“Who do you think you are?” Humility is a hard sell these days. In a time of tooting one’s own horn to excess, being told you’re nothing special doesn’t seem like an approach that will get us very far. We’re told to stroke egos, to build up the body, to make people feel significant and important. We aren’t to tell people they aren’t really all that smart, or all that strong, or going to amount to very much. Yet, that is Paul’s approach in our Epistle text this week.
We aren’t the center of this text. We’re the test case. This text is a distillation of Paul’s theology of the cross. It is not, however, a theology divorced from the realities of living in the world. Paul doesn’t present this argument as a way of avoiding talking about the issues confronting the church in Corinth; issues of rightness and wrongness, of orthodoxy and heresy, of insiders and outsiders. No, Paul dives into the debate by reminding us who we are. And whose we are.
The word (logos) of the cross is foolishness, he writes. At least that is how it looks to the world. It is the ultimate vulnerability, the ultimate weakness. It is a surrender of all power, all directive ability, submission to the powers that be. It would be foolish, the world would argue, to base a faith, to base a way of living in the world on such an act, on such a surrender.
We see it differently, of course. We see ultimate power here; the power of sacrifice, the power of vulnerability. And, here’s the thing, Paul says, it wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t trying to clean up from a plan gone wrong. God’s intent from the very beginning was to destroy the wisdom of the wise and to thwart the discernment of the discerning (v19). God set out to turn the normal way of thinking on its head. And so we have foolishness. At the very core of things, we have foolishness.
What else would you call it? To win through surrender. To conquer enemies by loving them. To transform our world through humility. To lead by serving all. Foolishness. And we’re just the ones to do it! That’s Paul’s point: we are the ones chosen to live this foolish life in the world around us. We weren’t chosen because of our smarts, or our strength, or our status in society.
You can’t help but take offense at that. We like to be chosen because we’ve got something special. We like to be the center of everyone’s attention. We like to be the first one chosen for the games, the one everyone wants to sit next to during the exam. And you might be that. You might be the strongest one in your town. You might be the one everyone turns to for advice, for knowledge. You might be the one everyone hopes their kids grow up to be. But none of that matters. Not when it comes to faith. Not when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
You have something more important than strength and wisdom and status. You have foolishness at the core of your identity. And even that isn’t your own foolishness; it is his. Paul says, God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus. And this source reformats our understanding of what is wise and what makes for a good life, a full life.
The preacher should not call the congregation low and despised; that’s not Paul’s point here. But for any who might be feeling low, or feeling despised, the good news is, you are chosen. Chosen by God who is turning wisdom on its head.