May 10, 2020

“Foolishness”

Acts 18:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

May 10, 2020

 

Complete this marketing slogan:  “Whatever happens in ____ stays in ____.” If you filled in the blank with “Las Vegas,” you’re right.  Las Vegas has a reputation as a place where people do things they don’t talk about when they go home.  It’s a place where people go wild, right?

 

If you lived in the Apostle Paul’s day, you would have probably said “Whatever happens in Corinth, stays in Corinth.  It was an important Roman center for trade because of its location on an isthmus on the southern point of Greece.  People from all over the world went to Corinth to do business, so there were people of many cultures living there.  People in Corinth had a questionable reputation as being unruly, hard-drinking and sexually promiscuous.  It’s easy to imagine that it was a challenging place to start a church.

 

Paul was not put off by Corinth’s image.  He was sent out by Jesus himself to preach the gospel.  He went there on his second missionary journey, and as was his custom, his first stop was not Zippy’s, but the local Jewish synagogue for worship on the Sabbath.  Even though many Jews opposed Paul and even became abusive, Paul persisted in his ministry and many people, both Jews and Greeks responded to the gospel by believing and being baptized.  He spent a year and a half preaching and teaching the word of God (Acts 18:11), and even after he left, he remained in contact with the church.

 

Because of the diversity of people in the new church in Corinth, the potential for division was great.  Someone tattled on the church, and Paul learned that there were all kinds of disagreements.  First Corinthians was written in response to a long list of conflicts and quarrels the church was experiencing.  The issues in question included baptism, spiritual gifts, lawsuits among believers, food sacrificed to idols, the Lord’s supper, and all kinds of worship issues.  Paul covers a lot of ground in this letter, instructing the church about the issues and questions they had raised with him.  

 

I used to read 1 Corinthians and shake my head, thinking that the church in Corinth was such a sad case.  They argued and were divided into factions, and they didn’t treat each other well.  But as I read about this letter, I was reminded about how we are all on a journey in our relationship with Jesus.  People don’t change overnight.  We all need the grace and patience of God in our transformation into Christians.  I give Paul a lot of credit for hanging in there with the church at Corinth.  Transformation into a disciple of Jesus takes time and effort.  It’s not always a straight line from baby faith to mature faith.  A lot needs to happen in our lives in order for our behavior and life to reflect the values and priorities of the kingdom of God.  This is a letter from a pastor who wants to see his people grow in love and in their faith in Jesus Christ.  While at times, Paul seems stern and firm in his rebuke, it’s because he cares for the church members and wants them to enter fully into the abundant life of Christ.

 

The first issue he takes on is the factions that have arisen over different leaders who have done ministry in Corinth.  People had their favorite preachers and teachers:  Paul, Apollos, Cephas (a.k.a. Peter), Christ.  In a bit of humor, perhaps to try to disarm his own champions, Paul can’t even remember who exactly he baptized:  I only baptized Crispus and Gaius…Oh yes, I also baptized Stephanas’s family…maybe I baptized more folks, well I probably did, but I don’t remember….  It didn’t matter much to Paul that he baptized these folks. What mattered most was that they were baptized as Christians.  

 

Even though he had a following, Paul removed himself from the center and put the cross of Christ at the center.  “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.  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” (vv. 17-18).

 

The main thing is not who baptized you, but to appreciate the work of Christ on the cross that compelled you to be baptized.  What is central to our faith is the cross.  Jesus, God’s Son, became human, lived and ministered among us, died on the cross and was raised from the dead by the power of God’s love.  Focus on the cross.  Focus on the work that God did on the cross through Jesus Christ.

 

But to the rest of the world, this made no sense.  Focus on the fact that Jesus, the Messiah died?  Messiahs aren’t supposed to die.  That’s no god.  You are supposed to serve the gods, be afraid of them because they can do whatever they want.  So you’re supposed to make them happy.  This God of Christ came to serve humanity, not be served.  This God sacrifices for us, doesn’t require sacrifices of us.  This is foolishness to the rest of the world.

 

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…” (v. 18a).  The cross is all about giving up power, so it doesn’t make sense to the world in which people constantly strive for political power and build up military arsenals.  Whatever power we have, we want to keep.  The cross is about forgiveness, which is foolishness to those who are constantly seeking revenge.  The cross requires self-sacrifice which is antithetical to a world in which self-centeredness and using others for personal gain is normal.  The cross is about letting go—letting go of power and influence, letting go of things, letting go of independence.  And serving, giving up stuff, recognizing your dependence and interdependence looks foolish in the world.

 

But this is what Paul is calling the church to do.  Follow Jesus.  The cross invites us to become “Fools for Christ” in the eyes of the world and to shift our ways of thinking and yield to God’s ways, God’s values, God’s priorities.

 

One of the things that has become evident in this pandemic is the economic disparity in the world.  The people who are suffering the most in the shutdown are those in service-related industries who make the lowest wages and can least afford to not work, or who must do essential work but have limited sick leave and are at great risk to contracting COVID-19 because of their exposure to the public.  These tend to be people of color, and are disproportionately contracting COVID-19.  In the meantime, many of those who are still working are largely white-collar workers who can safely shelter at home and continue working and collecting their wages.  This is not what the kingdom of God looks like.

 

What if all who call themselves disciples of Jesus worked with the Spirit to live in kingdom of God, where all people are valued, and we all sacrifice and support each other?  What if we could access the power of God in the cross and give up our material comforts to help the essential workers stay safe, keep their families healthy, and have their needs provided?  What if we worked to restructure our economy to be more just and equitable for all God’s children?

 

I know I’m drawing an example of discipleship on a grand scale.  You may be thinking that working for such societal transformation is beyond your capacity and that I’m being idealistic.  But if we scale it down, what would it look like to really take hold of the message of the cross and allow the power of God in the cross to change our lives?  Small steps may be to look at ways to give away more of our money, or use our time in ways that reveal the kingdom of God’s presence here and now.  It may be taking bolder steps in loving and forgiving our neighbors—even someone right in our own household.  These small steps, if taken by many of us, can lead to bigger changes in our world as more and more of us are shaped by the values of the kingdom of God.

 

I think today’s message is really about taking seriously the radical nature of the kingdom of God.  It’s so different, so not like things are in the world we live in.  If we lived in accordance with all that Jesus taught and the values of the kingdom of God, we would look completely foolish to the people around us.  It may even seem foolish to us.  But the message of the cross—the invitation to let go of human ways of using power, letting go of seeking after security in our own efforts, letting go of revenge, living forgiveness, mercy and grace, and yielding to love—that is the power of God that can transform us and transform the world.

 

Like the church at Corinth who argued over who baptized them and the best way to worship, we are still young in faith and focusing on minor things.  Like the church at Corinth, we need a pastor’s concern to put us back on the path to transformation, to set our focus on the main thing, which is the cross of Christ.  It may look like foolishness, but Paul tells us that this is the power of God, this is how God works.  

 

Paul goes on to say in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25:

“Where is the wise person?  Where is the teacher of the law?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:  a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

 

Paul invites us to focus on this foolishness of God and to proclaim the message of the cross.  If it’s hard, and it seems like you’re constantly struggling to keep your focus on the cross and follow Jesus, you’re on the right path.  Spiritual transformation is hard work and takes time.  But thank God, we are on this journey together.  We can be fools for Christ together.

 

 

What is one thing about being a Christian that looks foolish and you struggle to change in your life?  Share it with Jesus, and ask him to help transform you in this one area today, this week, or in the next month.