s100e00 Somerton Park Lent 3 26/3/2000
"For (some) demand signs and (others) desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified ..." 1 Corinthians 1:22,23
It is easy to take these words and put the brain in neutral and make a virtue of blind acceptance. Only recently I was, in the course of a conversation, told of two women who (in times past) went to their priest to ask if they could have a hysterectomy, and were told, no, they should continue to submit to their husbands ... We can be grateful that, more and more, the old conception that "Father knows best" is giving way to individuals accepting responsibility for their own decisions.
The Anglican Church has made much of loving God with "all our minds" - we are encouraged to use our minds, to question and to explore our faith. It seems we might be accused of "desiring wisdom" - though that seems to me to be infinitely preferable to desiring foolishness.
Yet we are on no surer ground if we say, in our hearts, to the Lord: "Well at least I haven't demanded signs from You!" Gideon tests the Lord, presumably with forbearance if not positive approval (Judges 6) and King Ahaz is positively criticised for not asking for a sign when invited to do so. (Isaiah 7.10)
If the word of the Lord is ambiguous it is more a hindrance than a help, so we do need to find a clear path out of this conundrum. It seems to me if the Bible does not give us clear messages, we would be better off without it. I too desire a simple faith, though I expect most of the complexities of life originate from humanity and not from God.
The essence of St Paul's criticism is that the demand for the signs and the desire for wisdom is surely all about satisfying the person demanding or desiring. The demand for a sign can be a demand for spiritual assurance over others. The desire for wisdom can be as a possession that others, not so fortunate, are denied. Demanding or desiring is almost inevitably focused on ME.
When we preach Christ crucified we too can look at the Cross as something that primarily assures me of my salvation - it can be as inward looking as signs and wisdom. "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine" wrote Frances van Alstyne (1820-1915), and yet despite its popularity here in this congregation, it is not included in either the "Australian Hymn Book" or "Together in Song". We could perhaps ask ourselves why this might be so.
However the essence of the Cross is that it was done for others. Jesus died on the Cross, not to gain his own personal salvation, it was for others - all others. He was crucified by the religious authorities because Jesus accepted the offerings of others and not just themselves. Their religion focussed on their own personal salvation which they assumed to be over others, and so their theology demanded that Jesus be killed, not because he claimed to be anyone special, but because he did not uphold the conception they had of their own religious, moral or academic superiority over others.
So we too can use the Cross to assure us of our salvation as Christians, of our own religious, moral and academic superiority over others - over those of other faiths and those of no faith, and so at the expense of other people.
Blessed Assurance, Jesus is ... everyone's is much closer to the mark.
When King Solomon was asked by God to ask for what he wanted, he asked for "an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil" (1 Kings 3:9), and it was this prayer that was answered: "Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself ... I now do according to your word." (1 Kings 3:11,12).
The way of the jungle is the "survival of the fittest", and it can so easily become the way of the world and humanity also. Religion can be used as another plank in our own struggle for superiority. It is only the Cross which shows us another way - which is that we are blessed when our faith includes the other who shares not our preconceptions.
For the "Christian" the question of our own personal salvation: "Are you being saved?" directed toward the self, is quite irrelevant. The real question is "Do you believe others are saved - or do you spend your life trying to convert them?" Indeed one of the things I am most grateful to actually be saved from, is living my life trying to get others to become "Christians" as if my personal salvation depended on it. That is a demon I can well do without.
The foolishness of God is that God loves all of humanity. God is an eternally giving God. God like the Prodigal Father, who gives the younger son his share of the property, knowing full well he will squander it ... Indeed, in some ways the Father is pleased, for that is what wealth is for, to be squandered, to be given away, though sometimes it could be done more wisely ... The last thing that the Father wants is for his overflowing prodigious love to be hidden away by those who know of it, from those who don't.
For this entirely foolish giving nature of God is wiser than human wisdom which stores up for oneself religious, moral or spiritual kudos.
And God is not wise to love me, because I am handsome (?), talented (?!) and have lots to offer (!?!) - (... you are allowed to stop laughing now ... :-) but God foolishly loves others. God foolishly loves me and everyone else equally. God loves the younger son and the older son equally. The foolishness of God loves those who earn that love equally with those who haven't even tried.
And we are told that this foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. There are, I suspect few people who have not, at one stage or other in their lives (and indeed perhaps at the time they had considerable justification) suggested that God should have ordered the universe in a somewhat different manner. I think that on the occasions when I have done so, it has been when I have been aggrieved by someone else's actions or words. But it is precisely in these times the foolishness of God rebukes me. Am I wiser than the person who has aggrieved me? Who am I to judge?
And we are told the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. We are, all of humanity, whether we like it or not, whether we realise it or not, even whether we believe it or not, bound inextricably and inexorably to the Cross of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The love that is there displayed is an infinitely more powerful love than any human being can claim to have. No one can now claim to be more merciful than God.
So in the light of all this we very much need to be careful that we do not interpret the words: "God decided ... to save those who believe ..." assuming that we can turn them around to say ... and condemn those who don't believe ... The message of the Cross is foolishness, it is about the reckless, prodigious love of God for all of humanity. God loves the unbeliever, because ultimately he or she hasn't heard, hasn't seen. God is the ultimate in "transparency". The foolishness of God has no hidden agenda to trip people up when they least expect it.
We believe in this reckless, prodigious love of God, and in doing so, it affects how we deal with others. It motivates us, if nothing else, not to consign others to eternal damnation for thinking, acting or believing in different terms to ourselves. This is precisely how others might come to see and hear.
For it is only us who can give this message, or to put it the other way around, it is most often us who deny this message in our day to day lives as we "look down our nose" at others. The people who were "selling cattle, sheep and doves, and the money changers ..." in our gospel story were those who stood in the way of others - they knew what others gave, and of course they were those who inevitably benefited from those who gave more ...
For all we might "proclaim the message of the Cross" from the pulpit, if in the end it is not in our hearts, and in our human inter-relationships, what will people really take notice of?
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