Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
I was seven, sitting in a room full of adults waiting for my parents to come pick me up. While I did this all of the other kids from my class were playing in the next room. Typically this happens when a kid misbehaves, and I had not done that. Not really. I had lied though. I was at a birthday party and one of the games was a relay race that involved blowing bubbles with gum. To this day, I cannot stand gum. Like at all. The whole thought of it is nauseatingly repulsive to me. So I was expected to participate in this game, I really, really did not want to. I panicked and I said I could not play because I was very allergic to gum. Fearing that I was about to have some severe reaction, I was isolated and my parents were called. My mom came and picked me up, struggling to keep a straight face. She knew I was lying but she could not be mad at me, because I learned this trick from my dad. You see, he cannot stand garlic. Like at all. The whole thought of it is nauseatingly repulsive to him, so to this day he will tell people he is allergic to it so people will keep it far away from him. So I did not get in trouble for lying that day, because I was more or less just doing what I had been taught.
At this point the quirk of having such an intense dislike of gum is embedded too deep into me, that there is no way it is going to be undone. The funny thing is I can remember exactly when it started. I was around four, and I did not dislike gum at that point. I swallowed a piece, and asked for another one. When I told my grandmother she told me not to swallow gum because it takes seven years to digest. This seriously scared the heck out of me. I asked multiple questions and she confirmed this was absolutely true. You swallow gum it sits inside of you for seven years. It was right then and there, I decided I would never touch gum again because it just was not worth the risk.
Like I said at this point there is no undoing the damage. I have a potent physical and mental aversion to gum, and it all started because I believed some bad wisdom. It’s not true. Gum does not take seven years to digest. It’s conventional wisdom that for some reason got started somewhere and persisted even though there is no reason for it to do so. There is a lot of conventional wisdom like that. For instance there is no medical reason to wait thirty minutes before swimming after eating. Cracking knuckles does not in any way contribute to or lead to the development of arthritis. And if you have heard this one, a daddy long legs is not the most poisonous spider in the world. Even though there is no basis for them, these and many other examples are things we have accepted as conventional wisdom. When a way of thinking becomes established, we tend to accept it even if it is not really accurate. Often this conventional wisdom, which is not really wisdom is harmless, but not always. We can find several dominant ways of thinking that seep into our lives that run contrary to the gospel. This morning’s scripture shows us that this was as much of a problem in the first century as it is today.
In many ways the world of Paul is radically different than the world of today. One of these differences is the cultural attitude towards disciples of Jesus. All of us have grown up in a world where Christian thought has had some market share in the world. If we really wanted to we can bemoan that Christian influence is shrinking, that biblical literacy is vanishing, and that the church no longer holds the place of respect it once did. The fact that our culture is moving rapidly to one that is post-Christian is a reason for concern, but we still have to acknowledge that there are over two billion Christians in the world today. Christianity is not exactly a shrinking violet or an unknown factor in the world today. This was not the way it was in Paul’s world. In the first century, Christianity was new. The message that people could be forgiven of their sins, experience amazing grace, and be reunited to their Creator through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ had never been heard before. Imagine how hard it would have been for the Christians in Corinth. They were first generation Christians, they had experienced grace and woke to a truth of mercy and love. Yet they were in a culture that did not understand or accept this gospel. To the world the gospel of Christ was foolishness, it went against the wisdom of the age. That is why Paul wrote “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.”
The prevailing thought process of the age of Paul was exemplified by how the Jews wanted signs and the Greek sought wisdom. In Jewish thought of the time there was a great emphasis put on witnesses. We see this all throughout the gospels. Anytime Jesus makes a claim in the gospel of John the Pharisees asks who the witnesses are. More than once performing a miracle is not enough, the crowd wants it replicated or wants another sign so they can verify what they have heard. Greek culture was one that put a high value on philosophical thought. While the Greeks practiced various pagan religious practices, it was philosophy that really formed their worldview. Greek thought was that only through philosophical thought could one learn wisdom and ultimately discern truth. Grace, forgiveness, and the being made a new creation did not fit well into Greek thought, so the sophists, traveling philosopher-teachers, probably did consider the gospel foolishness. The idea that a man could suffer the insult of death by crucifixion and be considered a savior was outside the realm of possibility for Jewish and Greek thought of the day. That is why Paul wrote, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ Crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
This scripture shows another way that the culture of the day may have seen the Christians of Corinth as foolish. In Jewish culture they saw wealth and prosperity as proof of God’s blessing. While in Greek culture which valued wisdom, wealth and prosperity were seen as evidence of acting wisely. The converse then is that those who are not wealthy are not blessed and are not wise. This would have been the conventional wisdom of the day, and it would have cast the church of Corinth in less than favorable terms.
