Cross Purposes: Why Did Jesus Die?
II. The Victory

1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 2: 6

Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 6th March 2005

© Reverend Kenneth E. Kovacs
Catonsville Presbyterian Church
Catonsville,  Maryland

On Easter morning churches are full of Christians singing hymns of triumph and glory.  “Alleluias” fill our sanctuary, the “empty cross stands empty to the sky,” as one hymn says.[1]  There are no hymns in minor keys.  I remember singing in my home church the Easter hymn, “Up From the Grave He Arose.”  The refrain goes, with its triumphalist tune:  

“Up from the grave he arose with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;
he arose a victor from the dark domain
and he lives forever with his saints to reign.
He arose!  He arose!  Hallelujah! Christ arose.”[2]

These words written in the nineteenth century by the Baptist minister, Robert Lowry (1816-1899) beautifully highlight one of the prevailing metaphors the early church used to describe the cross and the empty tomb:  Christ the Victor.   In a seminal theological text written in 1931, the Swedish theologian Gustaf Aulén (1979-1978) argued that it was this metaphor of Christus Victor, “Christ the Victor” which should be understood as the “classic” view of atonement, a view that prevailed in the early church right through to the Middle Ages when Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) proposed a different metaphor (which we’ll look at next week).[3]  Even though Anselm’s perspective has held sway in the church for the last one thousand years (some would say to our detriment), many contemporary theologians have called for a return to the “classic” view, to a reconsideration of Aulén’s text. (When I was in Princeton two weeks ago, I noticed that this text was assigned for a current course on the atonement.) 

This morning, in this second sermon in a series exploring the meaning of the cross, I want to focus not on Anselm or Aulén, but upon the classic view of the cross – what does it mean to say that Christ is Victor?  Over what? Over whom?  Victor for what?  For whom?  To raise these questions moves us to the core of the gospel.  We find answers in this significant portion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthian congregation, where Paul shares his understanding of the “word of the cross (1:18).”  We often think about what the cross accomplishes, we speak of the work of the cross, that it achieves something.  But we also need to pay attention to the message of the cross, what the cross has to say to us.  If we think of the cross as a sermon, what is it preaching?

First, to what the cross accomplishes.  Paul reminds his people, when he arrived “proclaiming the testimony of God,” the center of his message was Jesus Christ – and him crucified.  “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus – and him crucified (2: 2).”

Now, in order for us really to hear Paul, we have to set aside some assumptions of life in 2005. (This is extremely important – so stay with me.)  We have to take on Paul’s worldview (which is not easy to do).   Paul (and other writers in the New Testament) believed that their lives, their society, the entire cosmos, the world were all held in bondage, that is they are enslaved by what he calls in various places “principalities and powers,”  or “thrones and dominions,” which he says,  rule this “present age (Galatians 1:4).”  These forces, these powers are fallen powers in that they hinder and usurp God’s intentions for people and societies and the cosmos.  This is extremely important! – They are not entities that have an existence apart from God; they were created by God but became corrupt because they misaligned themselves from God’s purpose for the creation.  Again, this is extremely important: Contrary to what you might hear today, it is Biblically incorrect to speak of evil as a power that has any chance of winning over God.  You might hear lots of talk today about good vs. evil, but you will not find such dualistic language in scripture.  And neither is it Biblically correct to talk about evil being conquered and eradicated through human efforts.[4]  That is because the most powerful force that distorts even our best intentions on our best days is the power of sin.  Note how “sin” is used in the singular as a force, not “sins” in the plural as individual ‘acts’ of transgression, acts of commission or omission.  For Paul, sin is related to death as a force that seeks to destroy God’s purposes for humanity and the world – and God’s intent for both is that humanity live and thrive in a world that is being redeemed.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26).  Therefore in order for life to be preserved these wayward powers that enslave and hinder humanity and the world need to be destroyed – or more correctly, they need to be redeemed, triumphed over but also redeemed, the redemption of the powers.  Instead of talking about defeating evil, what would the redemption of evil look like?  Evil, death, sin all need to be redeemed.

How is this accomplished?  The Bible tells us that God prefers to act from within instead of from without.  The Greeks believed that the gods were ‘up there’ and far away, observing from on high the life of mortals.  Yahweh prefers to act from within, from within the creation.  Yahweh wants to get down and dirty with us, play around in the muck and dirt and fleshliness of human life, to dwell with us, to suffer with us, to stand with us, to save and to liberate us.  Yahweh wants to do all of this not from a distance, but from within humanity itself.  So God sends the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world, the whole world, the whole cosmos might be saved through him (John 3: 16 and17!).

That’s what Jesus does throughout his life, but most specifically on the cross:  he engages the powers, including sin and death.  He takes on sin without being sinful (that is, without using sin’s desire to destroy and separate); he takes on sin in that he absorbs sin into his being, so that whereas before it was a force that could be the undoing of humanity, it now is no hindrance.  And he takes on death.  The last enemy is death – but death is more than just biological death.  Death is physical and personal obliteration, it is the void at the center of the universe that we spend so much time and energy denying it is there – but it is there.  It is nothingness and it is no-thing.  This is a force shaping us, where we might say we’re “hell bent on self-destruction,” that wants to see all things move to nothing.[5]  We are creatures who are, as philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) put so well, “Sein-zum-tode.”  “Being toward death.”  But Jesus undoes death by entering into the very force that seeks his destruction.  He absorbs the power of death into his being and reverses its hold over him.  Whereas before it was a force bent on destruction, death now finds itself liberated by the One who takes it on.  So that we might say the person who has Christ within is not a “Being toward death,” but a Being toward life! 

