“Symbols”

March 11, 2018
Jonathan Rumburg
I Corinthians 1:18-25

Introduction

Pull into any parking lot and you’ll likely find an empty spot near the door of the establishment you’re heading to.  But you better not park there—not unless you’ve got a special blue tag hanging from your rearview mirror.

I’m talking about the spaces reserved for handicapped persons, or disabled persons, or as our lexicon has evolved— “differently-abled persons,”— spaces which are clearly marked by the universally-recognized blue sign featuring the outline of a person in a wheelchair.

If you don’t need these parking spaces it’s easy to become so accustomed to the presence of this sign that we instinctively drive past them without a second glance.  If you’ve got one of those blue placards, however, the blue sign with the wheelchair symbol is the sign you’re looking for.

If you look closely at those blue signs, however, you’ll notice they don’t actually conform to the reality in which many with disabilities and different abilities live.

The sign has a person sitting in a wheelchair with back ramrod posture, and arms stuck out perfectly straight.  It’s a sign that seems to convey helplessness, passivity and stiffness and has long rankled many of those who use the spaces.  Andy Cohn, a wheelchair-bound para-Olympian, says, “The chair is part of the person, the person is not part of the chair.”

In New York City, and other cities around the country there’s been a move to change the parking signs to symbolize something quite different by replacing the stiff person surrounded by a chair to a more active symbol where the person is leaning forward and using their arms to make the chair move.

Brian Sullivan, Mayor of Westfield, Massachusetts, a town that has already made the sign switch, says, “It’s truly about people with ability.  It’s not about people with disabilities.  The hope is that as these more active signs find their way into parking lots, they will change the perspective of the public toward persons with different abilities.  Or, at the very least, they’ll cause people to look twice the next time they pull into a parking lot!”

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          Sometimes it takes a fresh look at a symbol to understand what it really means, and there is perhaps no symbol that calls for such more than the cross.

While it’s often worn by followers of Christ, it also adorns the necks of people who glam it up, using it as jewelry whether they’re Christians or not.

Sexy starlets and certain singers and bands with violent lyrics wear a cross, and don’t see a paradox between the symbol and their words and actions.  It’s just jewelry.

And lately there’s a trend to wear a “sideways cross” necklace, where the cross is laying on its side.  It’s said it symbolizes anything from laying down or picking up the cross, to being a sign that Christianity has failed and fallen.

The cross is everywhere.  And like that blue sign in the parking lot, the cross is so ubiquitous that it’s become part of the background.

But that wasn’t always the case.  In the Roman world of the first century, the cross stood for something very different.  The cross was a signpost that told everyone passing by that you—if you were “wearing” the cross, i.e., were hanging on it—you were a dangerous criminal who deserved to die.  The cross in those days was the ultimate symbol of disability because if you “wore” this cross, you experienced a handicap from which you never recovered—Death.

Therefore, wearing a cross around your neck in the first century would have been the equivalent today of wearing a necklace that featured the electric chair or a bejeweled hangman’s noose.

Only the worst sorts of insurrectionist and criminals were hung on crosses, and no one in polite society dared even mention the symbol.

In the ancient world, the cross was a symbol of helplessness, judgement, and death that people turned away to avoid.

The early Christians, however, leaned into the cross as a symbol of the active triumph of their God over the power of sin and death, and it caused a major symbol revision.

Move 1
So what does the cross mean to us?
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” writes Paul in verse 18, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

When Christians look at or wear a cross, it’s the symbol that allows us to park our lives in the saving space God has provided for us in God’s kingdom.

It’s a symbol that non-Christians will not understand because it looks ridiculous or hypocritical.  Paul says those who don’t know its power see it as foolishness.

Which means, we who see its power need to do something about its perception by those who don’t know its power.

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          In New York City, the old handicapped signs are being replaced with new signs as the originals get old or defaced.  Eventually, the new signs will be everywhere and the old ones forgotten.

In the world where Paul was writing, there were two old signs that tried to point to salvation.

For the Jews, it was the sign of the Messiah who would demonstrate signs that would prove his anointed stature as Israel’s true king and savior.  This is why the religious leaders kept asking Jesus for signs, wanting him to prove his power.

For the Gentiles, salvation was all about a long and prosperous life of health and wealth in this life with no real hope for anything after this life.

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” says Paul to the people of Corinth, who were each no doubt steeped in one of these worldviews.  “But we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”

The stumbling block for the Jews was being confronted with the horrific prospect of a crucified Messiah, while the foolishness of the Gentiles was a sign that there is life beyond death.

The newly revised symbol of the cross challenged their definitions of health, prosperity and hope and pointed to a different sort of life and future than they imagined.

The cross revealed the reality that everyone is disabled by sin, but because of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, salvation is given and everlasting life is possible.

Paul invites his readers to lean into this new reality: “But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
Paul is teaching that what was once considered weak, handicapped, and useless is now the sign that leads to forgiveness and new life.  The ancient sign of death has become a symbol of life.

Move 2
So we have to ask… Can we, or should we, revise the symbol of the cross?  If so…how?
How do we revise this symbol in a world where the cross has become, for many, a fashion accessory and a sign often ignored?

I believe one way we can is by showing the cross as being actively alive within the people for whom it is giving life.  Meaning… the best sign of the cross is found in the life and conduct of those who know they are being saved through it by the power of God.  Read verse 26 where Paul says, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters.”

Christians should not be recognized by the usual signs of success in this world, but by the sign and work of Christ within us for it’s in Christ that we find true wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.

We demonstrate Christ best not simply by the jewelry we wear or the fish signs we stick on our bumpers, but by living lives that are scandalously humble, gratuitously generous, recklessly loving, and authentically meek.

We demonstrate Christ best when we admit our own spiritual disabilities and allow God’s grace to come through us on its way to someone else.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians was designed to address divisions in the church, which obscure the revised symbol of the cross in the world.  In verse ten Paul calls for unity, saying, “…all of you should be in agreement and there should be no divisions among you, but you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Unity, and unification, through shared core values, vision for a Godly future, crafted through grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation, is how we reinvigorate the symbol of the cross.

The cross is the symbol that allows us to drop our pretentions of individual strength and invites us to become part of a community whose strength is always found in humility, generosity, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

So in a world that’s becoming ever more divisive, even within the church, the symbol of the cross must, once again, become the symbol that reminds us: It’s not about us—it’s about what God has done for us, and for all, in Christ Jesus.

Conclusion

Different abled persons hang a blue sign in their cars to remind people they have a different skill set, a different array of challenges, than others.

The new parking signs, the ones with a more active person symbol, teach us that “the chair is part of the person” and not the other way round.

When the symbol of the cross becomes a revised and reinvigorated part of our person, then we will lean forward and propel into the world with new strength!

When the symbol of the cross becomes a revised and reinvigorated part of our person, then those around us—who see it as foolishness and hypocrisy—will begin to see it in new and revised ways as well and it will show them its true meaning.

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          So may our lives invoke the symbol of the cross by our death to old, sinful ways, and our new life to the ways of Christ.

May our lives project the symbol of the cross as a symbol of unity, rooted in humility, generosity, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

May our lives simply be symbols of the cross.  Amen.

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