Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 Commentary
Comments, Observations, and Questions
This is a great text for this third Sunday of Lent because it focuses our attention not on Lenten disciplines (important and helpful though they may be), but on the cross of Christ. That’s what Lent is all about. Indeed, the cross of Christ is what Christianity is all about. That’s not a popular message in this day when the shrinkage of the western church tempts many preachers to make the message of Christianity less offensive by removing or at least decentralizing the cross. Everywhere I hear preachers asking how can we re-imagine the faith so that it is more palatable to a secular age.
Of course, that reshaping of the gospel goes all the way back to Bultmann’s de-mythologizing project. Today even those who reject Bultmann’s way of dealing with modernity are wondering how to make the gospel more attractive to its cultured despisers. Writing to early Christians in the city of Corinth, cosmopolitan folks who may have valued eloquence and style over faith and conviction, Paul has a simple message. Whatever you do, don’t forsake the cross. I did not preach the gospel “with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” (I Cor. 1:17)
That leads Paul into this profound section about the centrality of the message of the cross in a world that sincerely believes “Christ crucified” is foolishness. As I reflected on this passage, I kept returning to the concept of the axis mundi. That phrase means the axis of the world, the world’s pillar, the still center on which the world turns. Nearly all of the world’s cultures have an axis mundi, whether it’s a mountain (like Mt. Fuji in Japan or Mt. Kunlun in China or Mt. Zion in Israel) or a man made structure (like the ziggurats of the ancient Middle East or the towers that house financial institutions in the modern world). Here Paul says that the true axis mundi, the genuine fixed point at the center of the world is Mt. Calvary and, more specifically, the cross and the one who died there.
Paul freely acknowledges that “the message of the cross is foolishness,” but only to those who are perishing. In that shocking statement, Paul uses a word that hints at the identity of those who are perishing. “Message” is the Greek word logos, which to the Jews could be a reference to the law or to wisdom, while to the Greeks it was the reason behind the cosmic order. In using that word Paul is acknowledging that message of the cross is an offense to both the religious mind and the reasoned mind. Indeed, both kinds of people see the word of the cross as nothing less than foolishness. And both kinds of people are perishing because of their rejection of the cross.
“But to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Interestingly, Paul doesn’t say that the message of the cross is the wisdom of God (though he will say that later). We might expect that word as a parallel to the word “foolishness.” But Paul chooses “power” here, perhaps as a way of emphasizing that the logos of the cross is not merely good advice to us, telling us what we must do to be saved. Rather, that logos is a message about what God has done. More than that, the cross itself is God’s power at work doing what we cannot do. The message of the cross is not first of all a system of thought or a way of life; it is God’s actual power at work to save those who cannot save themselves, no matter how hard they think or how well they live.
Knowing that this message is hard to believe, Paul quotes Old Testament Scripture in verse 19 to show that God has always functioned this way. Way back in Isaiah 29:14, God was destroying the wisdom of the wise, who thought they knew how to save Israel. God frustrated their most intelligent plans and schemes. Then, spraying the machine gun of his sarcasm over the whole world, Paul spits, “Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the law, whether Old Testament or Roman? Where is the expert in argument?” When all of the intelligentsia “of this age” stands before the wisdom of God, their wisdom is shown to be foolishness.
Does that mean that the entire intellectual enterprise of the human race is worthless? Is Paul claiming that all human attempts to understand the world and prescribe how to live happily and fruitfully are simply useless? Is there nothing we Christians can gain from studying the world’s philosophies and religions? Given the way Paul connected to Greek culture in his sermon to the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17), that seems too negative a stance toward the intellectual efforts of “those who are perishing.”
I like the way Henry Barclay Swete put it way back in 1903. “I plead then, for an attitude on the part of the clergy toward the culture and knowledge of our times which shall be neither indifferent or hostile on the one hand, nor weakly concessive on the other. We are bound to resist all demands for the practical abandonment of any article of the faith…. But we are also bound, as disciples of the Word [does he mean logos?], as ministers of the Light of men, to welcome all fresh truths, physical, historical or of whatever kind, not only as truth, but as making in the end for the victory of the Truth itself.”
I think that what Paul rejects here is the attempt to know God, to approach God, to be reconciled to God from below, from our side, by our own efforts. “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him….” Paul sounds a bit like later philosophers here, like Lessing with his “ugly broad ditch” between then and now and here and there, or like Kant with his radically separate realms of the phenomenal and the noumenal. We simply cannot think or feel or act our way up to God. We cannot know God or relate to God through our own wisdom.
