Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Message about the Cross is Foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:17-18)
January 26, 2020
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
During his second missionary journey the Apostle Paul visited Corinth in Greece, a prosperous port city about 50 miles west of Athens. Corinth was the capital city of the Roman province of Achaia. As a commercial hub between the Roman Empire and the East, it had a cosmopolitan population with many residents from around the world, and was also important politically, culturally, and economically.
While in Corinth Paul befriended fellow tentmakers Aquila and Priscilla, and lived and worked with them. Each week at the synagogue he preached the gospel. Paul’s gospel message, which was centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, was not well received by his hearers, who “opposed and reviled him.” But instead of giving up Paul simply began preaching in the house next door to the synagogue. Many of those who heard Paul preach the gospel there became Christians and were baptized, including, ironically enough, “Crispus, the official of the synagogue” next door, as well as his entire family (Acts 18:1-8).
And yet in spite of all those being converted and baptized, Paul still faced relentless opposition and revilement—so much so in fact that scripture tells us the Lord spoke to Paul in a dream one night and assured him, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.” This word from the Lord fortified Paul so much that in spite of the ceaseless opposition and revilement, he continued to preach the gospel in Corinth for a year and a half before he “said farewell to the believers and sailed for Syria” (Acts 18:9-11, 18).
Later Paul wrote several letters to the Corinthians, including two that are part of the New Testament. In these letters Paul addressed the many issues with which the church at Corinth struggled—issues including partisanship among church leaders, discrimination against the poor, sexual immorality, and idolatry—issues with which every church struggles to one degree or another because every church is made up of sinful human beings like you and me.
In today’s passage from his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul, before addressing any of the issues at the Corinthian church, reiterates the heart of his ministry:
Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For 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 (1 Corinthians 1:17-18).
“Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel,” Paul wrote, “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.” Paul’s apostolic ministry was always centered—completely, totally, emphatically centered—on preaching the gospel, the gospel of God’s unconditional love for sinners and sufferers, which includes everyone, preaching the gospel of the grace of God as expressed historically, definitively, for all time in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When it comes to ministry in the church it is so easy, so tempting, to focus on anything other than that actual gospel in order to be “relevant.” Many years ago I was a youth minister in Northern Virginia (there’s a difference between Virginia and Northern Virginia just like there’s a difference between Georgia and South Georgia). A parishioner came to my office one day, the mother of one of the high schoolers in the youth ministry. She gave me two things. The first was a long detailed survey that she demanded I ask every kid in the youth ministry complete, a survey replete with questions about issues with which high schoolers struggle—peer pressure, self-esteem, drugs, sex, drinking, all the usual suspects. She told me the survey would help our youth ministry be relevant because in her opinion it was, and I quote “an island of irrelevancy in a sea of despair” (pretty poetic, I’ll give her that). The second thing she gave me that day was heartburn.
The truth is, as far as the issues faced by the high schoolers in that youth ministry were concerned, she was exactly right. And there were additional stressors for these kids as well that she did not mention, including the toxic pressure to perform and get better grades, and a higher SAT score, and to make the varsity team, and to get the lead role in the school play, and to be first chair violin in the school orchestra—ceaseless pressure to perform from helicopter parents like her.
Of course all those issues matter—and as you know struggles with peer pressure, self-esteem, drugs, sex, drinking do not end after high school, they only intensify and have many other issues added to them, like career, finances, marriage and/or divorce, parenthood, aging parents, the pressure to perform. Where does preaching the gospel of God’s unconditional love fit in? How does preaching the gospel of God’s grace help? How is preaching the foolish message of the cross relevant?
