"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Foolishness of Faith

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I’m busy next Saturday, so I’ve prepared most of my notes for Lent 3 this weekend.  This is the unedited first draft, that needs about two pages of material removed and some of the transitions and development tightened up.  I thought I would post it a week early.


Sermon preached at SJE, March 9, 2015 Lent 3B
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (foolishness for Christ), John 2:13-22 (clearing temple), Ps 19

So, I’m standing before you prepared to preach on Paul’s words today – to literally talk about Paul’s statement that “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach”, and to do that through the folly of what I preach. Hard to do so with a straight face, and without cautioning you to beware of the foolishness of my words. Let’s Pray.

We are part-way through our Lenten journey to the cross of Christ, and beyond to the glory of the resurrection, but before that can become real for us we must continue to walk deeper into the darkness of Lent. This is one of the things that traditional Christianity brings for us, if left to our own devices we would shed the hair shirt of Lent for endless Sundays singing of God’s glory, “Jesus Christ has Risen Today” and the like. Indeed, some modern branches of Christianity no long pay much attention to the liturgical year, and in that lose much helpful teaching and rebuke of the soul. So, we spend time in this season each year, not because we enjoy feeling poorly about ourselves and our frail faith, but because there is no way to understand the light and power of Christ’s rising, if you do not first understand the darkness of the grave.

That sort of an idea should come across as shocking to your modern sensibilities. Our culture spends much time attempting to ignore the grave, or to defeat the grave. As our Supreme Court recently ruled, one of our latest attempts to defeat death is to attempt to bend it to our will. If I must die, I will decide how, and I will decide when. Yet death still holds sway over this world, and our victory in setting the how and when is empty in the end. We know that death and decay are not part of God’s ultimate will for us and for his kingdom, so why do we spend this time of Lent in the darkness?  There is something fundamentally foolish about much of what we’re doing.

Paul tells us something of that why, and also explains why Lent is offensive to modern sensibilities. You may have chosen as a Lenten discipline to give something up, or to take on something new. If you’ve given something up – coffee and chocolate are always popular choices – and you mention it to a non-believer friend, how did they react? // I remember a discussion with a dear friend, a highly spiritual person who rejects Christianity outright. She exclaimed one day, “next you’re going to tell me you believe in the virgin birth!” When I replied that, yes I do, and that as an engineer I come at faith as an empiricist – someone who measures and weighs everything, all she could do was stare at me with her mouth hanging open. It had never occurred to her that engineering, the rivet and steel and rail, could be a path to belief in a God she rejected. She was too polite at that point to call me crazy, but that was what I read on her face.

The problem in bringing that faith to non-believers, like my very spiritual friend, is that I can’t even begin to explain why, as an engineer, my coming to faith was in many ways the same as my coming to respect Maxwell’s equations as the means to describe all electromagnetic phenomena. That statement was intended to be unintelligible, as an example of my point about my friend. I can tell her of the things I’ve seen and heard and experienced that make my belief in God a matter of fact, but without her understanding the language of God I would be forced to use, it would be as if I was speaking a foreign language. It would be as foolishness to the wise or to those who see themselves as wise. And yet, in spite of just tying my belief to my measuring of things, there is still a point when we must ascent to the existence of paradox and scandal as an act of faith, to believe that which is so often contrary to our human sense of the way things should work. Belief and faith are not ultimately questions with objective answers. As Kierkegaard pointed out that at its heart, “Christianity is paradox, and paradox requires but one thing: the passion of faith.”

This is exactly what we hear Paul writing to the Corinthian Christians. Corinth was a city of diverse learning, following the Greek wisdom traditions, and loving the pursuit of entrancing ideas and thoughts. Sounds a lot like the internet today, doesn’t it? A few minutes on facebook or pinterest or snapchat reveals to you that one of our favorite cultural pastimes now is to toy with interesting ideas, while rarely ever doing anything about any of them. If you read the full first chapter of 1st Corinthians, you hear in the text just before our reading that the problem Paul was writing about was division in the Christian community. Rather than turning to focus on the one Cross that unifies all those who follow Jesus, they instead argued over the wisdom of different ideas and aligned themselves with different teachers. Paul writes this:

10 I appeal to you, brothers by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

And not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. Those words are a worthy caution to anyone that presumes to stand in a community of Christ and preach the Word – a reminder that my best offering is a mere shadow puppet compared with the reality of God’s living Word. In honesty, the reason I continue to undertake the task of preaching is not my trust in my wisdom, but because I trust in God’s wisdom to overcome my own frail and poor thinking. The point is not which bit of human wisdom we believe is the most Godly and therefore correct, but that God’s Word points to the truth that all human wisdom is suspect, and that the Cross of Christ is powerful for exactly that reason – that it highlights the foolishness of even our best. Harkening back a few weeks to Ash Wednesday, I’m reminded of what was spoken to me as the ashes were marked on my face: what do I have to offer you today? Only this, that I know I came from dust, and to dust I shall return.

