Have you done anything a bit daft, a bit foolish, recently? Most people do things like look for their phone, only to realise they are holding it in their hand, or look for their house keys only to realise that they are in the door! One thing I quite often find myself doing is, when preparing dinner, looking at the packet for instructions about cooking time, then throwing the packet away—and then having to fish it out of the bin because I have forgotten what I read!
People do foolish things around the world all the time. My favourite daft thing I read about recently happened in the presidential elections in Ukraine, when they voted in Volodymyr Zelensky, someone with no previous experience of politics, but who had been the star of a TV comedy where the main character gets voted in as president with no previous experience of politics!
Here is my recent sermon on God’s foolishness, and what it changes, followed by a write-up of my notes.
In 1 Corinthians 1.18–2.5, Paul starts off the main part of this great letter by highlighting the utter foolishness of the idea that the central truth about God is shown in Jesus dying for us on the cross. Like the Corinthians, I think that we often forget how radical—and in some ways just plain daft—this is! The idea that the Almighty, the invisible God, creator of the universe, should take the form of a human, and allow himself to be killed by the very creatures that he created—it is completely crazy!
We forget for two reasons. The first is that we have talked about it so much in church that it has become routine and familiar. Now that is a good thing! It is good that we recognise the central importance of Jesus dying and rising for us! But it can lead us to forgetting what a strange and radical idea this is.
The second reason is that, without realising it, our culture, our Western values, are actually so completely built on this truth (even though most in society around us are not aware of it) that, again, we forget how radical it is. The idea that ‘all lives matter’, or that the strong should not trample the weak, is actually quite a strange one in the history of the world—but one that springs from the truth of Jesus’ death.
The historian Tom Holland (who is very sympathetic, but would not yet call himself a Christian) realised this when studying the ancient world. He comments:
“We preach Christ crucified,” St Paul declared, “unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness.” He was right. Nothing could have run more counter to the most profoundly held assumptions of Paul’s contemporaries – Jews, or Greeks, or Romans. The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.
Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
New Testament scholar Richard Hays comments on this passage:
Our familiarity with the cross as a theme of Christian preaching may tend to obscure the astonishing imaginative power of this passage. Paul has taken the central event at the heart of the Christian story – the death of Jesus – and used it as a lens through which all human experience must be projected and thus seen afresh. The cross becomes a starting point for an revolution in our thinking.
So how does the passage effect a revolution? How does it change the way we see the world?
Now, I have been working hard on having three points all beginning with the same letter—so the three ways that it changes us is in our finking, our fellowship, and our fanfare!
First, it changes our finking…or, better, our thinking! There is a certain kind of human logic that says: it makes sense for the wealthy and the clever people to rule over us in politics. After all, they must have found some answers to the challenges of life, otherwise they would not be wealthy and clever!
There is a certain kind of logic which says that we need to open shops all day on Sundays—because we need the economy to pick up to prevent people suffering from the financial effects of the pandemic. We don’t need to open church buildings, though, as people can pray at home.
There is a certain kind of logic which says that the strong should dominate the weak—after all, they have clearly got something right.
There is a certain kind of logic which says that we should mix only with people like us, and stay within the groups of people who look and think like us. After all, it is much easier to get on with people who are already like me, and won’t challenge my outlook or my values.
Now, we need to be careful here! In talking about the foolishness of God being wiser than human wisdom, Paul is not saying that we should not seek to understand, or think things carefully, or learn from others. The question is where that thinking comes from, and where it is going.
We have seen lots of statues being toppled recently, and I wonder when someone will topple Charles Darwin. Although Darwin was pleased to see the ending of slavery in his lifetime, he did note in The Origins of Species, that the principle of evolution would mean that, inevitably, stronger and better human cultures would eventually eliminate the weaker and inferior ones. And not a few people have taking this approach quite seriously—influenced by Darwin’s writings.
Secondly, it changes our approach to fellowship, to the question of who we associate with, particularly in our Christian fellowship and relationships.
Paul says something rather embarrassing in verse 26:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
I wonder how that went down when it was read out to the Christians in Corinth! I wonder how you feel being told that you are not very impressive, but are a rather mixed bunch! But it is true—and it points us away from ourselves, to look to the grace of God who has called us to into relationship with him, and relationships with one another.
It is a consistent theme throughout the New Testament. At a pivotal moment in the story of the early church, Peter realises by meeting the soldier Cornelius and seeing that God has poured out the Spirit on him, that the good news about Jesus is for all people, not just Jews.
I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts those from every nation who fear him and do what is right. (Acts 10.34–35)
And when talking about ‘those from every nation‘ Peter uses the word ethnos from which we get our word ‘ethnicity’. It does not matter what language you speak, what culture you come from, or the colour of your skin—God’s grace is equally for you, and his invitation to repent and believe the good news is for you as much as anyone.
Paul says the same in Rom 2.11 (‘God shows no favouritism’); we find this confirmed in 1 Peter 1.17, and James 2.9—and in the Book of Revelation. Those who have ‘washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb’ and who ‘worship him day and night’ (that is us) are those from ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ (Rev 7.9). And in case we have not realised how important this is, John repeats it seven times in the book!
So, when we meet for coffee after the service on Zoom, don’t be surprised if you see a lot of faces that look different from you, and altogether look like a bit of a mixed bunch, a motley crew. That is God’s grace! (And remember they will be thinking the same when they look at you!). And when we finally get to meet in person—go and talk to those who are not like you, not just your friends, or people with the same interests and outlook.
Thirdly, this revolution changes our fanfare, the message that we have to share with others. There is an important place for making a reasonable case for the Christian faith, for explaining misunderstanding, and offering an ‘apologetic’—not saying sorry so much as giving a reason for why we believe what we do. But we also need to recognise that this message will sound like foolishness to many—and that should not put us off or surprise us!
Tom Holland was confronted by the foolishness—the offence, even—of this message, when he travelled in Iraq, and visited the area where the small religious group of Yazidis had been persecuted and slaughtered by Islamic State terrorists, who had crucified many men there.
For the first time, I was facing the reality of crucifixion as it had been practised by the Romans, face to face. It was physical in the air, it was very hot. There was the smell of dust and the bodies and of heat.
I was in a town where people had been crucified by people who wanted the effect of crucifixions to be that which the Romans had wanted. They wanted to generate the sense of dread and terror and intimidation deep in the gut, and I felt that. I’m not a brave person. I felt very scared to be there. I did feel intimidated by it.
At the same time, I experienced it as blasphemy, and what I experienced transcended rationality, or consciousness even. I felt it as a blasphemy that anyone could crucify people, and it had no reference to the Christian story at all.
I realised how important it was to me to believe that, in some way, someone being tortured on the cross illustrated the truth of the possibility that power might be vanquished by powerlessness, and that the weak might vanquish strong, and that death and hope might be found in the teeth of life in despair.
In reflecting on his own experience of race different, my friend Adrian Chatfield, who grew up as part of a white minority in the Caribbean, summed up the foolishness of God, and how it challenges our attitude to others:
There is something here about God choosing to value the human race, and indeed the cosmos, even when our scarred and corrupt nature and actions suggest otherwise. The act of incarnation is many things: a divine celebration of the physicality of the creation, a participation in that creation and a commitment to transformation. At the heart of it is the astonishing self-emptying of Christ, a bending lower than the low that the low might be exalted. If at the heart of God there is an impulse to bend down to reach those whom God might easily dismiss, this teaches me that if I share in the love of God, my ultimate calling is to bend low too.
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