Text: I Corinthians 1:18-31
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Jan. 29, 2017
We honor it. It stands center stage in our place of worship. We wear it around our necks. For us it has been sanctified by our Lord who died on it, and by the incredible reversal that took place where three days later he rose from the grave. But in its time, it was an instrument of torture. But for the fact that our Lord was crucified, the sight of it would turn our stomach and its place would be as far out of mind as we could manage, along with other such hideous devices and procedures as reported by Amnesty International. For people in the first century it brought to mind the same feelings as the sight of the guillotine during the French Revolution or the hangman’s rope on the American frontier.
The Cross, which has become the symbol of our salvation, was as difficult for people to accept in St Paul’s day as the gas chamber is in ours. It was an offense to their sense of propriety. It would only make sense if their way of thinking was transformed.
In our New Testament lesson, St. Paul confronts such feelings head on. He is addressing a congregation which he had established on his first missionary tour some ten years before. Corinth was a great seaport in Southern Greece whose reputation made Sodom and Gomorrah look good. Paul had proclaimed the gospel there and had made many converts, from the Jewish and Greek communities that resided there.
In his letter to them he reminds them how they had first responded to his message. Those who were Jews found the cross to be a scandal. Those who were Greek found it to be foolishness. That was humankind’s way of thinking. It was true then. It is equally true today.
But God, it seems, has a different way of thinking. In this letter, St. Paul also discloses the Divine point of view. He continues: ‘to those who say the cross is foolishness, God has made it wisdom; to those who think it scandalous, He has made it power. This reversal which transforms our understanding is what will reflect upon this morning.
I: The Cross according to human thinking
First, then, let us consider the human response to the idea of the Cross: scandal and foolishness. Two groups of people find the Cross offensive for different reasons. Those reasons are embedded deeply in their cultural and religious background. Yet, as I will assert this morning, these two sets of reasons have proven to be universal across the centuries and continue to persist even to our own day.
A. The Cross is Scandal
To the Jew, the cross was a scandal and therefore a stumbling block. Can you imagine what was going through minds of these Jews when they first heard Paul’s message that Jesus, who was crucified on a wooden cross was their long-anticipated Messiah? “Paul don’t you remember our leader Moses has written in : ‘Cursed is the man who hangs on a tree?” How could Jesus who died a wooden cross possibly be the one we have been expecting who will bring us liberation and freedom. Look at the miracles God performed under Moses. He released us from slavery in Egypt. He parted the waters at the Red Sea, He gave us manna from heaven. Surely, you don’t expect us to believe that the Messiah, our Savior will end up hanging on a cross. No, like Moses, he will come with a sword and will deliver us from Rome.”
Isn’t that the way many still think today? We find this kind of thinking in our world, and if we are honest in ourselves as well. How often do we hear or do we think: “Why didn’t God…..?” or God should have….” “God should have healed those children from cancer instead of letting them suffer and die.” Or “God should have interrupted the hurricane so that it did not destroy all those homes and kill all those people. Now those would be signs indeed that our God is control!”
(I think you know me well enough to realize that I believe we live in a world where such things can happen. I firmly believe; indeed, I have witnessed that God does sometimes choose to heal miraculously. That is why we pray. But Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy will be done.” But we do not place demands God. We do not reject Him if our agenda of preferred actions do not get implemented. The fact is God has the right to be God and to act in any way He chooses. He has chosen the way of the Cross.)
B. The Cross is Foolishness
But what about the Greeks? They seek wisdom. Are we not also like them? Are we not also seekers? We are curious. We will look at almost anything that grabs our attention. As twenty-first century humans, we are conditioned to be consumers, roving the mall of salvation. We are not like the Jews, who claim revelation for their views and know ahead of time how it ought to be done. We are Greeks. We are shoppers. Sooner or later we will buy; but right now we are still looking for that latest hi-tech gadget that will do more.
