“I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can”: On the surprising depth of Paul’s theology of the cross (a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

huge-tiny-.gifThere are times when I hear about the religious beliefs of others and I shake my head, wondering how anyone could believe such claptrap. Take, for example, Scientology. Like, seriously. How could anyone believe the story of Xenu and thetans? Then I remind myself that the Christian story is absolutely outlandish. It defies logic to the point of absurdity. We forget this to our detriment, and today’s words from the Apostle help us to confront the fact that God purposefully has used the preposterous to reveal the nature of God’s power.

Let’s establish a few important things. Paul is writing in response to a letter the church in Corinth sent to him, a letter which is lost to history; Paul is writing to a mixed community, Jew and Gentile together, that is struggling to co–exist without reverting to division and confrontation. Most potently, Paul centers his theology in an impending end-time, an apocalyptic eschaton that will happen within a generation. Paul puts a lot of eggs in that basket. Of course, Jesus has not come back yet. On that count, Paul is way wrong.

But today’s passage shows that Paul’s theology of the cross is much deeper than simply believing that the blood of the lamb washes you clean, requiring nothing more of the individual until Christ comes back. Sadly, this is what often passes for Pauline theology. I describe it as, “I’m washed in the blood of the Lamb, so I’ll be the biggest jerk I can.” In fact, Paul seems to purposefully refrain from using some of his favorite eschatological sayings in these early verses; his focus in on what God has done, not what God will do. Paul’s message to the church in Corinth is: “Look, you’re reverting to these positions of division and making something profoundly simple unnecessarily complicated. I’m passing on to you the same thing that I learned, that Jesus was handed over to the authorities, tried, beaten, crucified, killed, and on the third day, raised. That’s all you need. Understand this and you will be unified. This is wisdom, everything else is foolishness.”

I’ll admit, this is a theology one might rightfully fear. It appears, perhaps, to require that a person believes in something fantastical and absurd because, well, Jesus. Literally, “because Jesus.” And we Christians are largely responsible for such a shallow understanding of Paul.

Paul’s argument is sophisticated, a reality expressed more clearly through the original Greek than it is in English. It is important to establish two things right off the bat: one, Paul sees the world as transient and therefore no wisdom can come from it; and two, creation is fallen, and the world is in active rebellion against God. So, again, why do we expect wisdom from human endeavors? Any attempt to engage Paul’s theology has to accept these assumptions. Paul believed the end of the world would be an act of wisdom.

Eschatology is not at the center here, as I mentioned before because Paul is using harsh language to describe what God has done in the world through Jesus. Paul juxtaposes σοφία τοῦ θεοῦ (wisdom of God) with μωρία (moria), a word often translated as “foolishness.” However, μωρία is actually the root word for moronic. So, Paul is saying, “There’s the wisdom of God, and then there is the moronic claptrap given by the world.”

Paul then goes a step further. He says, “What passes for wisdom is moronic. The people whom the world elevates as wise are morons.” They believe that might makes right, that God is always on the side of the victor, that wealth and power are always signs of divine favor. When the moronic passes for wisdom, how then is God to be heard?

Remember that Paul is writing to a community of Jews and Gentiles, often called Greeks by Paul. “You Greeks love your wisdom,” he says. “And you Jews love your signs,” he adds, able to speak from experience about both as a Hellenized Pharisee. God, therefore, has flipped both of these conventions like Jesus rearranging tables in the Temple: God’s wisdom is that a peasant, itinerant Jewish preacher submits to the crushing power of religious and civic authorities, turning the cross, a sign of torture and imperial oppression, into the definitive symbol of God’s redeeming, liberating grace.

Think about that: foundational to our faith claim is that Jesus teaches us how to live the life we are designed to live by being rooted in the knowledge that God’s love, compassion, mercy, and justice prioritizes the least of these. As an eternal reminder of the seemingly absurd notion that God would side with the poor and the oppressed, we have the wisdom of the cross. It is in and of itself a scandal, something embarrassing, something that draws the ridicule and ire of the world, but it reminds us that God’s love is subversive. God’s love takes us to uncomfortable and difficult places, but our assurance is that God is with us. God is Emmanuel.

I get chills just thinking about the potency of this theology for our own time. However, that does not mean that Paul’s cross theology is not still problematic. Perhaps you, like me, are sometimes resistant to Paul because of how Paul has been used in damaging ways across the millennia. Yet, imagine how powerful and liberating this message must have been in the first century as the war drums between Rome and Jewish rebels became increasingly louder until they burst in 70 C.E. when the Temple was destroyed. Think of how immediate Paul’s theology of salvation makes God if you are poor if your whole life is spent being denigrated by others, called foolish, told you are unworthy of God? God’s wisdom, God’s redemption, begins by seeing that God defies categories.

Lent reminds us that God’s message has been consistent across time. If we want to know God, we must love others. We must reject false wisdom, push back against the moronic promises of a world that is at war with peace. What God has done through Christ is purposefully absurd on the face of it. Who would look for a God made manifest in a rebellious, heretical, provocative, and thoroughly debased Jewish preacher who ended his life nailed to a tree? The answer? Those who know that God is not to be found in the structures of power that oppress those whom God has prioritized. Our faith claim is ridiculous and worthy of ridicule if we believe that money brings happiness, violence brings peace, fear brings loyalty, and morons bring wisdom.

Lent faces us with big questions. What does the cross mean? What does it point us to? What does it reveal about God? And when we pick up our own, what are the contours of the cross? What is the wisdom we take upon our backs as we march toward our own metaphorical crucifixions? What will we die to in the world when we are resurrected in God’s wisdom? Who is the God we have discovered in the unlikeliest of places? Let us keep our eyes fixed on the City of David and continue to kick up the dust on the Jerusalem Road. Amen.