Sermon: Epiphany 4A, Sunday February 5, 2014.
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”[a]
20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
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. 27 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. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”[b]
I read this quote during the week by Samuel Rutherford, the 17th century Scottish Presbyterian Pastor, and it helped me understand Paul’s word here on the cross of Jesus and what it means and what it does for us…
“Christ’s cross is such a burden as sails are to a ship or wings to a bird”. (Samuel Rutherford ,Scottish Presbyterian Pastor, 17th Century)
The cross of Jesus, an instrument of shame and pain is a burden to the one who knows it and trusts it, and yet it is a burden without which you cannot fly.
Like a bird that has to carry large and unwieldy wings, those same unwieldy wings enable the bird to truly live.
Paul speaks of this two-sided gift of God to a community doing two things – looking for powerful works of God to convince themselves and others that God truly is present and real, or, constantly searching for self-discovery and wisdom from anywhere they deem fit to find it.
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified:
So, the powerful sign people are looking for signs of divine power to fly and the self-discovery types are looking for wisdom from experience, guru’s and anywhere else to fly.
Paul lays the troubling truth of the cross of Jesus on both as the only means to truly fly.
The gospel is a burden.
I wish the story I now live in was easier to tell to others. Both because it is the best story to tell and I know it surely is “the power of God for people’s salvation”. But I wish it was easier to live and tell because I have found that this message of Jesus’ death for the sin of the people is indeed often regarded as a stumbling block to powerful sings of the divine or complete foolishness to people. For this reason, living and telling the good news of the grace and power of God given in the weakness and shame of the cross for us hard to tell. It is an upside down world I am living in among people who think they are living the right side up all by themselves!
So, I wish the story I now live in was as easy to share and receive, like the news of an Australian victory in the cricket or as easy as complaining about the government or swapping details re the weather. I wish the gospel story we carry in our hands and hearts was so much more easily spoken and received.
The gospel is not an easy thing to share or even an easy thing to hear sometimes.
Well, Paul says here that the gospel is directly in opposition to the broken human heart. That’s one reason. We are carrying a message that the human heart does not want to hear. How come?
Well, a few reason I can draw from my own heart.
- Jesus is not like me: Jesus is not a worldly power person. No power trappings, no normal way of power and rule and leadership – not the way my head and heart are wired. If I am looking for sign of domination, control and power in the human way to prove that God loves me and is with me, the cross will be not worth my time.
- Jesus demands all: The gospel demands all not just some, and that means the self is overtaken by a greater authority and the self within does not like this! The gospel is not an optional extra that you give some mindful agreement to when it suits you or when you feel good or when you are desperate. The gospel is not a book to read in your spare time or your spiritual journey. The gospel is not something I choose really. It chooses me and I either respond with a yes or I don’t. As I am enabled by the mighty power of God to say, “yes”, I am changed and now I am like that bird. I have this upside down story, these unwieldy wings that can feel like burden but also are the thing that enables me to truly fly.
- Jesus changes my step: As the good news of God’s grace given to me a sinner filters down to my boots, I walk differently. I have to. I no longer am geared to seek the trappings of human power or human wisdom. I find myself turning my back on the beliefs of our day. I do not name myself a consumer, believing that “I consume, therefore I am”. I am instead named “a baptised and loved person of God – saved by the foolish cross, loved by a suffering God, empowered not to dominate others but to serve others at great cost to my self – and all of this gladly – the gospel way to fly.
So, I am person on a collision course with my old self and with most of the people I know. They are looking for signs of God in human shows of power – great intellect, giftedness, achievements, human love and affection, and the like.
I am not searching for divine signs in human power but am centred on the things of God that on face value seem weak and powerless – a suffering human being on a cross, a simple word said with the use of water in a font, a human word from a pulpit, a strange uniquely Christian meal of bread and wine for the forgiveness of my sign hungry, power hungry, human wisdom hungry heart.
So, I am not a philosopher searching for human ways and wisdom with which to plumb the depths of my experience.
