“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” —1 Corinthians 1:17–18
BANG, BANG, BANG!
The pounding at the front door reverberated through the house. It was late, but I was still up. As I slowly approached the entryway, I could see a large shadowy figure outlined against the streetlights. I switched on the porch light and yelled at him to identify himself.
The response was muffled, almost intoxicated, “It’s your uncle!” I opened the door slowly. He looked shaken, yet jubilant. “I’ve given my life to Jesus!” he cried.
That’s how it came out. That’s the only way he knew how to voice his encounter with the living God. Standing in the doorframe, this imposing former Marine was now in tears over the realization that he was a sinner and that God had done something about his sin and guilt through Jesus on the cross. He had to tell someone. He was not drunk; he was moved, changed by the power of the cross—the power made effective by the Holy Spirit that grips the heart and transforms the mind with the good news of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; a power that not only brings the unregenerate into a relationship with a great Savior, but also sustains and invigorates believers throughout their journey. I knew how my uncle felt—I have seen that power in my own life.
I have spent the last two decades as a bi-vocational church planter, sowing and nurturing seeds in hopes that a vibrant local church would emerge: a church filled with people from both ends of my once sleepy, hippy town—a place for rich and poor; white, brown, and black; educated and uneducated; documented and undocumented; united by their love for Christ and neighbor, particularly those on the margins. The work was hard. Here were many great successes and far too many failures.
The last season of church planting took its toll. I was exhausted, friendless, and dismayed; the pain spread wide, the wounds cut deep. I died, metaphorically and in a sense, literally. I suffered a back injury that brought me to the emergency room, and the severe pain resulted in what the doctors labeled “a severe fainting episode” where my heart failed. I clinically flatlined for seventeen seconds. What started out as a joyous and exciting mission had left me drained and dour. My faith took a hit, and I was put to the test; what was counterfeit and bogus was being exposed. A once vibrant part of me was now dead.
In the years that have passed, time has healed many wounds from that season. God’s providence has afforded much time for reflection and thankfulness for his sovereign hand over that season. But the theme that repeatedly surfaced through the whole matter is found in those words that Paul gives us concerning the power of the cross: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 18).
The power of the cross continues to penetrate the sometimes thorny soil of my heart to reach its depths with a truth that is more (but not less) than just memorizing doctrines. The power of the cross is the gospel’s power to transform us. It is good news that saves us. The power of the cross moves us from death to life. It starts us on our journey as a new creation, leading us to maturity and growth in Christ all along the way. A message so simple but so paradoxical; a message that contrasts man’s wisdom against God’s folly; a message we are entrusted to proclaim to the nations. What is this message that seems weak and foolish to the world but is indeed the power of God for those who are being saved?
In Through the Valley of the Kwai (Harper, 1962), World War II veteran and former prisoner of war Ernest Gordon writes about the time he and his fellow prisoners were forced by the Japanese to build the Burma Railway:
The day’s work had ended; the tools were being counted, as usual. As the party was about to be dismissed, the guard shouted that a shovel was missing. The guard insisted that someone had stolen it. Of course, it was very serious, because if a shovel was stolen, it could be used for escape. Everybody could have escaped. Striding up and down before the men, the guard ranted and raved, working himself into a fury. Screaming in broken English, he demanded that the guilty one step forward to take his punishment. No one moved; the guard’s rage reached new heights of violence. “Then, all die! All die!” he shrieked. To show that he meant what he said, he cocked his rifle, put it on his shoulder aimed at the first man in the rank, prepared to shoot and work his way down the line. At that moment, a soldier from the Argyll regiment stepped forward, stood stiffly to attention, and said calmly, “I did it.” The guard unleashed all his whipped-up hate, kicking the helpless prisoner and beating him with his fists. Still, the Argyll stood rigidly to attention, chin up, though now his blood was streaming all down his face. His calm silence seemed to goad the guard into a greater rage. Seizing his rifle by the barrel, the guard lifted it high over his head and brought it down on the skull of the Argyll, who sank limply to the ground and never moved again. Though it was clear he was dead, the guard continued to beat him and stopped only when he was exhausted. The men of the work detail picked up their comrade’s body, marched back to camp, and when the tools were counted again at the guard-house, it turned out that no shovel was missing.
Gordon and his fellow prisoners were saved by the Argyll’s blood. How can we not be moved by such valor in sacrifice? How can we not feel the power of stories that point us to God’s ultimate story of sacrifice on the cross, which is the historical truth of God at work in the world? It is a power that saves sinners in the dark of night by exposing their darkened hearts to the folly of their addictions, compelling them to immediately tell someone the great news, no matter the hour. It is the power of the cross that sustains sinners saved by grace through the dark valleys and badlands on the road to Emmaus.
This is Christ in our place: Jesus Christ the Creator, the very image and embodiment of the glory of God, offering up his blood for our sin and shame, to save us from hell, sustain us on our earthly journey, and glorify the Father by drawing to himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
David Ávila is a media producer, filmmaker, and designer living in Austin, Texas. He has spent the last twenty years as an urban bi-vocational church planter.