THE CONTRARY GOSPEL
A sermon preached by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister Trinity United Church, Montreal, Quebec, January 30, 2005. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is more powerful than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:25
Every time I read these words which St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, I am reminded – again – of just how different the gospel message is from many of my assumptions, my values, and my daily commitments. You see, in these words from Scripture, I am confronted by the contradicting God – by the contrary gospel. For I live in a world where a great deal of emphasis is put on success, on power, and on prestige. And not only do I live in such a world, but I am a part of that world, and those things are a part of me. I have learned those kinds of values from my parents, from my schooling, from my society, and yes, from my church. Like the world of which I am a part, I want to have prestige. I want to be successful. I want to exercise power.
But just when all this seems okay – just when I am satisfied with this way of living and achieving, just when it feels like I am getting it together, the gospel challenges me deeply with the message of the cross. St. Paul says that this message is foolishness to other people, but for Christians it is the power of God.
The power of God? How on earth can the cross of Calvary be the power of God? The cross, after all, is a symbol of weakness. It signifies failure. By all our usual modern, western standards of life, Jesus’ life ended in failure, and the cross is very much a reminder of that. And the cross of Jesus contradicts so many of the very basic values of our society. So how can anyone seriously take the cross to be the power of God, as Paul puts it? How can anyone see the cross as anything other than a symbol of weakness, of failure, of being a nobody?
Paul wrote this letter to the Christians at Corinth, and they were not much different from you and me. They too wanted prestige and success. They too wanted power. And they saw Christian faith as a way to achieve those things. They thought their faith made them somebody – somebody special. But in this scripture passage, very early in his letter to the Christian people at Corinth, St. Paul reminds them of their own background: "Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” But, says Paul,
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (RSV)
And, you see, that is where this scripture text becomes a problem for me. What does it mean? What does it mean when Paul says that God chose the foolish to shame the wise, and the weak to shame the strong?
I can see two possibilities. The first is that any time Christians and the church do become strong, then they in turn must be shamed by some other weak group. I think I have seen this happen in "mainline" churches like the United Church over the past 30 years. We had become strong. We had become fat. We had become complacent. We looked down our noses at the evangelicals and the pentecostals, and then the tables were turned. Perhaps this is a way – within Christianity itself – that God shames the strong. We who had been strong become weak. And when we look closely at what is happening on the world stage, we often see the same dynamics at work there – in places like the Middle East, for example.
The second way that we may understand these words of St. Paul is for us Christians and for the church to discover that our strength is our weakness, or to say it the other way around: our weakness is our strength. This means that it is precisely because we are weak, because we are not given a lot of credibility, because we are seen as relics from the past – it is because of things like this that we sometimes make a difference when we speak and when we act. We may get a hearing precisely because we do not have the influence of other individuals or other organizations. And when we dare to focus the gospel on the real needs of people and the needs of our society, it can make an impact. People do pay attention. From time to time it does make a difference. In truth and in fact, "the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is more powerful than human strength." And so our weakness may be one of the ways that we are like Christ – the crucified one who nonetheless embodied the power of God and the wisdom of God.
You know, I suspect that both of these possibilities happen. On the one hand, the Church sometimes does become strong. And then we get complacent, and have to be challenged and shown up. We have to be reminded not to boast in ourselves but only in the Lord. Montreal is a good example of a place where the church was strong in people, in buildings, and in influence, but not so today. But you know, one of God’s ironies is that often the church is most effective when we feel we don't have enough people, or enough money, or enough resources keep going and to do the work of ministry right. [repeat] For, you see, it is when we are aware of and struggling with our weakness, that we put our trust in God, and God is glorified in what we do. As St. Paul points out, the weakness of God is stronger than human strength, and if we are going to boast, we should not boast in ourselves, but in the Lord.
There is a sense, you know, in which Christian people never arrive at the destination: we are always on the journey. Think about our ministry here at Trinity Church. From what I have been able to learn, there was a time – and some of you remember it – when this church was known as Rosemount First United, and it was doing well. The congregation had outgrown its facilities, and a new sanctuary was built. But very shortly thereafter that, its viability was challenged by demographic change, and so an amalgamation came about. And from what I hear, Trinity has never regained the strength that was once here.
But you know, times and circumstances change. In the past our church ministered out of its strength. Today we are learning to minister out of our weakness. By that I mean that we are learning that the weakness of God is where our strength is based, rather than in our numbers and our achievements. We are learning to put our trust there, and to risk ourselves in the service of the Christ who died on the cross. And while our church has a long history of service in eastern Montreal, there is another sense in which we have only begun, for our ministry today cannot be based on the accomplishments of yesterday. Rather, we must trust God to lead us where we need to go. And one place that we find ourselves led is to Calvary. You know, I remember a time a few years after I was ordained that I took a course in New Testament, and the prof said that “Christianity is basically a way of walking and a way of talking that leads to a cross.” St. Paul put it this way: he said that for us this cross is the power and the wisdom of God. This is quite contrary to our usual assumptions and impulses. It is also the way of the Christ and of his followers.
When you and I think about the life of Jesus, it is easy to look on him as something of a hero – one who healed the sick and turned the tables on the people who tried to trap him in arguments. Yet the core of the gospel is located in his vulnerability and his cross. And so he calls us to minister out of our weakness – he calls us to take up our own cross and follow him. And when we do that – when we put our trust in Jesus Christ and follow him that far, then is God's strength and God’s power evident in our lives and in our ministry. Then do others see and believe and join us in following as disciples of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for the contrary gospel, which does not require us to rely on ourselves and our own strength. Rather we may rely on the foolishness and the weakness of God as they are manifest in the cross of Jesus Christ – you know, the foolishness that is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness that is stronger than human strength For it is in Jesus that we discover and experience just how wise is God's foolishness, and how powerful is God's weakness; then in faith and in confidence do we take up our own cross and follow in the way Christ leads us. Amen.