We all do theology, whether we like to believe it or not, and it shapes how we behave and what we do. It shapes how we pray, worship, witness, read the Bible and much more besides, often in unconscious ways. Theology, concentrated and disciplined thinking about God and all things in relation to God, matters.
So what are we doing talking about Paul's theology of the cross? Surely a potentially abstract and dangerously divisive subject if ever there was one! Why? Because the cross happened way in the past and so might not obviously impinge directly on what we do today, and because Christians have long fought against other Christians over how to best understand what happened on the cross.
I think we might be in for a few surprises, because Paul models a kind of theology that brings together in-depth theology and our lives. On reading Paul's letters, you can't get far before stumbling into some pretty dense theology. But it is theology rooted in communal relationships, landing on the runway of life. It wasn't delivered with the humourless glare of one about to cause church division. It wasn't merely abstract, 'over there', an interesting mental construct that might have more to do with floating in the air than practical Christian discipleship, such as prayer for those in authority (1 Timothy 2:2) or giving (2 Corinthians 8:1-15).
In fact, ask yourself this before reading any further: if you had to write a sermon for a church experiencing division, what would be your first port of call, theologically speaking? What are the first things you would talk about? We will come back to this question when we observe Paul's answer to that in 1 Corinthians. But before we get there, we need to back up, look at the kind of theology Paul developed about the cross more generally, and we really should allow ourselves to get pleasantly surprised.
The cross is our story
The cross is, for Paul – and this is vital – the structure of reality, the story we inhabit right now. It is our story, our cross. This is why Paul could write to the Galatians, stating 'may I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world' (6:14, NB all citations are NRSV), and 'I have been crucified with Christ' (2:19). To the Romans he wrote that 'all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death' (6:3), that 'our old self was crucified with him' (6:6) and that 'you have died to the law through the body of Christ' (7:4). To the Corinthians he wrote: 'we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died' (2 Corinthians 5:14). And to the Colossians he wrote that 'with Christ' they have died to the 'basic elements of the world' (2:20).
Put differently: we exist in the time of Jesus. His time is our time. And just as his crucifixion is our cross, this means, thanks be to God, that the time of his resurrection is also our resurrection.
At the heart of Paul's letters – and at the heart of what is happening on the cross – is that God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead. But just as with the crucifixion of Jesus, his resurrection is not merely something that happened in the past and 'over there'. The resurrection is not merely an important theological fact to hold in our heads so we can now tick the heavenly 'correct beliefs' box. Rather, Paul writes to the Corinthians that the 'one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus' (2 Corinthians 4:14). Or again in Colossians Paul explains that 'you were also raised with him', and to the Roman churches he writes 'if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his' (6:5).
And here's where things go into full-scale mind-warp: the focus of the good news for Paul is that we have been raised in the past because Christ was raised in the past. 'You were also raised with him'. Yet, our resurrection is nevertheless still in our future, so our future is in some sense in the past... have fun figuring that one out! Put more simply: the story of Jesus, his cross and resurrection, is our own story.
Paul's cheerful theology of the cross: lovingly liberated
Let's focus in a little more on the cross itself, to understand what it signifies. And imagine with me a harrowing situation, if you will: you've been carted off by slave owners who haven't washed their armpits in decades. You've lost your ability to do what you want. They smell. And your captors are professionals, so there is no way you can escape. Things look bleak – and smell like fermented primary school plimsoles. This is, essentially, Paul's understanding of the human condition. We don't merely 'do sins', though that too. Worse: we are enslaved by evil powers and there is nothing we can do about it (Romans 8:7-8). For Paul, all things are imprisoned under the power of sin (Galatians 3:22).
But God, out of an unconditional love grounded in nothing but his own grace and kindness, sends Jesus 'in the likeness of human flesh' (Romans 8:3; Philippians 2:7). God made him sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), which is to say that Jesus Christ identified with us in our human condition, became what we are. And just as Adam represents imprisoned humanity, the last Adam, God's own Son, represents all humanity too (1 Corinthians 15:45; Romans 5: 14-21). So when Jesus died on the cross, and this is important, that sin-enslaved existence was killed with him. 'One has died for all; therefore all have died', as we saw Paul wrote. And 'the death Christ died, he died to sin, once for all' (Romans 6:10).
