GOD'S WEAKNESS AND OUR STRENGTH
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. March 23, 2003. 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
- 1 Corinthians 1:18
It often seems to me that this reading from 1 Corinthians is one of the most difficult and challenging sections of the whole Bible. By calling human wisdom and human strength into question, it strikes very close to home. Strength and power are things that people pursue in many ways. During our working years we may do it in physical strength and stamina, or in influence and position. We may do it in our home or neighbourhood. We may seek to increase our strength and power by visiting a fitness center, or by regular exercise. Or we may do it by striving for personal influence or political power. And now we are living in a time when war has begun – a war that challenges us deeply to join in a power struggle ourselves: either to support the war or to gain power against the war. But now we read this rather scandalous passage where Paul says that "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise" and " God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong."
You know, from time to time I have heard people tell of a time when our church was rather full here at Trinity, and we usually consider a full church to be a strong church. But times do change, and with the change of the times often comes a change in circumstance. Today we struggle to meet our obligations. In fact, without our trust funds, we would already have had to recruit more members, or donate substantially more to the church, or move to a smaller building, or close down altogether. It can feel like we are on a motorized treadmill where we have to work very hard just to stand still.
In the midst of our struggles – whether in our personal lives, in our church, or in the world today, an interesting challenge is posed by this reading from 1 Corinthians. For there is a suggestion here that is contrary to our usual way of thinking, and that suggestion is that we don’t have to be towers of strength to be effective. What this means is that our church can have a very effective ministry in our weakness and our incompleteness. Can you believe that? It is difficult to fathom, isn’t it? In times past our church was effective in its strength; but today it may just be that the most effective witness we can make will be based on our weakness – on knowing that our survival and our ongoing ministry depends on something more than our own efforts. What I am suggesting is that the way for us to be effective is to acknowledge that our own strength is insufficient, and to rely on what Paul calls the weakness and the foolishness of God. And I suggest with regard to Iraq, that the way to “win the world for democracy” (to use that old phrase) is not through initiating military action – and all the more so when, as late as today’s Gazette, the General in charge of the campaign has acknowledged that so far he has found no weapons of mass destruction. Winning the world for democracy has to happen in the human heart. In that sense, it is much like love: you can’t really force someone to love you. Nor can you force them to adopt your political system. They have to be convinced through the integrity of your own actions.
"The message of the cross," says Paul, "is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." And he goes on to ask:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. (vss. 20-22)
In these verses, Paul makes it clear that God's wisdom and God's power are centered in this cross – in the very thing which in human terms seems to be weak and foolish. Indeed, the cross was the instrument of torture which the Romans used to remind people of how weak they were in comparison to the imperial power. But Paul states categorically that "God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." Having said this, Paul goes on in the following verses to make his point in terms of the Corinthian people themselves. He reminds them that
not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But 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, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are... (vss. 26-28)
And why is that?
...so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord." (vss. 29-31)
It seems like a strange kind of logic to us. Finding our strength in weakness. Discovering our wisdom in foolishness. But it is God's weakness and God's foolishness. Or to say it more precisely, this is about the ways of God which seem to us to be weak and foolish. Specifically it is about grounding our lives and our ministry in the cross of Jesus Christ.
At a time when the news is dominated by the war machine, when the U.S. military campaign is described as “shock and awe,” and when images of “muscle” are so evident, what Paul has said is an intriguing and daring thought – to see our weakness as an asset instead of a liability. To recognize that we do not have to be the strongest because we can rely on God's strength. That whatever may happen to us as individuals or as a congregation or even as a nation, we can rely on God's foolishness which is wiser than our wisdom, and on God's weakness which is stronger than our strength.
In some ways the grand finale to this passage is over in Second Corinthians – chapter 12, where Paul talks about being given a thorn in the flesh. It seems that he was becoming too "puffed up" by his revelations from God, so he says that he was given a thorn in the flesh to prevent him from becoming too elated. And then he said,
Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (vss. 8-9a)
So then, said Paul,
I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (vss. 9b-10)
Now let us come back to today’s text: "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." Such a straightforward statement. So clearly put. So difficult to accept and live up to.
Yet this is the challenge not only for the church back then at Corinth. It is also the challenge that is put before us in this time in our church here in Montreal. A challenge to see our reduced numbers and our financial struggles not as a problem, but as an opportunity. An opportunity to see our weakness as a strength, as the basis for ministry, as a gift from God. It is completely different from our usual ways of thinking. It may also be our best hope: relying not on our wisdom, but on God's foolishness. Depending not in our strength, but in God's weakness. How different. How easy. How difficult. And how needed in today’s world. Boasting not in ourselves, but in the Lord. The message of the cross is foolishness to others, but to us it is the power of God. And, you know, we are reminded of this every time we come to communion. For it is in the broken bread and poured out wine that the weakness and the sacrifice of Jesus are most evident, yet it was his weakness and sacrifice which were the wisdom and the power of God. Our faith is in a Messiah who was crucified – and risen – for our sakes.
So then, may God give us wisdom and strength, as we seek to walk and live by faith. Amen.