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All of Us
“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.” Paul wrote this to a community of people who must have felt foolish nearly all of the time.
See, the Roman world prized strength and order as the height of godliness. Their gods were strong, and transitively the strong were considered godly, up to the Emperor, the strongest of them all, who would be proclaimed a god upon his death. If you look at Roman artwork of the time, you’ll see depictions of the Emperor as a beautiful, strong man reaching up and touching the heavens as he tramples the conquered nations (like Palestine). This hierarchy had the gods at the top, then Romans immediately beneath them as the divinely ordained rulers, and finally, the conquered nations, whose weakness in battle proved that they were destined to be dominated by the Romans. This hierarchy was the foundation of Roman society. Those of the conquered nations are portrayed as weak, crying, effeminate men and inconsolable women, hunched over in misery as the Romans stand above them. The message is clear. Roman rule is divinely ordained, for the gods favor the strong, and the weak are punished for their weakness.
So when Paul proclaims Christ crucified, he proclaims a wisdom that would seem foolish to anyone living in the Roman world. Christ was not a conquering emperor. He did not trample upon the nations, he ministered to the trampled. If the imagery of Rome was all beauty and power, the imagery of Christianity was just the opposite. The primary image of Christianity is the Cross. The cross in the Ancient world wasn’t an image of power as it became in the Middle Ages, when it became associated with Kings and Queens and victorious armies.; it was an image of shame. An image of weakness, an image of subversion and rebellion against power and divine order. The God that Paul proclaimed was not at the top of the hierarchy, but instead took on flesh and placed Godself at the bottom of the hierarchy, throwing the Roman order into chaos.
So we can imagine how the Corinthians might have felt foolish for proclaiming Christ crucified. Their friends would ridicule them, coworkers would mock them, and their neighbors would spread salacious rumors about cannibalism, not understanding what it means to partake in the Body of Christ. Depending on who the Roman governor was, preaching such foolishness could even be dangerous. When a fire destroyed Rome in 64 AD, Nero blamed the Christians. He declared that their subversion of the divine order had brought this tragedy upon the world.
Nowadays, it is less dangerous to be a Christian, at least in the United States. It is no longer unpopular or strange to be a Christian. However, there is still a fundamental foolishness to the proclamation of the Gospel. William Willimon, a well-known preacher and former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, puts it this way:
Be honest now. Blessed are the meek? Try being meek tomorrow at work and see how far you get. Meekness is fine for church, but in the real world the meek get to go home early with a pink slip and a pat on the back. Blessed are those who are peacemakers; they shall get done to them what they are loath to do to others. Blessed are the merciful; they shall get it done to them a second time.
Anybody who lives in the real world knows that the message of the cross is foolishness. In the real world, people will take advantage of you. You can’t count on the world to treat you fairly. You can’t trust other people to have everyone’s interests at heart.
And so, as citizens of the real world, we put our trust in financial security, thinking that if we could just have a little bit more, we’d finally be okay. We put our faith in power, fighting for positions of prestige in the world and even in the church, believing that if we could just have a little bit more control over our world, we wouldn’t have to worry so much. We demand respect from others based on our status, our past success, and our achievements. And we judge others by what they have accomplished. And when we do these things, they feel like the smart thing to do, because in the “real” world, as often as not, everyone else is doing the same thing, looking for security, trying to control the world we live in, judging each other on the basis of our strength and accomplishments.
But Paul tells us that this is wisdom only for those who are perishing. “For the message about the Cross,” he says, “is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Because no matter how hard we try to be masters of our own fate, we are not. We seek to give ourselves security, control, and status, but the truth is that these are things we cannot create for ourselves.
When I was a kid we used to go to the arcade at the mall, or to Chucky Cheese’s or other places where there were arcade games. And my mom would give me and my brother some tokens, and I would go and blow them all on Skeeball in the first 30 minutes. And so I’d go to the driving simulators, where you sit in the chair and there’s a steering wheel in front of you and it’s like you’re driving the car on the screen. Since I didn’t have any quarters I couldn’t play, but these simulators all showed a sort of practice run, a video of someone else playing the game, except they weren’t very good at it. They wanted you to think, “I can do better” and put your quarters in, so the car always crashed before they even finished a lap. And I’d sit down in front of the steering wheel, and when the car on the screen turned to the left, I’d turn to the left. And when it turned to the right I’d turn to the right. And on the straightaways I’d mash down the gas pedal and it felt like I was really playing. It gave me the illusion of being in control. But I never really had control, it always crashed in the end. This is what it is like to put our faith in human wisdom. It gives us comfort, making us feel like we’re in control when we aren’t. We act as if we can have some control over the end, but we can’t. Those who are perishing cannot see beyond the end of the simulation, they cannot see beyond this world. And so they keep turning the wheel, thinking that somehow if they turn it hard enough or fast enough or carefully enough that they’ll be able to escape it somehow.
But the truth is that no amount of money, or success, or accomplishments will give us control over our world, because only God has control over our world. We cannot save ourselves by our striving, only God can save us. But the beauty of this reality is that we are not saved by our money, by our intelligence, by our status, or even by our actions. We are saved by the free grace of God. We are saved by the God who came to us not as a ruler or a king, but as a servant who died on a cross, that no one would be able to boast in their own accomplishments, or hold themselves over other people on account of who they were or what they had. Christ crucified proclaims that there is something more to the world than the human wisdom that puts its trust in success and money and fortune. The wisdom of the Cross seems foolishness to some, those who are clinging to some semblance of control in a world that is completely unpredictable. But while it seems foolishness to those who are perishing, it is wisdom to those who are saved.
The question to ask ourselves today is, “Are we going to be people of this world? Or are we going to be people of the next world, of God’s Kingdom?” Are we putting our trust in human things? Or are we storing up our treasures in heaven, a place far more permanent than here. Are we seeking our own wisdom? Or have we come to realize that the greatest wisdom is not wisdom that we will find through our own striving, but wisdom that we receive through God’s revelation to us.
Haruki Murakami is one of my wife’s favorite authors. He’s a Japanese author who writes novels that blur the boundary between the real and the surreal, and they paint beautiful pictures of the unique beauty in each and every one of us. A few years ago, he made a particularly controversial choice, and explained it in an open letter. In this letter, he presents an incredible metaphor, one that has stuck with me for a while as an metaphor for what Jesus means to this world. Murakami says, “Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always be on the side of the egg.”
Now to the world this is foolishness. Eggs do not break walls. Walls break eggs. It makes no sense to align yourself with the egg thrown against the wall, just as it made no sense to align yourself with the Christ crucified, with weakness, against the powers of the world that seek to control it. To believe that weakness can overcome strength is foolish. But the true foolishness is that when Jesus, who like us was made of flesh, weak and brittle, confronted the death on a cross, a high solid wall of impossibility, it was not Jesus who broke, but death. And by the power of God who saved Jesus from death, we too are saved, not by our own power, but Christ’s in whose dying we were given life.
And so my message to you today is this: be foolish. Love more than is reasonable. Share more than is sensible. Forgive more often than plausible. Stand up for the weak when you cannot possibly win. Align yourself with Christ crucified, knowing that the impossible has been made possible, and that death itself no longer limits us, for in Christ we are participants in a new Kingdom, where the wisdom of the real world is foolishness, and each of us, regardless of our own achievements, power, and strength, has been saved by the power of God and born into a new life, free from the powers of sin and death.