"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

A Fool for Christ

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Here is the completed sermon…

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.

So, through the foolishness of preaching, we’ll talk today about the wisdom of the world versus God’s wisdom, and look at some of the absurdity that underlies our faith. 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. 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/can be no resurrection without first descent to Sheol.

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 with science. As our Supreme Court recently ruled, 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. And yet death holds sway over this world, and our victory in setting the how and when is, in the end, empty. 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?

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 Jesus as the son of God!” 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 a fool, but that was what I read on her face.

Now, I can tell my friend 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. And yet, in spite of just tying my belief to my measuring of things, there was still the point when I had to 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, 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 or any news site 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 just before our reading the problem of division in the Christian community. 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. The point of the passion of faith is not assenting to some bit of human wisdom that appeals to us, but rather that God’s Word brings into sharp focus the truth that all human wisdom is suspect, and that the Cross of Christ highlights the foolishness of even our best. Harkening back a few weeks to Ash Wednesday, recall what was spoken as the ashes were applied: who am I? I know only this, that I know I came from dust, and to dust I shall return.

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 the physical thing that was the Temple could be continued, 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. Little did they suspect, Jesus was speaking of something much different.

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. Our call is not to trust in the physical of this moment, 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 – their great ‘ah-ha’ moment only comes in the foolishness of hindsight.

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 the wisdom (Sophia) of words (logos) but rather 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, because in Paul’s words, Christ crucified is a ‘stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.’

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, which place a premium on gnosis, knowing and knowledge. One of the reasons this tradition doesn’t have traction in the western church, is because we like to consider ourselves respectable, rational Christians. Contrast that with the foolishness Paul speaks of – that God chose “what is low and despised in the world…so that no human being might boast in” God.

Saint John Chrysostom wrote this in the 4th century, “Only a fool would attempt to change the world with a simple message of love and peace. So we can conclude that Jesus was a fool. Only fools would agree to follow such a man…So we can conclude that all of us are fools…So let all happily admit that we are fools. Then we will happily commit ourselves to change the world.” Contrast that message of foolishness with the way the church normally meets the world, through business meetings, respectable people and a self-confidence that makes non-believers stay away because they cannot equal our saintliness.

This orthodox tradition celebrates the holy fool, in Russian the word used is yurodivi. These are holy people who abandon the pretense of polite relationship with society to manifest Godly folly. You may have heard of the great Orthodox cathedral of Moscow – St Basil’s. St Basil was not an uptight and proper saint, but rather a holy fool. 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 about his neck. Saint Simeon, the patron saint of fools, spent decades in the desert as a hermit. 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.

Author Leo Tolstoy wrote about a holy fool named Grisha he encountered as a child. 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 fools were called to intense foolishness so they would be rejected by the society, because it was only through that rejection that they could truly minister to the truly needy. The rule of life of the holy fool was, “no healing without solidarity, no salvation without participation.” (Bp Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, St Vladimir’s Press, 2000, p. 175) That foolishness allowed them to minister beneath the attention of the worldly wise, to avoid being co-opted into a worldly agenda by being in solidarity with the discarded and the marginalized.

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 respectability, but rather on the absurdity of God come to be with us, to die with us, and to break apart the shackles of death for us. In some ways our salvation is based on our willingness to be unreasonable and disrespectful.

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) It’s easy to imagine being respectable for God, but what about being foolish with abandon – much like David dancing with so much abandon before the Arc that people were scandalized and some despised him – that was not how a Godly king was supposed to Act. (2 Sam 6:16)

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.

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 and absurd 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 this 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. Who will you chose to follow? Amen


 

I owe some debt to Bishop William Willimon’s sermon on 1 Cor 1 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 practicing 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 essays, “Passion and Paradox” and “The Greatest Danger” which are echoed in parts of the sermon – both from Provocations (available for free download).

Matthew Woodley’s book, Holy Fools: Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon had some influence, including the quotation from St Chrysostom and introducing me to Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware.

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Written by sameo416

March 7, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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