Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries


Scandalous Wisdom  Audio

1 Cor 1:20-31  

John 13:1-17

As Steve mentioned last week, Justine Toh in her research on current social needs has found that two of the greatest issues for people in Australia is a lack of cohesion in social life and an increasing tribalism. We have the illusion of community through our social networks but often no personal connection with the people we live amongst.

That’s the current world reality that we live with even as we read the words of a different time to ours, written in what was in so many ways a quite different world to ours.

In our passage today from 1 Corinthians 1 Paul is writing to a church that was very proud of its cultural and intellectual heritage. Corinth was the ancient world’s equivalent of New York. A huge trading and financial centre, set on the narrow isthmus between the Adriatic and the Aegean Seas, it was a hub of Mediterranean commerce. It was a city that was large, sophisticated, and generally well educated. This was no backwater of the Roman Empire. This was a large metropolis populated by people who’d seen it all and who were used to hearing the best of the Greek philosophers sharing their wisdom with anyone who’d listen.

 So perhaps it’s no surprise that when Paul came to Corinth people were willing to listen to him, perhaps to debate with him, but open enough to his message that he stayed there 18 months preaching the gospel.

When the time came to depart he left behind a strong church, but one that developed various troubles over time. As I said, they were very proud of their intellectual heritage so when an able preacher named Apollos arrived they thought they were the bee’s knees. In fact they were so impressed with Apollos that they began to question whether Paul had been worth listening to. So when Paul hears what’s going on he writes a fairly stern letter, answering all the questions that he hears they’ve been asking.

But he begins with a foundational issue. Where does true wisdom reside? Who in this world is truly wise?

The Greeks were very proud of their philosophers – and rightly so. The works of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are still the foundation of modern philosophy.

Yet Paul says God has made this wisdom look foolish. They’re fighting words to a Greek audience aren’t they? But it isn’t only the Greeks he targets. He says the message of the cross is equally a stumbling block to the Jews.

Can you see what he’s getting at? He’s thinking about what people might think about Jesus. What does the world consider to be the path to greatness? Clearly in the first century it was power and education; intelligence; social status. But what was the gospel about? It was about a man who was killed on a cross.

The cross has been somewhat sanitised for us these days. It’s the symbol you see on hospitals, the trademark of the Red Cross and so forth. These days it’s an honourable and respected symbol. Since Madonna started wearing a cross around her neck it’s even become a hip jewellery item. But in the first century it was a symbol of the dominance of Rome over her subjects. When the Romans wanted to demonstrate the uselessness of resistance all they had to do was to line the roads with crosses bearing the dying and rotting corpses of those who’d opposed them.

So when Paul and the other Apostles proclaimed the crucified Jesus as Lord, as God’s king, God’s only Son, it seemed ludicrous. What sort of a God let’s himself be beaten by a few Roman soldiers.

For the Jews the issue was twofold: first Jesus couldn’t be God in human form because God is one; and secondly the Scriptures taught that anyone who died on a tree was cursed.

Yet Paul assures us that God’s wisdom is greater than human wisdom and God's weakness is stronger than human strength.

Here is the scandalous wisdom of the cross. God has done something that we can’t really grasp. He’s used the ultimate weakness, demonstrated by a death on a cross, to defeat the greatest power of his day and, at the same time, to remove the greatest curse a human being can know – the curse not just of death but of brokenness; that inability to reach the fulfilment of our humanity; that curse that leads to the brokenness of relationships with our fellow human beings. 

I think too often we fall into the trap of thinking of the cross as being focussed just on our personal salvation. Jesus died so I could go to heaven. In a sense it’s the fault of the reformation. The great rediscovery that salvation was something that needed to be personally received evolved, in the 20th century, into the idea that faith was a personal matter, not connected with the life of the world around us.

That in turn fits with the general shape of our 21st century culture where narcissism rules, where it’s all about me. Steve mentioned last week that the most often quoted Bible verse has changed from John 3:16 to Jeremiah 29:11 “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

 The wisdom of the age today is still that the rulers will be the strong and the educated and the clever, or the rich and the powerful. But added to that is the wisdom that what really matters is my happiness, that I get what I want - and that everyone knows how happy I am - because of course I post all my happy times on Facebook.

