Fools for Christ

February 9th, 2012

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

The news is constantly filled with scandals. The scandals in the tabloids as I write will be replaced by a whole new set by the time you read this—news of Hollywood, corporate America, Washington, or even ecclesiastical scandal. The Bible, too, is full of scandals and fools. We need not repeat the long litany of nefarious characters and flawed heroes that make up the pantheon of biblical personalities, from Jacob the cheat all the way to the chosen twelve disciples, one of whom was a coward and another a traitor.

Yes, we might wonder about God’s discernment of character. God seems to need a better personnel manager or casting director. Another of God’s scandalous choices was Paul. Paul started out as a persecutor of Christians. He assisted in the stoning of Stephen. Paul seemed no good. When God told Ananias that he was to anoint Paul as his “chosen instrument,” Ananias said, in effect, “Lord, you must be mistaken.” It seemed foolish, scandalous.

Perhaps that is why later, when Paul was writing to the church at Corinth, he reminded them: things that seem like low foolishness to us may be high wisdom to God. Paul then pointed out the most apparently foolish, scandalous thing God had ever done: God had come into the world as a peasant carpenter from the backwater town of Nazareth.

Next in this Corinthian letter, Paul calls Jesus a “stumbling block to the Jews.” He meant that the idea of God coming as a peasant was such a scandalous thing the Jews couldn’t believe it. They were expecting a powerful king; instead, they got a baby in a barnyard surrounded by animals and stench. This was a scandal.

The very word Paul used for this, translated in English as “stumbling block,” is the Greek word skandalon, from which we get our English word scandal.

Jesus was born into scandal: from his parents’ disgraceful marriage, to a smelly barn, then escaping to Egypt. Jesus grew up in a place of which they said, “Nothing good comes from there,” then became a friend to prostitutes, tax collectors, and working-class roughnecks. Jesus was indeed a stumbling block, a scandalous offense to those who wanted a pure Messiah. Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 8:14 (CEB): “He will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on.”

The Israelites overlooked the prophecies. They expected a military ruler, a king, a superhuman. Instead they got a baby in a manger, and finally a bleeding, beaten figure dying ignominiously on a cross.

The message of scripture is clear: God chooses the scandalous. God uses the weak and the meek. God redeems the sinful. This fragile vessel of flesh is God’s tool of choice. Again, Paul wrote: “But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7 CEB). It is to God’s glory that the foolish and weak are used to achieve a grand purpose. Nowhere is this more clear than in the concept of incarnation, of God coming into mortal flesh to touch us and die for us.

A doctor in Atlanta has a remarkable record of success in healing. The hospital chaplain had a chance to discover why. He told me of one particular patient who had a horrible infection on his feet. His feet were disfigured, nasty, and pus-covered. The doctor came in, and with a gentle bedside manner, unwrapped the bandages. The chaplain was almost overwhelmed by the infection’s odor. But the doctor was unfazed. He gently touched and massaged those horrid feet as he inspected the progress of healing. He did this daily until the man was completely healed. This doctor didn’t remain in the sterility of his office. He became involved with the flesh of his patients.

We have a God who comes into a scandalous and brutish world to touch and heal our wounds. The first part of that incarnation story is Jesus’ birth and ministry of healing; the second part is what we remember during Lent. It is a journey that culminates with Holy Week, commemorating a painful and shameful torture upon a Roman cross. Even the triumphal ride into Jerusalem, which we celebrate on Palm Sunday, was an earthy and scandalous occurrence. Jesus did a very undignified thing. He poked fun at both his worshipers and his detractors. He rode humbly on the back of a baby donkey. Imagine if our president rode in the inaugural parade on one of those little go-carts that clowns drive. But with that silly donkey ride, Jesus fulfilled the messianic prophecies and taught us something about humility. Scandalous.

The associated word Paul uses in this passage is foolishness. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. . . . God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-21). Are we willing to appear foolish for the sake of the cross and the gospel?

I was once asked to play a part in a lighthearted Christmas skit in which the animals of the manger scene discuss the coming of the Christ Child. I had the role of a talking donkey, in a costume with ears. The children greatly enjoyed seeing their pastor in a different persona. But after it was over, an irate parishioner showed up in my office. This, she insisted, had been undignified and disgraceful for the office of the pastor to be portrayed as a donkey. Shameful. I simply said, “Well, I guess you are also embarrassed by the fact that our Savior rode a baby donkey into Jerusalem.” I am proud to be a part of a long lineage of “fools” who have been criticized for proclaiming the gospel in new, “scandalous,” ways— from Saint Francis of Assisi (a self-proclaimed “fool for Christ”); to the troublemaking Martin Luther; to the shunned John Wesley, who preached while standing on his father’s tombstone; to “Crazy” Mike Warnke, Christian comedian. Most of the characters of the Bible, the Christian martyrs, and the reformers of the church could be called “The Fools for Christ Club.” Are you willing to be a member?

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