From Foolishness to Wisdom
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “God Transforms Reality”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
March 7, 2021
1 Corinthians 1:18-31 NRSV
18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
What is wisdom in a “post-truth” world? What is foolishness in a world where 85 people have as much material wealth as 3.5 billion other people combined? What does Paul mean when he says, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength?” As we explore the ways God transforms reality these issues are more important and controversial than ever. But conflict over what defines wisdom and strength has always been part of human life.
In Paul’s day the wisdom of Greek philosophers was important. Yet at the same time, for people of Paul’s faith the wisdom of Jewish rabbis and teachers of the Torah were also important – and often gave different answers to questions like, “what is the meaning of life,” “who is God and what is God like?” In Paul’s day some of his fellow Jews thought those who proclaimed Jesus the Messiah should be executed, stoned to death as the Torah taught. Before he had a spiritual encounter with the risen Christ, Paul not only agreed, but he had also participated in such executions of some of those “blasphemers.” In Paul’s day some believed that the Roman Empire was a source of stability and prosperity while others wanted to violently overthrow it. Some thought one belief was foolishness while others thought the exact opposite belief was foolishness. In short, while we live in extraordinarily strange and dangerous times, Paul’s time was not that different.
Faith in a man who was crucified for illegal activities seemed foolish to many in Paul’s day. To say he was risen, and to claim he is our Savior seems foolish by human wisdom. Some would say the only way to be a disciple of Jesus is to do what makes no sense. Do the beatitudes make any sense? Do Jesus’ parables or his teaching make sense? Does an empty tomb make sense? Do grace, mercy, and justice make sense? The Christian message- that of a crucified savior seems foolish and doesn’t make sense to many –it defines power and wisdom in ways that are very different from the way we normally define power and wisdom. This is what Paul is telling the Corinthians who were part of the church there.
So this morning our question is how does God transforms reality by redefining wisdom and power. We have to recognize how difficult this is and how often the church itself has abandoned the truth, the wisdom, and the power of the cross for the ways human “wisdom.” Not sure what I mean? Remember the “Crusades” to take back the “Holy Land” from “infidels” who did not believe in Jesus the way the church of that time did? They believed Jesus wanted them to kill people if they did not “confess and convert” from their faith or their lack of faith to Christianity. They thought that murder honored Christ, and did not see it as foolish and worse.
Most of the time this happens because we judge people by human values rather than the way God values people. Rev. Margaret Aymer, a professor of New Testament studies at the Interdenominational Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, writes, [huffpost.com, 12/16/17], “Thug. Thief. Pot smoker. He should have surrendered to the authorities,” is the way many Christians reacted to the story of Michael Brown dying at the hands of police. “Terrorists. Anti-Semites. They use their own children as human shields. It’s their own fault that thousands of their children are dead.” That’s what many “wise” people say about the people in the Gaza strip protesting against Israel. “Illegals. Drug smugglers. Who cares if their average age is under 13, if they are prey to gangs and sex traffickers? They are coming across the border to attack our women.” This is how the refugees of Central America are often described. “So, the wounded or dead are put on trial and convicted for their own deaths…. It’s their fault.” To say otherwise is just “foolishness.”
She goes on to say, “Some Corinthian Gentiles and Jews must have reacted in exactly this way to the teaching of Paul. Jesus was crucified, by the Romans whose power that had brought peace to the city of Rome and quiet to the provinces. For many Corinthians, the Romans were the good guys. So, Jesus must be to blame for his own crucifixion. After all, he was a seditionist, kept company with zealots, undermined the imperial health and tax systems, proclaimed the in-breaking of an alternative empire. He was foolish, his teachings were foolish, his followers are foolish.
“But, says, Paul, God chose what is foolish to shame those who think they are so wise. God chose the weak to shame the strong. God chose the low and despised to reduce to nothing those who think they are something (1 Cor. 1:27).” She says, “This is a political claim. Paul argues that God used the Roman equivalent of the lynching tree and character assassination. God used the cross on which a person was displayed to the world naked and helpless, emasculated and left to die for hours, mocked, beaten and crying out for mercy under the unforgiving desert sun. God used this moment of utter dehumanization and death [used by the most powerful nation in the world at the time] in the name of peace and security to shame all the powers, all of the wisdom, all of the philosophers, and of the mighty of the first century.
