The Foolishness of the Cross (A Maundy Thursday Sermon on I Corinthians 1:18-31; with Jeff Lindsay)

This sermon was co-preached at Colonial Church for Maundy Thursday of Lent on March 29, 2018. You can listen to the sermon HERE.

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 it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’

Where 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? For 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.

For Jews demanded 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.

So consider your own call brothers and sisters. Not many of you were wise by human standards. Not many of you are powerful. Not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is lowly and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that as it is written, ‘Let the ones who boast, boast in the Lord.’” 

– 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Opening Prayer (Sara): Will you pray with me? God, on this Thursday eve, we remember with the church around the world and throughout time, a gathering in which you knelt and washed your disciple’s feet. Foolishness indeed of a God in human form, of a God who leads by lovingly washing. God of this new command, be with us this night. In your loving name we pray. Amen.

Sara: In 2017, a man whose voice sounds like butter won a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocalist, a man by the name of Gregory Porter. Anyone know his music? I know Andy Garbers does. The rest of you, well, you can listen if you want later. He has a beautiful song called “Take Me to the Alley” and it starts off: “They guild their houses in preparation for the King.” And then he, in my not so great rendition of him, sings something like this:

But they will be surprised when they hear him say, take me to the alley, take me to the afflicted ones. Take me to the lonely ones who cannot find the way. Take me to the alley.

The King who comes not for the gilded houses, but for the afflicted. What foolishness indeed. Take me to that alley, God.

Last Sunday, for Palm Sunday, we were reminded of the God who came in, not on a war horse, but of the God who came on a donkey (no, not the donkey named Peaches who was here with us on Sunday), but of a God who came in peace, a God who we call the Prince of Peace. 

For those of you who weren’t here, or for those of you, who’d like a reminder. The time in which Jesus came to earth was a time in which the Jews were under the rule of the Roman Empire, longing for a hope and redemption. Longing in the ways they had back when they were enslaved in Egypt. Once again they cried out to their God: “Save us! We’re expecting a Messiah to throw off this empire, which has ruled us, which kills and destroy us!” …and in comes the King of the Jews… on a donkey.

Now of course, many thought Jesus would overthrow Rome. And on Palm Sunday we are reminded that they thought he would come and bring peace through war…but that didn’t happen, and so tonight on Maundy Thursday we are gathered to remember that this is the night when Jesus is betrayed. He’s beaten. He’s handed over to the authorities to be put on a cross, an instrument of shame and of torture. 

All this is to remind the Jews, “We have the power. We have the power over you. What foolishness is this God? You thought you were going to win. And now look what happened! Your messiah ended up on a cross!”

Could you imagine the pain and sorrow and grief so many must have felt?

This is why, when I think about the cross, I’m reminded of a powerful text by a black theologian here in America, named James Cone. It’s called The Cross and the Lynching Tree.2 In the book Cone makes connections between the cross and what it meant in Rome, and what the lynching tree meant in a particularly dark period in our own history of this country after the civil war as blacks were lynched and ruled by Jim Crow laws and segregation. Yet the distance between these two symbols of cross and lynching tree isn’t so far, Cone argues. Both are an instrument to say, remember, we have the power. We can steal your life. We can destroy it. And even though God was crucified, it’s in this way that God demonstrates back to the powers of this world, “You thought you won. You thought that you could silence and kill. You thought the war horse would win. But indeed, it’s the donkey that’s winning. Indeed I have so loved you that I am in solidarity with you even to death on a cross.”

But what foolishness is this? A cross. A lynching tree. Could salvation come to us from these places? And yet this has been part of our story. It’s a story of a God who took on human form, who came and walked amongst us, who overcame the world…not through power or strength, but by Spirit. 

The Easter story is of a God who said a profound, “Yes!” in the face of the instruments of death that were meant to say, “No.” 

A God who is in foolishness ended up becoming the savior of the entire world. 

A message that though sought to be destroyed is the one that tonight— 2,000 years later— that we celebrate as a remembrance that God is for us

This is foolish. It is foolish indeed. A foolishness that reminds that this is a God who comes on donkeys, as Prince of peace,  with one commandment: to love.

 Love. This is foolishness indeed.

Jeff: Earlier this week, I was in St. Paul and I found myself in a little coffee shop preparing for Thursday morning’s Bible study, Dudes and Donuts. I found out at coffee shops, they don’t serve endless amounts of diet Coke. I was very disappointed. I sat in the booth with some generic soda. I had my computer open and I had my Bible open. And I was thinking through where I wanted to go this week in terms of helping the men that come prepare for this week. I was engrossed in what I was doing, so I wasn’t paying attention to the things that are happening around me and all of a sudden I realized there was a young woman standing right next to my booth. I looked up at her and she said, “Is that a Bible?”

