Fourth Sunday in Lent
Mark Twain once said “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” In matters of faith, I have been arrogant, just replace Twain’s father with my mother. Now, to be compassionate and understanding towards myself this arrogance was probably an inevitable part of my journey. After being away from church for about a decade, it was the liberal scholars and writers such as the late Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong who helped to bring me back and re-opened the bible and Christian doctrine for me in new ways. They did this by applying the intellect to Christianity, by looking at scripture and belief through the lens of the social and physical sciences. They used this lens to explain how the bible didn’t make a lot of sense when read literally. They spoke of the scientific improbability of Noah’s flood, the parting of the Red Sea, the star of Bethlehem and more. They used cultural understanding to explain how the Jewish practice of sacrificing animals at the Temple to atone for sins is the likely lens through which Jesus’ followers viewed his death and thus the origin of the term “lamb of God” when referring to Jesus.
It was very exciting for me. This approach gave me a way into Christianity that didn’t ask me to leave my brain at the door; I could be Christian with intellectual integrity. But it turns out I wasn’t much different from the traditional and fundamentalist Christians from which I had distanced myself. I now believed myself to have a monopoly on a new kind of truth. I started seeing other people’s Christian faith as being wrong, including my very devout Roman Catholic mother, and to my great regret, I told her so.
My intellectual approach to Christianity and the judgements that flowed from there were separating me from others. Just like the fundamentalists, I was creating camps of insiders and outsiders. I also became aware that I needed to reconcile my liberal Christian approach with the fact that there were people of faith whom I admired who did not share my liberal views or approach to Christianity. People who lived lives of deep love and wisdom who were Roman Catholic, Evangelical and from other traditions. This group also included my mother who seems to have gotten wiser as I got older. It became clear to me that in my zeal to distance myself from blind faith and literalism I turned Christianity into a head game and disparaged those who saw and lived their Christian faith from a different yet deeper place.
Something similar is going on in our faith story today, “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…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…” (1 Corinthians 1) The very notion of God being revealed in the person of Jesus, a convicted and executed blasphemer and traitor to the Empire was foolishness to the many Jews who clung to the vision of a Messiah who would usher in an age of peace and an end to war. It was foolishness to the sophisticated and scholarly Greek population who were raised on Plato’s ideals of the Beautiful and the Good—A crucified Jew? Don’t insult us! To say nothing of the mighty Romans who made emperors their gods. It was a hard sell for Paul; Jesus didn’t make a lot of sense to a lot of people. This Jesus who told his power and position grasping disciples who kept arguing about who would be the greatest that while the rulers of the world seize and wield power, it must not be so with you. Jesus said to them, “You want to be first, you want to be great, then forget about being first or great. You must be the servant of all.” Not a servant of a select few who can advance our cause and support our climb up the ladder.
“Paul finds the ultimate expression of the wisdom of God in “the message of the cross,” the message of “Christ crucified,” which he claims was utterly ridiculous and absolutely absurd to the rulers and leaders of this age. I would add, it was ridiculous and absurd until the church turned the cross into a theology of atonement, God requiring the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. When the church did that, then the rulers of this world/age no longer took offense in it. Then, belief in the cross simply became the means to enter a heavenly world. It was no longer offensive.” In fact, the cross became a hallmark of civility and politeness. But that’s a tangent for another time.
The wisdom of the cross, which is so often foolishness to this world, is the wisdom of love. It’s wisdom that’s hard to grasp, it’s not love for what we desire, but self-giving love, the kind of love that gives of itself. As followers of Jesus we are called to apply this wisdom not only in our personal relationships and matters of faith but also in matters of politics and economics. What does the foolishness of God’s wisdom look like in our time, as we head into a post-COVID world? Short of fundamental structural change, according to a campaign by the national church, it looks like a guaranteed liveable income for all Canadians as we head into a future with the strong possibility of more pandemics and precarious work. It looks like a massive investment in long-term care and child-care. It looks like paid sick days, so the “heroes” of the pandemic know on a very real level that we’re all in this together and society has their back going forward. The foolishness of God’s wisdom, love in our time looks like greater income re-distribution, in other words higher taxes for the well off so we can take care of each other.
The wisdom of the cross is that in the kingdom of God love rules above any other consideration. In my case, and in matters of faith for a liberal church, knowledge must always be love’s servant. The wisdom of the cross is that we are saved; we are redeemed not by knowledge and control but rather by love and surrender. Because it is only love that connects us. If this pandemic has taught us anything it is that our survival, our thriving is bound up in each other’s well-being. When we surrender to God’s call and live into this inter-connectedness and realize our inter-dependence, we come to know God, we experience God. What is God, but the hidden wholeness, the hidden unity behind all our artificial divisions and categories. May we be blessed by this wisdom; may we be blessed by this foolishness.
Rev. Joe Gaspar