I am not seeking to gain a victory over anyone else, pay back anyone else, or win some unseen competition in the town.
This is the burden of being a gospel bearer in a world where the gospel is widely regarded as irrelevant, silly or even dangerous – “the opiate of the people” as Marx famously said.
The gospel is freedom to fly
But friends, what about those wings? Why about our flying?
25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Jesus the Messiah hanging there for my wayward and offensive heart, freely offering me the underserved love and kindness of the One who created me and is calling back into his infinite wisdom and divine power is the gift that makes me fly.
The burdensome wings become the beautiful wings of life and love and direction. The foolish upside down story I have been given by Jesus becomes the means by which I am divinely wise to live life fully and freely.
Why? Why is this upside down foolish Jesus on that cross wisdom for my life?
Because only in Jesus can anyone truly fly. Only by the mighty resurrection power of the holy Spirit can a dead human be resurrected to fly, to love, to give, to be the power of the Spirit for the freedom and love of the world.
In other words, only in Jesus do I find myself free to fly – free to forget myself and be a person for others.
That is the new thing here in Corinthians. Not only is Paul saying in this text and in this letter than he really doesn’t care what the Corinthians or anyone else thinks of him, but he actually does not ca e what he himself thinks of him! We see this later in chapter 4:3;
3 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.
So, because of his gospel wings, Paul does not need to go to other people to be a “somebody”. Because of the foolish cross of Jesus, he does not even have to listen to his own judgements about himself. He is truly free to fly. He is free in the cross of Jesus to truly live in the freedom of self-forgetfulness.
To finish, we have to turn to CS Lewis for a parting comment on how we fly as people of the cross around here…
In his famous little book, Mere Christianity”, Lewis makes the insightful observation about living in the freedom of the cross, the freedom of being loved by God that much, the freedom of the gospel we share…
If we were to meet a truly humble person, we would never come away from meeting them thinking they were humble. They would not always be telling us they were nobody. (if they did they would actually be a self-obsessed person). The thing we would remember from meeting a truly cross trusting, gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us.
Why? Because gospel-humility living is flying free from having to make everything about me or connected to me – truly the joy and the freedom of forgetting self, serving others because I am a gospel person – a cross person, loved to my boots by the suffering man, the power of God man, the wisdom of God man for us.
Fly, friend. Fly with those burdensome gospel wings you have been given in your baptism and ever since; those wings that are the very power of God to give life to your friends and your enemies. Fly in the freedom of self-forgetfulness.
Read the text carefully noting down anything thoughts and questions that come to mind. Share these…
We talked about the two kinds of people St Paul was ministering to in this letter – Jews and Greeks. The Jews demand divine signs of God’s presence and the Greeks were looking to discover great wisdom in their experience and from others too.
How do you think people of our day are looking for signs of the divine to reassure them that there is a God and that he is on their side?
How do you think people of our day try to find wisdom? How and where do they look?
Do you find yourself being like this – looking for a sign of God’s presence and blessing in and/or trying to find wisdom with which to live life well? Where and how do you look for these things?
Talk about how you heard that description of the gospel message as both a burden to carry and the only way to truly “fly”. How has being a Christian been a bit like a bird with sometimes heavy “wings” and yet the only thing you know you need to be to truly live?
What did you think about this freedom of self-forgetfulness of which we spoke. We are so free in the cross of Jesus that we can relate to others and fulfill our vocations and callings without everything having to be about “me” all the time. Do you think CS Lewis was right when he says that the thing that would really strike you about a meeting with a humble cross-centred person was not that they were humble but that they were very interested in you? Share your response and experience of this….
have a look at 1 Corinthians 4-1-5 or so. What links can you make in Paul’s thinking here on the “foolishness of the cross” and how this frees us to be truly people for others?
Jesus, help us to trust that you are present and working even in our weaknesses and in ordinary things so that we be truly free to live in self-forgetfulness. Amen.
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