What Foolishness is This?

Prepared for First Presbyterian Church Apopka. Primary scripture 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

I have a confession to make. As much as I try to treat all people with love and grace, there is one group that I really have trouble with.  I do not deal well with foolish people.

I know everyone is imperfect, including yours truly. We’ve all done a fool thing or two in our lives. But every once once in a while you meet someone who couldn’t make a wise choice if it were placed right in front of them and surrounded by flashing signs saying “pick me!”

This aversion to foolish people may be tied to what my husband says is an unusual mix of common sense and logic that I tend to apply to most of my life…. and thus expect others to do the same. I suspect that this also explains why I loathe… I mean really truly and deeply hate… when I do something stupid or foolish.

So you can imagine that this passage gives me pause. I mean, why would I want to be associated with Jesus if that association does precisely the thing I despise- make me appear foolish?

Like most of Paul’s writing, this letter to the Corinthians was less about perfecting the people’s theology than about clarifying what it means to live as followers of Jesus. He is concerned about the way they are splintering over a variety of issues, and so begins by reminding them that baptism is the beginning of their shared life in Christ.

Toward the end of the letter, he will remind them of the promise that death itself with ultimately be put under the rule of the Risen Christ, and that all who share in his baptism will share in his resurrection, as well.

In between, there are pages and pages of words that help us grow in our understanding of what it means to spend that time between baptism and death living…  in Christ.  Especially in a culture that seems more interested in crucifying you than joining you.

The lynchpin of this portion of the letter is verse 18: For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

To the world, the proclamation of the good news, the truth of who Jesus was and what he was doing on earth, is foolishness. Historians have gathered documents from around the Roman Empire during the first century which report on this new sect of Judaism. The descriptions of the rituals and beliefs of the early church would be hilarious, if they weren’t among the reasons for some of the hardships those first believers endured.

Even today, some atheists take delight in pointing to sacred texts and artwork to show how foolish Christians are to believe an invisible Sky-man who is a cross between an alien and Santa. They argue that it makes as much sense to believe in and pray to a Flying Spaghetti Monster.

I have some dear friends who shake their heads at this “superstition” I am so committed to. They say they would consider believing, if only I could provide scientific proof for the existence of God and archeological proof of events in the Bible. They want the sort of proof that I just can’t give them.

It makes me sad, but I can understand how they got to that place. Because, if I’m honest, it does look like foolishness. That’s Paul’s whole point. This whole Jesus message is about as upside down and backward as anything we could imagine. And if Paul is as smart as our tradition tells us – as well-read, well-trained, and well traveled as the scriptures report – he probably hated the idea of appearing foolish as much as I do. Except in this one thing – the message of the cross.

According to theologian JR Daniel Kirk, we have no choice but to deal with feeling foolish if we want to understand the depth of God’s love for us: “Because Christ crucified is the way God has acted to save the world, Paul insists that our normal ways of assessing smart practices and displays of power are prone to deceive us.”

He goes on to say that to understand Paul’s line of reasoning, we have to start with these known assumptions:

  • The God of Israel is at work in the cross of Christ.
  • The death and resurrection of Christ are the ultimate revelation of that God
  • The death and resurrection of Christ affirm the truth of this same God’s description in our Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible)

Like much of the New Testament, this passage insists that we look closely at ourselves in light of the One to whom we claim to belong. And once we’ve considered again who and what we believe, we must look afresh at what our lives are proclaiming. Are we offering anything different from the prevailing wisdom of the world?

See, Paul isn’t asking us to look at power and wisdom through the lens of redemption. Paul tells us that the world’s wisdom and the world’s power are the wrong tools, the wrong means by which to understand or measure the work of God through Jesus. The only way to help the world to see and experience this work as anything other than foolishness is to boldly proclaim the message in all its upside-down glory. The way Jesus taught… and lived.

Jesus must have been quite charismatic, given his confidence in who he was and what God had sent him to do. He was clearly respected as a teacher, but he never used his gifts to pursue a place of honor. In fact, we see him do the opposite – giving away anything and everything he had – from bread to healing to love. He served people, spoke their names, touched their faces, and acknowledged their humanity in the midst of their woundedness.

When I see photos of Pope Francis reaching out across the rope line to interact with the infirm and disfigured, or when I think about the video of him interacting with children who were unable to be still during a mass – I see a glimpse of joyful, compassionate gentleness that I hear in the descriptions of Jesus in the gospels. Jesus’ connections with people had a level of intimacy that makes clear he was on earth to extend God’s love in new ways.

It was not to be meted out incrementally,  based on a system of points and demerits. God’s love would not be fenced off by geographic or ethnic borders. The power of God’s love is on lavish display as a humble carpenter’s son lives out his heavenly father’s vocation- as prisoners are set free, as the hungry are fed, as the blind see and the lame walk.

All for free!  Well, for low, low price of our pride.

You see, it’s easy to read this passage and feel a little misplaced satisfaction.  After all, we’ve got the inside scoop. We’re the “fools’ who are actually wise. And those who scoff at us now are headed for a scorching in the end.

We could also give in to the temptation of comparing ourselves, or our orthodoxy to others within the Body of Christ… We can take pride in pointing out the ones who claim to be Christian but are clearly mistaken. Otherwise, they would never do… or say… those things.

These are precisely the traps Paul warns against-  Traps laid by pride that can lead to isolation and even oppression, and against which the cross provides some protection, crazy as that sounds.  You see, because the message of the cross is so easily dismissed as foolishness, we can’t argue people into the fold. No matter what our own pride tells us…

Jesus didn’t legislate or shame people into following, he simply and clearly told the truth of God’s faithfulness, and then offered a way to experience God by following Jesus. Because the message of the cross transcends denominations and traditions; we are not proclaiming the good news of Presbyterianism in competition with the Methodists or Baptists. Or anyone else, for that matter.

Instead, we are proclaiming the amazing news that God loved the world enough to take on flesh and live among us.  You’ll note that God didn’t need Jesus to come and die so that we humans would be worth loving again. God sent Jesus so that we would see how much God loved us from the beginning of time.

Some twelve centuries after Paul wrote his letters, theologian John Dun Scotus wrote about the way that Jesus undid “once and for all” the notions of human and animal sacrifice, replacing the need for temple rituals that focused on sin and retributive justice. If there is foolishness in the cross for those who are saved, it is because we believe we needed to be saved from a God who was already at one with us. In Jesus, God offers abundance, such that an economy of merit and atonement is made unnecessary. The new economy of grace is the very heart of a gospel revolution.

If God’s love for us is revealed in Jesus’ birth, God’s power is revealed in his resurrection. And the cross that was meant to shut down a movement became a symbol as potent as the empty tomb. The power of the cross is the revelation that the power of love is greater than that of fear and hate.

We proclaim the message of the cross when we trust that power, when we overcome our own fear, prejudices and anger enough to embrace those the world thinks we should push away.

We demonstrate the power of the cross when we ask forgiveness – when we put aside our need to be right for the sake of mending a relationship.

When we answer God’s call to do those things that cause us to lose face, when we risk failure and rejection for the sake of the gospel, when we place the needs and feelings of others ahead of our own comfort…
you can be sure that the world will tell us that we are fools.

Sounds like a pretty good way to know when we’re on the right track.

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