What the cross says about wisdom, power and peacemaking.
I Corinthians 1:18For 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. 19For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” 20Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For 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. 22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
They were only arguing about shuffleboard. Not about any of the deep questions of belief or behavior that sometimes divide churches. Nor any of the big-ticket moral or theological matters that we’ll find were dividing the churches in Corinth, when Paul wrote these words to them.
Maybe you’ve seen the Jurassic Park movies. I wimped out and had to return the book to the library halfway through trying to read it. Paul was dealing with “Jurassic Church.” As we get further into this letter, we’ll see that cliques of members were dividing and attacking each other over some serious matters like whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead. Or whether Christian faith had anything to say about responsible sexual behavior. Or if and how Christians of different social classes could be brothers and sisters. So when an American church more recently had to deal with a difference among members over whether or not to paint shuffleboard lines on the floor of the downstairs fellowship hall and let children and youth play down there, you’d think that would be a piece of cake. But sometimes differences over issues are about more than just the issues.
So it probably was in the First Church of ancient Corinth. Their differences were about more than their differences. They were about bigger things than the issues themselves. And to help them out, Paul took them back beyond their questions and issues, even back beyond their own time and place, to a rocky hill called “Golgotha,” or “Calvary,” to a rude, wooden and bloody Roman execution stake, for a look at their very world view. When Paul writes in verse 22 that “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom,” he is not only commenting on an interesting difference between two groups of people, he is putting his finger on the very source of their fractious factionalism. He’s naming the root of their problems.
The problem with Greek notions of wisdom was what the Greeks would have considered their strength: they started their reasoning with the world as it appeared to them, according to self-evident, conventional wisdom. So the Greek way of wisdom was all about finding one’s way through the world on the world’s own terms. One school of philosophy at the time even focused on what you could or could not logically, reasonably, expect of life, and what life should or should not expect of you, depending upon your station and status in life. So if you were a slave, you could reasonably expect this, and you could be reasonably expected to do that. If you were a slave holder, by contrast, then you could expect something else, while being expected to perform different kinds of duties. But it never seems to have occurred to many of them to question the whole matter of slavery, status or station, as far as I can tell. Kind of like two Amish men in a casino discussing how to behave themselves there as simple, humble, plain and peaceable, without asking themselves a more important question: “What are we doing in this casino in the first place?” For those Greeks, Peace was a matter of understanding and accepting the customary duties and rewards of your status or station.
Now to be fair, we can thank these ancient Greeks for giving us early experiments in democracy—at least for slave-owners–as well as methods of questioning and exploration that have now enabled us to fly airplanes and fight cancer. So neither Paul nor I are advocating ignorance nor the rejection of scholarship, science or education. But as we’ll see later in this letter, Paul will use the upside-down, counter-intuitive wisdom of the cross to challenge the whole Greek and Roman type of wisdom, that different rewards and privileges and honors should come with different stations and status in life. Of course it looks so logical from inside, especially if our station is full of rewards and privileges. But if you step outside that world view and view it from the hill called Calvary, if anything, the cross turns such notions of worth and status upside-down and elevates not only The Crucified Christ, but the very people who might have ended up on crosses—the poor and slaves. Peace, from the vantage point of the cross, means coming to terms with and accepting the great and surprising reversal of wisdom and power and status that the cross signifies.
As for the Jewish understanding of power, I have even more sympathy. Of course they longed—and many long still– for the promised Messiah to come and blow away the oppressive world order of militarism, terrorism, poverty and injustice, and to make Zion the fountainhead of world peace and order, as the prophets promised. We pray for such a New Zion every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But so few of Paul’s comrades understood that God would do so peacefully, non-violently, even anti-violently, by absorbing the world’s violence on the cross and returning it with all- triumphant and forgiving love, as God had also promised through the prophets.
As different as Jews and Greeks were, they had this in common: Both groups started their reasoning with the world’s top down, one up, notions of power and worth, and sought to master and dominate the world on its own terms, by its own means, by measurements of success that the world would recognize and value. But this is not the wisdom by which God has chosen to act nor reveal himself in the world. Instead, into this self-enclosed way of thinking comes the cross, like a bolt out of the blue. As Paul says, of course the message of a crucified Messiah is “foolishness to Greeks and weakness to Jews.” That’s what the clown’s mask [or dunce cap?] on the altar signifies.
The First Church of Corinth was made up of people from both these backgrounds. When differences open up among any group of people, its common for these old, habit-formed, pre-gospel, cross-free understandings of power and wisdom to rise up and offer themselves as weapons by which we might seek to defend ourselves, to seek advantage over others, and even attack them, verbally and emotionally, at least. But they only turbo-charge the conflicts, making them wider, deeper and harder to solve.
Even though they should have known better, that’s what happened in the matter of shuffleboard, of all things, in that church basement. The idea started with the youth group and its sponsors. And for the best of reasons. Recreation and play are proven ways to build up relationships and community among people. And if children can have a space and time designated for play, perhaps they’ll get more out of time and space designated for listening and learning. To those who opposed the idea however, that very space where kids would be playing was also the space where they had attended many dinners after the funeral services of their friends and family members. It was also where many of them gathered to quilt once a week for many, many years. Most of them had grown up being taught that church was the place for children and youth to learn reverence and restraint. Let them play outside. If it sounds like a generational difference, I suspect that it was.
