Sermon for Holy Cross Day – Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 14 September 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
“…God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
The Church in Corinth had been founded by Paul a few years before he wrote what we now know as the First Letter to the Corinthians. He had left the city to carry on his missionary work elsewhere but remained in contact. Now, he writes from Ephesus on the other side of the Aegean to deal with various problems and questions about Christian belief and conduct which had been reported to him.
If the letter’s purpose is primarily pastoral or disciplinary, this does not mean that he abandons theology in favour of the practical and pragmatic. Before addressing the particular issues, he turns his readers’ attention to the gospel he had preached to them, the foundation and origin of their life as a church. It is their failure of grasp this which has lead them into trouble.
He sets that truth over against the situation of the Corinthian Church. This was set in a city in which the gap between the poor – the vast majority, many of them freed slaves – and the rich was very wide. These divisions manifested themselves in the life of the Church.
It was also a city whose Greek culture placed a premium on skilled argument, on human “wisdom” and its capacity to know both the world and God; on “knowledge.” It was a society in which people were often dazzled by oratory, mesmerised by the rhetoric of celebrity speakers, “the debaters of this age.”
Such speakers attracted large followings. The infant church in the city was not immune to this tendency, comparing one preacher with another, with disastrous effects on its common life. Some clearly thought Paul was lacking in this direction.
How do we know God?
- Is it, as many of Paul’s Jewish contemporaries thought, through divine acts of powerful, interventions like the one they longed for to overthrow the Romans?
- Or is it through human intellectual endeavour, philosophical speculation, as Greek culture thought?
Paul rules out both, reminding the Corinthians of the gospel which he had preached to them and which they had believed – the gospel of Christ crucified, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.”
Paul speaks of a knowledge of God which radically questions both the Greek understanding of divine wisdom and the Jewish expectation of divine action and power. To neither does the figure of a crucified Lord seem acceptable:
- To Jews, schooled by the Book of Deuteronomy, one hung on a tree is cursed by God.
- To Greeks, a foreign country preacher with no schooling in the great philosophical tradition of their culture, one who died the death of a slave, cannot be the vehicle of philosophical or theological truth.
Against both these objections, and all their later descendants, Paul says, that this Jesus who dies on the cross is both the action of God and the wisdom of God. In him we see what God is like and how God behaves. The cross then is not merely an event in the past, but the continuing clue as to how we are to understand God and the world; the lens through which we are to see everything as it truly is, the pattern which is to determine how we live. It is the criterion, the standard, by which we not only think but act. In the Letter which contains the great hymn on love, we see in the cross a love which overcomes evil not by power but by love.
“…the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Now if this was merely something which happened long ago and far away, a few scholars might find this of interest, but it would be of no concern to the rest of us.
But the attitudes which underlie both the philosophy of one culture and the religion of another remain with us still; in forms which are ever-changing but always the same.
Human confidence in our capacity to get things right, on human perfectibility, seems boundless, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. There is an optimistic belief in the power of science, which just means “knowledge,” to make things right. And it can make many things right, or at least better. But unaided it cannot make everything right. Left to ourselves, we are just as capable of abusing it for evil ends as using it for good ones.
As our contemporary apostle of scientism, Professor Dawkins, has recently suggested, making things all right seems to involve the removal from the human race of those who do not fit our criteria of perfection. So Gemma who was serving at the installation of the new Rector of St. Paul’s, Rossmore Road, the other night would have been eliminated because she has Down’s Syndrome. We associate such eugenic attitudes with the Nazis. What is less well-known is that they were also taken up in the last century by members of the intellectual classes who had abandoned Christianity in favour of a humanism made for people like themselves.
Even if we no longer believe in a God who should intervene powerfully on our behalf, to smite our enemies – although if you are a fighter for the Islamic State, or some other jihadist group you will use such a god as a justification for the most barbaric violence – that does not mean that we have learned the lesson of the cross which is that God reaches out in love to those who act violently against him. In politics, this surely means that in the end that even where force has to be used, military solutions on their own are never enough. In the end, if lasting peace is to be built, we have to talk to people. We learned that lesson in Northern Ireland.
If, as many of us are, we are familiar with this and other passages in Paul’s correspondence with various churches, we may have spotted an irony in Paul’s critique of human wisdom. It is that the very rhetorical skills he seems to be attacking are the one which he uses to advance his argument.
Paul is not ruling out human wisdom altogether –only its elevation to supremacy over all else. While he condemns the cult of the celebrity speaker or preacher, he is not suggesting that, the more ignorant and incomprehensible a sermon is, the more effective it will be in communicating the gospel.
Once we have grasped the truth that God reveals himself in a manner which undermines and radically critiques all our efforts to make up our own God, our own religion, then we can use human wisdom and skill to communicate the true picture of God.
And believers have continued to do so ever since: in preaching and poetry, music and art, Christians have explored the profound mystery of the cross: the cross as the emblem of triumph and of suffering, of reconciliation and forgiveness, of both judgement and mercy.
And we find that the cross is no passive object to be dissected on a laboratory bench, controlled and put to our use. It is a living reality which challenges and teaches us. It teaches the love of God. It challenges us to live that love. It calls us to be with those who suffer in this world, not just our fellow-Christians in Iraq or Syria or Pakistan, but all who suffer abuse and violence. It challenges us to care about the victims of domestic violence, about girls sexually abused in Rotherham and other places; about those held captive in modern day slavery.
This is not a lesson, like riding a bicycle, once learned and then never forgotten. The Cross is the school of wisdom to which we must constantly return, in word and sacrament, prayer and contemplation, to re-learn its wisdom and power; to allow it to shape both our thoughts and our actions. Again and again, we must submit our ideas, our plans, our reactions to other people to the judgement of Christ crucified. Are they patterned on him and his way of self-offering love – or are they just part of our own project to strengthen our own position or self-image?
Above me hangs the crucifix. It is there to remind preachers that we stand here to preach not ourselves but “Christ crucified, the power of God and the wisdom of God.” It reminds us all that we come, not to be dazzled by oratory but to hear of that same Christ, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
And above the altar is the same figure to remind us that in our worship “we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” and that proclamation calls us to the offering our souls and bodies , our whole selves, all of our life, as a living sacrifice.
The cross calls for our attention, renewed daily, over a lifetime, in our worship. It calls us to live after its pattern in our lives.