“Foolishness of the Cross”
I Cor. 1:18-25
Monday morning, at about 6:40, I opened my front door to begin a new week. I had a fresh agenda and a lot of exciting ideas rolling through my brain. I was half way to the church before dawned on me not only was in the middle of a snow storm, I was probably going to be the only person to show up for the Prayer Group. But that hardly mattered. I looked forward to beginning the process of what I knew was going to be a brilliant sermon on the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath.” Monday and Tuesday I spent extensive time developing my thoughts and it wasn’t until about 3:30 Tuesday that I realized I had nothing. I had composed a wonderful lecture on the history of Sabbath and its development or lack there of in Western civilization and sometime, if Bill Neville would allow me to do so, I have a four part series, complete with power point, pithy illustrations and compelling discussions questions I would love to present during the Sunday School hour. But I had no sermon.
So Wednesday morning I reluctantly looked at the text from Corinthians and was greeted with these words, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” Those daunting words are what drove me to consider preaching a sermon on the Sabbath in the first place. Paul’s approach to the conflict dominating the church in Corinth leaves all of us gasping for breath. I find myself agreeing with Ian Markham who writes, “From time to time, Christians stand back and acknowledge how odd our faith looks. We claim the most divine action in history is the humiliating death of a poor Jew at the hands of an occupying power. Our central symbol is the equivalent of a hangman’s noose. Instead of a demonstration of God’s power, we confirm weakness and failure.”
OUCH! It would be so easy to run from Paul and rework my Sabbath effort minus the power point and four part harmony. But the problem is, this passage points to perhaps the greatest point of contention in the history of the Christian religion. While we have this desire to approach faith intellectually, faith by its very nature confuses and even threatens us with its paradoxical nature. What greater paradox could there be than the cross?
Paul wrote at least five letters to the church in Corinth. Those letters comprise what we now call First and Second Corinthians. This was a church with serious problems. The members fought over communion, baptism, and sexual issues. It sort of resembled our denomination. All of this was secondary to a battle over which the proponents of human knowledge and freedom found themselves in direct opposition to Paul’s understanding of the origins of grace. I might suggest that this conversation is also alive and well within many congregations. Who champion the concepts of intellect and freedom? Isn’t our thirst for freedom birthed in the ability to develop independent thoughts? Wasn’t it Jefferson who said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be”? I couldn’t agree more. So how do we respond to Paul’s paradoxical message concerning the powerlessness and foolishness of the cross?
I have a theory. Like most of my theories it is based on little more than a slightly educated guess, but I have a theory that many of you sitting here this morning wished ministers would speak a little less about the cross and a little bit more about our human potential. Another way of putting that is to say you wish preachers would spend less time on sin and more time on the advancements accomplished by the human species. I am in complete agreement. If we want to dwell on bad news, we can watch CNN, Fox News, or listen to any political debate. We come to church to hear good news, uplifting news, news that will carry us through the next week. God knows that. In both Exodus and Deuteronomy we are given a wonderful list that outlines how the human experiment is to proceed if it desires to live harmoniously. I believe it goes like this:
Believe in One God;
Don’t try to limit God through human made images;
Don’t insult God by misusing God’s name;
Value the seventh day as one of rest and worship;
Honor your elders;
Don’t break covenant relationships in order to love another; Don’t steal;
Tell the truth;
Don’t worship the false god of materialism.
How has that worked out so far? How have we, God’s most precious creation, responded to what we often refer to as the 10 Suggestions. As a scholar of the Old Testament, I can assure you the original recipients of these commandments miserably failed to respond to this code of moral guidelines. I am willing to be persuaded the human experiment has shown signs of promise since the days of crusades and inquisitions, I cannot believe God is completely pleased with our effort.
How often do we lie? How often to do cheat or steal? How often do we run after the god of materialism? How often do we ignore our elderly? How many gods do we worship? And we are the choir. We are the one’s who are trying. We are God’s chosen. What about everyone else? How hard are they trying?
I believe the first great truth of biblical ethics is God has worked harder than us to achieve human perfection.
The second great truth of biblical ethics is God loves us a whole lot more than we love each other.
This leads to my third, greatly debated, truth of biblical ethics. Perfection was sacrificed for my imperfection.
I believe this is the single uniqueness of Christianity. We are not the only monotheistic faith. We are not unique in saying God has a personal relationship with us. The essence of the Ten Commandments is not exclusive to us. Other faiths believe in an afterlife. All religions claim you are to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Many religions have a great prophet. I would suggest our only uniqueness the significance we place on the Cross. And this idea is seen as absolute foolishness to not only our religious counterparts but to many Christians who struggle with the theological concept we call atonement?
The cross raises so many difficult questions. Who exactly was Jesus? Who was responsible for his death? Would a loving God condone a sacrificial death? What significance do we attach to that death? Did the gospel writers, particularly the writer of John, misunderstand the significance of Jesus? Were we all taken in by Paul’s emphasis on atonement? And finally, particularly for those who were raised in the Protestant tradition, were Calvin and particularly Luther mistaken when they rejected the classic Latin understanding of atonement and returned to the Pauline confession that “God was in Christ, reconciling himself to the world.”
Recently theologians such as Marcus Borg have struggled with the conventional Christian idea that first, the only way God can forgive sins is if there is an adequate sacrifice and second, only those who know and believe Jesus was this sacrifice can be saved. I think there is a third concern for Borg, which is if God has already saved us why would we be willing to live radical lives that might transform the world.
Those are all good questions. I hope during this season of you explore your own beliefs and raise questions to your fellow travelers in faith. Personally, I confess that I am overwhelmed by the concept of the cross and cling to it as a means of radical grace. I believe the suffering and death of Jesus to be sacramental expression of the love of God for all creation, without exception. I believe the significance of the resurrection is it proclaims that love is more powerful than hate, compassion triumphs over oppression and vulnerability overcomes power. Please understand, that is a statement of faith, not fact, and to many it will sound like a lot of foolishness. But this faith has allowed me to believe that God through Christ has the capacity and willingness to celebrate and suffer with me no matter the circumstances. This not only excites me, it compels me to be a transforming agent to others, no matter who they are and no matter where they encounter may path in life.
I believe, Jesus freely took up the cross for me, and that single act of grace becomes my reason for sacrificially taking up the cross for others. And should I fail…………………………. God’s grace still abounds. Amen.