The following is the text of a sermon I preached on Holy Tuesday during the Providence Theological Seminary Chapel. The Scripture readings were Isaiah 49 and 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.
This morning we stand at the mid-point between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the events of the triduum – the “Great Three Days” that begins Thursday evening with the foot washing and the Supper, progresses through Jesus’ trial and execution on the Friday, encompasses the Sabbath when Jesus’ body rested in the tomb, and concludes with the glorious morning of the resurrection. I love Holy Week, but this is the first time I’ve ever preached on Holy Tuesday. While other days within Holy Week are clearly connected with certain events in Jesus’ final days, it’s not entirely clear what happened on Holy Tuesday. So, I turned to the lectionary to see what the church in its wisdom has appointed as the Scriptures for the day. The readings that we heard from Isaiah 49 and 1 Corinthians 1 are two of the four; the others being Psalm 71, a prayer for deliverance in the face of persecution, and a selection from John 12 in which the arrival of some Greeks looking for Jesus becomes the occasion for Jesus to declare that the hour has come in which he will be lifted up and draw all people to himself.
This morning I intend to focus primarily on the passage from 1 Corinthians. This passage with its emphasis upon the foolishness of the cross is a fitting orientation to the events to come in the days ahead. For the cross is foolishness to the world. It is an assault upon everything we consider holy and pure, decent and successful. After two thousand years of Christendom, we are prone to lose sight of the scandal of the cross. The cross has been domesticated. Today, we wear gold crosses on chains around our neck. We emblazon the symbol of the cross in gold leaf upon the leather cover of our Bibles. And we think nothing of it. But could you imagine wearing a miniature guillotine on a necklace or embossing a hangman’s noose on your journal?
The cross was a state-sponsored instrument of torture and execution reserved for the most reviled outcasts of Roman society. Theologian James Cone has suggested that the closest equivalent to crucifixion that has been witnessed here on North American soil is the lynching of African American men and women that occurred in the Deep South of the United States.1 The cross, like the lynching tree, was meant to humiliate and dehumanize, as well as to serve as a strong deterrent to any subjects of the Empire who refused to recognize their place under the boot of Rome.
After a Good Friday sermon some years ago, a parishioner pulled me aside and called me to task for saying in my sermon that Jesus was affixed “to the cross like an insect pinned up for display in a bug collection.”2 The parishioner objected to my scandalous description of the crucified Christ, suggesting that I was humiliating the Lord of glory by comparing him to a bug. However, his problem was not really with my language, but rather with the Lord of glory who took the humiliation of the cross upon himself. As we’ve heard from the apostle Paul, “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.”
The New Testament scholar Richard Hays observes that, “For anyone who grasps the paradoxical language of this text, the world can never be the same again.”3 This was certainly the case for the German monk who ignited a theological firestorm in the 16th century by publishing a list of 95 Theses for debate. The Augustinian order provided an opportunity for their young monk to defend his views by hosting a theological disputation at the university town of Heidelberg. The young scholar came out of the gates firing, articulating his theologia crucis. This “theology of the cross” would ultimately mark his break with the theology of the medieval church. In the nineteenth and twentieth theses he argued: “That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened, he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”4 In the face of a medieval church that had come to glory in human powers and capacities, manmade rites and rituals, Luther, like the apostle Paul before him, boasted in the cross.
Much like the cross itself, boasting in the cross is no easy formula for success. It seems that both his fellow Jews and the Gentiles to whom he was sent were having trouble comprehending Paul’s message of a crucified King. For the Jews, Paul tells us, demand signs. Perhaps they were looking for another great Exodus that saw them delivered once and for all from Gentile rule, or maybe a vaunted military commander like David, or even a conquering insurgent like Judas Maccabeus. They certainly had no framework for imagining a suffering Messiah, crushed under the heel of their pagan occupiers. The Greeks, on the other hand, Paul says, desire wisdom. In the city of Corinth wisdom could refer both to exalted knowledge and the ability to express that knowledge in impressive rhetorical fashion. Public speaking was akin to an Olympic event in Corinth and people flocked to their respective rhetorical champions, whose smooth speech delighted the crowds and presented an air of sophisticated learning. However, when Paul came to Corinth, he did not come with lofty words or wisdom. Rather, he came in weakness and fear, desiring only to know Jesus Christ and him crucified.
