Sunday 8 March 2015
The Third Sunday in Lent
Paul, the greatest of the apostles, has been busy, traveling across the known world spreading the good news of new life in Jesus Christ. And it hasn’t been easy business. No matter where he goes, Paul finds opposition. Many of his fellow Jews think that he’s a heretic. The Greek philosophers think he has a weak mind. The Romans think he’s trying to stir up rebellion. Even his fellow Jesus-followers question his beliefs and his methods. And yet, despite all the opposition, Paul is winning people for Jesus Christ. People are responding to his message in cities and towns across the Mediterranean world.
This morning he writes back to one of the churches he has founded, a church that is experiencing conflicts of its own. And he tries to explain to them that no matter how people may try to tear down the church and its message of transforming grace in Jesus Christ, God’s message transcends those kinds of criticisms. Don’t worry if they try to tear down the wisdom of your argument; God’s wisdom is beyond human categories. Don’t worry if they make fun of our savior as weak; God’s power is expressed most fully in weakness.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense after all. Paul’s critics had some good points. At the center of Paul’s message is Christ crucified. It is a very unlikely image to found a religion on. The image of Christ crucified is God at God’s weakest, at God’s most foolish. Christ crucified looks like a failure of the greatest proportions. Jesus is unable to escape death. In fact, he dies on a cross like the very lowest of criminals. Weakness, foolishness, death—it doesn’t seem like a very good way to win converts.
In the arena of Greek philosophy, the highest value is placed on achieving wisdom. In fact, the very word “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” When Paul debates with the philosophers, he claims that Christ is wisdom incarnate. He claims that the abstract, highest ideals that the philosophers have been seeking for centuries were actually born into a human body and wandered the earth.
That idea alone is enough to turn off most of his audience. Everyone knows that the highest, most perfect things are not things of flesh, but things of spirit. Everyone knows that this physical world is corrupted beyond redemption. The perfect things, the actual real world exists beyond the physical world, beyond our perception. Plato and Aristotle didn’t agree on much, but they could agree that anything perfect had to exist outside the physical world. So how could something perfect ever become incarnate in the physical world, let alone as a human being?
And even if we were to accept the possibility that the eternal and perfect ideal wisdom could become incarnate as a person, it certainly would not become incarnate as someone like Jesus of Nazareth. He was a commoner. He had little education. He died as a criminal. And worst of all, he wasn’t Greek. He was a barbarian. No one like that could ever be the incarnation of ancient wisdom.
The Jews Paul talks with are interested in something different. They think God is most fully expressed in signs of power. Miracles, healings: these are the sorts of things they want. These Jews are looking for the Messiah. They’re looking for a hero riding in a glorious chariot on the clouds. They are looking for someone who will have the power to overthrow the Roman oppressors and make Israel a free nation again. And so Paul tells them that what they are looking for, the promised Messiah, is none other than Jesus of Nazareth.
And the proof Paul gives them is the image of Christ crucified. A very strange choice if you’re looking for power. Seeing the leader of your movement being tortured to death does not exactly inspire confidence. They know what glory looks like, and it does not look a crucified man.
But there is something even more problematic about Paul’s argument. You see, Deuteronomy 21:23 clearly states, “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” That’s why people had been so anxious to get Jesus’s body down and in a grave before sunset, because the body of someone executed by crucifixion is an affront to God and cursed. That means that however good a man Jesus might have been, he is automatically disqualified from being the Messiah because he was crucified. The Bible says explicitly that he is cursed by God, and anyone who is cursed by God could never be the promised Messiah.
But Paul is undeterred by all these criticisms. He writes, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” It’s a paradox, he says, so that no one can brag about how smart they are, how they could figure out God. God does something completely crazy, completely unreasonable, so that no one can understand what is in God’s mind. God does something that to everyone looks absolutely foolish, and yet it is the very epitome, the very incarnation of God’s wisdom. God does something that for all intents and purposes looks weak—God dies on a cross—and yet it is the ultimate sign of God’s power, God’s victory over death. It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s not supposed to, because God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world, and God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.
We should have known. Christ’s crucifixion wasn’t the first time God’s wisdom was expressed in foolishness, and it wasn’t the first time God’s strength was expressed in weakness. When God wanted to free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God didn’t send a general, or a warrior, or a diplomat. No, God sent Moses, a fugitive shepherd with a speech impediment. When God wanted to save the Jews from genocide in Persia, it wasn’t with armies or with plagues. No, God sent Esther, a young Jewish girl who was scared for her life. So why should we be surprised that when God wanted to be revealed to humanity, it wasn’t as a king or a hero or a philosopher, it was as a poor traveling preacher who was willingly executed in order to expose God’s victory over death.
And things haven’t changed much since then. God still finds wisdom in foolishness and power in weakness.
Consider John Wesley. He failed miserably as a missionary to Georgia. He was constantly in trouble with his superiors. And he could never seem to get a job in a church anywhere. And yet his work inspired the Methodist movement which includes about 75 million people today. God turned foolishness into wisdom.
In the American South, and across this nation, when God wanted to free a people from 400 years of slavery and abuse, it wasn’t done with violence or rebellion, and it wasn’t done by powerful men in high offices. God did it with sermons in packed churches and on crowded malls. God did it with nonviolent resistance in the face of unspeakable violence. God did it with old women, and with little school children, and with poor laborers, marching forward for justice. God turned the world’s expectations upside-down.
And how is God calling us now to act foolishly for the sake of God’s wisdom? How is God calling us to show strength by becoming weak? Is it by loving our enemies and praying for those who want to hurt us? Is it by holding on to hope while the world is clutched by fear and despair? Is it by reaching out to the lowest and the least instead of striving to be the most and the highest? Yes, it is all these things, all these things and more. God’s call for us nearly always seems like foolishness by human standards. And God’s strength is strongest when it is expressed in weakness. We just need the courage to be fools for Christ, and to rest assured in God’s strength, even when we feel the weakest. Because things are not what they seem, and in God’s world grace and power usually come from the most unlikely of places. Thanks be to God.