The too-human reality is that we have continued to divide the body of Christ, being the church, to the tune of some 300 new Christian denominations per year globally. That’s not done by God’s will, but by the same thing the Corinthians were arguing about: which bit of human wisdom do we think is the most Godly? “The fragmentation of our church is both a shame on our house and a cause for deep repentance.” (Gordon Fee, NICNT, p. 66) To that, Paul points to God’s answer…the folly of the Cross.

Jesus stepped into the Temple and cleared it of the money lenders, the sellers of sacrificial animals, the capitalists and entrepreneurs of the temple system, with a whip of cords. Instead of just getting along with what had become a cornerstone of the big business that was the Temple, filling the treasury with gold so that even more elegant furnishings could be procured, Jesus stood apart and physically preached a prophetic message of folly. When challenged about his authority for doing so, Jesus instead pointed to himself and said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” This was rejected outright by the wise because everyone knew that the temple had been under construction for 46 years, and would stand forever. You might recall here Jesus’ disciples marveling over the grandeur of the Temple, and Jesus telling them that not one stone would remain stacked upon another (Matthew 24).

The clash is clear – human wisdom hold aloft a great work of humanity as the blessed assurance that we will live forever, against the foolishness of the resurrection. We do not trust in the physical that is here today, but instead in the eternal promise made real in Christ’s resurrection and death. Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up. And those who know that they are wise walk away shaking their heads, faced with the foolishness of a madman. Even the disciples only remember the reality of that promise after Christ had died and risen – another example of the foolishness of human wisdom. It is only sometimes after the fact that the way we have walked becomes clear to us.

The argument Paul sets out pivots between sentences at verses 17 and 18. At verse 17 Paul states that Christ sent him not to preach wisdom (Sophia) characterized by words (logos) contrasted with what Paul was sent for at verse 18, to preach The Word (logos) of the Cross. The wisdom of our words is such a subtle trap…and it is easy for my human mind to conclude that because, for example, I can parse biblical Hebrew verbs, I am somehow made wiser in God’s estimation. (although certainly not in the eyes of most employers in Alberta!) When this is really my advanced knowledge that convinces me I am wise, and Paul reminds me that to measure one’s worth in those terms is the exact foolishness of the world that Christ came to undo and make foolish. So who do I preach? I preach Christ crucified. And what is Christ crucified? A message that attracts all to its bright light, made manifest by my subtle use of the English language and my personal charisma? No, Paul goes on to tell us that Christ crucified is a ‘stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.’ What do I realize reading this passage again? That it pleases God when, through the folly of what I preach, people hear of the Logos, The Word, whom came to bring foolishness for us all.

This idea, being foolish for Christ, is one that hasn’t received much traction in the western church. We draw highly on the Enlightenment traditions, and the earlier philosophical wisdom traditions, that place a premium on gnosis, knowing and knowledge. One of the great lies of that tradition is that there has never been an era in human history when we have been so wise – where we make the same error I just talked about, confounding a multitude of knowledge with wisdom. I might be so bold as to say that an excess of knowledge is, in some cases, a factor that prohibits the existence of wisdom. One place where foolishness has been celebrated as a part of the church is in the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions, and this is worth a word or two, as this can tell us something about what Paul speaks of – that God chose ‘what is low and despised in the world…so that no human being might boast in” God.

This orthodox tradition celebrates the holy fool, in Russian the word used is yurodivy. These are holy people who abandon the pretense of polite relationship with society to manifest the Godly folly. You may have heard of the great Orthodox cathedral of Moscow – St Basil’s. St Basil was not an uptight proper saint, but one considered a holy fool. Basil the blessed, or Basil fool for Christ, was known for shoplifting from merchants to give to the poor, and walking around naked except for heavy chains that he wore.

Saint Simeon, the patron saint of fools, spent decades in the desert as a hermit. It is told that he asked that God allow him to serve others without anyone knowing that he was the one helping. He returned to town pulling a dead dog behind him on a rope. During Sunday services he would throw nuts at the priests and blow the altar candles out. At least a part of this was done so that people would not know about his work for God, healing, praying and caring for the poor.

Author Leo Tolstoy wrote about a holy fool named Grisha he encountered as a child. Some thought Grisha a holy man, others a lazy beggar. Tolstoy’s father considered that Grisha was lazy, untrustworthy and should be thrown into prison. Tolstoy’s mother replied that, “…It is hard to believe that a man, though he is sixty, goes barefoot summer and winter and always under his clothes wears chains weighing seventy pounds, and who has more than once declined a comfortable life . . . it is hard to believe that such a man does all this merely because he is lazy.”

The holy fool stands as a witness to the same principle that Paul writes, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” They remind us that the path to salvation is not one that rests on the foundation of our status within our culture, or based on the merits we earn through hard work, but rather on the folly of the cross. Our salvation is not based on our merits or our worthiness, but rather on the merits of Christ, and the infinite worthiness that flows to us from that relationship.

