Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The Third Sunday in Lent
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
The Apostle Paul has been busy, traveling across the known world spreading the good news of new life in Jesus Christ. And it hasn’t been an easy business. No matter where he goes, Paul finds opposition. Many of his fellow Jews think that he’s a heretic. The Greek philosophers think he has a weak mind. The Romans think he’s trying to stir up rebellion. Even his fellow Jesus-followers question his beliefs and his methods. And yet, despite all the opposition, Paul is bringing people to new life in Jesus Christ. People are responding to his message in cities and towns across the Mediterranean world.
This morning he writes back to one of the churches he has founded, a church that is experiencing conflicts of its own. And he tries to explain to them that no matter how people may try to tear down the church and its message of transforming grace in Jesus Christ, God’s message transcends those kinds of criticisms. Don’t worry if they try to tear down the wisdom of your argument; God’s wisdom is beyond human categories. Don’t worry if they make fun of our savior as weak; God’s power is expressed most fully in weakness.
It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense after all. Paul’s critics had some good points. At the center of Paul’s message is Christ crucified. It is a very unlikely image to found a religion on. The image of Christ crucified is God at God’s weakest, at God’s most foolish. Christ crucified looks like a failure of the greatest proportions. Jesus is unable to escape death. In fact, he dies on a cross like the most despised of criminals. Weakness, foolishness, death—it doesn’t seem like a very good way to win converts.
In the arena of Greek philosophy, the highest value is placed on achieving wisdom. In fact, the word “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom.” When Paul debates with the philosophers, he claims that Christ is divine wisdom incarnate. He claims that the abstract, highest ideals that the philosophers have been seeking for centuries were actually born into a human body and wandered around on the earth.
That idea alone is enough to turn off most of his audience. Everyone knows that the highest, most perfect things are not things of flesh and matter, but things of spirit. Everyone knows that this physical world is corrupted beyond redemption. The perfect things, the actual real world exists beyond the physical world, beyond our perception. Plato and Aristotle didn’t agree on much, but they could agree that anything perfect had to exist outside the physical world. So how could something perfect ever take on material form in the physical world, let alone as a human being?
And even if we were to accept the possibility that the eternal and perfect ideal wisdom could become incarnate as a person, it certainly would not become incarnate as someone like Jesus of Nazareth. He was a peasant. He had little education. He died as a rebel. And worst of all, he wasn’t Greek. He was a barbarian. No one like that could ever be the incarnation of ancient wisdom. So say the philosophers.
The Jews Paul talks with are interested in something different. They think God is most fully expressed in signs of power. Miracles, healings: these are the sorts of things they want. These Jews are looking for the Messiah. They’re looking for a hero riding in a glorious chariot on the clouds. They are looking for someone who will have the power to overthrow the Roman oppressors and make Israel a free nation again. And so Paul tells them that what they are looking for, the promised Messiah, is none other than Jesus of Nazareth.
And the proof Paul gives them is the image of Christ crucified. A very strange choice if you’re looking for power. Seeing the leader of your movement being tortured to death does not exactly inspire confidence. They know what glory looks like, and it does not look a crucified man.
But there is something even more problematic about Paul’s argument. You see, Deuteronomy 21:23 clearly states, “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” That’s why people had been so anxious to get Jesus’s body down and in a grave before sunset, because the body of someone executed by crucifixion is an affront to God and cursed. That means that however good a man Jesus might have been, he is automatically disqualified from being the Messiah because he was crucified. The Bible says explicitly that he is cursed by God, and anyone who is cursed by God could never be the promised Messiah.
But Paul is undeterred by all these criticisms. He writes, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” It’s a paradox, he says, so that no one can brag about how smart they are, how they could figure out God. God does something completely crazy, completely unreasonable, so that no one can understand what is in God’s mind. God does something that to everyone looks absolutely foolish, and yet it is the very epitome, the very incarnation of God’s wisdom. God does something that for all intents and purposes looks weak—God dies on a cross—and yet it is the ultimate sign of God’s power, God’s victory over death. It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s not supposed to, because God’s wisdom is foolishness to the world, and God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.