I said, “Yes”. She said, “Are you reading it?” I said, “I am”. She says, “So do you believe what the Bible says?”, “I try to”. She said, “Well, are you a Christian?” I said, “I am a follower of Jesus”. Pause, pause then a slap on the arm and she says, “Good for you”. And she walked out. I’ll never forget that look on her face. It’ll be forever be ingrained in my mind because it was somewhere between that man has a pet dinosaur and I guess if that Bible stuff helps him, that’s okay.

I had the sense that she thought my Bible reading was foolish, certainly foolish in today’s world. Most believe that the gospel is foolish for the world today. For it stands in direct opposition to what the world offers as beliefs and traditions. Very different then the Christian’s beliefs and traditions and the call to love. But let’s be honest friends, it’s even foolish for us at times, right?

Come on. Old Testament stories, miracles, Jesus’ death on a cross and then back to life. Communion, eating the body and the blood of Jesus. Heaven’s unconditional love. God’s promise to never leave us or forsake us. Really? Some of it sounds even foolish for the church doesn’t it. I grew up in the church. My family was a church going family from the very beginning. And I tried really hard to believe it all. Which went okay until we moved to Minneapolis when I was going into my fifth grade year.

I was an easy target. I was bullied by both boys and girls, beat up, torn clothes, books thrown in the garbage. Held down long enough for the bus to leave, which meant I was going to be walking home, probably crying all the way. The worst part, my parents didn’t believe it was happening. I hated my life. I wondered why God didn’t help me. Why wouldn’t God answer my prayers? Why didn’t he smite them was my hope. I was foolish to trust God.

But I’ve learned that God can trusted. I’ve learned that God can redeem all things. I’m living testimony to this truth. Just like God took the cross used for shameful execution and made it the symbol of eternal hope, God took my life experiences and used them to create in me a pastor’s heart and the champion of the underdog. Now, trust me, I wouldn’t want to go through any of those experiences again, but I’m truly grateful for them now. That God would take my life and transform it for his good, foolishness.

Though, the earliest Christians were persecuted and the Jews had indeed longed for redemption from the empire of Rome. It wasn’t that long later that the Roman empire took on Christianity as its official religion. And in some ways we began to believe what humans have always struggled with knowing. That it’s not by power or by might, but it’s always been by spirit. Of a God who walked with us in the garden is the God who walked amongst us. This is foolishness.

Sara: The first time I ever preached this passage from I Corinthians was when I was working as the Director of Admissions at Luther Seminary. I began by talking about one of my favorite songs (I won’t sing again, I promise!). It’s a song by the artist P!nk. It’s called “Raise Your Glass.” It says, “Raise your glass. If you are wrong in all the right ways, all my underdogs, because we will never be, never be anything, but loud and little bitty, dirty little freaks.”

While not an exact literal translation of I Corinthians, I tell you what…I’ve experienced that passage mornings at spin class at the YWCA in 2012, when we ended every class with the song “Raise Your Glass,” as I would look around the room and think: “THIS is what the gospel looks like…a bunch of foolish people who got out of bed at 5:15am, now raising their water bottles in celebration of life.

This is the foolishness of the gospel, that punk kids who get bullied, that young people like me who believed that the way to control my environment was through perfectionism…that we’re all seen and we are loved by the God of all of creation. 

Some of you have heard me say that I didn’t really believe that this love was for me. And yet over time, I’ve begun to believe it more.

A book I read a number of years ago was called The Gifts of Imperfection.4 I was quite sure the book had been written for me as it turns out, it wasn’t. And yet the gift of it reminded me of the foolishness, right? I’m not loved because I’m perfect. I’m not loved because I can put on a good show. I’m loved because I am. And so are you. 

In my work as an ethicist, I talk about love as that which sees us. Love is that which sees us. And God is a God of love. A God who loves us. Think about Daniel’s sermon from last week as he reminded us that this God of love at this cross is with us.

This is foolishness: that I’m loved. Not because of good works or righteous deeds. Not because I’m brilliant. I just am. And so are you, this is foolishness of the cross, so that when we boast, we boast not because of our strength, but we boast out of this foolishness. You’re just loved. This is foolishness, but it sure is good news.

This is the good news of the cross: we are all loved.

Jeff: Henry Ward Beecher, the famous New England minister entered his pulpit one Sunday morning. Awaiting him wasn’t unmarked envelope. Opening it, he found a single sheet of paper on, which was written a single word, fool. After chuckling to himself, he held the paper up to the congregation and said, “I have known many, an instance of a person writing letters and forgetting to sign their name. But this is the only instance I’ve ever known of someone signing their name and forgetting to write the letter”.

