I Corinthians 1:18-25
“Foolishness or Wisdom?”
March 15, 2009 - Third Sunday of Lent
The secret to saving the world is in a comic book. So goes the plotline for the “Heroes” television series in its first season. The character who discovers the hidden message of the comic magazine is a geeky but loveable Japanese office worker named Hiro Nakamura. Part of his discovery is that he himself is in the story. He has super powers. He is a “hero.”
For awhile Hiro’s friend Ando is skeptical of his powers. And rightly so. Hiro claims that he’s bent space and time to make the clock turn back one second and that he’s done the same to cause a high speed commuter train in Tokyo to arrive fourteen seconds late. Later in a bar, when Ando’s back is turned, Hiro teleports himself into the women’s restroom. But all Ando sees is his friend being roughly dragged from the lady’s room and expelled from the bar. Hiro thinks this teleportation proves his abilities, but Ando says all it proves is that Hiro is a pervert.
Eventually Ando and many others learn that Hiro is absolutely right. He can bend time and space and the way to save the world is printed in a comic book. But for awhile Hiro’s powers and revelations look to almost everyone like the immature foolishness of a comic book nerd who needs to get a life.
To many people, even after 2,000 years, it seems like immature foolishness to say that the way to save the world is printed in this book, in the Bible. For skeptical inquirers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and the professor you had as a freshman in college and the couple who live next door to you or down the street, the very notion that an ancient book of religion might contain anything of value is pure nonsense. As Dawkins and Hitchens and Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett argue, you’d almost have to be a fool to believe it. And to that extent, nothing’s changed since the time of the Apostle Paul.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” wrote Paul near the beginning of his first letter to Corinth, chapter 1, verse 18. And so the Gospel of Jesus Christ is still perceived as foolishness. Despite the fact that Christianity fostered the art, science and culture of western civilization, modern atheists want to argue that our faith is a silly superstition that can now be abandoned for a more helpful, more reasonable form of wisdom guided by science alone. You might imagine this morning that Paul wrote this text just for them.
Paul wrote about the foolishness of the message of the Cross, relating it to what he calls in verse 20, “the wisdom of the world.” It’s fairly easy for us to suppose that “wisdom” meant something like our academic disciplines. The NIV and TNIV versions aid that supposition by mistranslating the word for “disputer of this age” as “philosopher of this age.” So we get an image of people trained in subjects we took in college.
In a quotation from Isaiah in verse 19, we read that “God will destroy the wisdom of the wise.” We connect that doomed wisdom with academic wisdom. Christianity is meant to overcome all that liberal philosophy and political science and economics and evolutionary biology that is being taught in places like our own University of Oregon. It sounds just fine, because most of us knew that stuff was pointless when misguided professors tried to teach it to us years ago. If God’s going to destroy the ramblings of a few bearded radicals with cushy tenured jobs, then hurray for God. Let’s get on with being good, happy, conservative, Christian citizens who don’t need a lot of deep thinking to follow Jesus.
Yet Paul wasn’t writing primarily about ancient academic despisers of Christianity. The folks he names in verse 20, the wise, the teachers of the law, the disputers, correspond more to people in our time we regard as possessing practical wisdom. The “wise” were more like public philosophers, folks like Dr. Phil, dispensing common sense wisdom for daily living. The teachers of the law were the scribes, expert attorneys in Jewish law. And the debaters were public speakers, rhetoricians like our modern pundits, whether it’s Oprah Winfrey or Rush Limbaugh. He’s talking about people who shape public opinion. And to the kind of practical wisdom they offer, Christianity looks like foolishness, because Christianity is not practical.
What Paul is trying to get across to us is that we must never expect Christian faith, especially the message of the Cross at the center of our faith, to be justified by popular practical wisdom. Whenever we think that our faith can be justified in terms of what the world wants and values, then we’ve abandoned real Christianity, abandoned the message that the world in all its seeming wisdom just can’t understand.