Thus, God in his wisdom invented another way to God. And it wasn’t only his wisdom at work; it was also his love, his sovereign good pleasure. “God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” Salvation can be gained not by thinking, not by doing, but only by believing the message of the cross. But it’s not the message itself that saves. It was the event itself, the actual crucifixion of Christ; it is the person himself, the Christ who was crucified.
Paul underlines the centrality of Christ crucified in a very clever way by talking about those who think the message of the cross is foolishness; the Greek for foolishness is morian, moronic. On the one hand, there are the Jews, who represent all the people in the world today who simply want “the facts, nothing but the facts.” Show us the evidence. We want to see actual miracles, signs that will prove to us that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah promised for ages. The idea of a suffering Messiah or, worse, a Messiah that died on a Roman cross under the curse of God, is not merely nonsense; it is blasphemous. A crucified Messiah was a skandalon, a stumbling block for everyone who thinks that if God is going to save the world, he will do it through his almighty power.
On the other hand, there are the Greeks, who represent all the people in the world who don’t care about “the facts,” about alleged historical evidence of the truth of Christ crucified. Paul is talking about people for whom the message of Christ crucified just doesn’t make any sense. The idea of a crucified God simply doesn’t fit into the mindset of those whose gods fight and fornicate on Mt. Olympus or who have no gods at all. The Renaissance mindset (“Man is the measure of things”) has no room for a God who becomes human and dies for humanity. The whole idea is simply foolish superstition.
Paul knows those people, just as we do. What is his approach to them? How will he preach about Jesus to those who demand evidence of God’s power and to those who are governed by the prevailing wisdom of the day? He preached Christ crucified, even though he knew that this message was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. He didn’t change his message to fit his audience, precisely because Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Do you want to see the power of God saving the world? Look at the cross. Do you want to see the wisdom of God saving the world? Look at the cross. There was no other way the power of God could save us from sin without destroying us sinners. The cross of Christ was the only way that made sense given the nature of God and humanity and the world.
I know that won’t satisfy the demands of the Jews and the Greeks of the world, says Paul. So let me just say this one last thing about the power and the wisdom that matter so much to proud men and women: “the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” Paul is not admitting that God is ever foolish or weak. He’s saying that if God could be foolish and weak, the most foolish and weak thing God could ever do would dwarf the most intelligent and awesome thing humans could ever do. More than that, he is asserting once again that what the world sees as the foolishness and weakness of the crucified Christ is wiser and stronger than anything the human race could ever achieve. The cross is the axis mundi for everyone.
I love the way Kierkegaard put it. “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd.” That sounds like a denigration of the faith, but that’s not how he meant it. Here’s his intention. “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it will be altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable of neither inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.”
It was Protagoras, a pre-Socratic philosopher, who first said, “Man is the measure of things,” or something like that. What he meant is that individual humans, rather than a god or an unchanging moral law, are the ultimate source of value, truth, and meaning. That idea became central to the Renaissance that shaped the mind of the modern world. In his book, DaVinci’s Ghost, Toby Lester examines DaVinci’s famous drawing, “Vitruvian Man.” You know the drawing, the naked man with outstretched arms and spread eagled legs, whose appendages form the radius of a circle within a square. Lester points out that the circle represented the cosmic and divine and the square represented the earthly and the secular. That was DaVinci’s graphic way of depicting that man is literally the measure of things. Man’s proportions are exactly that of the circle and the square, of heaven and earth, of the divine and the profane. Each human is a microcosm of the universe. Thus, in the Renaissance human thinking and power were the measure of all things, the limits of what was possible.
Lester writes that DaVinci’s drawing captured “the intoxicating, ephemeral moment when art, science and philosophy all seemed to be merging, and when it seemed possible that, with their help, the individual human mind might actually be able to comprehend and depict the nature of… everything.” Man is the axis mundi. It’s a mindset even older than the Greeks and even more creative than the Italian genius. It goes all the way back to a garden when a very creative lie destroyed the peace of paradise. Eat of that tree over there and “you will be like God knowing good and evil.”
Thank God for another tree where God restored the peace by doing something that looked foolish and weak to humans who think they are the measure of things. God hanging on that tree is the true axis mundi. Christ is the measure of things.
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