These questions do not just apply on the personally but societally as well. And in the same way the gospel can be dismissed as irrelevant to your personal life, it can be dismissed as irrelevant to society as a whole. One of the most influential philosophers of the nineteenth century was a preacher’s kid, the son of a Lutheran pastor who later in life dismissed the Christian faith in no uncertain terms: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He famously and angrily mocked the gospel of God’s unconditional love with its foolish message of the cross. Listen to what he wrote in his book Human, All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits:
When we hear the ancient bells growling on a Sunday morning we ask ourselves: Is it really possible! This, for a Jew, crucified two thousand years ago, who said he was God’s son? The proof of such a claim is lacking. Certainly the Christian religion is an antiquity projected into our times from remote prehistory; and the fact that the claim is believed—whereas one is otherwise so strict in examining pretensions—is perhaps the most ancient piece of this heritage. A god who begets children with a mortal woman; a sage who bids men work no more, have no more courts, but look for the signs of the impending end of the world; a justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice; someone who orders his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous interventions; sins perpetrated against a god, atoned for by a god; fear of a beyond to which death is the portal; the form of the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function and ignominy of the cross—how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past! Can one believe that such things are still believed? (113).
As you probably know Nietzsche’s philosophy was heavily influential in the development of Fascism and its darkest expression, the Nazism of the Third Reich. Lest you think this is all outdated, remember that neo-Nazism continues to grow in our country, complete with its hateful racist and anti-Semitic message.
“Can one believe that such things are still believed?” asked Nietzsche. Well, yes, apparently so. In spite of how often and vehemently the gospel has been dismissed over the centuries, because, again as we read in today’s passage, “the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” it remains “to us who are being saved…the power of God.” Many of you have personally experienced this power of God’s love in your life which is why you are here today.
The gospel of the foolish message of the cross is that you are fully known and fully loved by God, more than you could imagine—and the ultimate demonstration of this occurred on Good Friday—as the Apostle Paul wrote elsewhere, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Many years ago as an undergraduate I took a class on the Letter of Paul to the Romans, an entire college class on just that one letter—an awesome class. I will never forget as a twenty year old sitting in that class while Professor Arden Autry, who incidentally was a graduate of the University of Georgia, lectured on the following passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, a passage that reveals why the foolish message of the cross is indeed “the power of God” that saves us:
There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith (Romans 3:22-25).
As Dr. Autry unpacked that passage, word by word, about the love of God for sinners like me, a love so unimaginably pervasive and complete that God’s Son gave his life to atone for all my sins, as a free gift with no catch—that I had been, was then, and would always be forgiven (“are now justified by his grace”) it finally clicked in my head and heart. I had attended church for years and was attending a Christian college but there was still a part of me that felt like I had to earn God’s love—that I had to change, become a better person or a more committed disciple in order for God to love me. For so many years I had the order exactly wrong—change does not precede God’s love for you; God’s love for you precedes change. Let me repeat that—change does not precede God’s love for you, God’s love for you precedes change. Scripture tells us it is not repentance that leads to God’s love, but God’s love that leads to repentance (Romans 2:4).
In other words, as the truth that the foolish message of the cross is actually proof of God’s unconditional love for you begins to permeate your mind and sink into your heart (even the darkest places in your heart)—it begins to change your life. You may not become wealthier (you may still be broke), you may not become famous (you may still feel like a nobody), you may not become more noticed (you may still be overlooked)—but you may perhaps become more loving, more compassionate, more approachable, more gracious, more kind because God’s love for you has always been all those things and more.
When you begin to realize that you are fully known and fully forgiven and fully loved by God right now, that you are justified by God’s grace right now, then that forgiveness and love begin to overflow into your actual life as it actually is, and begin to impact how you treat others and how you treat yourself. You begin to realize that God loves you so much he thought—and still thinks—you were worth dying for. You begin to realize God has loved you every second of your life regardless of whether you believed in God or not, loved you every second of your life even when you were hateful toward others or hateful toward yourself, loved you every second of your life even when your efforts to “become a better person” proved a train wreck, loved you every second of your life all the time, no matter what, always and forever, world without end.
That is the gospel. That is the love of God. That is the power of God that saves you. That is what the foolishness of the cross is all about. In the big picture the gospel is far and away the most relevant thing in the world and in your life.
That is the gospel that changed the life of the Apostle Paul and why even in the face of opposition and revilement he remained unwavering and unflagging in his focus on preaching that gospel “not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” It was his focus during his eighteen months in Corinth and in every other place he visited in his ministry. Yes, “the message about the cross is foolishness”, but yes, it is also the power of God.
And since “the message about the cross is foolishness,” I hope here at Christ Church you will join me in being the biggest fools in town.