A reflection on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
So what do you think? Are we all fools for being here tonight?
Are we fools to think that some bastard child of unwed parents living under imperial occupation has any relevance to our lives?
Are we fools for thinking that this Jesus, this kid from Nazareth, that town Beyond Hope, has anything to say to those of us who reside here on this glistening coast, amidst towers of steel and glass, beauty and opulence, on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh nations?
And are we, I wonder, stark raving mad for thinking that this Jesus– no matter how amazing, no matter how magnetic, no matter how transformative his words and actions seem to have been – are we stark raving mad for thinking that his life, his death! and yes, ultimately his inexplicable resurrection are the things of God?
Is it all just foolishness? Do the gods just go and clumsily get themselves killed at the hands of murderous religious crowds? Honestly, there are some days that this story, our story, the most central of all Christian stories seems like Greek to me.
As a bit of an aside – this week I spoke with David and Heidi, two members of our congregation who are currently vacationing in Greece. And so I asked them: what counts as foolishness to the Greeks these days?
“foolishness to the Greeks is trusting the government not to be corrupt, and to put the needs of the people ahead of their personal gain.”
All in all a fair point. That too is its own foolishness.
And so today, as we celebrate what is known throughout the Anglican Communion as Holy Cross Day, we are invited to embrace the Jesus Gospel and all its foolishness for now and for all time.
For my own part – and I’ll just put it out there – I don’t continue to embrace Christianity because it makes clear and rational sense all eight days a week. There are some days where it all seems crystal clear. Where God’s presence is imminent and my sense of call is strong. And then there’s the rest of life, in which my belief in God, in Jesus’ saving work, and the presence and life-giving breath of Holy Spirit seems riddled with contradiction.
In my early twenties, searching for reasons to remain Christian, I found myself reading Lee Strobel’s book “A Case for Christ.” It’s been a powerful book for many, but his arguments did not resonate with me. Maybe my brain’s wired differently. Maybe it sounded too much like the world I subconsciously knew I was leaving behind.
Whatever the case, it wasn’t this book, but deep and meaningful experiences of divine beauty and mystery in personal and common prayer that coupled with Jesus’ embodied dirt-under-the-fingernails orientation towards those made poor and oppressed that drew me back in.
Without God’s self revelation on the crosses of the world, and without Jesus’ call to serve him amongst those made vulnerable, I would have walked away long ago.
And I’m aware that there’s a great deal in our pursuit of faithfulness to Christ that is tricky. For some of us, our experiences of other Christians, of Christianity, and of the church have left us battered and bruised. Sometimes going to church can be its own cross to bear. Earlier this week I found myself returning to these words from Welsh songwriter Martyn Joseph:
It’s happened again, the colourless sky
Has dimmed me again and I’ve run out of why
Hank Williams is grieving, I’m scanning the Psalms
When Jesus was here they stilletoed his palms
And the pledge and the vow is ‘you find if you seek’
But what if you try and find nothing but bleak
In the midst of our own experiences of abuse or rejection, in the midst of global catastrophe, unhinged violence, and climate injustice. In the midst of an age that glorifies youth, and money, and individualistic success to the detriment of our neighbours and neighbourhoods, our cities and towns, and all who inhabit this global village, we find ourselves asking, “Where is God?”
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Paul writes.
And foolishness it is. Because what Paul is saying here is that the foolishness of the cross does nothing less than redefine the ordering of the entire cosmos.
It changes everything. Turns it all on its head. The ladder of worldly success has been toppled, relativized, made meaningless by the God who is revealed to us as the victim of suffering at the hands of the elite. In all of our strivings for success, how could we have ever known that it would turn out this way?
How could we have known that the moment and the model of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, and the life that brought him to that humiliating love-soaked point, would set us free? Free from the world’s demands. Free so that we might be made one with Christ, and through him, with the whole created order
It is not Caesar who rules, but God. It is not the one with the most flair and camera-ready style, it’s not the one with the most cash, or twitter followers, or potential, or cutest kids, or the one with a well-rehearsed answer for everything. That’s fine and all. Except that it’s completely and utterly bankrupt. It’s all noise. And beyond the noise, Paul calls us to listen to Jesus’ embodied witness.
Time and again, in this letter and many others, Paul draws our attention to the cross in order to make a very specific point: Our God is a cruciform God.
Our God is not the god who puts people on crosses – that’s an 11th Century invention and completely foreign to the God that Paul knows.