In this view Christ is the victor over the forces that seek to destroy life.  Colossians 2:15 says, “having put off from himself the principalities and the powers, he made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in [the cross].”  We will be hard-pressed to find in this view any discussion of sacrifice, no mention of sacrificial lambs, of “Christ dying for my sins (and only my sins).”  We won’t hear (at least here in Paul) any notion of Christ dying instead of us, in our place, because we deserve to die.  From beginning to end it is all about God and what God chose to do in God’s freedom for us and for the world.  2 Corinthians 5: 17 says it best, “For God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”  This is what Christ accomplished on the cross.

But Paul goes further.  The cross is an event, but it is never stuck in the past.  It accomplished something and we live in its effects.  But the cross continues to communicate something.  There is a “word of the cross,” a message that points to the victory of God, a “that-ness.”  In the cross, Paul tells us, we see the power of God that achieved this victory.  But what is the real nature of this victory?  Here the message of the cross continues to cry out across the ages, a message – truth be told – the church and the Christian world have often neglected or doesn’t want to hear.

You see, there have been plenty of people who have become the victims of the church’s misunderstanding and misappropriation of power.  Around the time Martin Luther (1483-1546) was leading reform in Germany, Jacques Cartier (1441-1557) was sailing up the St. Lawrence and landed near a Mohawk village, which is now Montreal.  He made his way to the top of the small mountain there and planted a cross at the top of the summit, declaring, “All this land now belongs to the king of France.”[6]  The cross had become the symbol of the conqueror.  Or, when asked if he found the image of Jesus on the cross repugnant, Jewish author, Leon Wieseltier, said, no.  “But the sight of it does not warm my heart, either.  It is a symbol of a great faith and a great culture whose affiliation with power almost destroyed my family and my people.”[7] The question for us is how do we talk about the cross as victory without creating more victims?

Victory is a metaphor used by the church.  Most often associated with military victory in Paul’s day, but after his experience with Christ he needed a new vocabulary and the word needed to be redefined.  After seeing what Christ achieved through a cross and the offensive fact that God raised Jesus after a humiliating and shameful death (shameful because he was publicly naked), Paul had a transformation of meaning.  All that he thought about victory and triumph before were wrong.  As Colin Gunton (1944-2003) put it, “A real victory is the kind of thing that happens when Jesus goes to the cross.”[8]  With this insight Paul’s entire world is turned upside down.  Here the world as we understood it becomes undone and begins to collapse like a house of cards.  Any glorification in victory, especially through violence must be questioned.  For God in working through Jesus puts the crucified one before us as the very definition of victory, of triumph.  In the cross all the values of the world are reversed – true strength, power, and triumph are somehow defined by this one who failed, who died, who was weak and powerless.  We learn that God works in a different way.  What appears to be folly is wisdom.  God chose the foolish way to humble the wise.  God intentionally chose to become weak in order to expose the false-confidence of the strong.  God chose the low, the despised – remember, in the eyes of the world a nobody on a Roman cross executed between two thieves on a garbage dump outside the city walls – God chose that place and person to be the locus of revelation, the place where we discover who God is and discern God’s preferred way of being in the world.  That’s the way God operated then, and that’s the way God operates now.  If that is what God’s definition of victory looks like, then this really messes up the way we look at the world. 

Paul says to the Corinthian church that’s how God is acting through you.  If Paul was like the other philosophers and teachers he would have been paid handsomely, would have associated with the powerful and influential and those with status.[9]  But that’s not the way of the crucified.  Paul went to those on the edge of society, the working class and the slaves.  He chose “downward mobility” as the way of Christ.  If you looked at the church membership roles in Corinth you wouldn’t find people of noble birth, people of influence, people of money, but the poor, social misfits, those on the edge, those whom the world calls fools or odd.  This was true in all of Paul’s congregations because he believed the cross bisects all those layers of society and tells us that power, true power is a cross through which nobodies become somebodies.[10]  All of Paul’s churches transcended the divisions found in Roman society – gender, class, and racial differences.  Paul preferred to work with the weak because the power of God was shown through the one who in the eyes of the world became weak.  Mike Gorman said it well in his book on Paul, “Inferiority, graced by God in Christ, becomes power.”[11]

If this is God’s understanding of victory and triumph and power, no wonder people were scandalized by it then and are offended by it today.  Are you?  If you are, well maybe you can take comfort with these words from Jesus (or then again, maybe not).  Jesus said, remember:  “Blessed – that is, exceedingly glad – is the one who takes no offense with me (Luke 7:23).”

[1] “Christ is Alive!” written by Brian Wren, 1968.  The Presbyterian Hymnal:  Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs (Louisville, KY:  Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1990).

[2] This hymn ‘came’ to Lowry in 1862 while having his daily devotions during the Easter season.

[3] See Gustaf Aulén, Christus Victor:  An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of the Atonement (London:  Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, 1934).

[4] In scripture, evil is not treated as an “eternal principle opposed to good,” as found in Zoroastrianism and Manicheanism.  “…in the scriptural view evil has not an eternal existence.”  Aulén, pp. 20-22n.

[5] For a discussion of the void, see James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs, CO:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), pp. 80-85.  Loder’s understanding is shaped by Martin Heidegger’s monumental work, Being and Time (1927).

[6] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context:  Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 36.

[7] Cited in Hall, 80.

[8] Colin Gunton, The Actuality of Atonement:  A Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (London:  T & T Clark, 1988), p. 79.

[9] Michael J. Gorman, Crucifomity:  Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdmans, 2001), p. 190.

[10] Gorman, p. 300.

[11]Gorman, p. 300.