A sermon preached by Doug Davidson
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 11, 2012
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
I want to share a concern with you.
Or, maybe I should say it another way: I’m a little worried.
Yes. Worried. Let me explain.
I think some of us have been hanging around the church for too long.
No, really–I mean it. I think some of us have spent so much time in church that we’ve gotten the wrong idea. We’ve been soaking in these waters of Christianity for so long, that we’ve developed a certain… misconception.
We’ve started to think the message of the cross is just good common sense.
We think the Gospel blends nicely with conventional wisdom.
We think the word of the cross is easily harmonized with the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Let’s see, it’s “1. Be Proactive, 2. Begin with the end in mind, and #3. If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.Or we think it fits well with the practical suggestions of Ben Franklin and his Poor Richard’s Almanac. Get up early, eat your vegetables, brush your teeth, work hard, oh, and bless those who persecute you. It’s the recipe for success, right?
I think maybe we’ve heard so many sermons, we’ve sung so many hymns, we’ve spent so many hours and days and week and years in churches, we’ve gotten used to it. We’ve lost sight of how crazy this message of a crucified Jesus is. How foolish. How improbable and unacceptable. How radically ridiculous.
The apostle Paul understood how extraordinary it was to suggest that God’s power is revealed to the world on a cross. Paul was a Jew, so he knew it didn’t match Jewish expectations of what a messiah would look like. Nor did it match the wisdom for which the Greeks were famous. Yet in this letter to the Christians in Corinth, Paul lifts up the cross. God’s power and wisdom are revealed, says Paul, through Jesus’ crucifixion—an event the world understands only as weakness and foolishness. This cross, Paul says, offers an upside-down wisdom that causes religious folks to stumble, and makes philosophers shake their heads.
God’s power is revealed in a Jesus who, in faithfulness, empties himself of everything that looks like power.
Here’s the shape of God’s saving power, Paul says. It’s not in kings and generals and armies. It’s not in wealth and degrees. It’s in a Jesus who is betrayed and abandoned; who is stripped, beaten, and executed like a common criminal. And this one hanging on the cross calls us to follow him.
Now, maybe some of us have been around churches for so long that we’ve forgotten how ludicrous this word of the cross might sound. And that’s one reason it’s important to remember that Paul didn’t write these words with us in mind. Paul was writing a personal letter to the church in Corinth, a community of Christ followers living just 20 to 30 years after Jesus’ death. Paul wasn’t writing for the twenty-first century seminarians in Berkeley or the Baptists in Palo Alto. We’re eavesdropping. We’re reading someone else’s mail.
What’s more, as we read Paul’s words about the foolishness of the cross, we need to understand that we’re stepping into an ongoing drama. Now, if we open our Bibles, and see that we’re reading from the first chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we might think we’re getting the beginning of the story. But as Suzanne Watts Henderson reminds us, First Corinthians “plunges readers into a conversation well underway.” We’re jumping right into the middle of the scene. It’s like we’ve come home and grabbed our popcorn, sat down on the couch and turned on the TV, only to find out the show has already started. And we need to try to piece together who the characters are and what’s already going on.
In fact, it’s clear that in First Corinthians, we’re not just in the middle of an episode, we’re already several seasons into the drama. In chapter 5, verse 9, Paul refers to an earlier letter he’d written to the Corinthians, about some major issues that had entered the church. We don’t have that letter. So we need to remember that this invitation to embrace the foolishness of the cross isn’t really from “The first letter of Paul to the Corinthians,” despite what it says at the top of the page in my Bible. It’s from the first letter we have.
So figuring out exactly what word God might have for us, here, today, is a major task. Because we’re starting with a letter written 2,000 years ago that picks up in the middle of an ongoing conversation with another community in another time and another place.
But knowing a little bit about Corinth can help us begin to unpack it. Corinth was a Roman colony situated between two seaports. It was a city of diversity, “a thriving melting pot where social mobility and economic opportunity fostered vigorous competition.” Sounds a little bit like Palo Alto. And the Corinthian church reflected the city’s diversity. There were Jews and Greeks, and slaves and free persons, rich and poor—a wild mix of cultures, and classes and customs. And the followers of Christ there, reflected that diversity. And from everything we can gather, they were at each other’s throats, arguing about what they thought be doing, and where the church was headed.
Paul refers to different factions within the church. Some of the believers claimed loyalty to other preachers who’d been with them, like Apollos, or Cephas. Others claimed allegiance to Paul himself—and he wasn’t really any happier about that. See for Paul it’s not about the preacher; it’s about the cross. In fact, in verse 17, Paul celebrates that he really wasn’t much of a speaker. He claims that his own proclamation was “not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” Paul seems to think the Corinthians are getting caught up in the rhetoric of their teachers. Their ability to craft brilliant arguments and communicate human ideas of knowledge—it’s getting in the way. Because it’s not about the skill and technique of a particular teacher. It’s about the power of God, which comes in the unexpected form of a crucified Lord. And it’s this power that Paul heralds as the one thing that could unite the Corinthians across all their diversity and differences.
