The Foolishness of the Cross in a Super Bowl World
The Foolishness of the Cross in a Super Bowl World
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
February 2, 2014
The Super Bowl is a very big deal. The average ticket price this year is $4,084, while the average weekly salary in America is $831—a lot less than that on Block Island in the winter. That’s just for a regular seat in the cold; the going rate for a Level 3 suite at Met Life stadium for tonight is $899,270, enough to buy three average homes. Advertisers will spend $4 million each for 30-second spots and the network will rake in $300 million in advertising revenue. That’s about the amount spent on educating every child in Rhode Island per year. Then there’s the food: during the Super Bowl last year, Americans ate 1.25 billion chicken wings, ate 15,000 tons of chips, and from Domino’s and Pizza Hut alone they ordered 27 million slices of pizza.
Obviously there is a lot of money involved. But I want to think about what it means that the Super Bowl is the one event each year that can draw the majority of Americans to join together to share an experience. More than the Olympics or the State of the Union or a hurricane or a school shooting, this event unites us and somehow represents us. What could be more American than a bunch of gigantic rich guys playing a game no one else in the world understands in which they use violence to generate corporate revenues?
I like watching football. I have never missed a Super Bowl. There are a lot of believing Christians playing in the NFL. But ironically I am here this morning at the Lord’s Table remembering that Jesus died for us in weakness, that he taught and modeled the path of humility rather than talking smack, that he was in the eyes of the world a loser. Paul is telling us in 1 Corinthians that in terms of the values embodied by the Super Bowl, Jesus’ life and death make no sense. So we have to think about this disconnect between what we are doing this morning and what we will be celebrating tonight. I’m not saying it’s wrong to watch the Super Bowl. I’m just saying that it represents a different view of the world than the cross does.
Some of you probably feel I have this weakness for seeing the gospel as countercultural. After all, I came of age in 1968, 69, 70---I’m a child of the antiwar movement and Woodstock and Kent State. So of course I think of Jesus as a radical hippie. Look at his hair, even; it’s a dead giveaway.
But there are many of you who see the gospel and the church as something which is not opposed to American values, but which is the foundation of them. And that has something to do with the generation you grew up in as well. It goes along with the view that God’s way is the sensible way, that he just wants us all to get along and do right, and the message of Jesus is a purified form of what most people and civilizations have understood to be right. You might call that view conservative. I might call that liberalism, or succumbing to the culture of rationalism.
You see Pope Francis struggling with this all the time. On the one hand, the church is the glorious capstone of Western civilization and theology is the product of many generations of wise people thinking about deep issues. The Vatican is a symbol of the glory of Christ. But on the other hand, the church is called to identify with the poor, to live a simple life, and to follow a simple gospel that is not the product of intellectual reflection but something revealed to us through one unlikely man who was put to death at an early age.
Is the church an organization based on wisdom whose role is to exercise power? Or is the church, as Paul says, an organism, the body of Christ which reveals God not by intellectual wisdom but by what he calls the foolishness of the cross, a body which shows that the power of God is not shown through our strength but through our weakness?
These verses in 1 Corinthians are assigned in the lectionary for today, in the season of Epiphany, because they are about how God reveals himself. In Jesus Christ—and especially on the cross—God has not revealed himself as wisdom, as a God who makes sense, but as one who is completely counterintuitive, who turns common sense upside down. And in the cross God has not revealed himself as a God of power as we understand power. Ultimately, yes, God shows his power in raising Jesus from the dead, but not before becoming weak himself—something our philosophy deems impossible for the omnipotent one, and something that those who place all their hopes in a God who will bring military victory find scandalous.
There are two kinds of people, Paul says, and I don’t think he means that you are stuck in one camp or the other. There are people who are headed down the wide road to destruction that Jesus talked about. They are those who are on their way to death. Then there are people who are in the process of being rescued by God through what Jesus has done; they are on that narrow path that leads to salvation. When Paul announces the message that God has rescued the human race from its own wickedness by means of letting the wicked put him to death in human form by execution as a criminal, the people on the wide road say that his message is foolishness. And so it is, Paul says, if you think in terms of the world’s values. It’s like saying the Broncos won the Super Bowl by letting the other team sack Peyton Manning over and over until he was dead. How can that be right? If you assume that life is a kind of contest in which some win by exerting power over others, it makes no sense at all. But what God is trying to show us, Paul says, is that the way of power is not really the way the universe runs. It really runs on sacrificial love. As Aslan says in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there is a deeper magic than the magic of worldly power or simple justice. The universe does not operate by the law of the jungle or the free market, and it does not even operate by the law of tit-for-tat justice. It operates, Paul says elsewhere, by the law of the Spirit, by the law of love, by the law of life.
Paul looks around at his culture and his opponents, and he sees that there are many people who think they are pretty smart. They are too smart for his religion of sacrifice and bearing shame. They believe in the classical philosopher’s deity who is omnipotent, immutable, impassible—the kind of thinking that later infected Christian theology. But here’s the thing, Paul says: God decided that the world could not come to know him through philosophy. You can’t find God just by thinking about God. God decided—on purpose—to save the world by a message that seems on the face of it foolish and implausible so that we humans would know that we are not being saved by our own smarts but by God the completely Other who has the freedom to save us any way he pleases. So in fact God saves you through the foolishness of preaching, through the word that we proclaim at this table today: that the eternal God became a human being who identified with our weakness and made himself subject to religious and political forces that would give him the death penalty for being who he was—and that through his willingness to suffer in that way, the wall that separated human weakness from divine power was broken down, and the rebelliousness that kept us fighting against God was quelled by his forgiveness and sacrifice.
