Success or Sacrifice? The Foolishness of the Cross

January 29, 2017

Success or Sacrifice? The Foolishness of the Cross

We’re continuing our series #Adulting, looking at Paul’s first letter to the baby church in Corinth to help us understand what it means to act like responsible grown-up Christians, to mature in Christ. 

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But for those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God. 

For it is written in scripture: 

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate. 

[Is. 29:14]

Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 

In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God decided to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. For Jews demand signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of your own situation when you were called! Not many were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were from the upper class. 

* But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. 

* God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. 

* And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. 

So no human being can brag in God’s presence. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us. This is consistent with what was written: 

The one who brags should brag in the Lord!

[Jer. 9:24]

* * * * *

I have two sons. Like most parents, I want them to be successful. By successful I don’t mean winning the Nobel Peace Prize or the American Music Award. I don’t even mean rolling in money or owning a McMansion. I mean they’re not living in my basement. 

The bar’s set pretty low.  

Part of #adulting is figuring out what “success” means, what’s worth going after. It’s about aspiration and hopes and dreams and goals. Deciding what “success” means in your own life, and how to get there, if you can. Aspiration is a good and natural part of life. 

The question scripture insists on, though, is whether our aspirations for our lives are the same as God’s. The danger comes when we assume the world’s measure of success and achievement is the same as Christ’s. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians calls into question what the Christians there are assuming about what is worthy of admiration and aspiration.  

Jesus is the model for our lives, Paul reminds us, and the cross hardly offers a model of conventional achievement. 

“We preach Christ crucified,” Paul insists. “A scandal to the Jews and idiocy to the Greeks.” And, I would add, a stumbling block to most of us in this world. 

The ancient Jews and Greeks were not all that different from us, as it turns out. What they hoped for was that God would help them get what they most wanted. And what they most wanted had everything to do with their experience in life, what was missing, and what people around them valued. The church in Corinth, made up of both Jews and Greeks, was no different. 

The Greeks – or Gentiles, Paul sometimes calls them, the non-Jews – the Greeks were the intellectual elites of their day. And in the Greek world, what was valued was philosophical wisdom. When I visited Athens last fall I went to the Areopagus, the hill near the Parthenon where Paul gave his speech to the people of Athens, recorded in the book of Acts. Philosophers would stand on the hill and declare their version of truth to the marketplace, and the learned men listening would debate them back. 

Debate was a sport held in high esteem. Words mattered, and winning at words mattered most of all. To say that “The Word was made flesh” was absurd. To say that the Word-made-flesh suffered and died on a cross was humiliating and disgusting. To say that “Word” was God was an oxymoron: in the Greek pantheon, gods didn’t die. 

“The foolishness of the cross,” one scholar writes, “blatantly undoes the wisdom of the world.”i

If the Greeks looked for wisdom, the Jews demanded signs, and not any signs but signs of power and strength. It was understandable, really. They were on the losing side of history. “The world values victors and scorns the vanquished,” someone wrote. That part hasn’t changed. So it was natural that they were looking for God to come with power and might, to unseat the Emperor and take the throne. 

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified… 

And what about us? What would our age demand?

In a sermon on this passage fifteen years ago, John Buchanan mused about what kind of God we might desire. He wrote, 

Of course, we would prefer… a God of power and might, a God who rules from a throne in heaven, a God who hurls thunderbolts and is seen in the powerful wind and storms of nature. That makes a kind of elemental sense. We’d prefer the God Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: huge, muscular, potent, a lot like the Zeus of Greek mythology. That’s a God to fire the soul and stiffen the backbone. 

But, he adds, “Michelangelo created another image of God… It is his ‘Pieta,’ the lifeless form of a young man, cradled in the arms of his mother.”ii

For Jews demand signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom.

This week at Bible study I was talking with the group about this passage, about what the Greeks were looking for, which was wisdom, and what the Jews were expecting from God, which was might, and one of the members pointed out that what was missing was heart. There’s no heart in either of those. No mention of love. No vulnerability, no risk.  Which was exactly what Jesus embodied. 

Blessed are the meek… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Jesus was all that, and more.

As John Buchanan writes,

Christian faith is about a God who is not perfect in the Greek philosophic sense of the word, but a God who has wants and desires, a God who laughs and weeps, who rejoices and grieves, a God capable of … profound love, a God, who because of love, suffers.iii

A God who calls us not to succeed but to sacrifice. 

This is not about self-improvement, Buchanan writes, about “how to be better, how to be stronger, more confident, how to feel better about yourself, how to get what you want and enjoy what you get. [That] doesn’t have much to do with the cross.”iv

“I don’t know what your destiny will be,” Albert Schweitzer wrote, “but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” 

Will Willimon is a writer and preacher and Bishop in the United Methodist Church. He used to serve as Chaplain at Duke University where he preached each week in the stunning Chapel in the heart of the campus. After worship one Sunday a man came up to him, obviously irate. “It’s your fault,” he bellowed. “My daughter was all set to go to Med school, and then she got this crazy idea to go off to Uganda with the Peace Corp. I blame you for this, you and your preaching, planting these crazy, idealistic notions in her head.” 

“Wait,” Willimon said. “Weren’t you the one who had her baptized?”

But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. 

Do you remember the war in Yugoslavia? Do you remember Kosovo and Sarajevo? It was years ago now, back in the ‘90’s. I remember it because it was when my kids were babies, and my OBG went to Sarajevo to work with Doctors without Borders. She came back with stories about the trauma people experienced in the war, how mothers carrying their children would blindly cross the street in front of cars, numb to the danger. It was a terrible war, with atrocities done in the name of religion, with conflict between Orthodox Serbians, Catholic Croatians and Bosnian Muslims. 

After the war, an Orthodox Serbian businessman named Antol Bolag worked with a Protestant mission initiative to resettle Muslim families. His work included assembling materials and labor for reconstructing Muslim villages, a house at a time. One village chief asked why the plans included rebuilding the mosque. 

“You Christians have been trying to convert us or kill us for centuries,” the village chief said. Bolag answered, 

“We will rebuild your mosque because we follow One who commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves; one who knelt by the side of the road to minister to a wounded brother without asking him about his theology.”v

“Jesus,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, Jesus is the face of God who is encountered in everyday life, wherever the brokenness of the world can no longer be ignored. He is the incomprehensible love of God come to live among the poor and despicable… He is the wounded healer who turns the expectations of the world upside down, making glory out of humiliation,…victory out of defeat, … life out of death.vi

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. But for those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”

 i Theodore J. Wardlaw, “A Good Word for Foolishness,” sermon preached to the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, February 23, 2002.  ii John M. Buchanan, “No Story So Divine,” Sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, March 17, 2002, pp. 3-4.  iii John M. Buchanan, “The Foolishness of it All,” Sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, March 14, 1999, p. 3. iv Buchanan, “No Story So Divine,” p. 3. v John Buchanan, A New Church for a New World, (Geneva Press, 2008), p. 77-78. Told to him by Steve Kurtz, Presbyterian Church (USA) mission worker, Osijek, Croatia, April 1997. vi Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain, cited by Buchanan, “Foolishness”.       

Rev. Karen Chakoian

First Presbyterian Church

Granville, OH