Verse 21 says that “the world did not know God through wisdom.” So in His wisdom “God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” If the world’s wisdom is not going to save us, if going after what our culture says is most valuable won’t help us to know God, then God is going to save us by foolishness.
In verse 22, Paul talks about the two cultures mixed together in the Corinthian church. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.” The Jewish folks were looking for great, life-changing, miraculous religious experience. Give us a sign. Let us have an encounter with God that we can feel. Make it real, authentic, genuine. Then we’ll know it’s the truth. The Greeks, on the other hand, wanted to be persuaded. Convince us. Show us that Christianity addresses the issues. Win the debate. Talk smoothly and plainly and let us decide for ourselves that you’ve got the truth.
“But,” says Paul, in verse 23, “we proclaim Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” The question for you and me is how a crucified Jesus is a stumbling block or foolishness to Americans. What kind of practical demonstration or wisdom or we looking for, and how does the Cross of Christ measure up to what we value?
Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom. Some Americans still look for those things, but what do the rest of us want? Prosperity? Health? Freedom? Happiness? What’s the “American dream?” Is crucifixion the answer to it? Whatever our American dream is, I think we must answer “no” to the second question. Whatever we think we want most of the time, it hasn’t got much to do with a violent, humiliating public execution. In terms of our own 21st century, American wisdom, the Cross of Jesus Christ is still foolishness. And we must not forget that.
Our family has been to the site of ancient Corinth. One of the most visible features of the ruins you can see there is the agora, the open shopping center. Laid out in carefully quarried limestone are rows of shops, each with its arched doorway. We walked through an ancient shopping mall of what must have been successful retailers. Once it was full of prosperous people, buying fine clothing and beautiful decorations for their homes, purchasing healing medicine and good food. The place was alive with women window shopping and kids hanging out and men putting the roof on the next shopping space being constructed. Now it’s all been roofless and empty for centuries.
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,” says God. If our wisdom, if our practical wisdom as Americans is merely to prosper enough so that we can have beautiful places to shop and money to spend in them, that sort of wisdom will perish. If our wisdom is merely to do something even so wise and good as to provide adequate health care for every citizen, eventually that wisdom will perish along with all of us who enjoy a long life that nonetheless comes to an end. If our wisdom is merely to maintain and promote the freedom and leisure to do whatever we please, then that wisdom will crumble into endless boredom with the endless choices we’ve given ourselves.
That’s why you and I are here today, why we keep coming back to this symbol that hangs before us. We are coming to the reality that stands behind the symbol, Christ crucified. According to our standard, practical wisdom, it’s all foolishness. It’s not going to make us richer or healthier or safer or more free. “But,” says verse 24, “to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks [and we may add, “and Americans”], Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
I haven’t ever preached on this text before, and I think it’s partly because of its implications for how I’ve spent a major portion of my life. I studied philosophy, the “love of wisdom.” And these verses might seem to suggest that it was all pointless. And it could have been. If philosophy imagines that it will find wisdom solely in itself, solely in the grasp and power of the human mind, then it truly is the sort of wisdom that God is destroying, along with all the other wise things we desire.
Yet when philosophy or medicine or business or politics or any other form of practical wisdom realizes that it has no meaning or lasting value in and of itself, then it may be on the way to becoming a truer and better sort of wisdom. There’s a story I just learned about two great Christian philosophers of the middle ages. St. Thomas Aquinas is supposed to have visited St. Bonaventure and asked him how he had obtained his great learning, his great wisdom. Bonaventure pointed to the crucifix hanging on his study wall and said, “I study only the crucified one, Jesus Christ.”
He expressed it differently, but the same could be have been said for Thomas. He had his own moment when he was kneeling before the crucifix in a church in Naples and he felt Christ spoke to him and offered him what he desired as a reward for his good theological work. He could have requested the lost manuscript of a church father, or the solution to some philosophical puzzle, but what Thomas asked of His crucified Lord was, “Only Thyself.”
This is what Paul means by verse 25, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” When we begin to put the figure of our dying Savior at the very forefront of our thinking, whether it’s philosophy or fine arts or filling orders or fire fighting, then we are on the path to wisdom and to strength.