There’s another way of thinking about the two kinds of people in the world, one familiar to Paul’s audience. There were Jews and Gentiles. The Jews believe in a God of power—the God who defeated the Egyptians and the Philistines—the God that Netanyahu understands as being on Israel’s side. At least a good many of the Jews in the first century were looking for an apocalyptic savior to descend from sky and ride roughshod over all the bad guys of the world—the very same kind of savior that many Fundamentalist Christians are looking for today. I think that both Paul and Jesus might have agreed that the God of power that people were fixated on is a caricature of God. The God revealed to Moses is the God of compassion and mercy. And while there is a history of mighty deeds from the time of Moses through David, haven’t you learned anything since then? God let you be defeated and carried into exile! God said that he was revealing himself through a suffering people, not a powerful one. And God said through the prophets that when he did act to save his people it would not be in the way that they expected—but in a way that would overthrow all the theories of the Jewish intelligentsia, which is what happened in Jesus.
So what the Jews are demanding of Paul is the same thing that Jews in Palestine demanded of Jesus: do more miracles! Demonstrate God’s power! Give us divine bread and circuses! And the ultimate sign they want to see is the defeat of the Roman Empire. The cross shows that God does not work that way. To a faithful Jew, the idea of a crucified Messiah was not just an oxymoron, it was a scandal—the Greek word for stumbling block is scandalos. If Jesus had been the Messiah, God would not have let him die. End of argument. Muslims make the same argument, so in the Koran it says that God could never have let the righteous prophet Issa be executed, so he freed Issa’s body from the cross and spirited him away, replacing his body with Judas’ on the cross. You see, there is something deeply illogical about the idea that God would let himself or his Son be executed by evil men. But that, Paul says, is exactly the gospel. It’s a little surprising that Paul doesn’t say here that God showed his power when he raised Jesus from the dead; that was the ultimate sign that kicked off the Messianic age. He’ll get to that at the end of the letter. But here his focus is on the paradoxical nature of the gospel and how it cuts against the grain of religion and culture. God revealed himself in weakness.
The other part of Paul’s audience is the Greeks, a term he uses for the Gentiles (the way Amish people call all non-Amish people “English”). The Greeks are looking for wisdom. Maybe he is talking about Greek culture in particular with its great pride in its intellectual tradition—centuries of philosophers, the basis for our own American intellectual tradition. The philosophers always assumed that you could come to know God—or at least know a lot about God—by thinking clearly. They understood that there could not be many gods who were so fickle as in their own traditions; there had to be one God. And that God needed to be perfect and all-powerful. In order to be perfect he had to be unchanging and incapable of feeling. The old ideas of gods changing themselves into humans or animals temporarily was nonsense to them, as it should have been. But when they heard Paul claiming that the eternal creator God had become an itinerant teacher among the Jews, of all people, and that he was executed by his own people and the Romans—that seemed completely absurd, a return to old stories but without a happy ending, and it made no sense to them. What Paul understood from the scriptures is that the real God—Yahweh the God of Abraham and Moses—was not like the philosopher’s God. He was not unchanging and unfeeling. He lived in dynamic relationship with his people. He was utterly free from their expectations; “my ways are not your ways.” And that God had acted in the most surprising way by placing himself in the electric chair, as it were—by giving himself a lethal injection, and dying in front of everyone—as a way of saying this is how much I love you, this is how fully I am compassion and not apathy, this is how I identify with you even in your dying and your god-forsakenness—and look, even this execution I forgive.
What this present culture considers foolishness on the part of God is actually wiser than what you consider wisdom. What this present culture considers weakness on the part of God is actually stronger than human strength.
What we have in the Super Bowl is kind of a parable, a shorthand for how we understand life. It’s a game—or a business—with two features. It is a game of human strength, and the battle goes to the strong—whoever is biggest or has worked out the most, and occasionally to the one who is fastest. But it’s also a game of strategy, a game of wits. It’s so complicated a large part of the female audience and virtually all the international audience has no idea why they are doing what they are doing. And often the battle goes to the smartest—the smartest coach and the smartest quarterback. They do it by native intelligence and an awful lot of study.
And that, many of us assume, is the way real life works. You have to get smart and you have to know how to exercise power. And of course, in terms of “the world,” as Paul calls it, or “the present age before God’s reign comes in its fullness,” that’s right. It’s pretty much the law of the jungle out there. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The smart people who are not afraid to hit hard are the winners in the world. But in the midst of that culture we have to plop down the cross. In the midst of that culture, we come to this table.
My favorite song from the band called Steely Dan is one that goes back to my seminary days:
They got a name for the winners in the world; I want a name when I lose.
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide; call me Deacon Blues.
We like to think that the Christians are the winners in the world, pointing up to give God the credit for each touchdown. But the cross says that we have a name when we lose. My name is not Deacon Blues—because that cross is the power of God to save everyone who believes. My name, and yours, is Jesus-follower, beloved, died-for, and fool for Christ.
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