We seek “wisdom” that is, a system of ideas which engages the mind, that answers old questions and which explains life’s contradictions. We long for a framework which justifies the life we want to live, a faith which is distinguished and appealing. After all we are Episcopalians! The Cross was a disappointment to us Greeks. And it is too much to expect us to believe that the secret of the universe is found in a man who has been hanged. It isn’t elegant, it isn’t chic, it is just not done. Why has God not used His privileged position to give us a scheme for improving life and gaining prestige? “Eight Steps to Health and Prosperity,” based on tips from the Ultimate Insider. To the Greek, the cross is foolish.
II. The Cross According to God’s Thinking.
That sums up the human way of thinking. The Cross is a scandal. The Cross is foolish. But what about God’s way of thinking?
A. The Cross is Wisdom
Paul insists that God has set aside the wisdom of the wise. No one gets to God by human cleverness. We can’t double talk our way into heaven. We can’t argue our way out. We don’t make our own way to God. We seek God, but He finds us! Often, when He finds us we are like the man in the ditch in Jesus parable of the Good Samaritan. Broken, helpless – then we suddenly discover we are able to look at life from God’s point of view.
This does not mean the that we should conceal the rough edges, the ugliness of the cross. This does not mean we should tell a woman in an abusive marriage, that this is “her cross to bear.” What it does mean is that God entered into human history, He identified with us at the point we are most vulnerable. On Good Friday God in Jesus died. But that was not the end of the story. On Easter Morning, God triumphed over death. That is why as he identified with us in our weakness, he calls us to identify with him in his death at baptism – so that we might be raised to new life in Him. In this process, we discover God’s wisdom.
B. The Cross is Power.
In this process, we also discover the cross is power. Let me indulge in a personal illustration. Most of you know that early in my ministry, my first marriage ended in divorce. When we recognized our marriage was in trouble we agreed to go to a marriage counselor we both knew and trusted. After the first session he said, normally I work with couples together, but in your case, I think it will be most helpful if I work with you separately. At my next session, he said to me “Bill, you realize this isn’t a marriage problem, don’t you?” While I’m sure you have many characteristics that drive your wife crazy, if my preliminary diagnosis is correct, my job with you is to prepare you for divorce. There is something in your wife’s early childhood that is so painful and buried so deep that I doubt she will ever be able to risk allowing it come to the surface so that she can work through it.
Of course, I did not want to hear this and for a year I did everything thing I humanly could to try to become her image of the perfect husband. I failed miserably. When the end came, I needed to leave the parish I was serving. I told the Bishop who had been fully informed of our problems, that if he needed to put me on the self, I fully understood. Instead he said. “Bill I’m sending you to one of our African-American communities. There you will find much brokenness but also much acceptance and understanding. For them you will become a wounded healing and they will bring you healing as well. I remember so well, as if it were yesterday, standing before that little congregation Sunday after Sunday feeling so empty, feeling the sermon I had written so trite. An then as I prayed, “Uphold thou, me as I seek to uplift Thee” I would image in my mind a chalice filled with my emptiness and pain. I would lift it heavenward and say, Lord. this is all I have to offer, and then I would put it to my lips and drink. Sunday after Sunday, I would feel His power surge through me and the words that seemed to empty come alive. How that little congregation embraced me and over time healing came. The cross is power.
I’m sure that you have noticed by now that two words dominate today’s epistle. Two words, two ideas, two concepts. These are the Greek word sophia which means “wisdom,” and moria the Greek word meaning “foolishness. In this short passage, some form of sophia appears ten times and some form of moria occurs five times.
You have heard these two words before. When you put them together you get the English word “sophomore,” “the wise fool”. The reference is to the second-year university student who has learned enough to correct most of his parents’ mistakes and to abandon their faith, but who has not learned enough to hear how foolish he sounds when he makes his claims or to realize how foolish he is acting.
As Christians, we are called to follow the way of the cross which to our secular world makes us seem like sophomores, fools who think they are wise. But to us whose thinking has been transformed and whose lives have been changed by the power of the cross we know have been privileged. We have been given the ability to see things from God’s perspective. For us the order of the two Greek words has been reversed. we are morosophs. We are God’s foolishly wise. Amen.