We should have known. Christ’s crucifixion wasn’t the first time God’s wisdom was expressed in foolishness, and it wasn’t the first time God’s strength was expressed in weakness. When God wanted to free the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, God didn’t send a general, or a warrior, or a diplomat. No, God sent Moses, a fugitive shepherd with a speech impediment. When God wanted to save the Jews from genocide in Persia, it wasn’t with armies or with plagues. No, God sent Esther, a young Jewish girl who was scared for her life. So why should we be surprised that when God wanted to be revealed to humanity, it wasn’t as a king or a hero or a philosopher, it was as a poor traveling preacher who was willingly executed by an empire in order to expose the sham of imperial power and proclaim God’s victory over death.
And things haven’t changed much since then. God still finds wisdom in foolishness and power in weakness. God still show solidarity with the poor and marginalized.
Consider John Wesley. He failed miserably as a missionary to Georgia. He was constantly in trouble with his superiors. And he could never seem to get a job in a church anywhere. And yet his work among common folk who were largely overlooked by the church inspired the Methodist movement which includes about 75 million people today. God turned foolishness into wisdom.
In the American South, and across this nation, when God wanted to free a people from 400 years of slavery and abuse, it wasn’t done with violence or rebellion, and it wasn’t done by powerful men in high offices. God did it with sermons in packed churches and on crowded malls. God did it with nonviolent resistance in the face of unspeakable violence. God did it with old women, and with little school children, and with poor laborers. God turned the world’s expectations upside-down.
And God continues to work among the oppressed and marginalized, continues to bring us toward justice, not with proclamations from the powerful, but with demonstrations and mobilizing from those we might consider weak, but who work in the paradoxical strength of Jesus Christ, who became marginalize for the sake of the marginalized and who died hanging from a tree like a victim of lynching.
Power doesn’t have to come from the centers of power; it can come from the margins. Power doesn’t have to come from moneyed interests; it can come from the organization of poor communities. Power doesn’t have to come in a gun; it can come in a cloth mask. If it is God’s power, if it is God’s wisdom, then it always cares most for those who are the most vulnerable.
We live in strange times. Our world is held hostage by a disease. And we know, because it has been held in control in many parts of the world, that it could be defeated with the very simple weapons of a mask and six feet of distance. But that seems like weakness to some people. I’m not afraid of a germ. I’m tough; I don’t need to wear a mask. And that supposed sense of strength is exactly the weakness that the virus exploits. And it has consequences not just for those who think they are too tough to wear a mask, but for everyone. This is not a situation in which person responsibility applies. We are all connected. We are like one body. And if one limb is infected, it threatens the health of the entire body. It is not God’s strength. God’s strength always leads us to care for our neighbors.
We live in strange times. Our political division has progressed beyond simply disagreeing about what the right policies are in our governmental system. Now we cannot seem to agree about the basic facts that define our reality. We have technologies that allow people incredibly easy access to information, unlike anything we have seen before. If I want to, I can find out about an industrial accident in a particular city in India within minutes of it happening. I can access the resources of almost any library on earth from the comfort of my home, and I can do it instantaneously. But with the flood of information comes a flood of misinformation. And it’s quite easy for me to construct an entire reality that is built on untruth. I can easily find sources of supposed wisdom that are happy to lie to me in return for monetary gain, or political power, or internet fame, or just for the thrill of creating chaos. But that is not God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom does not plot the violent suppression of the people. God’s wisdom does not elevate any false messiahs.
Wisdom and strength, foolishness and weakness. They are not always what they seem. But God gives us a model by which to judge between strength and weakness, between wisdom and foolishness. That model is Jesus the Christ, who came to our world in weakness, in solidarity with the poor and the marginalized. He preached a message of liberation from economic, political, and spiritual oppression. He socialized with outcasts. He criticized the powerful. He gave himself over to suffering and death—he shared the experience of those who suffering and die—in order to defeat the powers of sin and death and to offer us liberation and new life. May we find wisdom in the foolishness of God. May we find God’s strength in our weakness.