So who was right? Sometimes, that’s the wrong question. Or, at least the wrong question to ask off the bat. More importantly: What is the right way to approach a disagreement? What is the right viewpoint from which to start discussion and seek discernment? Let’s follow Paul as he takes the competing and conflicted Corinthian Christians back to the vantage point of the cross. The cross challenges the very notions of power, wisdom and winning that were turbo-charging that church conflict.
More than just a symbol, to Paul the cross even becomes a way of thinking and acting in the world. In fact, it is God’s stunning and surprising way of acting in the world. Because the cross says, in its powerfully symbolic language, that God engages the world not from the top down but from the bottom up. That God does not overpower us, or seek advantage over us, but rather, God identifies with us. That he identifies with us even in the lowest depths of shame, rejection, defeat and humiliation. There on the cross he also demonstrates his commitment to us by going with us even to the lowest of the lowest places, symbolized by the Roman way of execution, for the lowest of society. Therefore, Jesus’ disciples are to engage the world, each other, and their differences, in the same way, not from the top down, to see who has the most power to impose their will on weaker people, but from the bottom up, by identifying with each other on the lowest level of our common needs, our common hopes, our weaknesses, our limits and our vulnerability.
Had my friends with the shuffleboard conflict taken that approach, they might have asked each other questions like, “What is it that you hold most sacred?” One group might have said, “That we treat God reverently and respectfully by treating this facility that way; after all, its where I learned of God and often experienced God over the sixty or seventy years of my life, and where we gathered to commit scores of my friends and relatives to eternity, including my parents and a child.” Another group might have said, “I want youth and children to feel welcomed and included.”
Underneath those differences on the surface, can we hear what sacred things both groups have in common? Like how special church is to each group? Like how much both groups want their children and grandchildren to be part of the church?
And maybe they could have asked each other, “What is it that you fear?” One group might have said, “I’m afraid that this sacred space might be abused and denigrated; that children and youth will not learn to revere God adequately; and that quilters and people who come for memorial services will find their experience degraded by lines and numbers and scuff marks on the walls and the floor.” Another group might have said, “I’m afraid that children and youth will feel excluded by a church culture that says ‘children should only be seen and not heard’ and will eventually leave the faith because of such rigid expectations.”
Again, can we hear the similarities in their fears, as well as the differences? Like, How will people of different generations experience God together? What kind of faith will future generations have?
What if both sides really heard each other’s hopes and fears, and not with the intent to jump back in with a winning argument, but with the intention to really hear each other and honor each other, with the kind of commitment to each other that God demonstrated to us on the cross? And what if they really heard each other with the willingness to identify with each other, as the complex, vulnerable, scared and yet hopeful human beings that we all are? We can’t always agree with each other, but even in conflict, we can always identify with each other. At least with our basic humanity. Because the same needs, fears, weaknesses and hopes drive all our actions and opinions, even when they drive us in different directions. After all, even while we were yet sinners, God went all the way down to the cross to identify with us.
If the members of that church had started there, I still don’t know how the issue would have been resolved. I still don’t even know how it should have been resolved, whether there should be a shuffleboard court down there or not. Sometimes, the way we handle a conflict is more important than the outcome of the conflict. Unfortunately, the shuffleboard conflict came down to a my-way-or-the-highway kind of stand-off, to be resolved by a vote. That may be good enough for secular democracy. But when you’re talking about the future of relationships, voting is not always the best way to display the kingdom of God.
The pro-shuffleboard group won the vote, and several families left the church. One person even demanded several years’ worth of offerings back. And nobody plays shuffleboard down there, young or old. But quilting and fellowship meals still happen, with nobody even noticing all those lines and shapes and numbers on the floor.
The gospel peace position that we teach in the Mennonite church is not based on worldly notions of power, wisdom, and on how to win friends and influence others and achieve whatever you want, only with less mess and stress. If anything, the cross teaches us that when we love our enemies the way Jesus did, and the way he teaches us to do, we could very well end up carrying our own crosses with him. The gospel peace position is about demonstrating God. It only shows its strength as we learn the world view, the wisdom and the power of the cross. Yes, as Paul admits, it all looks backwards and upside-down, even weak and foolish to the world. Yes, it takes faith to believe that God is triumphing over evil by absorbing it and forgiving it, rather than by returning it in kind. But the alternative business as usual requires a lot of faith too, that currently looks unfounded to me.
The cross is the symbol of God’s world view, God’s wisdom and God’s power that we are called upon to communicate to a skeptical and scoffing world. But our most compelling witness to Christ anymore is in the cross-shaped ways that we relate to people, in and outside of the church. Not by the absence of differences or conflict—what planet does that happen on?— but by the cruciform ways we address differences and conflict. Our peace witness to the world begins in the church. In fact, a major part of our peace witness to the world IS the church.
So in this season of Lent, with its theme of holding on and letting go, can we let go of the emotional and relational swords we carry and invert them for crosses instead? Can we let go of the normal, business-as-usual preoccupation with who’s up, who’s down, who’s ahead? Instead, can we replace that with the wisdom of the cross, the wisdom by which we identify with others, and commit ourselves to others, even if we can’t always agree with others? If so, we will better understand and express the surprising peace-making power and wisdom of God, displayed on the cross of Jesus Christ.