But this is the miracle of grace, for God raised Jesus from the dead. And God himself puts us into the story of Jesus, by his Spirit. God lovingly makes the resurrection of Jesus our own. We are found 'in Christ' – one of Paul's favourite phrases, if you've noticed. And being in Christ means that we become a part of that new existence, which is set free from all the evil powers that had enslaved our human condition before. In Christ we are a 'new creation' (2 Corinthians 5:17), set free from sin (Romans 6:18) and from 'the present evil age' (Galatians 1:3).
This, in a nutshell, is the meaning of the cross for Paul, why it works. Because humans are utterly unable to help themselves, God in Christ acts on behalf of those who deserve nothing. So Paul writes: 'God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us' (Romans 5:8). Where no moral self-help courses could do the job, no unconscious bias retraining, no mindfulness, no exercise regime, no positive thinking – none of that could set a person free from sin any more than a prisoner could cut away chains of iron with plastic scissors. But in Christ, through his death and resurrection, we die with him and are raised to a life set free!
The world of Corinth turned on its head
Let's now go back to the question I posed at the beginning, about what you would say in a sermon to a divided church. I ask students this every year and I hear a variety of answers ranging from 'promote discussion' to 'emphasise what you have in common'. But not once has a student hit on Paul's first answer. To encourage unity, Paul talks about these and other things, too, but in writing to the divided church in Corinth, the first thing Paul talks about in light of their division is... *drum roll* ...you're going to have to wait another paragraph, sorry.
Because these Corinthian Christians – perhaps just 100 or so – were on bad terms, divided over which celebrity preacher they followed (1 Corinthians 1-4), whether they were intellectually 'in the know' or not (8), whether they were rich or poor (11) and over what gifts of the Spirit they exercised (12-14). But Paul saw that the root of many of these divisions was a hierarchy of status, or a pecking order, which dominated their imaginations. It was part of something scholars describe as the honour-shame culture of the Mediterranean world at the time of Paul, and it essentially meant that many were trying to improve their status in the eyes of others, getting all snooty over those of 'low esteem'. They were obsessed with worldly prominence, getting worked up over the celebrities of their day. (So, completely unlike our world of course...)
And Paul's response to all of this, in 1 Corinthians, wasn't first that they should be humble, or repent of a particular issue. It is actually rather surprising: the first thing Paul speaks about, in 1:17 and following, is... *drum roll* ...the cross.
How does this make sense? My students don't hit on this because they expect the cross to be about an abstract doctrine. But as we have seen, the cross for Paul is about the structure of reality. The cross was the most degrading and dishonourable thing that could happen to anyone, and here is the scandal. Hanging upon the cross, the place of least honour, was the Lord of glory himself(2:8). The cross is where God shows what he is like and how he acts (2:7-16). And right there hung the one who is the celebrity par excellence.
Imagine Queen Elizabeth II, for example, not only daily cleaning prison toilets, but claiming that doing this is what royalty looks like. This is Paul's message of the cross: 'foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God' (1:18). That honour grabbing, big-name focused X-Factor Love Island preacher celebrity culture, that the Corinthian Christians had embraced, is turned upside down by the message of the cross. In the cross the world is crucified to them and they to the world. They just don't realise it yet.
And the good news is that just as these Corinthians exist in the cross of Christ, they also exist in the new creation, one set free from all those honour-shame divisions. The cross, in other words, was all about unity, all about bringing Christians together in a new reality by crucifying the world that divided them.
The cross opens up a new life together, where the 'less respectable members are treated with greater respect' (12:23), and where mutual love reigns (13). The cross isn't a divisive and abstract doctrine, for Paul, exactly the opposite. It is the story we inhabit, and one which shows, above all, what the kindness of God looks like, creating a world in which unity-in-our-differences is the mother-tongue. Such is Paul's beautiful theology of the cross.
Dr Chris Tilling is a graduate tutor and senior lecturer in New Testament Studies at St Mellitus College.
This article first appeared in Preach Magazine and is used with permission.