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Third Sunday in Lent

Sun 7th Mar 2021

Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church

Budapest, Hungary

God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.

The Apostle Paul wrote fourteen Letters. That was the conclusion, at least, of the early Church Father, Cyril of Jerusalem, active in the mid-fourth century. However, the somewhat earlier so-called Muratorian Canon -- a fragmentary listing of the canonical books of the New Testament first discovered in the seventeenth century -- catalogues only thirteen Pauline Letters. And many modern scholars, you may be dismayed to learn or know already, now accept only ten of the Letters long ascribed to Paul in the New Testament as genuinely his. Some experts even say that as few as seven of Paul’s Letters are, well, actually Paul’s Letters.

The truth is that no one can say for sure just how many Letters Paul wrote. Some of his Letters by the way were almost certainly lost to history, and theology, but that is another story. But no matter who is doing the counting, it was not a lot of Letters; not a lot of writing. Nothing compared to the thousands -- hundreds of thousands -- of pages of commentaries that have been written about Paul’s Letters over the centuries. Yet, as more than one biblical scholar has also observed, Paul’s Letters, few and short as they may be in their entirety, however you count them, completely changed the thinking of the ancient Western world, and so of our world too, whether we realise it or not. That is how revolutionary they were.

Now, left to my own devices as a lowly parish priest, if I had to pick one passage from the genuine corpus of Paul’s Letters as the most revolutionary of all, the most genuine of all, it would almost certainly have to be the one-hundred and sixty-two words -- in English translation -- found in our second reading this morning from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, written in the early to mid-50s, and happily accepted by virtually all scholars of all times as quintessentially Paul. The Cross of Christ is of course Paul’s theme here; “foolishness to those who are perishing,” he writes, “but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”

Foolishness and wisdom: polar opposites, to be sure.

Ancient Greek and Jewish religion and culture differed in many ways, but at some level they both prized and highly valued knowledge and wisdom. There is an entire genre of Hebrew Scriptures, for instance, called the Wisdom Literature. The Psalms and the Book of Proverbs are the most recognizable books of this collection. And, the ancient Greeks of course are noted still to this day for their love of philosophy and wisdom. Think of Plato and Aristotle, the basis to this day of much of science, technology, and even engineering.

But foolishness is another matter. Virtually all ancient literature -- and contemporary thought too -- condemns and scorns the foolish person; the one who acts impetuously and without thinking; the one who does not consider the consequences of thought and action. Much of modern political and social discourse and debate in fact still revolves around the poles of wisdom and foolishness. Was Brexit wise, for instance, or stupid…? Was Donald Trump a brilliant innovator or a foolish dilettante…? I suppose it depends upon who you ask.

But in any case, no one in the ancient world would have considered getting oneself crucified to be a particularly smart or clever move. Much less the glorifying of one who had been crucified. This form of death or execution was feared in the ancient world above all other. It was reserved for the most part for those stupid or foolish enough to stand against the Empire and Emperor. It confounded both Jew and Greek.

And Paul knew it.

Yet, it is just this which he preaches -- an idea so outlandish that, well, you just have to stop and listen. What on earth -- or in the heavens -- is this man saying…? Has he taken leave of his senses…? Well, in a sense, yes. For, he is saying that that which makes no sense is all that makes sense. “We proclaim Christ crucified,” he writes to the Corinthians, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” An understatement if ever there was one.

Neither Greek nor Jew -- and the Christian community in Corinth to which Paul writes had both -- would have anticipated human salvation coming, not through ever greater insight and knowledge and wisdom, but rather through the death of one man on a Cross. This was not just another idea to be tossed about in the ancient marketplace of ideas and philosophies. This was not just some thought experiment in a logic or philosophy classroom. This was a revolution in the very understanding of human understanding.

In the Cross, maintains Paul, we come to know that we cannot ultimately be redeemed or saved by our own enlightenment and devices. Indeed, in the Cross, God has chosen foolishness to create a new wisdom -- and a new cosmos. The Cross becomes a redefinition as well of what it means to be human; and what it means to be divine. It offers a new understanding of the relationship between God and humankind. It is almost as if the intersection of two beams of wood come to represent in a sense the meeting of good and evil; wise and foolish; the transcendent and the everyday.

It is this uncompromising message which Paul preaches so ardently to the Corinthians, a cosmopolitan people used to commerce, trade, and deal-making. Yet the deal set forth by Paul is one which brings no personal gain in the world as we know it. It is one which rather offers salvation in “the power of God and the wisdom of God;” in other words, in Paul’s view, in the foolishness of God which transcends human understanding and wisdom. It was an idea so peculiar it just had to be true; an idea so redolent of reality that we are still talking about it today.

But for Paul -- and for us along with him as followers of the Crucified One -- the Cross and its power are not things of the past only. Christ’s death did not just happen long ago. “To us who are being saved,” he tells the Corinthians and us, the Cross “is the power of God” still at play in our lives and our salvation today. Not only have we been saved, but we are also still being saved -- right now -- in the foolishness of the Cross; if we with Paul embrace it. For, the death of Christ on the Cross is part of our living Christian DNA. Christ’s death is our salvation and our life.

I suppose there is no shortage of human foolishness in our world today. One need not look far to see that stupidity reigns in all lands and cultures. The earth is indeed a ship of fools. Self-aggrandizement, ambition without thought for the other, and greed have forever been part of the human enterprise. And wisdom alas is ever in short supply. At fraught times such as these -- times of pandemic, economic recession, and social discord -- it is almost enough to lead us to despair of ever again finding our way back to goodwill, grace, and peace.

Paul saw that in his time as well. He understood human nature only too well. No wonder, I suppose, that riots broke out wherever he spoke and preached. But Paul’s revolution is still being played out; still being fought in today’s streets and marketplaces. And, we as Christians are still at the spiritual barricades. And, Paul’s revolutionary message -- his foolish message of the Cross -- is still for us the only path to wisdom and life. So, as Paul might challenge us today, “Don’t be stupid; but remain forever foolish in the Cross of Christ.


The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs

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