Our God is a cruciform God. That is to say, that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Ruth, and Tamar, and Esther, the God known intimately by Jesus and Mary, is a God who embraces the cross in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, and in so doing shames, calls into question, and rises victorious over any claims the powers have over him, over us.
We ask where God is, and all Paul can do is point to the cross.
It’s foolishness. In a world drunk on power and addicted to fear, Paul treasonously calls the whole ball of wax into question.
And he suggests – actually Paul never really suggests – Paul boldly proclaims that no matter how the world’s so-called wisdom may manifest itself – it is nothing but a pale imitation of God’s wisdom. A wisdom that breaks the cycle of violence, scapegoating, and fear-mongering at play in our political, economic, social, religious, and personal lives.
For Paul, the cross is central because of its foolish, backwards, counterintuitive message. You are created in my image. You are beautiful. You are beloved. I have called you family. I have called you friend. And in accepting this cross – for your sake, and for the sake of the world – we are reconciled one to another.
For Paul, God’s wisdom is laid bare in divine self-emptying.
God’s wisdom is laid bare for all to see in the life of Jesus, the one who did not seek equality with God, or any of the rulers of the day, but who enfleshed a God amongst those made poor, those deemed weak, those without and friends, those made captive, those made victims of abuse, those suffering illness –mental and physical alike – those who had been imprisoned, and those made captive by the principalities and powers at work in the world.
The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. (Thanks be to God!)
And yet Paul’s concern in his perpetual talk of principalities and powers is simply this: know who you are against. And know who you are not fighting against.
You are not against each other, though you may have disagreements. You are not against flesh and blood. You are against the unseen forces of darkness who set you against one another.
You are against the unseen forces that compel you to believe that you are greater – or less than – others. “I am for you, Jesus says, and I pray that you may all be one” (John 17:21).
In all of this, Paul is fighting full on against the powers of this world that would lead us to demonize one another. Which is to say that our meditation on the cross should not lead us to find ways to nail each other to Jesus’ (or any other tree).
Our God is a cruciform God, and the church, Christ’s very own body, is called to be a cruciform church.
This letter to the Corinthians starts with Paul responding to an argument about who had been baptized by whom. All of which was another stupid human power grab causing Paul to lament, “I thank God that I baptized none of you…”
Which is not typical of most people I know who perform baptisms.
And this is important. This is all connected. In baptism we die to ourselves and the single-minded drive for the wisdom of this world – that laundry list of self-aggrandizing things I mentioned earlier. In baptism we are called to die to these things, and we are raised to new life, as members of God’s new creation, reconciled to God, one another, and God’s good creation in and through Christ.
It is in Jesus and with Jesus that we find our new identity. And yet the church in Corinth is taking baptism as an opportunity to define factions. Who baptized you? Who is more important? Whose hands are holier? Who used the best water? Whose oil smelled the most amazing? Or whatever.
Paul calls nonsense. Turning the tables on this whole enterprise, he quotes God’s voice from Isaiah 29, saying,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
You guys are trying to be too wise by half.
This Jesus thing is hard, because it runs so counter to the way in which so many of us have been formed. You’ll bump up against that time and again. But know this. You are beloved of God. And know this too, so are your oppressors. As hard as it is to swallow. We’ve sung this line for a number of weeks now, but it’s still just sinking in:
For just and unjust, a place at the table.
Some of us will see the cross as utter foolishness. And others of us will find its wisdom. Yet others of us will wrestle and struggle with what it all means. We should all be afforded our moments of doubt alongside our moments of clarity.
And if that’s your place, so be it. 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich put it this way:
“Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith”
The Christian life is one that requires us to constantly rethink everything – most especially the way we act in the world, and our position towards the dominant cultures of which we are a part. Sometimes it seems awkward. Sometimes it does feel foolish. Together, in community, and in our own lives – in the ways in which we engage God’s world, and all that is in it, God invites us through Holy Spirit to faithfully improvise our way through the Christian story.
Anne Lammott puts the same thought this way:
“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”
Certainty doesn’t make for good improv. And yet God’s call to us in this community, in this day and place, and before Christ returns, is to improvise.
To faithfully improvise in the Spirit of Christ requires that Christ’s church embrace Christ’s cross. Not as an instrument of torture, and not as a magic cure all. But as the self-emptying path of salvation for ourselves, for each other, and the world God so boldly and unreservedly loves.