Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
1 Corinthians 1:18–31
Christianity has always had what Friedrich Schleiermacher famously called its “cultured despisers.” A lot of people in the world—especially highly educated, sophisticated types—seem to think they have outgrown religion, that it is the province of backward people, rubes who are gullible enough to believe in a spiritual realm, God, sin, and salvation. We who hold these convictions are met with condescending amusement and scorn. When the cultured despisers think of religious faith and the faithful at all, it is usually with dismissiveness or pity. How terrible it must be to still live in that darkened world of superstition and mythology, they think. Why don’t they grow up and out of it, as we did?
Christianity also has its opponents. Some members of other religions see us as infidels or imperialists or worse, and the militant atheism we have seen make a comeback in recent years sees religious people as the key to all the world’s problems. The subtitle of Christopher Hitchens’s 2007 book, God Is Not Great, captures this sentiment perfectly: How Religion Poisons Everything.
The Apostle Paul encountered cultured despisers and opponents of Christianity in his time as well, and he addresses them, indirectly at least, in today’s lesson from 1 Corinthians. He writes, “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” (v. 18). The essence of the objection to the gospel then, and even now in many cases, is our assertion that salvation comes by way of a man who was crucified as a criminal. Today, the arguments against the cross often involve an incredulity that the death of someone two thousand years ago in another part of the world could have anything to do with our lives today. In Paul’s time, however, the discrediting of the gospel came from a different quarter. People of that day knew a lot more about crucifixion than we do.
They knew, for instance, that crucifixion was reserved for conquered enemies, lawbreakers from the lower classes, or rebels and seditionists. They knew that it was a horrible way to die, the condemned person slowly suffocating as he grew too tired to raise himself up to breathe. They knew that it could take as long as three days for some crucified people to die, and that it was an agonizing, torturous, humiliating death. They knew that the Romans heaped shame upon the condemned and his family not only through the floggings, not only through the mockery and spitting and cursing, not only through forcing him to carry the crossbar of his own instrument of execution, but also through the ultimate indignities of being publicly exposed in the nude (no loincloths like in all the pictures) and, in the majority of cases, being denied proper burial. Jewish victims and their families felt these last two punishments particularly acutely. To top it all off, Jews in Paul’s day knew that crucified persons had been rejected by God. Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
So imagine what you would think if, knowing all this, you heard someone come along declaring that a crucified criminal was actually the Savior of the World? You would think that person was a dangerous lunatic, a blasphemer, or both. But that was precisely what Paul was preaching. That was his gospel—his good news—a crucified man is your only hope for salvation. Great….
On top of all of that, Paul and the other early Christians were laboring under another significant disadvantage: Jesus was guilty.
Before you start looking around for stones to throw, let me explain what I mean. Jesus was not guilty in the moral sense; he had not sinned or transgressed God’s law. But he had transgressed the laws of Rome, the laws of the priests and scribes, and even more unforgivably, the laws of custom and cultural expectation. He had subverted the authority of the temple state through his unauthorized healings and by interpreting the law of Moses in ways that favored compassion over slavish observation of the sabbath and purity regulations. He had subverted the accepted norms of a patriarchal society by accepting women as disciples and teaching them the Torah. He had subverted the rules of class and social hierarchy by eating with so-called sinners and other undesirables. He had subverted the economic system that favored the wealthy by organizing poor people into communities of radical sharing that made them far less susceptible to the scheming and manipulation of the rich. He was a trouble-maker, no doubt about it.
None of that could have put him on the cross, however. For that, he had to break the law of Rome. Which he did. His very proclamation, “The kingdom of God has come near,” was an act of sedition in the eyes of the Roman government, which already had a kingdom, thank you very much, and weren’t interested in entertaining any rivals, whether human or divine. Jesus insistently proclaimed this coming kingdom all over Galilee, then took his show on the road, so to speak, going to Jerusalem with his populist movement to challenge the priests who were collaborating with Rome and even the representatives of Roman power itself. He did all this without resorting to armed uprising or any kind of violence, of course, but the powers rightly recognized him as a serious threat nonetheless, the same way the British would later recognize the threat posed by Mahatma Gandhi and the defenders of segregation would recognize the threat posed by Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Jesus was a seditious resister. Guilty as charged.
But there’s guilt and there’s guilt. Barabbas, whom we encounter in the story of the passion, was guilty of rebellion and murder. It’s quite likely that he did everything he could to keep from being arrested. Jesus, on the other hand, practically courted arrest through his provocative public acts and teaching. When they came for him at Gethsemane, he submitted to the temple police, ordered his disciples not to try to defend him through violent means, and went meekly (but not weakly) to his death. He did this because he knew two things: he knew that God’s kingdom and will were more important than Rome’s or anyone else’s kingdom and will, and he knew Oscar Romero was right when he said (in the movie about his life, anyway), “Somebody has got to have the courage to say enough!” Jesus had that courage. He said enough. He deliberately and consciously broke the law and took the consequences. In doing so, he handed us the key to our own prison doors.
That salvation is available through a crucified messiah has become a commonplace message today, but in Paul’s day it was a source of consternation and outrage. It was utter foolishness, and Paul knew it. But he kept right on proclaiming that message like some sort of madman because of his conviction that what looks like foolishness to the cultured despisers is paradoxically the wisdom and power of God. He writes:
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the 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 (vv. 21–25).