But what does the gospel tell us? Listen to what we read in vs 25-27: “25For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. 26Consider 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. 27But 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 doesn’t choose anyone on the basis of how powerful or clever they are, nor how happy and successful they are; let alone on how many hits they get on Facebook. Isn’t that a good thing?

So why does he choose us? Why does God choose the weak and the lowly?

Clearly there are a multitude of answers to that question and the answer to the deepest element of that question only God can tell you. But here we read that it was to shame the wise and the strong. That is, to demonstrate that self-reliance is futile, foolish; that my self-absorption is a waste of time; that when we imagine we’re the centre of the universe, or that we know what’s best for us, we’re actually making fools of ourselves.

Instead we’re to be focussed on others. In our gospel reading today we read Jesus’ instructions to his disciples that they’re to be servants of others just as he’d served them by washing their feet. They were scandalised by that action of Jesus, weren’t they? Peter refused at first to let Jesus touch him. But that’s the scandalous wisdom of the gospel. God has chosen us to continue Jesus’ work in the world, to take up the role of servants working to bring his kingdom to bear on the world around us.

Now I said that the message of the cross isn’t just about personal salvation but it is personal to begin with. Jesus’ death and resurrection was to be the means by which I could be remade in God’s image, that image that was ruined by the fall. And having been remade I’m now called to resume the work God made me for. Paul elsewhere describes us as being the body of Christ. That is, we’re his hands and feet, his physical presence in the world. So I’m called to bring his comfort to those around me; to bring the message of salvation to those I come across; to be salt and light.

The hard question though, is this: how do I bring salvation to a world that doesn’t know they need it. That’s foolishness to our satisfied world isn’t it? Or is it?

I wonder if you’ve heard how Christianity spread through the Roman Empire in the first few hundred years to the point where it became the dominant religion. I think there were two main elements to it. The first was the love that the early Christians demonstrated among themselves. Tertullian in the 2nd century wrote a letter to the Roman authorities pleading for justice for the Church. He wrote that anyone looking on would say of Christians “See how they love one another.”

My personal salvation is given to me so I can be part of a larger body of the saved that we call the church. God puts me in a church so I can love others and be loved by them; so I can realise that it isn’t just about me; and so that together we can demonstrate the reality of God’s new creation even as we continue to live within this old creation. We have an opportunity as a church to project a vision of the new possibility that Jesus’ death and resurrection has brought about; a possibility of life with God, living with joy even in the reality of this fallen world; a vision of authentic community; of mutual love and dependence; of support and care; of reconciliation and mutual forgiveness; of true neighbourliness. Those are things that everyone needs at one level or another. As the theme song says: “Everybody needs good neighbours.

 But connected with that is the other element in the conversion of an empire. That was the practical love the Christian church showed to their non-Christian neighbours. In particular, during times of plague, it was the Christians who cared for the sick and dying. Everyone else got out of town. The historian Eusebius records a number of examples including a severe plague in Caesarea when most of the population had fled. He writes: “All day long some of the Christians tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them.  Others gathered together, from all parts of the city, a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.” Elsewhere he describes them willingly risking death to help those who were sick.

Now I trust we won’t have that sort of opportunity in the near future, but we will have other opportunities to show the love of God to people who need it. It may be a friend who’s sick or dying; it may be a group like the asylum seekers we support through our regular collection of food; it may be by sending emails to politicians registering our disgust at their treatment of people on Nauru and Manus Island. As Steve said last week, we need to be listening to those around us to hear where they’re hurting, where they need support, where they need encouragement. Then we can think about how we can do something about it.

Our task as Jesus’ body here on earth is to be a blessing to those around us. This is the B of our “Bells” mnemonic. To bless others not just because we’re nice people; there are plenty of nice people around; but to bless others because we’re God’s people put here to be Christ’s body, living out the new creation in the midst of the old.

Of course the difficulty with this idea of us becoming like Jesus is that it’s not easy to be a servant in a world where servants are looked down on. It goes against the whole wisdom of our world. But remember that God has chosen the weak, the servants, the seemingly foolish, to shame the strong, to demonstrate the overarching wisdom of God.

May we be a church that brings God’s healing light to this broken and alienated world!


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