In a fine sermon commentary on this text (from which I drew numerous ideas for this commentary), Scott Hoezee suggests that there’s a danger in spending as much time in church and around Christians as some preachers and teachers do. It’s that this whole Christianity business all starts to make too much sense to us. That we also begin to wonder why Christianity doesn’t make sense to everyone else too.
In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, Paul doesn’t claim that this whole Christianity business makes sense. He doesn’t even hint that Christianity’s truths should be perfectly obvious to everyone. The apostle insists the gospel message is “foolishness” to at least some people.
He, in fact, uses some form of “foolish” not just once but four times in our text’s seven verses. The root of the Greek word that we generally translate as “foolish” or “folly” is moros. It’s also the root of the English word “moron” that we sometimes angrily or critically throw around. So it’s as though Paul is basically saying the message of salvation through Christ’s death on the cross is naturally “moronic.” That the message of salvation through Christ’s death on the cross is, dare we say, a little insane.
Of course, the gospel of the cross isn’t foolish to God’s adopted sons and daughters. The Holy Spirit has graciously convinced God’s people that the gospel is, in fact, true. God has graciously persuaded us that message is “the power of God” that’s greater than all of humanity’s power, intelligence and wisdom.
But if we who hear and proclaim I Corinthians 1:18-25 are to carry this gospel into a new week, it’s good to remember that it naturally seems foolish. To riff on one of Hoezee’s images, reading the gospel is naturally a bit like walking into a car dealership and spotting an attractive car. You sit in it, turn on the radio, move the seats back and forth, maybe even take it for a test drive … and then you walk away from it. You decide the car is not worth any more of your attention. It’s basically foolishness to you.
We might think of our text’s Corinth as a kind of ancient New York City or Toronto. It was, after all, a kind of crossroads where various traditions and languages converged. Its citizens exchanged ideas the way others exchanged money for goods. Corinthians liked to “test drive” the “cars” that were various religions.
So they would have felt very much home in a 21st century West that increasingly loves to be spiritual without being religious. Our culture has become a veritable flea market of ideas and philosophies. We’re constantly trying them on to see if they fit us. We also shed ideas and religions about as often as we scrub away dead skin follicles.
To the spiritually curious Corinthians, says Paul, the whole gospel seemed like complete foolishness, utter nonsense. The idea of a convicted felon being the bearer of God’s forgiving love was about the wildest thing any Corinthian intellectual worth her weight could imagine.
What’s more, the whole concept of a crucified but resurrected Jesus didn’t make much sense to many of Paul’s Jewish neighbors either. Since at least some of them were expecting someone who would live to pave the way for God’s coming, they assumed the Messiah would kill the pagans, not be killed by them.
Yet the whole idea of the gospel didn’t seem foolish just to sophisticated Greeks and Jews. It also seemed moronic to ordinary Corinthians. They seemed to be looking for some kind of reasonable god who would help them when the going got rough. But Paul offered them a God whom most others abandoned when the going got tough.
Yet the whole gospel thing looks little more reasonable to our neighbors than it did in ancient Corinth. “Come on,” at least some of our acquaintances say, “you’re trying to tell us that someone had to die for us to live?” Our co-workers wonder what sort of bloody, vindictive God would demand that. In fact, even Christians sometimes struggle to understand what it is about Jesus’ death on the cross that turned us from God’s enemies into God’s beloved children.
A few well-meaning colleagues would like to do something about the Christian gospel’s “foolishness.” They claim to want to help Christians communicate the gospel to thoughtful modern people. Some have tried to package the Christian faith in a way that our contemporaries find more suitable. So some of these scholars have, for example, “freed” the gospels by basically shrinking Jesus down to a teacher of good morals.
Yet as the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable of neither inflicting deep wounds nor healing them.” If God’s beloved people can get that through our heads, we can bring that gospel to the people who surround us. We can share what looks like foolishness with even the smartest, most sophisticated people we know.
