John 2:13-22 & I Cor 1:18-25
The Foolishness which is Christ
Don't you just love the story of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple? It appeals to us for so many differing reasons - some good, some not so good. The most common question raised over this story is whether or not Jesus does all this out of anger. It may be helpful to see Jesus as a person who got angry. Repeated references to Jesus as one who knew no sin or committed no sin do very little to help us identify with Jesus – or I should saw to see him as one of us. But show me a Jesus capable of losing his temper and I am a lot more likely to find connections between his life and mine.
The story appeals to me with its acknowledgment of the power which resides in a right conviction. Picture this in your head - there is Jesus, one little man in the midst of so many strong and muscular individuals, yet the strength of his convictions prevents anyone from stopping him. Because he was right, his actions are unopposed even by those with greatly superior physical strength.
The story of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple appeals to us for a number of differing reasons. Some good; some not so good.
One not-so-good reason would be to embolden those who read this story and immediately begin to consider who Jesus would drive from the temples which we call Christian churches. Some people read this story and from it derive permission to forcefully remove from the church those whom they consider objectionable. Money changers may still appear on the lists of those to be excluded. But others are readily added: those with different lifestyles; those with the wrong political opinions; those who make use of the ancient creeds, those who do not employ the creeds. How often do we see the actions of Jesus as an excuse to exclude from the temple those whom we find objectionable?
As a campus pastor, serving in an academic community, I am sensitive to another category of persons sometimes pushed to the edges if not over the edge of faithful servants of the church. The reading from I Corinthians is all too often read as an indication that those who wish to apply intellect or rational thought to the Christian experience are wrong. Jesus’ driving of the money changers from the temple is linked to Paul’s discussion of the misuse of wisdom and suddenly there develops this notion that Christian faith is all about the heart and in no way involves the head. If they are not driven from the temple, those who would apply research and reason and rationality to the Christian tradition are at least encouraged to practice their craft elsewhere.
True, it is the experience of God which brings us faith. But thinking it through and rationally studying the scriptures are also essential parts of the experience of being a disciple of Christ.
I have gotten lax in my encouragement to you to start carrying your bibles to worship. Today is another day when it would be very helpful to have them. In I Corinthians 1: 22 Paul writes: Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Some, mistakenly, take these words as permission drive intellect and reason from our religious life in same way that Jesus drove the money changers from the temple. Is he trying to tell us that God not only demands the sacrifice of our pagan idols but that God also demands the sacrifice of our minds? I don't think so.
The interesting aspect of all this is that scholarship itself clears up the confusion. If we use a little intellectual insight, we can see that St. Paul is not advocating that we give up good reason, he merely wants our reason to be pointed in the right direction.
The word which causes so much trouble is the one translated for us as foolishness. We read this and too rapidly assume that Paul is telling us that wisdom and reason serve no purpose what-so-ever. We read into his words a belief that it is foolish for anyone to try and make sense out of the Jesus event. But Paul isn't talking about foolishness in the way we are most like to consider something foolish. The word is more appropriately translated "scandal." The gospel message Paul preached was not foolish - it was scandalous, it was offensive, shocking, considered improper.
To teach that God had entered human from - not simply walked about the earth with humans, but actually taken on our flesh - was scandalous, it was offensive to the Gentile mind. The Greek gods would often interact with humans, but doing so was more a matter of play. Never would one of the God's descend so low as to take on our existence.
To teach that a God would love his subjects so deeply was scandalous. The gods of Paul's gentile world played with their subjects, tricked them and sometimes tortured them. Paul was claiming that the God of the Hebrews loved the creatures - loved them enough to become one of them. This was foolishness, it was a scandal, it is offensive.
We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and (scandalous) to Gentiles.
Paul isn't saying that it is inappropriate for us to use our minds in the experience of faith. He is pointing out the offensive nature of God's love and sacrifice for us. He isn't saying that we should never attempt to understand the experience of faith or it teachings. He is warning us that God's actions in Christ will not fit the expected course. God's compassion for us will surprise us and cause God to act in ways we would never expect.
We see somewhat more clearly what Paul is saying when we read the whole of this letter to the church at Corinth. Our text begins at verse 18. In verses which immediately preceding, Paul encourages his readers to set aside all dissension. It has been reported to Paul that there has been quarreling among them. Some claimed to belong to Paul, others to Apollos or Cephas. Paul responds by asking "Was (I) crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius ... For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Paul then moves into his discourse on "wisdom." Quoting Isaiah, Paul writes, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." The verses which serve as our reading for today are an aside. They express a thought, but are not the issue to which Paul responds. He is calling wisdom into question, not because it serves no purpose in religious experience, but because some have preferred their rational conclusions to the scandalous act of Jesus dying on the cross.
In chapter 2, Paul will continue his insistence that we focus on this foolish act of a God who loves us. He writes: When I came to you ... I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you expect Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
And then we get a verse which is most helpful. Paul writes, Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom. Not wisdom of the age, but the wisdom of God's tremendous love for us. We speak of the wisdom of a God who would love us enough to take on our form and die for us.
Paul does not teach that the desire to know is inconsistent with faith. Rather he reminds us that human wisdom and knowledge will always stumble over the cross of Jesus. An explanation as to why God would use that instrument of torture as our means for salvation can never be found. It is a scandal - even for us. But scandalous or not, it is the way that God has chosen.
I have to be very careful that I don't do the very thing which I criticize in others. I do not want to drive from the church those who insist upon blind faith. But I will act with a high degree of conviction as I proclaim the scandalous message of Christ crucified. Far from being a simple and pleasing story, Jesus' path to Jerusalem upsets our sensibilities and offends our notions of appropriateness. We cannot reach the cross through intellectual inquiry, but unless we struggle with its offensive nature we will most likely never appreciate the gift it represents.
Three days after Jesus is hung on the cross he raises from the grave and announces that we too will rise. As wonderful as that promise may sound it really is only the icing on the cake. The first chapter of John's gospel captures the true marvel of what God has done. Remember that part about God so lov(ing) the world... It is God’s tremendous love for us, which leads to Jesus’ dying on the cross which stands at the core of what it means to be a Christian.
Offensive, scandalous - who could believe that God would care so deeply about us?