of God—we have drawn near to the offensive one, to the crucified Christ, and we have been transformed by him. We have been converted. Our primary defining relationship with the one who was crucified has reconfigured our relationship to all things—we find Christ in what makes the world stumble over its own feet. I am reminded of Lars’ sermon on C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, when he told the story of the unlikely friendship between an African American woman and a former leader of the KKK. It was only when Ann and C.P. drew near to the offensive that they could be transformed—the stumbling block that tripped them was the Christ who wanted to transform them. And isn’t this image of the stone that makes us stumble even more true of the people who scare us today, The people whose bodies we want most to label as criminal? What is more of a stumbling block for today’s church than the body of a Muslim? But because we serve the crucified Christ, the stumbling block, we operate with a different set of standards than the political system—than any political system. We are no longer bound to choose our neighbors based on social status, or citizenship, or even risk potential. And that is probably foolish. It is certainly a stumbling block for those people who need to protect their borders, often for the sake of their own power. I know that this has also been a stumbling block for me.
But it seems that this is where we find Jesus: on that border, where the needs of power produce death. This, then, is also where the church will find itself, when it is walking after Jesus: it will also be a stumbling block, getting tangled in the feet of those who use criminality and death in order to maintain power. The church will also open itself to contamination to the touch of unclean things, reaching out to both the Pharisee and tax collector, to both the fisherman and diseased women, in order to come as close as possible to the offensive, crucified, Christ.