"For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel - not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." (1 Corinthians 1:17-18)
The message of the cross seems to be one of weakness and foolishness. There is wisdom in the cross, but not the kind of wisdom the Greeks were looking for. There is power in the cross, but not the kind of power the Jews were looking for.
Paul resolved to know nothing while he was with the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Not, as we might expect, 'Jesus Christ and him glorified,' although glorification was clearly part of Paul's message.
What was Paul doing while he was with the Corinthians?
Paul was living the gospel - demonstrating the cross in his life. Paul was weak and unimpressive, they said. But look at what this weak and unimpressive person achieved!
Paul was evangelising the Corinthians. Spreading the gospel. We have a strange idea about evangelism...
Some people talk about 'the offence of the gospel' - but the people who talk about it hardly ever understand it. They generally use the phrase because they find that when they attempt to spread the gospel, other people get hurt and offended. We need to consider the possibility when other people get hurt and offended that it might be because we are being crass and insensitive.
The 'offence of the gospel' is not some strange characteristic of the gospel message - or of evangelists - to offend people. It is the natural consequence of a message of weakness preached to those who look for power - power of the Arnold Swartznegger and Cruise Missile variety. It is the natural consequence of the message of foolishness preached to those who look for wisdom - wisdom of the sort that displays brilliant verbal dexterity in the law court to make the opponent look small and stupid.
The message of the cross meets our deepest needs. But it meets them in ways we don't expect - sometimes, in ways that appear to ignore those very needs.
Let us make this a little more concrete. For Jesus, the cross was a defeat. He came to usher in the Kingdom of God, and He died before it could happen. Now somebody is bound to say at this point: no Paul, you don't understand. Jesus had to die in order to defeat Satan and allow the Kingdom to be manifest in the lives of his followers. That is true, but it is not the point.
Did Moses fail? He brought the children of Israel our of Egypt, but he did not lead them into the promised land. He did not complete the job, even though he completed his part of it. He died with the job incomplete, trusting someone else to lead the children of Israel into the land of promise.
In human terms, Moses died a failure, the job incomplete. In human terms, Jesus died a failure, the job incomplete. Jesus had to die, trusting that His Father would raise Him up, and trusting that the Holy Spirit would baptise and transform His frightened and lost followers into a movement that would change the world.
Jesus accepted failure because the job was one that He could not do. It was impossible, unless God stepped in and did a whole series of totally unprecedented miracles.
Preaching the cross is foolish, because it is a message that people cannot understand and believe unless God steps into their lives and works a miracle. Of course, none of us really understand it. But deep down, there is a response that says it does make sense. Not at the level of cause and effect, not at the level of logic and reason, but at the level of our deepest humanity.
It is a bit like when Princess Dianna died. People brought flowers and laid them on the ground. It didn't make any logical sense. Most of them had never met her. It wouldn't help the grieving relatives. But we could understand why they did it. It was, somehow, a fitting tribute. We can know that without being able to work out why.
The cross works a bit like that. We can put forward all kinds of reasons to explain why Jesus had to die the way He did. We can say that He was suffering for our sins so that we would not have to bear that punishment. We can say that He was cut off from His Father so that we could be reunited with our Heavenly Father. We can say that He had to die so that we may live forever.
And all those explanations are true and important, but they do not begin to touch the depth of the reality of that one unique event, or to suggest the ways in which the cross continues to work in your life and mine.
The cross is a mystery we cannot comprehend, but we can embrace.
Your husband or wife, your parents and children, your friends, they are all mysteries. You do not understand yourself fully, and you most certainly do not understand them. But you can love them and embrace them. You can love and embrace them, even though you know they will hurt you dreadfully. You know that love is worth the pain, not because it has been demonstrated mathematically, but because deep down within you, you know this to be true.
So it is with the cross. There is no life without death, no resurrection without crucifixion.
How does it work? Like everything else: with revelation, with faith and with miracle.
Over and over again, we see these three things joined together, one after the other.
Revelation - it comes to us in many ways. Sometimes God speaks through the Bible, as we read it or hear it read and explained. Sometimes God speaks to us through other people, sometimes through events, and sometimes through visions, dreams and prophecies.
Faith is not believing that the miracle will happen, but acting in obedience to the revelation, whether or not the miracle will happen. Very often, it involves praying for God's will to be done even though we don't see how it possibly could.
The miracle is often not the one we expect. God surprises us. The wise men came to look for a King, they expected a royal baby in a palace, and instead they found a child of common people in an ordinary house.
Sometimes we know precisely the form of the miracle we need. Elijah needed fire and prayed for God to answer him. Perhaps he did not expect fire to fall from Heaven upon the sacrifice, but he knew he needed fire and trusted God to provide it. (1 Kings 18:37)
When we started the Building Committee, we did not know where the money was going to come from. We could not imagine raising the enormous sums required to provide the buildings we needed. But we planned in faith that the money would be found. And we worked hard, month after month, even though it often felt that we were getting nowhere. Faith is not some strange mystical thing, but a practical response to God's leading. We could not do what was needed, but we did what we could, and God confirmed His word by providing what was needed.
Evangelism is not persuading people to believe strange things about long dead people. Evangelism is about helping people to open their eyes to the mystery that surrounds them, helping them respond to what they recognise as true, even if they cannot put a name to it.
I like Lawrence Singlehurst. He is a wonderful guy, and has a great deal to teach us about evangelism. But there is one aspect of his material I am uncomfortable with: the image of the 30 ton gospel truck being driven across a 10 ton bridge.
This image tells me that the gospel message will break a relationship unless the relationship is very strong or I break up the message into small enough bits.
But what is this gospel message? Is it that you are a miserable sinner and God will see to it that you will burn in Hell for all eternity unless you repent of your sins and accept Jesus as your Saviour and Lord?
If that is the message, I am not surprised it breaks relationships. If I were an unbeliever and someone said that to me, I would be offended. No wonder you have to break it up into little pieces and try to sneak them across one at a time. But is that really the gospel message?
Where do we find this message in the Bible? I'm sorry if this disappoints you, but the truth is that you can find this message in many evangelistic tracts and sermons, but nowhere in the Bible.
Instead, we can find many gospel messages. Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you peace. God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.
What is the place of the cross in evangelism?
If we take the cross seriously, then like Paul we will not attempt to convert people by argument. We will not talk people into becoming Christians. If anything, we will try to talk them out of it, try to persuade them to delay making a quick and superficial decision. We will encourage people to walk alongside us, to share our lives, to really understand both the joy of following Jesus and the cost.
This may sound like heresy, but we do not want a church full of people who have been persuaded to be here. We don't want a church of people who think that God ought to be grateful they have decided to worship Him. We want a church full of people who are here because there is nothing else they can do, who worship because they must worship, and who are utterly convinced that there is nobody else worthy to be worshipped.
If we take the cross seriously, then we will not offer people an easy, comfortable life. It is not comfortable following a crucified Saviour. But then, Jesus doesn't offer an easy life: He offers life itself, rich and full and challenging and infinitely wonderful.