The Hard Sell

The ‘Hard Sell’

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 – The Cross of Christ

Have you ever encountered a really good salesperson? The kind of person whopastor could convince someone to buy almost anything? Most of us would like to think we are beyond being swayed simply by a good talker. But, if you are like me, there will have been times when you have come home with an item, wondering how in the world you were convinced that it was such a necessary thing to have at the time. Perhaps you have a gadget or two tucked away in a kitchen drawer at home that worked near miracles when demonstrated by the vendor in the shop, but that you have never quite been able to get the hand of. Perhaps you have an exercise machine that you were persuaded would not only be easy to use, but would change your life. Perhaps you were even one of the thousands who bought a crystal years ago to put under the bonnet of your car because Peter Brock said they worked. Then afterward you wondered what you were thinking. There turned out to be little if anything behind the smooth and convincing words.

Some people are able to sell ideas as easily as a smooth and well-rehearsed salesperson can sell kitchen implements and home exercise equipment. Sometimes you might find yourself agreeing with an idea, or signing a petition, simply because you can find no fault in the logic, passion and eloquence of the argument as it is presented.

The history of religious sects and movements is littered with groups that have sprung up around the quirky ideas of some very gifted and eloquent speaker. In many cases these movements fade away as soon as the gifted speaker moves on or passes from the scene. Followers begin to disperse as they realise that behind the lofty rhetoric, there was really little of substance. In fact, the ideas might have even been hopelessly self-contradictory or harmful.

In the ancient world one of most popular and fundamental of all skills to study was the art of rhetoric. This involved learning how to write, and especially how to speak, in such a way as to move others to great emotion and to convince them of your case. Those who could afford it spent months with teachers of rhetoric learning these skills. Those who aspired to high political office, to military leadership, to be successful in law, or simply to be influential in their community or business would devote much time to learning the art of rhetoric.

The apostle Paul clearly had some basic training in rhetoric. We can see it in his letters. He employs many techniques that make his letters moving and memorable even today. But when it came to the most valued aspect of rhetoric in the ancient world, the gift of public speaking, Paul admitted that he simply did not have that gift. He often mentioned his lack of eloquent and lofty language. Paul knew enough of the skills of public speaking to know that this was not his strength. He knew that to win over a crowd you had to not only get their attention, but keep it, and you had to keep them with you to the end. But in the accounts in the book of Acts we learn that many of Paul’s speeches were cut short. Just as he was gathering momentum and the interest of the crowd, he would mention that this Jesus whom he was exhorting people to follow had been executed on a cross as a criminal. That seldom went over well. And if he got past this point, he would claim that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. This was something that everyone knew was not only impossible, but also not necessary to a Greek way of thinking since the body was not seen as important, but only the soul. On a good day the crowds would simply wander off or mock Paul. On a bad day, they would try to kill him.

When Paul writes to the church at Corinth, they already knew him well. He had spent a year and a half among them (Acts 18:11). He made tents to earn a living with his friends Aquila and Priscilla. In his free time he argued about Jesus with anyone who would listen. And he taught the young Christian church in the house of a Roman convert, Titius Justus, who happened to live next door to the synagogue, which Paul and been banned from after the synagogue leader, Crispus, converted to Christianity. Paul’s themes and way of speaking were well known to the recipients of his letter. So when he reminded them that his talks were not particularly eloquent, they would have nodded in agreement.

But Paul turns what most would see as a weakness into a strength. ‘Brothers and sisters,’ he says, ‘when I came to you I did not come speaking lofty words or espousing great wisdom.’ (1 Cor 2:1). That is to say, Paul neither spoke with great eloquence, nor did he espouse some impressive philosophical system, which so many speakers were famed for. So, if it is not the skills of the speaker that changed so many lives, it must have been the message itself.

So what message did Paul, the bold but not so eloquent speaker, present?

Paul could have devoted his time to retelling Jesus’ most famous parables. He could have expounded on the beauty of the Sermon on the Mount. He could have talked about the great ethical example Jesus set. But he didn’t focus on any of these things, even though it would have been pleasing and entertaining to most listeners. Instead, Paul harped on about a single theme: Jesus Christ crucified on a cross. Admittedly, it was a hard sell as a message. Who wants to hear a story about an execution? Who wants to put their trust in someone who died a shameful death? Who wanted to follow a king who not only did not defeat the Romans, but didn’t even appear to put up a fight? Nothing about the message Paul was compelled to preach was easy.

It was not a feel good message.

It was not a soothing visual image.

It was nonsense to the Greeks (I Cor 1:23)

It was a stumbling block to the Jews (1 Cor 1:23)

Nevertheless, that was the focus of Paul’s preaching. Everything always came back to the cross of Christ.

Like Paul, it was also a message that Luther could not get around. He, too, contended that our preaching should be focused on the cross of Christ. One of the greatest compliments paid to Luther was not by another theologian or a preacher, but by a layperson in the congregation in Wittenberg where he often preached. It was his friend, the painter Lucas Cranach. After Luther’s death Cranach painted an image for the altar emphasising Word and Sacrament. For the ‘Word’ part of the painting he depicted Luther pointing the congregation to a bare wall with nothing on it apart from Christ on the cross.  Paul would have been pleased.

This is the same message Paul wanted to convey to the Corinthian church in his letter. Everything was about Christ and Christ crucified. The power to transform our lives is in that simple message. No fancy words, no tricks of logic, no impressive philosophy, no celebrity endorsement.

Just Jesus.

On a Roman cross.


For us.

Apart from this, Paul told the Corinthians, there was nothing else he preached to them. There was nothing else he talked to them about. Everything was about Christ on the cross.  “I knew nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (verse 2). This simple yet unlikely message, without any polished speaking or rhetorical tricks, turned the world upside down. And continues to this day to transform lives. In this we see the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor 1:24), which is so different from human wisdom. We might very well find the image of Christ crucified unattractive. It would be hard not to. We might find the message of the cross difficult to understand. It is certainly not what we expected from the Creator of the Universe. We might find the idea of a crucified God a hard sell.  Just try explaining it to someone who has not heard the story before! But anything else is not the good news. Anything else, however polished and uplifting, is not what transforms lives. Anything other than the message of the cross is merely human wisdom and elegance.

We believe and proclaim Christ, and him crucified. The unlikely and unexpected power of the cross does the rest. Quite literally, the cross sells itself. Because no fancy words ever could.

And as Paul reminds us, that’s not a bad thing. It is a reminder that the message of the cross in not some hyped up human wisdom and pretty story. It is nothing less than the wisdom and power of God.

May Christ the crucified keep your hearts and minds and draw you always to himself. Amen.

Pastor Mark Worthing.



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