The holy fools remind us that the proposition of Christianity is not one that appeals to those who seek the wisdom of this world. You can see this clearly if you have ever tried to explain to a non-believer why it is you spend your time in a community of faith – there is something fundamentally irrational about the undertaking. That’s reinforced when you think about Christ’s ministry, not one that worked from the power structures of the time but rather in spite of them, and using people that all those in the swim of the culture, those who were certain about their place and importance of things, would have rejected as not worth their time, for, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!” (Luke 6:22)

In the words of New Testament scholar Gordon Fee, “…the cross stands in absolute, uncompromising contradiction to human wisdom…it is God’s folly, folly that is at the same time [God’s] wisdom and power.” (Fee, NICNT, 66) Human wisdom demands objective truth, and yet in the story of Christ we have nothing but the absurd: God coming into physical existence within time and space, as an individual human being. It is on this point that the majority of the great heresies take off, in an attempt to remove God from the flawed physical creation, so painful is that thought to human wisdom. That is the folly of God’s plan for salvation, built around the paradox of the Cross.

In our text for today, Paul talks about the two different groups and the different wisdom sought by the Jews or the Greeks. Paul sets out the two fundamental idolatries of humanity. The Jews demand miraculous signs – asking that Jesus repeat the mighty signs that God had performed for His people in the past. They knew how God would properly bring the Messiah to them, and you see this repeatedly throughout the Gospels in the demand for signs, for miracles and the questions from the disciples about when Jesus would assume the throne of David – meaning expelling the occupying army and restoring the Jewish theocracy. The Greeks demand wisdom, befitting of their position as an exceptionally learned society, who wanted to see God as the ultimate reason, meaning reason in the human sense of course. (Fee, 74-75)

Paul sets out the reality that humanity is often willing to consider assenting to the existence of a god, but only if that god comes in on our terms and fitting in tightly prescribed limits that satisfy our need for safety and control. Paul’s point is that the actual answer to that question is much different, because God demands are all, and will not be satisfied with only a part of us. Our path of salvation is not a mighty show of power that the world understands, but rather the saviour who comes to die on a cross. This is a dangerous proposition for us, because God demands nothing less than our death to sin so that He can raise us again in Christ. This message was scandalous to both Greek and Jew, so offensive was it to the cultural idea of greatness and power that they each embraced.

It is hard for all of us, conditioned as we are to see the image of the cross as something good and holy, to understand how offensive this would have been to the cultures of Christ’s time. (Fee, 76) The crosses that many of us wear around our necks, pretty and sparkling, are images of an instrument of torture and murder. The image of the cross to a person of the ancient middle-eastern world would be akin to one of us wearing an image of a hangman’s noose, a guillotine, the executioner’s axe or the apparatus used for lethal injections proudly on a chain for all to see.

Even once we are within the community of faith, we must be cautious that we do not let our familiarity with this place, with the symbols and the motions of our worship don’t lull us into a comfortable casualness where we accept the absurdity of salvation as something as somehow reasonable and common. Is it any wonder that so many reject the message outright? The danger is that we hear these things here, and accept them, but fail to carry that message of absurdity out into our lives for the remainder of the week. Our ascent to the reality of the Cross and the path of salvation opened as a result, is a fundamental challenge to the reality that governs our world, and it is too easy for us to live as normal people during the balance of the week…and not to carry that paradox out into our daily lives, where it should rightly inform the way we live all week-long. Do we place our blessed assurance with God, or within our trust of the ability of humankind to make it on our own…do we trust in God with us who died upon the cross, or upon our military might to fix all of the evil facing us globally?

So we are left with a choice, in Fee’s words, “we can trust God and be saved by his wise folly, or keep up our pretensions and perish.” Our challenge in that decision is that God’s great plan of salvation appears, to human wisdom, as scandal and paradox. God’s plan of salvation is worked out with no need for help from us, and no need to conform to our ideal of how a saving God should actually go about his work. God’s gift to us, is our forgiveness instead of the death we deserved. That gift, freely available to us, rests only on our willingness to ascent and to admit that without God there is nothing redeemable about us. To many, that step of accepting God’s gift freely given is hateful, and particularly to those trapped in the idea that it is their self-worth or earned righteousness that God should acknowledge. Amen


I owe some debt to Bishop William Willimon’s sermon on 1 Cor 1:23 titled, “Looking Like Fools”

My primary commentary was Gordon Fee’s excellent New International Commentary on the New Testament volume on 1st Corinthians, Eerdmans, 1987. I have to say that the commentaries written by scholars practising in the evangelical tradition continue to offer the greatest blessing to a preacher. It is clear in Fee’s text that he actually believes what it is he is writing about.

I also read Kierkegaard’s essay, “Passion and Paradox” which is echoed in parts of the sermon.


Written by sameo416

March 1, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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