The Foolishness of the Cross

This sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18–25 was preached by the Rev. Jacob Corzine on 26 July 2014 (Saturday of Trinity 5) in Neuendettelsau, Germany at the fourth International Loehe Conference.

 Wilhelm Loehe

Wilhelm Loehe

I’ve been reading the game of thrones books over the last year and a half or so. I don’t read a lot of fantasy fiction, and I have to admit, I’m impressed. I’m seriously enjoying the books. I’m going to say just a little bit about what’s going on in the volume I’m reading right now, but there’s no need to leave. I don’t think I’m providing any spoilers beyond those already given away in the title. You see, the “Game of Thrones” is exactly what it sounds like. The books are basically about a battle between the elite in an ancient semi-medieval, semi-magical land for the place on the so-called “iron throne” of Westeros. Depending on the volume you’re reading, there are Lannisters, Starks, Targaryans, and Baratheons—I’m sure I’ve missed a few—putting everything that they have into finding a path from where they are to sitting on that throne in King’s Landing. Mostly that means gathering troops, forming alliances, and in general getting the upper hand any way they can. At any rate, it entirely consumes the characters driving at it.

How it will end is anyone’s guess. The next volume is due out pretty soon, I think. What seems fairly clear, however, is that there can be at most one winner—there’s only room for one on the Iron Throne. If anyone sits there, he—or she—will sit there alone. Anyone who has followed or supported that aspirer along the way can hope for due reward at the end. Those on the opposing side, not so much. Their years of efforts will have been for naught, and their foolishness will be unveiled. Years of effort in the wrong direction. What could appear more foolish?

There could seem to be an analogy reading this passage from 1 Corinthians to a group of people gathered around the topic of Education or Formation and the phrase, “If you cease learning, you cease being capable." Years and years are dedicated to study, learning, and understanding, in the hopes of attaining wisdom. Then comes one of the absolute greats of the discipline, the apostle Paul himself announcing that it’s all for naught. Wisdom is not the order of the day, but foolishness. The cross of Christ—that’s the beginning and the end of it all. It would almost seem, for all of our studying, that we may as well have spent our time reading fantasy novels.

But then, it could be that “foolishness” doesn’t mean here what foolishness typically means, but actually does mean wisdom. After all, St. Paul calls Christ the “wisdom of God.” Then, all our pursuits could be called wisdom, in as far as they pursue Christ and the cross. And we would be rescued after all with our wisdom. But I’m not sure. Christ is called the “wisdom of God,” not the “wisdom of theologians.” St. Paul calls what he preaches folly. The world doesn’t know God through wisdom, but through folly. Should we be too proud to call what we pursue folly? Or are we so bold as to call it wiser than St. Paul’s preaching of Christ?

Now, St. Paul wasn’t preaching to academic theologians. So, when he speaks so disparagingly of the wise, he surely doesn’t mean this crowd. He means the Greek philosophers and the Jewish scribes. Maybe there’s an out there. After all, our wisdom, however worldly it might be, is finally the wisdom of the cross of Christ. Except, again that wisdom is folly. Do we really have the self-confidence to admit that Paul was right about himself, but that we’ve moved beyond that?

To borrow St. Paul’s words from another place: What then shall we say? Shall we give up our studies, conferences, and societies? Give up our wisdom in favor of something many of us might be inclined right now to call “fundamentalism”?

I hope not. I prefer to read this passage as a needed caution. Wisdom may be the Achille’s heel of the scholar and theologian, our idol, or with Luther, the place we hang our hearts that becomes our God.

And here, this passage of 1 Corinthians works against that in two ways. First, it pushes us to self-reflection, revealing our wisdom for what we in our very human egotism make it to be. It forces the hard question, not “how could you ever think yourself so wise?”, but rather “what place does your wisdom have in your life as a Christian?” and “Is that the place the word of the cross was meant to occupy?” Or very simply, “Do you suppose your wisdom is wiser than the word of the cross?”

Second, the text draws us out of ourselves, directing the attention of our faith away from our own wisdom toward the word of the cross. It says, “Once you realize the foolishness of your own wisdom, know that there’s something better—the foolishness of God. Once you realize the weakness of your wisdom, that it isn’t a lasting wisdom, know that there is something better. God’s foolishness is wiser and his weakness is stronger. And both are in the word of Christ crucified.” But it remains the foolishness of God. It remains a foolishness extra nos, and this is, I think, why this passage can always be read as an indictment our wisdom, however theologically astute it might be. The word of the cross is always a word about something external. Our wisdom is, at best, a reflection. The word of the cross is the original.

The contrast is stark as it must be. We must give up our wisdom in favor of folly. Otherwise, we would risk hearing this passage as a call to refine our wisdom. But it’s the folly of the cross that, by the grace of God, may even baptize our wisdom.

Of course that would mean it’s not for naught. There are a few figures in the Game of Thrones novels who stand above the infighting and “serve the realm.” Ostensibly, they don’t work to replace the regent, but to serve whoever the regent is. They lack great wisdom and often seem foolish compared to some of those seeking the throne. They don't always have answers but do sometimes have grounds for critiquing other would-be wisdom, seeing the folly.

They have an idea that’s fixed as the world and the wisdom around them changes—the idea of the realm. We have something fixed as well—the word of the cross.

Amen.

The Rev. Jacob Corzine (FELSISA) does Campus Ministry at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and is the English-Language Co-Secretary of the International Loehe Society.

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