I Corinthians 1:18-31
We live in a pretty bizarre world, and we have learned to expect almost anything to come our way if the topic of faith comes up in our conversations. But generally, for the most part, I think it is safe to say that most people try to do their best to be polite. If someone discovers that we are a follower of Jesus, that we read our Bibles, and that we participate in a local congregation, that person will usually not fully speak their mind. They might say something like, “Oh, isn’t that nice; we’ve thought about going to church, but we never have any time.” Or they might recount a little history: “You know when I was a kid I had to go to church every Sunday, and I liked it alright, but…” But rarely do they tell us what’s actually on their minds. And what’s on their minds is that we’re all a bunch of some pretty stupid people who believe some stuff that no ordinary, normal thinking person would. Our Scriptures contain stuff that is unbelievable in both senses of the word. It is not normal, or rational or even sane to believe in the claims that our Scriptures make. From a natural point of view, followers of Jesus Christ are adherents to a religion that is characterized mostly by utter foolishness. It is a waste of time to try to argue that the claims of our faith are rational. They are not rational. They never have been. Those claims that Scripture makes, are, however, the wisdom of God. But this can only be understood through faith in God.
The Christian faith arose in a culture that had no sane or reasonable category in which to place its adherents. We began as a small sect within Judaism, mostly because the earliest followers of Jesus were all Jews. So the followers of Jesus worshiped together, on the Sabbath, in the synagogues with their brother and sister Jews. They participated in all of the feasts and festivals and holy days, and they all helped out in the charitable work of the synagogues, just like everyone else. They were part of the family.
But then on Sundays, the followers of Jesus, or the followers of “The Way” as they liked to call themselves, got together and they had their own worship service. They read the Scriptures together, they sang hymns and spiritual songs together, and they shared a meal that they called the “love feast”.
But over time, things began to not work out as nicely as I’ve described up to this point. The lines of demarcation between the Hebrew faith and the followers of “The Way” began to become more pronounced. And those lines became more pronounced, because while the followers of “The Way” could still affirm everything Jewish, the followers of traditional Judaism could not affirm everything that eventually came to be known as “Christian”.
For starters, the followers of the way were worshiping Jesus as if he was a God. This was not merely foolishness, it was blasphemy. God established the Hebrew faith solidly around the concept of monotheism. Simply put, that means that there is one God, and one God only. The Hebrew Scriptures clearly teach that all other gods are idols and merely the creations of the human imagination gone overactive. From the viewpoint of a faithful Jew, it certainly seemed as though the followers of “The Way” had become pagan and had added another god to the line-up. This is still a stumbling point for Jewish people, even today. To a person committed to monotheism, our concept of a Trinity makes no sense at all. It seems foolish to our Jewish friends for us to proclaim our commitment to monotheism when it surely seems that we have at least three gods.
But what really offended Jewish sensitivities in the first century was this business of a crucified messiah. That was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. The idea of a crucified messiah was complete and utter foolishness. It was a contradiction of terms. One could have a messiah, and one could have a crucifixion, but one could not have both. The very idea that someone would stoop so low as to worship and adore another person who had been crucified was complete folly. Crucifixion was the ultimate penalty. It was how the Roman government eliminated its vilest and most violent of criminals. If a person suffered the indignity of crucifixion, it meant that that person was a failure at life itself. No sane person would worship a failure.
Faithful followers of the Hebrew faith were not looking for a crucified messiah. It was anathema to them. The Hebrew people were anticipating the advent of a glorious, reigning and ruling messiah who would do away with all of the evil kingdoms and institutions of the world and establish a kingdom of righteousness and justice and peace for all to enjoy forever.
And the Hebrew Scriptures clearly indicate that anyone who dies by hanging from a tree is cursed by God (Deuteronomy21: 22-23). Now, as followers of Jesus we can comprehend this folly of crucifixion and curse, because we understand that when Jesus died on the cross, that he took the curse of our sins upon himself. He died, so that we can live forever. Jesus expressed this sense of being cursed by God, when in his last living moments he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The Christian faith also grew up in the Greek and Roman world, or for our purposes this morning, the gentile world. The Greeks and Romans were philosophers. Their understanding of life and of the divine was that there could be no mystery. Everything had to be rational and sane and sensible. Wisdom was everything. The highest goal in life that one could have, was be to become wise. Ultimate reason and divinity were nearly synonymous. The gods were the epitome of wisdom and reason. And so among gentiles, Jesus doesn’t cut it. Anyone so foolish as to allow himself to be crucified by his enemy is no god at all. To the Greeks and the Romans, Jesus was also a total failure.
In what was once a room beneath the Imperial Palace in Rome, there is a crude bit of graffiti drawn on one of the walls. The drawing shows a man’s body, hung on a cross, but the man’s body has the head of an ass. To the left of the cross is a figure of a young man with his hand raised as if he is worshiping the person being crucified. The inscription beneath this cartoon reads, “Alexemenos worships his god.” Some of our own friends and acquaintances would be very comfortable with that same caricature of our Lord, and of our dedication to him. Even the writer of this epistle to the church at Corinth, once believed that the followers of Jesus were both stupid and foolish. His revulsion at this new sect of followers of Jesus was so intense that he launched a campaign to eliminate them. It took a dramatic encounter with Jesus himself to change the heart and the mind of Saul of Tarsus.
It is a great and wonderful mystery when God changes the heart and mind of anyone. Most people’s hearts and minds are already firmly established. Followers of Jesus are a bit daft, especially today. We believe foolish things like, there is a God! We believe crazy things such as that we are lost and cannot attain our own salvation and eternal life. How foolish, even to believe in eternal life! Dead has been provably dead for millennia. Our faith is neither reasonable, nor wise, nor sane.
And yet, we have given our lives to this foolishness, because we can abide mystery. We can imagine a foolish God who would so love the world that he would send his own Son to teach us the way to truth and to life. That Son would then, in an act of selfless love, give himself over to crucifixion, bearing the burden of our sins in his own body and in his soul. This is an embarrassment and a scandal to most, but to God, it is the ultimate act of wisdom.
Had God invited us to provide some of our own wisdom, we would have given God a much more reasonable, much more workable plan. We would have given God something that made more sense. We would have given God something that would be attractive to the seeker of wisdom. We would have given God a proper Jewish Messiah.
But as it turned out, God had no interest in consulting us or in seeking out our opinion, and that is because God is God, and we are not.
Becoming a follower of Jesus involves a terrible and frightening risk. It is a question of the heart. Will we choose our own wisdom, our own reason, our own intelligence, or will we throw caution to the wind, and open our hearts to the foolishness of God? “Where 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?” Do we dare match wits with God? Can we learn that God’s foolishness is wiser than our own wisdom? Our lives and our ministries depend on it, because when faith makes no sense at all, that’s when it becomes faith.