Of course, few of the Corinthians who’d faithfully received and then shared this foolishness seemed to be Corinth’s “brightest and the best.” In fact, most of them were people whom their neighbors overlooked, exploited and pushed to society’s margins. Corinth’s Christians were people whom their contemporaries viewed as “fools.”
To make things worse, those Corinthian Christians sometimes also acted like fools. They struggled to live in ways consistent with the gospel message. Some of them sued each other and refused to sit together at the Lord’s Table. Other Corinthian Christians separated themselves from the church because they thought they were more spiritual than other members.
“But God …” says Paul in verse 27. It’s one of the apostle’s favorite phrases he loved to use to describe an apparently persistent human problem and then show how God graciously stepped in to fix it. The whole idea God’s salvation through Christ’s death on the cross is naturally scandalous and foolish. But God, Paul insists, through Christ’s death saves “those who believe.” God graciously transforms what seems like foolishness into something the Spirit equips us to receive with our faith.
The apostle notes that Corinth’s Christians had been “nobodies.” But God, adds Paul, made them “somebodies.” Not necessarily the kind of people their world recognized as somebodies, but the kind of people that really mattered. God, says Paul, chose those Corinthian “nobodies” and called them through Paul’s proclamation of the crucified Christ. God made those Corinthian nobodies into God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Perhaps some who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson share Corinth’s Christians’ humble status. Others are among society’s wisest and most influential people. But it seems that growing numbers of people think of both lowly and powerful Christians’ faith as “foolish.” They think it makes God’s adopted sons and daughters superstitious or extremist. Of course, not all of our neighbors, co-workers and friends think of God’s people as zealots or fools. But they well may assume that what we believe is foolish.
No mentally healthy person wants to look ridiculous. We don’t want to go back to middle school where our clothing, good grades or choice of friends sometimes made us feel foolish. Even God’s dearly beloved people naturally want people to admire, or at least tolerate us.
So it’s very tempting not to “boast” about our Christian faith, much less, the Lord. In fact, the most natural response to contempt for Christianity is to hide our faith. Or to talk about it hesitantly, as though it’s something we almost have to apologize for.
That’s one reason why Christians’ faithful involvement in the local church is perhaps more important than ever. As our culture views Christianity with growing disdain, God’s adopted sons and daughters need to hear God and fellow Christians remind us that we’re not contemptible. We need other Christians to encourage us to keep “foolishly” following Jesus Christ. God’s dearly loved people need God and Christian brothers and sisters to tell us we’re not “nobodies,” but God’s dearly beloved sons and daughters. You and I need other Christians to encourage us to keep sharing the foolish gospel in loving and patient ways.
Yet we also remember that no amount of wisdom or cleverness will convert anyone to Christians’ ways of thinking about God and God’s ways. While Christianity makes sense, none of us thought our way into God’s kingdom. Even C.S. Lewis, who took an intellectual approach to his conversion, always credited the Holy Spirit for his transformation.
So both those who proclaim and those hear this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson share our faith and lives with people with deep love and humility. But we never forget that only what Paul calls “the power of God” at work through the Holy Spirit can save anyone.
Yet perhaps more than anything God’s people need to cultivate a healthy relationship with the Lord in order to truly live as what perhaps growing numbers of our neighbors think of as fools. We need to pay more attention to God’s voice than our culture’s. After all, our true value doesn’t lie in what society thinks of us. It lies in God’s view of God’s people as God’s beloved children who for Jesus’ sake deeply please the Lord.
Ronald Numbers’ biography of Seventh-Day Adventism’s founder, Ellen White is entitled Prophetess of Health: A Study of Ellen G. White. In it he describes the deep disappointment many of White’s contemporaries felt when Jesus failed to return on the date predicted by William Miller.
Thirty-two others, the director of the New York Lunatic Asylum claimed, became insane because of their disappointment over Jesus’ failure to return on October 22, 1844.
A link between mental illness and religion sounds old-fashioned, and dare we say, foolish to 21st century Christians. Yet Numbers says 19th century American psychiatrists generally believed that excessive religious zeal often caused insanity in people predisposed toward mental illness.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 2, 2020
1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Commentary