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” Stumbling block: the Greek word here is skandalon from which we get our English word scandal. Foolishness: the Greek word here is moria from which we get our English word moron. Today, we Christians certainly find ourselves associated with the scandalous and the moronic.
There are plenty of reasons for the moral and the upright to be offended by the church these days. Some of our most high-profile leaders – renowned apologist Ravi Zaccharias, Willow Creek founding pastor Bill Hybels, Hillsong’s New York City pastor Carl Lentz, and even the founder of L’Arche Jean Vanier – have proven to be wolves among the sheep. Corruption, power mongering, flagrant abuse of authority, narcissistic behavior, spiritual manipulation, and violation of the most vulnerable. These are the type of stumbling blocks we Christians have placed before the upright in recent days.
If that weren’t enough there has been more than enough foolishness among Christians in recent memory to leave us looking like morons in the eyes of the learned. More than a quarter of white evangelicals in the United States are devotees of the wild conspiracy theories of Q’Anon; a movement that rose to prominence by insisting that Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton was abusing children in the basement of a New York pizzeria. In recent weeks, I’ve been receiving a string of e-mails from a former parishioner warning me of the dangers of the COVID vaccines. One of the most recent e-mails included a video that looked like it was shot by a group of Grade Seven students on Spring Break, in which a figure too small to make out, but purportedly Bill Gates, explains his Thanos-like plan to wipe out half the population on earth through a coronavirus vaccination program. This has been a season of scandal and moronity for the church.
But these are not the type of stumbling blocks or foolishness that the apostle Paul had in mind. It seems like we, the contemporary North American church, have, much like the Corinthians, separated wisdom from Christ and him crucified. Instead, we have gloried in the fame of charismatic leaders who delight the crowds with their wisdom, who polish their brand through appearing in selfies with celebrities, and who preside over multimedia empires whose tentacles reach into every dimension of corporatized Christian existence. Perhaps it is in associating with such ‘successful’ leaders that we find our own sense of vindication. We want to have some assurance that we are on the winning side. We certainly don’t want to join our voices to Isaiah’s Servant in saying, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the LORD and my reward with my God?”5 Instead, like the Corinthians we each gravitate to our own Paul, Apollos, or Cephas.
Nor have we sought wisdom in the public truth of the cross, but rather we have delighted in the secret knowledge (or gnosis) of convoluted conspiracy theories that provide us with a sense of control in a rapidly changing world and give us a sense of superiority over those who do not know how to read the signs or the times. Or, perhaps we have more banally robbed the cross of its power by reducing the Bible to a collection of self-help tips that allow us to build the type of career, sustain the type of marriage, and raise the type of children that would be the envy of any decent middle-class family. Both the secret knowledge of conspiracy theories and the practical know-how of self-help Christianity divert our eyes from the cross and our feet from the via Delarosa that we all must tread.
The sad shape of the church is enough to leave one is despair, yet our very text for today suggests there may still be hope. Remember this text is part of a letter that Paul sent to the church in Corinth – a church divided by factions, a church tainted by scandalous sexual immorality, a church characterized by charismatic confusion, a church that demonstrated disregard for the young and weak in faith, a church that seemed to care little for the economically marginalized in its midst. It seems that the church itself is part of the scandal of the cross. As the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day, liked to say, “The Church is the cross on which Christ is crucified . . . and [she continues] one does not separate Christ from His cross.”6 Now Day’s words seem to be directed towards those tempted to abandon the church on account of their dissatisfaction with its corruption, cowardice, and complacency. As such, we would do well to hear them, but they can also be read in a different way, as a word of promise, in that Christ himself willingly bears the cross. He will not separate himself from the collection of scared and confused sinners he has joined together to his body. This is why, despite all of the problems in Corinth, Paul can still address them at the beginning of the letter by writing, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.”7
The end of our reading seems like the place to end our reflection this morning. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” The foolishness and weakness of God is nothing other than the cross of Christ. Let us look to the one who has been lifted up and be healed.
- James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011). ↩
- The sermon in question has been published as “The Death of an Extremist” in Theodidaktos 14, no. 1 (July 2019): 25-31. ↩
- Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1997), 27. ↩
- The full text of the Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation can be accessed here. ↩
- Isaiah 49:4 NRSV. ↩
- Day is quoting the theologian Romano Guardini. The quote appears in numerous places in her columns in The Catholic Worker. For one example, see here. ↩
- 1 Cor. 1:2-3 NRSV. ↩