The Cross as Foolishness (8:30am)
Topic: Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon Scripture: Psalm 22:27–22:31, 1 Corinthians 1:18–1:25
The church in first-century Corinth was in conflict. People argued over theology, they were filled with pride about their spiritual gifts, and they looked down on the poor among them. Paul had the solution to their chaos: the message of the Cross. This message was silly and absurd to those who didn’t understand, but it was life and salvation to those who accepted it. The Cross was of course where God’s son died—and it also is the place where sin and pride are nailed. Through faith, the cross changes from an external event long ago to an inner work of God. It enables us to put aside our preferences and opinions, and our need to prevail. It addresses our fear-based actions and our despair. Paul wrote in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
The Corinthians had already heard and believed that message. Paul had preached “Christ and him crucified” among them, and they had embraced the message. What happened? How did they drift so far from the simplicity of the cross? We don’t like the cross. In our human nature we will do what we can to escape it. Even Jesus prayed that the cup of suffering might pass from him, though he embraced God’s will.
The Corinthians had turned away from the cross little by little. As a result, their community was threatened by the constant clash of people wanting their own way. Paul wants to bring them back to basics, back to the cross of self-denial. It seems they were resisting with all their might.
What if we changed our attitude and embraced the cross? The suffering and humiliation we fear would instead be accepted as the means of God’s grace. It’s the way we become holy, and remade in Christ’s image. The hymn declares:
On a hill far away, stood an old rugged Cross, the emblem of suff'ring and shame And I love that old Cross where the dearest and best, for a world of lost sinners was slain So, I'll cherish the old rugged Cross, till my trophies at last I lay down I will cling to the old rugged Cross and exchange it some day for a crown.
It’s a picture of one who cherishes, embraces, loves, and clings to the cross. It recognizes it as the Spirit’s work within. Francois Fenelon, the 18th century spiritual guide, prayed, “Forbid it, Lord, that we should ever reach the place in life that our crosses do us no good.” The Cross, and our individual crosses, transform us from meaninglessness to ultimate significance.
Paul will continue the theme of foolishness, applying it to himself. “We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour, we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.”
There is a tradition in church history which begins with this passage by Paul. It’s the role of the holy fool, or fools for Christ. St Francis of Assisi was so “cross-oriented” that it is said the stigmata-holes from the nails on the cross, appeared in his hands. St Basil of Moscow was one of these holy fools, too. He went summer and winter in the Russian capital without clothes. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He publicly rebuked Tsar Ivan the Terrible for his violence against the innocent—truly a reckless thing to do. Basil became famous for his eccentric faith. The most extravagant cathedral in the Kremlin is named St Basil’s, famous for its flamboyantly-colored onion domes. Ivan the Terrible served as a pallbearer at Basil’s funeral. Other holy fools include St Damian of Molokai, St Catherine of Siena, Sojourner Truth, and Dostoevsky’s character in his novel, The Idiot. All of them did shocking things and were used by God in mighty ways. Their “self” with all pride and inhibitions, had been crucified with Christ.
St John of the Cross was a monk who took that name for himself in 1568. A few years later, he had a vision of the crucified Christ “from above”—a kind of aerial view as though from a drone. He made a drawing of this vision, which nearly 400 years later Salvador Dali used as the basis for his famous painting in 1951 called “Christ of St John of the Cross.” St John was taken prisoner by his own monastic order and kept in a tiny, filthy cell. He was lashed with a whip in front of the whole community once a week for months. He had no change of clothes, and was put on a diet of water, bread, and scraps of salted dried fish. Under these conditions, he produced some of his most important writings.
Each of us is John of the Cross, or Tom or Jim of the Cross, or Carol or Sally of the Cross. Its inner work enables us to shed our sin of pride and self-importance and play the fool if need be. Generally, we Protestants feature an empty cross in our churches, not a crucifix. It represents the power that overcomes death through the risen One - so true. There is also something to be said for the contemplation of Christ crucified—and what he suffered to take away our sin, and the sin of the whole world. I sat thinking about these matters at a local McDonald’s—the foolishness of the cross and the strange vocation of Holy Fool. My thoughts were interrupted when a worker came in to start his shift, loudly greeting everyone. He seemed to have a mental challenge of some sort, a 20-something young man who was oddly childlike, innocent, and uninhibited. Several customers who must have been regulars, he greeted in a voice that was way too loud. Everyone in the place couldn’t help but hear him, as if he had a megaphone. For each one he had a good word. “How’s your day going? Great to see you! Are you still at the new job? Your daughter doing okay?” He showed not just a passing interest, but a deeply sincere concern for each person. To one he said, “It was 9 years ago this month that we first met!” This unusual person changed the atmosphere of that McDonald’s by his presence. He worked constantly as he talked, mopping the floor and cleaning the tables. Some as they left the restaurant went up to him and praised him for the work he was doing. I think that several received from him the only kind word or personal interest they might hear all day—or all week. As I thought about those Holy Fools of long ago, it dawned on me: this might be one right here.
If our lives have been touched by foolishness of the cross, then we, like Paul, can be holy fools too. Here are some questions to ponder in this Lenten season, from a book by author Mathew Woodley, called “Holy Fools: Following Jesus with Reckless Abandon.”
- When was the last time I poured out love for God without caution?
- When was the last time I spent a day or an hour quietly listening to God?
- When was the last time I was called foolish because of my love for Christ?
- When was the last time nobody noticed when I serve and I didn’t care that nobody noticed
- When was the last time I offered my brokenness to God, and felt God’s power surging through the weak and broken places of my life?