They thought he was a fool. The world thinks we are fools, but it appears to me in our Scripture tonight and throughout the Bible, that it’s a call to the followers of Jesus to embrace this foolishness. The way of the cross, the way of Jesus is to the outside looking in, foolishness. Yet, the world is still watching. They’re still watching us. While I was your Mission’s Pastor years ago, I had the opportunity to go to India and to be a part of one of the crusades of our ministry partners. I was going to have the opportunity to speak to a hundred thousand Indians. Ten days long speaking, several times a day. I was exhausted by the time the trip was over. As I got ready to board my flight in Delhi, it got delayed a little bit. So I thought I would just close my eyes for a few minutes. Because I’d already checked in. I had my boarding pass. I had my seat. It was the perfect seat, short of first class. Right by the galley, exit row on the aisle.

I woke up, wondering what time it was. Realized I had but moments to get on the plane. And then of course I was the last person on the plane. As I went down the aisle, I was okay because I had my seat. I was all set. And as I got closer to my seat, I realized there’s a little gathering going on in front of it. And as I got closer, I could hear it was a little bit of a heated conversation between two others who had boarding passes, claiming that seat.

As I arrived, the flight attendant tended who already looked fairly harried looked at me like, “What do you want?” I just turned my boarding pass so she could see it was the same seat. And she just kind of looked at me. I don’t know where these words came from, but I said, “What could I do that would help you right now?” She turned and pointed to the back of the plane, that last row where there’s five seats, the middle seat was open. I headed back there and pulled into my seat, saying to myself, “What in the world did you open up your mouth?” As we were flying, the flight attendant came back and checked on me. I got a full can of Coke that night, several bags of peanuts, and even got first class food. Didn’t change the seat at all.

After a very long flight, after not sleeping at all, I got up to change planes. And as I was walking down the aisle, the flight attendant was standing at that same exit door where my seat would have been. As I came close, she looked me in the eye and she said, “Can I ask you a question?” As a stepped aside for the rest of the folks to disembark, she asked me, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” I said, “Well, why would you ask me that?” He said, “Only a follower of Jesus would have done what you did”.

I said, “Well, are you a follower of Jesus too?” She says, “Well, I’m not much of a church goer.” I said, “Well, you don’t have to be, but I’ll bet you there’s a lot of good churches out there that would love to have you.” She smiled. I smiled. And I left. The world response to foolish people. Those who are trying to understand what they believe and live it out the best that they can, the world wants those examples, needs those examples.

Too often, the world looks at people of faith as foolish. We get up early on Sunday morning when we could be sleeping in after a busy week. Of course, Christians don’t have any fun, because the God of the Bible is such a kill joy. Then there is the call to help those in need when we have plenty of need ourselves. And spending time reading the Bible and praying, well, we could be watching TV.

Believing the foolishness of the Bible is risking looking like a fool, but God has used its foolishness to point us to himself in Jesus. Remember what we just read from the apostle Paul, “Consider 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, but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world. Things that are not, to reduce to nothing, things that are. So that no one might boast in the presence of God”. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus who became for us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption in order that as it is written, let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.

Maundy Thursday is all about God’s new commandment to love and to serve as he has shown us in Jesus’ life. Foolish, I know. A child wrote once, “Dear God, the bad people laughed at Noah saying, ‘You made an Ark on dry land, you fool’. But Noah was smart. He stuck with you. And that’s what I will do. Your friend, Naan”. What a sweet prayer, a prayer that God will use the foolishness of the gospel to give us life.

Maybe Naan’s prayer is your prayer tonight. Maybe it’s your prayer for the very first time, or it’s a prayer that you’ve prayed before. Let this service of communion that we will celebrate in a moment, be an opportunity for you to recommit to the journey of faith or to commit for the first time to the journey of faith. The foolishness of God’s transforming power of the gospel for you and for me. Let us pray.

Closing Prayer (Jeff): God we are grateful that you have taken what is foolish to the world and transformed it, and that you continue to transform it through the work of Jesus on the cross. The cross that was meant for misery now becomes hope for us all. Thank you that you hear our prayers. Thank you that you work through the prayers of your people. Thank you that you speak to us in brothers and sisters on the journey and through your word and through the revelation around us. May you keep calling foolish people to follow you. We pray this in your name. Amen.

  1.  Gregory Porter, “Take Me To the Alley,” from Take Me To the Alley (Los Angelos: Blue Note Records, 2016).
  2.  James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011).
  3.  P!nk, “Raise Your Glass,” from Greatest Hits…So Far (Malibu, CA: Woodshed Recording, 2010).
  4.  Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Letting Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010).

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