One of the temptations I face is that I want to seem hip. I like being in the know just as much as anybody else; I have been known to wear the persona of a cool, cynical outsider who looks on those who are less sophisticated with ironic amusement. But at the same time I would like to be able to go to a dinner party or other gathering with the intelligentsia and the movers and shakers and come off as someone who gets it. I like to think that I can swim with the sharks and not get turned into chum.
But as soon as I or anybody else tries to “clean up” the gospel, make it more palatable for cocktail party banter, make it less embarrassing, we fall into error. The gospel—the message of the cross—is irreducibly embarrassing. It is foolish in the eyes of the world. It’s a scandal, a stumbling block that the proud trip over as they seek to tiptoe across the swampy terrain to get to God without getting their $1,000-a-pair shoes dirty. The cross is a giant pimple on the nose of Christianity that appears on the morning of Christianity’s prom. We want to wow people with our wit and savoir-faire, but the cross undermines all our efforts. It’s the annoying little brother who utters the most mortifying truths about his big sister when she’s trying to impress some boy. The cross is always in the way. It’s a pest.
And it just doesn’t make sense, at least not to the world’s way of thinking. The Christian faith is essentially countercultural because the event at its core goes against all conventional wisdom. It redefines weakness as power. It glories in what at the time was the height of shame. It worships a criminal, duly convicted and sentenced by the most fully developed legal apparatus of the ancient world. Instead of the military general, the political power broker, or the captain of industry, Christianity values the child, the outcast, the refugee, the prisoner. Christianity says confidently that the weak and despised people of the world will hold seats of honor at God’s banquet, while the kings and magnates will have to sit at the kiddies’ table.
The paradox is that the power of Christianity comes precisely from these ridiculous, counterintuitive notions, and that if we try to dress up the faith and make it compatible with worldly culture and wisdom, it loses its vitality entirely. The Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd. . . . Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it will be altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable of neither inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.”
The church is called to heal deep wounds in the name and power of Jesus Christ. We are called to heal the wounds caused by war, racism, domestic violence, spiritual alienation, injustice, and every kind of evil. We are to be God’s agents in the work of reconciliation that God wants to do in the world. We are called to invite those who are hurting, lonely, embittered, and lost to a life-transforming relationship with God in Christ. This is our high calling as the people of God.
But sometimes, in order to do these things, we must inflict deep wounds. To heal injustice, we must inflict wounds on those who benefit from it. (Not on the people themselves, of course, but on the systems and forces whose bidding they do. Our struggle, after all, is not with flesh and blood.) To bring reconciliation between races and religions, we must inflict wounds on those who for whatever reason want to perpetuatesuspicion and enmity. To put a stop to war, we must inflict wounds on the ideology of redemptive violence that gives warmakers their power. To usher people into new life in Christ, we must inflict wounds on the spirit of cynicism and ennui that keeps those people from embracing that love which is their greatest hope.
At the core of all this healing and wounding stands the cross of Jesus Christ. The emblem of suffering and shame, as the old hymn calls it. The emblem of foolishness. The emblem of God’s surprising grace, paradoxical power, and never-ending love. The cross that provokes such derision among the gospel’s cultured despisers, that subverts the values and expectations of the world, is the ultimate source of hope for the healing of that world. The cross that stood on Golgotha, holding just one more in a depressingly long line of insignificant victims of state terrorism, has become the axis mundi, which one commentator defines as “the world’s pillar, the still center on which the world turns.” The cross of Jesus has become the pivot point of history, the central event of all of creation.
That’s what the cultured despiser, “the one who is wise . . . the scribe . . . the debater of this age” (v. 20), can’t understand. “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (v. 18). The foolishness of the cross only becomes the revelation of the wisdom of God to one who is humble enough to lay aside her own wisdom and look at the cross with eyes of faith. “But to us who are being saved [the cross and the gospel are] the power of God” (v. 18). The crucified messiah is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (vv. 23–24).
Those last two verses give us an indication of what we gain when we turn our back on the world’s wisdom and embrace God’s foolishness. Notice what Paul says: “to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks. . . .” The new community formed at the base of the cross transcends all the boundaries that threaten to keep us separate. It transcends race, culture, language, gender, orientation—everything that divides us into warring camps is overcome in the foolishness of the cross. And what does our world need now more than something that unites across differences rather than divides?
There’s another side to the foolishness of the gospel of the cross. In olden times, a king’s court would include, besides advisers, lackeys, and other hangers-on, a court jester. A fool. The function of the fool was to make the king laugh, and he was given wide latitude in carrying out that role. In fact, the fool often became the only one who could tell the king the unvarnished truth and get away with it. We see this in Shakespeare—in King Lear, for instance. The fool, under the guise of his foolishness, could speak the truth—could point out that the emperor was naked—and in the process, by hook or by crook, could shape the kingdom’s destiny for the better. In that sense, Jesus was the fool in the kingdom of the world.
In the same way, we are the fools in the kingdom of our time and place. Let us use the foolishness of our proclamation—that life comes from death, that weakness is stronger than power, that the executed criminal is the savior of the world—to tell the truth to the king. In the process, we may turn the world on its head, to the everlasting glory of our wonderfully foolish God.