A Crazy New Message
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
For many of us, we have heard the gospel story so many times, we do not hear how strange it truly is. But it is a strange story.
The story of the cross is this:
God, the one who made everything, who rules over all, decided to live as one of us. Not as an emperor or king or general, but as a carpenter in a tiny town called Nazareth. He wasn’t rich. He wasn’t famous throughout the world. He didn’t know too many influential people. Instead, he taught those who would listen. He healed the sick. He forgave sins. He fed the hungry. He welcomed the outcast. And because of all this, he was executed on a cross. He was killed the same way terrorists and the worst of the worst criminals were killed. And even though he was God, he did not save himself. He died… But then the most amazing thing happened. He rose again.
That is a strange story. It is the story of the most powerful being in the universe taking on our flesh, taking on our weakness, taking on our sin, and being willing to die. And as strange as it may still be to us today, it was even more strange to the people Paul was trying to share that message with.
In Corinth, the people there knew what success looked like. They had it. Lying on a small stretch of land connecting two parts of the Mediterranean Sea, they were the trade hub between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. Merchants and sailors and people from all over came to their city. They had wealth, they had status, they had everything that looked like success.
And then this man from Turkey named Paul comes into their great city. He sets up shop as a leatherworker, and works and lives side by side with many of them. But he also starts telling them this strange story of God. This strange story of Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified but rose again. It doesn’t sound like anything they have heard before. It honestly doesn’t sound to many of them like success or wisdom. This isn’t how to get rich. This isn’t how to gain more power for oneself. It doesn’t make sense. Why would God do this? What does God have to gain? God is not looking out for God’s best interest in this story.
Many just ignore Paul. Others think he may be dangerous, and keep an extra eye out for him. But surprisingly a small but growing number start to listen to him.
A couple of years ago, I had the great pleasure of visiting Corinth. You can still see the Temple of Apollo, hike up the Acrocorinth, and walk through the ancient forum. As we were in the forum where all those ancient shops and stands and people would have gathered 2,000 years ago, our tour guide invited us to pause for a moment. “Imagine you are in Corinth at the time of Paul. And imagine that you are not one of the wealthy leaders of the city, but instead one of many slaves. All your life, you have been told you are slave and that is all you will ever be. If there is an afterlife, you are told, you will still be a slave there too. Whatever your status is now is what it will always be. So if you don’t have money, if you don’t have riches, if you don’t have fame, if you don’t have popularity, then you are nothing.”
“Now imagine this leatherworker named Paul runs into you. And he starts telling you something different. He says to you, ‘No matter who you are – Greek or Jew, slave or free, poor or rich, male or female – you will be welcome into God’s kingdom. God came and died and rose again to save and welcome and love you. God doesn’t say that you are nothing. God says that you are something worth dying for.’ And after hearing those words, for the first time in your life, you have hope that there is something greater. You see yourself differently.”
I will never forget her words. Because I had never heard the gospel that way before. Yes, it’s crazy. Yes, it’s strange. Yes, it doesn’t fit the message of success of this world. But it is the one message of hope and love and everlasting life for all people, including those who have been told, “You are nothing.”
It is no surprise then that many in the early church weren’t the wealthy and the powerful and the famous. It was the people who had been told, “You are nothing,” who came to follow Christ. As Paul says in his letter, “26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 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.”
The message of the cross is foolishness. It is the story of God suffering when God did not have to. It is the story of God dying for the sake of God’s creations. God chose not the wisdom of self-interest and worldly success, but the foolishness of sacrifice and love.
Those who think they have it all together are the ones who have the most difficult time hearing this message. And still do today. Because they have so much to hold onto. Wealth and privilege, power and status are hard things to relinquish. They are hard for me to let go of. Our own sense of pride and being more worthy or wise, we like to hold onto that. Letting go and following the gospel is much harder. We have to see the world in a new way. We have to be willing to sacrifice and love, even when it costs us something. We have to be willing to call “brother” and “sister” even those who the world looks down upon. We have to say, “I am worth something not because not because I have done it, but because God has done it.”
It is those who are willing to be foolish, to be scandalous, to be radical, to be even strange, who are most able to hear this message. Because they don’t worry how the world defines them. They care about how God defines them.
One of my favorite movies growing up was the Muppet’s Christmas Carol. It is Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but with Gonzo and Kermit and Miss Piggy and Fozzy and for some reason the great actor Michael Caine also agreed to be in it, who says all of his lines while puppets are dancing and speaking and singing next to him. It is fantastic.
And there is one scene where Ebenezer Scrooge is with the Ghost of Christmas Past looking back upon a Christmas party he was at when he just began working for a new bank. His partners, Marley and Marley are there as well. They are played by Statler and Waldorf, the two old men in the balcony who are never happy about anything, and constantly criticize and complain. We probably know some people who are a lot like them.
But at this party, the band is jumping, people are celebrating, there is joy and care going around, and all of a sudden Statler stops being his miserably old self. And he starts tap dancing back and forth in his balcony, going side to side with his head held high laughing and cheering. Waldorf can’t believe this. And he shouts out: “You dancing fool.” But for the first time, Statler doesn’t care. He just wants to celebrate. He just wants to join the party. And he is willing to make a fool of himself to do that.
I want to be that dancing fool. Not that I am can dance well at all. But if God was willing to be a fool for us, then maybe we are called to be fools for Christ. Maybe we are called to join that celebration no matter what the world thinks of it. Maybe we are supposed to be as strange as the one who came and saved us. Maybe we are supposed to be a little weird, a little bit different than the world is.
A few years ago, I met a parent who was helping to lead his child on a youth mission trip. He was a man filled with joy. Before going on the mission trip, though, some old friends of his asked him, “Don’t you regret becoming a Christian? You don’t get to go out with as much. You spend a lot of time at church and serving at the local mission. You can’t just do whatever you want to. You have given up some money and time and resources when you could have just doing what we all used to do.”
His response was, “Regret? How can I regret being this happy? How can I regret knowing this kind of love? How can I regret a life that, true does ask me to give and sacrifice, but is far better than anything I knew before.” This man’s life didn’t make sense to his friends, but he knew this was something greater, and he wanted to follow it no matter what others thought of him.
The message of the cross is strange. It is a message of foolishness to those who believe they have made themselves to be wise and worthy. But it is also a message of hope for those who have been called hopeless. It is a message of value and worth for those who have been called nothing. It is a message of strength for those who have been told they are too weak. It is a message of life for those who have only seen death.
As we continue on through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we will see more and more what this new life looks like. But at the start, Paul warns us: it’s strange. It’s weird. It’s foolish. But it’s wonderful. Amen.