The church of Corinth was not made up of the rich and powerful of the city. This is a point that Eugene Peterson’s Message paraphrase helps bring out. Petersen paraphrases part of this morning’s scripture like this: “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of “the brightest and the best” among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these “nobodies” to expose the hollow pretensions of the “somebodies”? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have—right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start—comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, “If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God.”
Even though the world of today is vastly different to the world of Paul, things are also not so different. The more things change the more they seem to change, it seems, has some truth to it. Today the gospel is still a stumbling block for some and it is still viewed as foolishness by others. Today, the ways of God still run counter to the ways of the world. Today what the world raises as the best way is not always God’s way. Just like it was true in the first century, conventional wisdom is not always Godly wisdom.
A great example of this can be seen in some of the prevailing attitudes that surround us. Ideas like bigger is better, winning is everything, and might makes right. We are presented with perverse ideas that success is measured only by money. Not only success, but there is a push to measure how much intrinsic value a person has as a human being by how much stuff they have. There is a repugnant cultural undercurrent that attempts to define wealthy as inherently good and poor as morally deficient. The general attitude today is that winning is the only thing worth pursuing. Winning is defined by having more: more money, more thumbs up, more followers, bigger crowds, bigger buildings, the list goes on and on. Winning is not enough though anymore, you have to win completely. A cultural win is one that does not care about the feelings of anyone else. It is not enough to win, the opposition has to be stripped of their humanity and their sacred worth.
We see this played out in a variety of ways. We now have businesses that can act irresponsibly, and suffer no consequences because they are too big to fail. Another way we see this play out, is when is the last time you have seen a person in a position of power truly apologize for their wrong doing? The non-apology apology is all we hear anymore, because to truly apologize would be to admit wrong doing, imperfection, and a need for forgiveness and grace. That kind of humble admission is seen as a weakness, and you cannot be winning if you are weak.
That is the way of the world, but that is not the way of Christ. Jesus said the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus said that whoever wants to be great must be least. He said the son of man did not come to serve but to be served. When we live in a culture that proclaims bigger is better and winning is everything, ours should be the voice that says there is a different way to live, even if the world views our viewpoint as foolishness.
In summarizing one of John Wesley’s viewpoints about how the Methodist movement should interact with culture, Methodist Pastor and Wesleyan theologian Dr. Andrew Thompson wrote, “The church was not meant to adhere to the values of the world. The Church was not meant to be the handmaiden of the culture.” Instead of vilifying those we disagree with, we should embrace them with love. Instead of closing our doors to people who are different than us, we should invite them in with radical hospitality. Instead of seeking power and wealth, we should seek first his kingdom and righteousness. Instead of refusing to apologize, we should be able to humbly say I am a great sinner, but thanks be to God that Christ is a great savior!
Today values like self-sacrifice, empathy, and compassion are more often viewed as naïve at best and a weakness at worst. It is too easy to find pundits and voices that are quick to dismiss putting others before ourselves. Those qualities may not be held in high esteem today, but they are the examples our Lord and Savior gave us. By the conventional wisdom of the world it may be foolish, but I want to follow in the example of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead of seeking to be the biggest and the best I want to learn how to humble myself more and serve the least of these. Instead of refusing to admit I am ever wrong, I want to be able to more honestly say “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.” Instead of putting all of my energy in self-promotion and building up my personal brand, I want to boast in the Lord that saved a wretch like me.
What about you? Which voices have a greater influence in your life? The voice of the culture or the voice of Christ? 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. The message of grace and forgiveness will always be viewed as foolishness by the world and it will always be counter-cultural. However, there are many, many lost people out there who need someone to care for them, someone to notice them, and someone to reach a hand down to help them up. There are people who have nothing left to give, and need someone to give of themselves to help them out. Doing this will not be considered winning by the ways of the world, but we should not be playing by this world’s rules. May we follow Christ. May we love others like Christ, and may the way we live give all glory to Christ even if others view it as foolishness.