“Mark Twain quipped once that ‘History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’ The children of Gaza. Michael Brown. The refugees of Central America. These stories of violence and death directed toward the most powerless of God’s children do not repeat the story of the cross, but they do rhyme. They rhyme with Jesus’ death, reminding us that he was not the last unarmed innocent to be condemned to certain death by powers that justified his killing in the name of their own peace and security. And in that rhyme is a call to raise our voices and not be silenced.
They rhyme with Jesus’ teaching, reminding us that we are still, as Christians, being held accountable for what happens to those who are “the least of these” (Matt. 25). And in that rhyme is a call to action, to organize with those from every race and cultural group who stand together against state-sanctioned violence against unarmed children, marching and marshalling our resources and voices on behalf of those who can no longer speak.
“And yes, they rhyme with Paul’s first letter to Corinth. For, like the testimony of Jesus on the cross, Gazan children, Central American refugees, and the police killing of unarmed juveniles — far too often African American male juveniles — are dismissed as a foolish waste of our time. But we, as Christians, specialize in foolishness. We claim that we follow the one who taught us that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the children (Matt 19:14). We claim divine intervention in the affairs of the state such that even the dead can be raised. We assert that God can use even the Roman lynching tree — the cross — to do a work of transformation and salvation that the world has never before seen.”
When I say God transforms reality, this is what it means to me. Have you ever had a radical realignment, a perceptual shift where everything changes for you? Have you had a “conversion.” I have. It wasn’t like the old “come to Jesus” “altar call” of the evangelists. It was from seeing the world where I assumed those in power should never be questioned, to seeing that questioning them was essential. It was a conversion from wanting to live the “American Dream” to wanting to participate in the “Kingdom of God.” It was a conversion from a Christianity that sustained the status quo, didn’t rock the boat, and always preached nice, pretty, comforting “spiritual” sermons to a deep passionate belief in a Christ who died because he rocked the boat, because he said difficult, dangerous things, and showed that God’s power is greater than Rome’s, greater than the things we place our faith in like democracy, political parties, consumer capitalism, and the biggest church wins. God’s power is so great it can bring a man executed by the Roman Empire back to life and be part of deconstructing that Empire.
When we talk about the “conversion” of Paul we forget Paul never ceased being a Jew, there was no “Christianity” to convert to as we know it. But clearly something happened. He went from condemning what was “unkosher” or “unclean” in his religion to accept the outcast, the other, the Gentile, in fact he proudly proclaimed himself Apostle to the Gentiles. He went from hating those who believed Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior to preaching Christ, but of course as he said, he preached “Christ crucified.” In his letters he talks about the radical, earthshaking, transformative nature of the change he experienced. He talks about the “perverse revelation of God, whose coming is seen not in immense power, but in weakness, in vulnerability, in suffering, and by every measure of what is wise it is foolishness.
The message of the cross is simple. God stands on the side of the persecuted. God stands with the forsaken. God’s love for the world will never be extinguished, not by the worst, most powerful tyrant in the world, or even by the failings of God’s ragtag people, from those first ill-equipped disciples and apostles to us, the church today. But the wisdom of God only makes sense to those who understand how, why, and what God saves. The cross saves us from believing that the human wisdom of power can save us. It saves us from believing that human power is wisdom. It saves us by reminding us to stand on the side of the persecuted, because that is what Jesus was, and that is where Jesus stands today. Until we are transformed by this reality we will simply be the religion of the status quo, not the church of Jesus Christ.
The Sacrament of Holy Communion can seem foolish. What can a little bite of bread and a little sip of wine really do for anyone. Yet it reminds us that Christ was broken, as we are broken and so we, all of us, must stand with our sisters and brothers broken by the power and wisdom of human values. Communion reminds us Christ was poured out, and so we must pour out our lives for those with whom Christ suffers with. It also reminds us that it is a living sacrifice. Christ is with us and with those who suffer until that reality is transformed. Let us be part of the transformation of reality in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ. AMEN.