Yet if Jesus Christ crucified is there in front of us as the source and fountain of our wisdom, the practical reality is that we will often look foolish. To live in a way that makes sense if God in Christ has died for us, will make no sense in a world of values and ideas that does not accept that sacrifice. We will, as Paul goes on to say in this letter and elsewhere, frequently look like fools.
Many of you wrote down lists this morning of people you want to pray for who don’t yet know Jesus as Savior. How many of them would be surprised that you wrote down their names? How many of them might think you were a fool or an idiot if they knew you were spending time lifting their names to God in prayer? Yet because we believe that Christ is the power of God to us who are being saved, we do it. We bring our world to Christ even as our world thinks we’re crazy for doing so.
Paul wrote this text for the Corinthians and for us, because we need foolishness for Christ. The foolishness of the Cross is for us who are being saved. We really do have a book with a message that will save the world, even if it seems as silly as a comic book. We need to be foolish enough to bring that message to our world, to bring our world to Christ.
In the history of the Church, God has given us a whole roster of examples of Christians willing to be seen as fools for Jesus’ sake. Bonaventure’s mentor, St. Francis of Assisi, walked away from a prosperous, comfortable life to live as a beggar and preach the Gospel to those even poorer than he. He was known as a fool for Christ.
The Russian Orthodox Church has almost institutionalized the role of “Fool for Christ.” It’s a special designation for those who give up their possessions and take up a life of almost bizarre behavior, going half-clothed in all sorts of weather, and being willing to speak uncomfortable truth to people who don’t want to hear it. Historically, that included even the Tsar. Basil of Moscow was said to have caught Ivan the Terrible standing in the church service one day pondering over how he would decorate his summer palace. The “fool” reprimanded him for his unworthy thoughts while God was being worshipped.
Jesus Himself, overturning the tables of those who bought and sold in the Temple, as we read from John 2 this morning, is the example for these fools for Christ. Jesus, and those who join in His foolishness, challenge our placid reasonableness and order, challenge our comfortable compromises with a worldly wisdom that is doomed.
What does it look like to be a fool for Christ in the times we live in? Well, it might look like the folks from Valley Covenant and other churches who stayed awake all night at the Warming Center this past week, trying to provide shelter for chronically homeless folks when the temperature dropped below freezing. It might look like our students going hungry for a day a couple weeks ago and some of you paying them to do it, so hungry people in another country could eat. It might look giving a jobless person a few hours work in your yard or painting your house, when you’re not real sure about your own next paycheck.
The most recent Russian “fool for Christ” is St. Xenia of St. Petersburg. While a church was being built, she would go out after the workmen went home at dark. She spent her nights going up and down a ladder carrying bricks to the top of the unfinished walls so that they would be there for the workmen when they arrived in the morning. It sounds completely nuts, but for Orthodox Christians it’s a sign of the selflessness and service that is part of following the One who was crucified.
Being a fool for Christ certainly means continuing to believe His crazy story and to keep showing up to praise His name in worship, even when you can’t see that it’s solving your problems or improving your happiness. Foolishness for Jesus is definitely praying for others, even when they don’t know about it, and even when it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. Being a fool for Christ means trying to make friends with somebody you find strange and different, even if they reject your overtures. Fooling around for Jesus means, like St. Xenia, that we take little opportunities to be helpful and kind, even when it costs us sleep or money or comfort.
As the world economy declines and conflicts simmer around planet, the great dream of the modern era is evaporating. Philosophers and politicians and ordinary folks once thought we could create utopia by being reasonable and scientific. Education and good social order would solve our problems. And those are good things. I’m glad if I have books to read and a doctor to treat my illnesses. But Jesus Christ died on the Cross because sin always gets in the way of order and science. He died because it takes what looks like foolishness to save us. And the real wisdom, the truly rational thing to do, is to study and follow the foolishness of His death, so as to join Him in the great salvation of His life. The only ones who can save the world are fools, fools for Christ.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj