A sermon preached by
Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, March 11, 2012
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” exclaims Puck to Oberon, the King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act 3, scene 2). It is true that chaos reigns in the fairy forest. Crossed up human lovers chase after the wrong partners and Titania, Queen of the Fairies has fallen in love with an ass, in the figure of the rustic, Bottom, stuck with an donkey’s head over his own. It is madness. But it is also true that the mortals are not entirely fools of their own volition. Puck has sprinkled fairy dust here and there on random lovers, helping to create the madness. It is not really fair for him to utter such a judgment since his magic has contributed greatly to the foolishness. Still, Shakespeare’s oft-quoted line is meant to say something universal about the foolishness love brings to life, whether it be human love or fairy love. Shakespeare's broader judgment seems to be that love is a form of madness that prompts lovers to act in very foolish ways, indeed.
Later, Theseus, the dignified Duke of Athens, will say:
More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact [composed] (Act 5, scene 1).
Acts of love, though often irrational, are also acts of creation that produce "More than cool reason ever comprehends." Theseus may not wholly approve the frantic delusions of lovers and poets, but the poet Shakespeare seems more understanding. For the bard, love has transformative power and in the end “all’s well that ends well” as each one is restored to the proper lover, Oberon and Titania are reconciled and order is restored to the fairy forest.
Given that we are already immersed in Elizabethan poetry this morning, a little excursion into Shakespeare doesn’t seem out of order. There may be some connection between the poets and this morning’s text from First Corinthians. For, above all other considerations, Paul is writing here about the power of love to transform life and bring a new order to things.
We’ve discussed before the situation in Corinth, this wealthy, powerful Roman city situated strategically on the isthmus that separates the rest of Greece from the Peloponnesian Peninsula. In his missionary journey Paul had moved on to Corinth after a lukewarm reception in Athens. For whatever reasons, he was much more successful in establishing a church in Corinth, where he stayed for a year and half before moving on to Ephesus. Eventually he hears word of bickering and factions forming in the Corinthian church. So he writes to them, urging them to find again the unity in Christ and the gospel they had when he left them. Of course the correspondence covers more, but that is the situation in a nutshell.
A big part of the problem at Corinth is that they were caught up in following the latest fashion, the hottest preacher, the rules of social class and cultural expectation. They had lost sight of the challenge of the gospel, the word of the cross. “Where is the one who is wise,” asks Paul? “Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Where are those who have things all figured out and know all the answers? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” What has happened to the “message of the cross” in Corinth?
Daniel Deffenbaugh writes of this text that “To the outsider, Paul insists, proclaiming Christ crucified is sheer folly (moria). In today's course vernacular, we might say that this message could only appeal to a group of ‘morons,’ a ship of fools…[But] for Paul the body of Christ is a new ark, a spiritual vessel held aloft from the disturbing rationality of Corinthian chaos by an inscrutable wisdom in which strength is revealed in divine weakness, glory in the shame of the cross.”
He goes on to argue that for the Hellenists in Corinth, this notion would be nonsense. He says that “Since the time of Plato Greek philosophers had been wary of any certainty associated too closely with the world of change. Ultimate truth, they argued, must necessarily rise above the flux of nature. It must be immutable in its perfection. Gods did not take on human form to be crucified and resurrected.” This was the kind of talk that got Paul such a cool reception in Athens.
For the Jewish Christians the difficulties were different. “For centuries they had sought from their prophets and in the heavens signs that the day of the Lord was imminent…the messiah would be a heavenly figure coming on the clouds; he would be a warrior king; the messiah would be a priest. Jesus of Nazareth was none of these…To proclaim this as hope and deliverance was not only foolish, it was blasphemy” (Daniel Deffenbaugh, Commentary, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, workingpreacher.org, 3-11-2012.)
Paul has to remind his readers that the old ways are left behind, the word of the cross, strange as it seems, carries us beyond the rational and long expected into a new day of love and possibility. In our Words of Preparation, Sally Purvis tells us that “God’s power as shown forth in ‘Christ crucified’ is the reversal of power as violent control. It is the power to bring life, even in the face of the worst, most destructive power that can be brought to bear.” She continues, “For Paul, the lesson of the cross is that even the most violent efforts to manipulate life, to control the power of God, are finally overcome by that very power that by worldly standards looks like weakness” (Sally Purvis, The Power of the Cross.)
The cross is controversial. That’s not news to anyone. It has been used as an emblem of hate, burning on lawns. It has been used as an expression of triumphant power, leading crusaders into battle. It has been rendered in precious metals and priceless stones. It hangs in sanctuaries and around necks. It symbolizes religious authority and Christian identity. We have a large cross attached to the back of our baptistery which some good Baptists in this congregation find inappropriate as Baptists have been known to eschew all icons. The little silver-plated cross on the table this Lenten season was part of my father’s communion set as a chaplain in World War II, where, among other places, it saw service on the island of Iwo Jima.
The cross is many things to many people. Paul says it bears the message of God’s foolish love to a skeptical world. It is a paradox. Originally the instrument of the cruelest sort of Roman torture, it has become the key symbol of the Christian faith. But in Paul’s day the original use was still keen in people’s consciousness. How could such an abhorrent object carry the good news? Yet, Paul insists that that is exactly what it does.
This is consistent with what we have been learning about the reign of God. It does not come as we expect it. It is not a realm of the anti-intellectual nor does it turn its back on ancient wisdom. Rather it seeks fulfill the wisdom of the ages. It seeks to reconcile creation with the Creator. It seeks to turn the world right side up in the eyes of God. It seems foolish to say that life is more powerful than death, that love is more powerful than hate, that the cross transformed is more powerful than any empire. How is a murdered Messiah to save the people? What king gives up his life for his people? Yet acts of love, though often irrational, are also acts of creation that produce "More than cool reason ever comprehends."
Next week the choir will sing Lord of Dance. In this beloved song of the 60s Sydney Carter writes of the irrepressible Lord of Dance, the Christ, who “danced on the sabbath” and “cured the lame. The holy people said it was a shame. They whipped and they stripped and they hung [him] high; And they left [him] there on a cross to die.” Then he “danced on a Friday when the sky turned black” says “it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back. They buried my body and they thought I’d gone, but I am the dance and I still go on.” Foolishness of the cross surely. Foolishness of love and those who love without question. Irrational and unexpected as it may be, love wins in the end, embracing everyone and everything. The word of the cross overcomes violent power and death in the service of the power of love and irrepressibility of life in the hands of God – and “the dance goes on.” Amen.
18For 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. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. 26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”