But two thousand years later, in this heavily Christianized culture, I think we can lose our sense of how scandalous and improbable the cross is. We see crosses in our churches, some of us wear them as jewelry around our necks, or have them tattoed on our biceps. It’s become the symbol of our faith. But Beverly Gaventa says Paul’s assertion that the cross demonstrated God’s power “must have struck some of Paul’s contemporaries as the ravings of a madman.” The cross wasn’t a symbol of power. It was, in fact, “the antithesis of power–except as it revealed the power of the Roman Empire to crush those regarded as opponents.”
But the reality of the cross can still shatter our presuppositions. I was reminded of this one day when our family was living on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, where my wife was working on her M.Div. Our son, Elliot, was probably about three years old at the time. One afternoon Elliot and I walked into the seminary library to drop off a book for a friend.
As we stepped through the bright red doors, moving from the bright sunlight into the darkened vestibule of the library, Elliot stopped in his tracks. There, on the wall to his right, hung a sculpted crucifix, nearly life size. I watched his young eyes study Jesus’ agonized face, the dying body nailed to a tree, the nails piercing his hands and feet.
I knew the image was a new one to him. He wasn’t used to it. He’d spent much of his young life in churches, but the crosses in our Baptist church were all clean and sanitized; their Jesuses were all resurrected and ascended.
For a moment, I considered hustling him back out the door, thinking maybe I should try to shield him from this holy horror in the same way I would sometimes “rewrite” the violent plots of his Batman comic books when I read them aloud. But he’d already taken it all in.
I thought he might cry. Instead, without ever taking his eyes off the dying Jesus, he slowly spoke words filled with great sadness and wonder: “What happened?”
Elliot reminded me of the great mystery of it all. He felt the horror of it. He’d heard stories about this Jesus who welcomed children, and healed sick people, and chased after lost sheep. But somehow this Jesus taught and healed and forgave and loved others with an intensity that threatened the religious and political powers of his day. Jesus didn’t color within the lines. He hung out with prostitutes, and ate with sinners, and welcomed the marginalized and forsaken. And he talked about a different kingdom, one that belonged to the poor, and the hungry, and downtrodden. So they made a symbol out of him: Here’s what happens when you mess with the system. You end up dead on a cross. That’s the way the world’s power works. We dare not shield ourselves from the horrible reality of this.
But that’s not the whole story. Because on the cross, Jesus demonstrated his devotion to the same love that he incarnated throughout his life. He was willing to trust in faith that the future was in God’s hands, not in the hands of the religious and political authorities who conspired to kill him. In his death, Jesus embodied the same radical devotion to God’s exorbitant love that he revealed throughout his life.
You see, Jesus lived in ways that weren’t very…practical. They don’t match up well with common sense. And he called those who would follow him to this same way. Here’s the path to life, says Jesus. It’s foolishness. Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you. Forgive without end. Give away all you have. Drop everything and follow me. Don’t worry about the future. Live a life of radical devotion to the one who created you. That’s God’s wisdom. Yes, it may put you at odds with the rulers of this world, who think they have the key to life. But it aligns you with something greater, with a love so powerful that even death cannot extinguish it.
So what does this mean for us, for this group of believers here at First Baptist Church of Palo Alto? How do we live into this new age? Here we sit, a few blocks from Stanford University, one of the preeminent educational institutions in the world. We’re in Silicon Valley—our neighbors are Facebook, Google, Apple, and tons of other technological companies that are reshaping the world. Palo Alto has more than it’s share of the world’s wisdom and power. How can this little church have any impact? What can we offer in light of the technological and economic power, unimaginable wealth, and knowledge that surrounds us?
What we have to share with the world is a knowledge that’s rooted in something very different. It’s a power revealed in weakness. In serving others. In practicing forgiveness. In humility. In foolish acts of faithfulness. In grace and welcome to all. This is the way God’s spirit breaks into the world.
What does it mean to worship a God whose wisdom is revealed on a cross? It means we seek to embody that same faithfulness to God that Jesus lived. It means inviting God to break our captivity to worldly conceptions of power and wisdom. It means finding our true unity by committing ourselves ever more fully to the upside-down logic of the cross. And it means knowing that when we fall short in our efforts to be faithful, and we will, we have a God’s whose forgiveness and love cover our failures.
Paul declares that God has chosen the weak of this world to shame the wise. Let us learn to let go of our own futile grasps at power and wisdom, that we might deepen our commitment to the crucified Christ. Amen.
 Suzanne Watts Henderson, “1 Corinthians,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary, Beverly Roberts Gaventa and David L. Petersen, eds. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 788.
 Henderson, 788.