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…. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:18, 22-25)
Today’s epistle reading can be a hard pill for academics like me to swallow. How easily Paul’s words have been used in support of Christian anti-intellectualism. “What concord is there between the Academy and the Church”, asked Tertullian ca. 200, when God used the “foolishness” of the cross to “confound” philosophy, “the rash interpreter of the nature and the dispensation of God”?
And truly, if “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,” then philosophers like me (broadly construed) should be among the first to recognize that “no one might boast in the presence of God” (vv 27, 29). When I spend time with God, I need to recognize how different that encounter should feel to someone accustomed to spending time with students, readers, and peers who treat me as some kind of intellectual authority. However wise I’m used to feeling, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom” (v 25) — certainly, this human’s wisdom.
But if intellectuals should come away from this passage chastened in their arrogance, it just makes them like everyone else. The cross makes foolish all kinds of human knowledge and wisdom, not just those forms honed in the Academy. As Lutheran scholar Steve Paulson puts it, “The cross is disorienting because it will not give us what we want.” The cross defies all human attempts at taking control of our lives, and our afterlives. Whether we are professors or pastors or parents or anything else, the cross replaces comfortable certainties with the uneasy assurance of paradox.
“Consider your own call,” Paul continues to instruct all of us (v 26), and so I heard this morning the whisper of that voice always beckoning me to teaching and learning, to truth-seeking. But Holy Week reminds all of us that truth — not just the abstraction we form in our minds, but the person we know as the Truth, the Way, and the Life — is ultimately seen through tears, in struggle and suffering and surrender. By this grace, the work of God in Christ on the cross, we have “in every way… been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (1 Cor 1:4-5).
We have been so enriched. Not just I.
This morning’s passage starts with the word “For,” which signals that it actually starts several verses earlier: with Paul’s chief frustration with his most frustrating correspondents:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. (vv 10-11)
If that’s what he said to the Christians of Corinth, it’s not hard imagine what Paul’s letter to people like me (“1 Americans”?) would sound like. “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you,” he would also ask the polarized, fractured church of this time and place, “are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?” (3:3) As much as heresy, this is the worldly foolishness that bothered Tertullian: the “human wisdom which pretends to know the truth… and is itself divided…. by the variety of its mutually repugnant sects.”
As always, I come away from Paul’s epistles reminded that they weren’t addressed primarily to individuals for personal application, but to communities for collective application. Against “the one who is wise,” the cross’ message is not “the power of God” to any one person, but “to us who are being saved….” The God we encounter this week of Jesus’ passion “chose what is low and despised… so that no one might boast,” so that “we might proclaim Christ crucified….”
That’s going to be all the harder to see this particular Holy Week, when our reproaches and our alleluias alike will echo in isolation. But as we continue to fast from fellowship, perhaps the importance of Christian unity will truly sink in. May we see more clearly — through tears, in struggle and suffering and surrender — the truth that the cross reaches vertically to God and horizontally to humanity, its haggard arms reaching out to embrace all of us foolish enough to boast in our crucified Lord.