So, here we are, still in the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I want to thank you for taking up the challenge with me to hear God’s word from Corinthians in this Epiphany season, as we lend our ears, our hearts and minds, to be inspired by St. Paul! Don’t worry, we’ll move to chapter 2 by next week!
The Corinthian people, we have found, are a stubborn and wayward bunch. But then, what congregation isn’t! Stubbornness is not new to Paul, a Jew, steeped as he was in the identity of an Exodus people, resistant to God’s path of new life, which Moses led them on from Red Sea to Promised Land. Paul’s church was made up of Greeks, however, not Jews. And their stubborn and wayward ways were born more out of polytheism. Paul reports that they are dividing themselves, one from another, into factions, perhaps setting up some kind of Pantheon of competing gods. Some following Paul, some Apollos, some Peter, and some, trying to best them all, say they follow Christ. Instead of building up the church they are bringing it down, and their witness to the community, to those they want to share the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection with, is only weakened by these divisions.
In a word, Paul seeks to unite them in the “cross.” The cross is Paul’s shorthand for cross and resurrection, and at other times for ‘the dawning of the new age,’ and also for ‘the fulfillment of God’s promise to God’s people.’ And for Paul, it is also a living contradiction: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it it’s the power of God.” Sometimes Paul talks about the wisdom of God being hidden from the wise, in the cross, but it is never a secret that is aimed at an inward journey, or just for the individual alone, but he always talks about its power in the 3rd person, for the whole community.
The way of the cross and resurrection is an ever growing, morphing pathway. It cannot be nailed down by agreeing to propositions, the right creed, or agreeing to the right opinion. So here at Unity, we’re learning discussion and active listening, instead of confrontation and bullying. That’s why in our New Member classes we don’t insist on one dogmatic theology or a certain denominational belief-set, but we welcome newcomers to join the road all of us are already on, the way of the cross. The way of the cross is through the foolishness of faith, faith in the grace of God, which comes to us new each morning, and sprouts up in the dardest places.
So, how do we “live up” to our call to “be fools for Christ?” And what does that look like? [William Willimon] Paul says, it all sounds fine to our Sunday-morning ears. When we read the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount: “blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn…” it seems to make sense here in this context. But to our Monday-morning ears, the flush of foolishness rushes in. Try living out, “blessed are the meek” tomorrow at work and see how far you get. As William Willimon says, “Meekness is fine for church, but in the real world the meek get to go home early with a pink slip and a pat on the back.” Or, “’Blessed are those who are peacemakers’; they shall get done to them what they refrain from doing to others. ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake;’ they shall be called fanatics.”
So, is the world more like Sunday-morning or Monday-morning? Well, the first Christians in Jerusalem at Pentecost were thought to be drunk on new-wine at 9am! Shortly before Paul was martyred, the Roman Procurator Festus, listening to Paul testify in his own defense, in a typical speech about why he was a follower of a ‘dead man come back to life,’ was so alarmed, that he demanded Paul undergo a court ordered psychiatric evaluation! ‘By the world’s standards of what works, who is greatest, and what’s practical, the Christian faith can look foolish indeed.’
The benevolent dictator, Hosni Moubarek of Egypt, has for many years looked rational and in control of his country, but suddenly, he looks like an emperor with no clothes. The sweep of demonstrations in the Arab world, like a tsunami wave across the region, from Tunisia to Egypt to Lebanon, are insisting on change for more accountable democracies in their countries’, in a great role reversal of the foolish and the wise.
As Lutherans, the spirit of reformation is not unfamiliar to us. And it reminds me of the Chicago Pride Parade in June. Talk about fools for Christ! There we are, holding our church signs in the middle of a parade, a celebration for LGBTQ rights and, for just being who you are. Bystanders, here and there, throughout the entire parade route keep snapping their heads back, doing a double-take when they see us. But then, they thank us, praise us even, for marching. In being able to join those, who for so long have been considered weak, or nothing, poor in spirit and hungering for righteousness, it can only look like foolishness to those who are outside, but to us who believe in new life, “it is the power of God.”
And so Kierkegaard could famously say, “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.” Of course, western Christendom has inflicted deep wounds, mostly when it has confused the power of the cross, with wielding power in the world, from the crusades to the Iraq War, from repressing women, racial and sexual minorities, to dominating and abusing the earth, water and sky of God’s creation.
But Christianity has also shocked the world in bringing healing to it, through the cross. The cross as a ‘scandal’ to the world, is a challenge to all rival values, not because we lift it higher than the rest, not because its art is more beautiful than the rest, not because we can use its blood to challenge others to blood sports and battles. But because the value of the cross is a ‘power in weakness,’ it overcomes by emptying itself to live in cooperation with and by including others. It is non-violent and ever-life-affirming as it points to the real power in the world, the one thing we are not, and cannot be, God. The power of the cross is all light, and all life, in the midst of fear and darkness and the world’s rivalries.
This is how we “live up” to our call to “be fools for Christ!” We proclaim Christ crucified. Because, though most of us are not “wise by human standards, not many are powerful, not many are of noble birth,” yet we can claim our baptism into Christ’s death, to become joined to his resurrection, and a witness to the world.
The way of the cross, in the words of the Prophet Micah, is “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” This is the parade we walk together, “fools for Christ.”