Sun, Feb 09, 2020

A scandalous symbol


It was…


an American newspaper editor back in nineteen eleven…

who first coined the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words”.

But isn’t that even more true today?

With the rise of the internet––

and especially social media––

there have been massive changes in our society and culture.

We’re bombarded with a breadth of information in a way that previous generations have not been...

and that information is constantly changing.

As a result, researchers say, the global attention spanning is narrowing;

and they describe it as a shortening or acceleration of the news cycle.

We’re constantly shifting attention.

And with that breadth of information and the constant shift of attention…

images become even more central and crucial.

This week, one of the key events in the political life of the United States took place––

and, no, I’m not talking about Impeachment…

but the “State of the Union” address;

in which the President delivers a speech to a joint sitting of Congress…

incorporating an economic report…

highlighting his achievements and what are his priorities…

and offering a legislative agenda.

President Trump spoke for about an hour and a half.

Apparently, some of his claims were so false and egregious that several Democrats walked out.

To be honest, I haven’t read it––

indeed, I haven’t seen more than a couple of sentences describing its content.

But that’s probably not what any of us––

who aren’t seasoned Washington reporters––

will remember about it.

Rather, there was a simple image from its conclusion that has dominated the news cycle:

while the members of Congress politely applauded––

and while Trump even applauded himself––

the Democratic speaker of the house… 

Nancy Pelosi…

dramatically ripped up her copy of Trump’s address.

As a statement, it spoke volumes.

And, for a narcissist like Trump, such an image––

such a visual insult to his image––

was about as powerful a rejection and rebuttal as could be imaged.

And yet, that’s not just an issue for someone like Donald Trump.

So much of politics, these days, even in our own country…

is dominated by image.

With policy frequently reduced to slogans, how something ‘looks’ is all important––

the so-called ‘pub test’…

has become the key defining parameter.

Image is what matters…

and, at times, it seems that image is all that matters.


In the first century, image was important in Corinthian society––

especially for the wealthy and well-to-do…

for those who had power and control…

for those who called the shots.

In a sense, image was everything.

In a world where it was firmly believed that you could judge a book by its cover––

how you looked revealed who you were.

Status and honour were crucial.

Appearances and impressions were critical.

Theirs was a society where people’s worth was dependent upon where they were born…

and into what family––

and what was its name or reputation.

Theirs was a society where status symbols and conspicuous consumption were praiseworthy.

A person’s esteem––

apart from where they were born and into what family—

depended on the magnificence of their mansions and estates…

the number of slaves that they owned…

the number of tenants that they had working their lands…

the number of ordinary folk whom they could control or manipulate…

the grandness of their parties…

and the number and size of their public benefactions.

But a person’s esteem also depended upon their skill with words…

and with rhetoric…

which they honed, in particular, by taking one another to court…

in an effort to humiliate the other.

Life was a constant battle to be––

or to be seen to be––

better than everyone else:

more esteemed…

more successful…

more powerful…

more eloquent.

And, of course, the well-to-do who belonged to the Corinthian Church…

simply imported those attitudes and values into the Church.

So that it, too, became a battleground for personal rivalry…

and an arena for staking a claim to honour and reputation.

And yet, contrary to the expectations, aspirations, and

values of Corinthian society––

or certainly to those of the elite––

Paul points out to the church:

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling”.

Paul’s ministry among them was the antithesis of what they expected or wanted.

Paul was, in fact, the antithesis of everything that they aspired to––

everything that they valued…

everything that they admired.

But, in so doing, he was making a profound point:

being a follower of Jesus involves a very different set of values;

it involves a counter-intuitive logic system.

For, at the heart of the Christian faith, is the cross––

a symbol of utter shame;

a symbol of complete and abject failure.

And yet, Paul contends, it’s in that symbol––

it’s in the cross of Jesus Christ–– 

that we encounter the true power of God.

Therein lies the counter-intuitive logic;

therein lies the profound paradox.

God’s power is to be found in powerlessness.

God’s strength is demonstrated in weakness and apparent failure. 

And, it’s in the experience of utter god-forsakenness that God is most profoundly present.

Within the context of Corinthian society, the cross was a scandalous symbol––

it was the antithesis of its values, its expectations, and its aspirations.


But the scandal of the cross is something with which we, too, need to be confronted… 

again and again…

because it’s still so counter-intuitive––

it’s still so counter-cultural––

even, or perhaps especially, within the church.

Don’t we get caught up in a “success” mindset––

obsessed with the numbers of bums on pews and with institutional survival?

Don’t we get caught up in evaluating ministers by how well they can preach––

how good they are with lofty words and rhetoric?

Don’t we get caught up in playing power games and worrying about image?

The cross continues to confront and confound all of our strivings…

all of our aspirations…

all of our perceptions and values.

The cross stands in stark contrast to the way that we define and evaluate power and success…

and what is important.

The cross stands in stark contrast to the way that the church of today so often operates.


So we need to be reminded––

again and again–– 

that it’s only when we embrace the powerlessness and vulnerability of God;

it’s only when we live the questions and wrestle with the doubts––

rather than offer trite and hollow answers;

it’s only when we put aside–– 

as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it–– 

all of our attempts “to be religious in a particular way”…

and to “look…to the power of God in the world”;

it’s only when we embrace our experiences of fear and utter god-forsakenness;

it’s only when we risk abject failure… 

and even death––

the death of all that defines us…

of all to which we aspire…

of all that we hold dear––

it’s only then that we actually proclaim the gospel;

and that we proclaim it with credibility… 

and with power…

and with an eloquence than words can never express.

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