A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (29/01/23): Foolishness and a Stumbling Block

Corinthians 1:18-31

One of the most troubling things for Christians is the question: why doesn’t everyone believe? Why isn’t it the case that everyone sees the truth of what we are saying? Why doesn’t everyone, or at least a few more, come and join us here Sunday by Sunday? As the church declines in this country, as fewer and fewer people seem to respond to the message about Jesus, this troubles us more and more.
Perhaps we begin to suspect that we’re the ones that are mistaken, that perhaps there really isn’t anything in the story of Jesus. That his life and death and resurrection can’t make the decisive difference to our lives in the here and now. That maybe none of it’s true and we should give up trying. Of course you know that I’m not going to say that. But at the same time I’m also going to admit that I don’t find that question easy to answer. I have spent my whole life as one of the youngest people in the Churches that I’ve been part of. And ever since I was old enough for anyone to be interested in my opinion, I’ve been asked: “Why don’t people come to church anymore?” For almost 40 years, ever since I was “the young person” in the congregation and I’m not young anymore, this question has been put to me: Why do some people believe? And there does seem to be less and less who do. And therefore more importantly why don’t most people believe? Or believe enough to make them come to church on a regular basis? Since, it seems, I was about the last one to come in, people have wondered and they’ve asked me: “Why has no one come in behind you?”
And you know what? I’ve never been able to come up with an answer? You know, I don’t know why people don’t believe, I don’t know why people don’t want to come to church because I do believe, and I do come church. Indeed I really like coming to church.

But amazingly it was ever thus! This is not a new question for the church. It has always been there. Because it is that thought in the minds of the Christians at Corinth that prompts Paul to write:
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.
For us on the inside the message of the Cross, the story of Jesus, what the Bible says, coming to Church and being members of the community of faith, all of these things make sense. And to everybody else they don’t, they seem like foolishness, a waste of time. And there is no explaining the difference!

Of course both sides of that problem assume there ought to be an answer. Both those who believe, those who do come to church, and those who don’t come to church and who perhaps don’t even believe, both assume that if what church says is true there must be something to convince everyone that it is true. It seems like it stands to reason, that if the church means anything, then it ought to be possible to convince everyone that is the case. There should be, one might think, some convincing demonstration of the worth of the church, some convincing argument that confounds all the doubts and contradictions. There must be something to sell Christianity and to get people to buy into it. In marketing terms perhaps we would say that Christianity must have a U.S.P – a unique selling proposition in the marketplace of ideas in which it has to compete. And it must be a proposition that is overwhelming and compelling. And the Church does indeed spend a great deal of time and effort trying to find new and better ways to market Christianity. It is always looking for the killer argument that will change the way people think about Christianity. It is always looking for ways to dress up the message to make more appealing, more attractive. And then I read what St. Paul writes here. And know that as determined and as well meaning as such efforts are, they are doomed to failure. I stand here, Christians stand today as naked as they ever were. We have nothing more to offer. There is no argument more convincing than the Cross of Jesus. There is no image more appealing or more attractive than Jesus dying for us. If that isn’t enough, we don’t have anything else to add! There is nothing more. All that we have is the message of the cross. Which is foolishness to some. And an obstacle to others.

There’s a joke: There are two sorts of people in the world: Those who divide people into two sorts of people, and those who don’t! Paul is one of those who divides people into two sorts of people. His world view was divided into: Jews, and everyone who wasn’t Jewish, who for convenience he calls Greeks. Everyone who the people in the church at Corinth knew was either one or the other, they were either Jews or they were Greeks. And the message that the church had, its USP, its unique selling proposition if you like, didn’t work for either of those groups. Jews were looking for a sign, some kind of endorsement, something powerful, that would allow them to accept that the message was true. This is perhaps understandable for a small, weak, oppressed nation. They want something powerful to break them out of their position at the bottom, to give them a sense of worth by being associated with something impressive. A man’s broken body on a cross used to torture and execute the worst sort of criminal was not going to work for them. Greeks were looking for wisdom, something that makes sense, something that added to the sum of their knowledge about the world. Which again is understandable for people in control, knowledge is power. They liked to be in control, at least of their own lives and the more knowledge that they had the better. Claiming that a man from the back of beyond, executed as a traitor, is the source of life and knowledge in the universe would to them seem like the most foolish of claims.

The world, for us, is not divided into Jews and Greeks, at least that’s not the labels we put on them. But the world, the culture we live is divided in a surprisingly similar way. There are those who look for a sign, those who want their senses and their emotions satisfied. People who are impressed by wealth and power and fame. And they try hard to gain it, or emulate those who have it, or be associated with it. That is what drives our fascination with celebrity gossip, it is the idea behind everything from the X-factor to the Apprentice or any other sort of so called reality TV. And still the cross has nothing to offer them.
And then, on the other hand, there are those who reckon themselves wise and clever. The ones that want proof for everything. And who claim to have a complete description of the world, a description which as it happens excludes any possibility of God, the likes of Richard Dawkins or Stephen Fry and their ilk. They are the enthusiastic, we might even say “evangelistic” secularists and atheists. The idea that God exists and especially that God could live and die as a man called Jesus to them does indeed seem like foolishness. The message which we have, the only thing we have, the message of the Cross, does still seem to most like a stumbling block or foolishness.

But that is exactly the point! That is exactly why God chooses the foolish offensiveness of the cross to make himself known and to save those who willing to accept him on his own terms. If God really is God, he doesn’t need a convincing argument. God certainly doesn’t need a celebrity endorsement. God must be accepted as he is, for himself, not propped up by anything so human as cleverness or impressiveness. In the cross God in fact shatters both the human longing for knowledge that leads to control and power that leads to control. Since compared to God both are illusions. Trying to satisfy our senses and emotions or thirst for knowledge and power both run out of steam in the end. And they both finish up with disappointment and disillusionment. The message of the cross, indeed everything about Christianity and the church doesn’t make sense and it can’t impress unless you accept it first. Then actually there are not two sorts of people but three: Not just Jews and Greeks, but Jews and Greeks and Christians. The Christians are as Jesus so eloquently puts it: The poor, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted, all of whom are blessed by God. For all of them have opened themselves to the possibility that God is God and that God has acted through Jesus on the cross. Or as Paul puts it the ones who have accepted that despite all appearances, and everything that stands in its way, believe, who can see that coming to church, being part of the community of faith do make sense. Because the message of the cross does have the power to transform our lives.

Foolishness and a Stumbling Block by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

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