The Foolishness of the Cross
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
January 30, 2011
I love to bless stuff! I’ve made something of a joke of it over the years. I’ll bless anything. In part, that’s because of the priests I’ve worked with, one of whom always seemed to have an aspergillum near to hand. Aspergillum—if that word is unfamiliar to you, think of it as a “holy water pot.” Around here, I’ve blessed the new freezers and coolers in the food pantry, the youth room space, animals of course, on St. Francis’ Day, and most recently the new dishwasher.
For some, such stuff smacks of superstition or silliness, but it’s not, or only sometimes, and on the surface. Blessing is important, even the blessing of inanimate objects reminds us that they are set aside often, for important uses. Blessing is not a ritual cleaning, or a magical act. To bless things, whether it’s a dishwasher, a dog, or the food before we begin eating, underscore the sacred nature of all of creation and that even ordinary things can be set aside for holy use.
To hear the beatitudes—the blessings—brings us to the heart of the question we asked last week about the meaning of the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God. Jesus begins his public ministry by blessing people, who on the surface, seem not to be blessed at all.
There are two versions of the beatitudes in the gospels. Luke records one version. The other, which we read this morning, is Matthew’s version. They differ in some important ways, not least in their setting. For Matthew, these beatitudes, as we call them, or blessings are the first extended speech to come from Jesus in the gospel. He has been wandering around Galilee, preaching the coming of God’s reign, and healing all manner of sick people.
His activity has drawn the attention of the crowds, and now, at the beginning of chapter five, Jesus is beset by a multitude. Seeing the crowds, he goes up a mountain, sits down and begins to teach. It’s important to note that context for the gospel of Matthew. Matthew wants to present Jesus as a continuation of the Jewish tradition. So Jesus’ ministry begins with him teaching on a mountain, interpreting the Law, the Torah. He is the new Moses. But it’s important to note that for Matthew, Jesus is not somehow replacing or negating the law. As he says later in the sermon on the mount, “I have not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, or complete it.”
There’s another important aspect of Matthew’s context. Jesus has been going around Galilee proclaiming the good news, saying “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near; or as we retranslated it last Sunday: “Change your mind for God’s reign has come near.” In these verses, we begin to catch a glimpse of just what it is that Jesus means by the phrase “God’s reign has come near.”
And immediately, what leaps out is that it is not a reign or kingdom in any ordinary sense of the term. The very first sentence out of Jesus’ mouth is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” With those familiar words, we do indeed learn something about the kingdom of heaven—that it is possessed, inhabited, by the “poor in spirit.” We learn, too, that whatever “poor in spirit” might mean, their condition, their life situation is “blessed.” The same verb tense, the very same wording is used in the very last of the beatitudes: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
To put it clearly: the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are poor and persecuted. They are blessed. That doesn’t mean that they will be saved. Nor does it mean, as some popular translations have put it, that they are “happy.” Jesus’ words are very much like the words I say at the end of the Eucharist when I invoke God’s blessing on all of us. Here, though, it is not on everyone. The blessing comes upon the poor and the persecuted, those who mourn, and the like. Being blessed means being showered with God’s grace and favor, knowing that God is among us in our current situation.
We’ve also been reading from Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth in the past few weeks. In this opening chapter, Paul lays out some of the key issues that have created conflict between him and the Christian community he founded there. There was division and disagreement about the relative importance of spiritual experiences like speaking in tongues, as well as questions about Paul’s authority, leadership, and the authenticity of the gospel he proclaimed. Both first and second Corinthians bear witness to the depths of the conflict between Paul and this community, and the pain that each side inflicted on the other. Reading Paul’s correspondence with the church at Corinth is a stark reminder to us that such deep and personal conflict has been a part of Christian life since the first decades of the church.
But I and II Corinthians are not just historical records of conflict. They also reveal Paul’s attempt to articulate an understanding of the faith that will make sense of that conflict, and call people to recognize and live into the deeper relationships they have with each other in the body of Christ.
Paul makes one of the great rhetorical and theological flourishes in the Christian tradition as he rebuffs his opponents: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” When we hear Paul contrasting the “folly” of the cross with the Greeks’ desire for wisdom, our temptation is to read those words in light of our own conflicts between faith and reason. But that’s not the case. For the Greeks, the search for wisdom was a religious quest, a quest for a certain kind of religious knowledge that was acquired only through great effort or personal revelation.
What Paul is trying to articulate is that the wisdom of the cross, or to use his language, the folly of the cross, is accessible to all. At the same time, it subverts all categories of comprehension and expectation. For Paul, the cross—where we see Jesus Christ dying—where we see God at God’s weakest, is precisely the place where God’s saving power is revealed. That is the central paradox of the gospel for Paul. He uses it to undercut all efforts to connect status or power in the community with one’ own abilities, efforts, or experience.
There may be nothing more difficult to understand than this key notion of Paul’s. It runs counter to everything we know or expect. As humans, our very conception of God is tied to God’s power and knowledge. God is that being to whom we appeal for help when we are powerless, weak, and in need. We project on God all of our hopes. We turn Jesus Christ into the superhero who will rescue us when we are in danger.
But Paul says something quite different. For Paul, God is at God’s most powerful, we see Jesus Christ most clearly, when we see him dying on the cross. There we confront and experience God’s love and more importantly, God’s sharing in our humanity and pain. That’s the foolishness of the cross. But that’s also the power of the cross. That’s the power of the incarnation—God with us. Jesus Christ is not the superhero who rescues us, Jesus Christ is the one who is with us when we suffer. Jesus Christ, God is with all those who suffer.
It is there, on the cross, that we see God. It is there, on the cross, that we see God’s reign breaking in upon the world. Jesus proclaims this truth when he announces that those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, when he announces that all of them are blessed. They share in God’s reign. They experience God’s reign.
Of course, none of that may be obvious. Those who mourn are grieving; the poor in spirit are suffering. Yet when we accept Jesus’ call to follow him and become fishers of people, we share with him in proclaiming the Good News that God’s reign has come near. We share with him the responsibility of bringing healing and wholeness to a broken world and to broken people. When they experience that healing, they begin to see and experience God’s grace and power in their lives. They begin to experience the power of the cross and the reality that God’s reign is near. Thanks be to God.