A sermon for Tuesday of Holy Week: 1 Cor. 1:18-31, “The Foolishness of the Cross”
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. 19For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For 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. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’
Holy week goes on. We remember the last days of our Lord, and anticipate both his death on the cross and his glorious resurrection. If we stop and think about it, it is a strange thing to come together and celebrate the suffering and death of God. One of our Bishops, Will Willimon out of Alabama, has written, “One of the dangers of being in church as often as I am is that it all starts to make sense.” In other words, we who go to church, who pray, who search the Scriptures and partake of the Lord’s Supper, are in danger. The danger is assuming that all the puzzle pieces fit, that all this gospel stuff really and truly makes perfect sense. If we lose a sense of mystery, a sense of strangeness about this faith that has laid claim on our lives, we should also worry that we may have lost the true message and ministry of God in Christ Jesus.
Mystery is at the heart of our faith. Has anyone read The Shack? We recently did it as a group study at my church. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, The Shack is a book that deals heavily with the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now it is fiction, but it deals seriously with the relationship among the three persons, how they relate to one another. Many of us who read this together discovered that thinking about the Holy Trinity really made our brains hurt! How can one be also three? How can we believe in the three “persons” of the to which Scripture witnesses are still together one, and only one, God Almighty. In our group we went around and around this question, and at some point we simply agreed to get comfortable with not understanding. The Trinity is not a doctrine that we hold because it is logical, or because it is easily explained, but simply because this is how God has been revealed to us. This means we cannot downplay the mystery or smooth the rough edges of the Trinitarian relationship without being untrue to God at a very basic level.
It is equally mysterious and odd that God would choose to initiate the salvation of the world on a cross. Paul tells his church at Corinth that Jesus’ crucifixion was a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles. While Christians know the cross as “the power of God,” the world scoffs and laughs.
In reading this passage, though, I found myself wondering: do we Christians treat the cross as foolishness? Whether we mean to or not, whether we are conscious of it, do we fail to proclaim the cross of Jesus? I think it happens more than we want to admit. I think that we are tempted to do this in two ways: we avoid it when possible, and when we are at last confronted with the cross, we sometimes dilute its power and message.
First: we avoid the cross. On one level, this is natural and understandable. I doubt that Jesus would have had to teach his disciples to “Take up your cross and follow me” unless they did not have their own hesitation. The cross means suffering, humiliation, pain, and death. It is not natural for us to run to it; only the Spirit of the living God to help us to embrace that cross in faith, hope, and love.
But on another level I think we tend to do it intentionally. Let me put it this way: if you wake up one morning and decide you want to be a successful preacher, or write Christian books that will sell a million dollars and make lots of money, you only need to follow one piece of advice. Do you want to know what it is? It’s very simple, now. Deceptively simple. Here goes: avoid talking about the cross at all costs. As one scholar put it, “The cross was a lousy marketing tool in first-century Palestine, and it is for us today.” The kind of Christianity that people want to hear, the kind that sells books and packs stadiums, has very little to do with the cross. Oh, they will talk about Jesus. They will talk a lot about Jesus. But it is never the Jesus we meet during Holy Week, the Jesus with stripes on his back and a crown of thorns on his head.
The Jesus that sells is the Jesus that preaches success and blessing, health and wealth, the Jesus that gives us five simple steps to better living, the Jesus who promises to give us nice things if we work hard, smile a lot, and think positive. That’s the Jesus we see so often on TV and in popular books, a Jesus with a three-piece suit and a smile, but never a cross. As American Christians, we eat this up. It has hardly a pinch of gospel to it, and not one splinter of the cross, but by golly, it sells. And so, we avoid the cross when we can.
The other danger is that, when we do encounter the cross, it is a cross that does not look at all like the cross of Jesus. For instance, when did Christians begin to take the cross so lightly that it became a fashion accessory? When does it mean when someone like Madonna can wear a diamond-encrusted cross and no one thinks a thing of it? We would think it very strange if someone put emeralds on a miniature noose and hung it around their neck. Likewise, we would probably do a double-take if we noticed somebody with a gold lapel pin in the shape of an electric chair. And yet we never think twice about seeing the Roman cross, a tool of empire, the form of punishment reserved for the worst criminals and traitors, as simple decoration.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. I have a love-hate relationship with the local Hobby Lobby where I live now. Anybody every been to a Hobby Lobby? OK, well for those who haven’t, Hobby Lobby is a craft store on Christian steroids. It is like a giant Michael’s or A.C. Moore; people flock there to buy everything from fabric to scrap booking materials. They also have a lot of home decorations, everything from furniture to paintings and every kind of knick-knack you can imagine.
Now, they have a lot of Christianity-themed items. I should say that I have a lot of respect for the owners of Hobby Lobby; it is a very openly Christian business and they are closed on Sunday. And the store is a cool place to shop; I’ve bought some neat prints and other things for my home there. All that is great. But there’s just one thing I can’t get over: their selection of crosses.
Hobby Lobby has a huge selection of decorative crosses. I don’t even know how to describe all the various kinds of crosses they have. There are crosses with the Lord’s Prayer on them; crosses with favorite Bible verses; crosses with patriotic quotes; just about anything you can imagine. Some of them are downright strange. You can‘t make this up, folks: I was there a couple of weeks ago, and they had an antique-looking, Western-themed cross with a longhorn’s skull on it. What does that even mean?
But those aren’t the ones that bother me. The crosses that bother me are the cute ones. Do you know what I’m talking about? Crosses with pastels and flowers; ‘Precious Moments’ crosses; crosses that don’t look anything like they have anything to do with the suffering and death of Jesus. One time, they even had a cross in pink Leopard print.
A cute cross, a pretty cross, is no cross of Christ. It may look good on a wall, but we should get over the illusion that these have anything to do with Jesus’ passion. The cross means pain and death, and there is no getting around this. As the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard put it, “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us not shun the cross, nor pretty it up and make it easier to bear. As our Lenten journey nears completion and we draw near the Easter victory, the cross that Christ asks us to take up is a cross like his: ragged, blood-stained, and fatal. It is the cross of a savior who asks us to do nothing but die to ourselves. To the world such a cross is ridiculous, utter foolishness, but to us, as Saint Paul says, it is the power of God.
Tony Campolo tells a story about a man who walked up and down the streets of downtown Philadelphia wearing a sandwich-board style sign over his shoulders. On the front of the sign was written, “I am a fool for Christ.” As you might imagine, many who approached him would snicker and laugh at the man as they drew near. But they all became silent as they continued to walk past him and read the other side of the board: “whose fool are you?”
Easter approaches. The world is busy buying chocolate bunnies and dying eggs. But in various places, Jesus’ disciples gather in his holy Church to remember that the new life promised at Easter is not possible without this foolish, rugged old thing called a cross. We can be wise in the world’s eyes, or fools for the sake of Christ and his cross. Whose fool are you?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.