A few years back I read a book by James Bryan Smith in which he recounts an embarrassing incident at an event of some kind. A man spoke to him at length about author Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books. Smith hadn’t ever read any of them, but his initial lie that he had kept compounding as he continued talking to this guy. He felt horrible that his ego – wanting to be perceived as clever – had tempted him into this kind of behaviour, and he later apologised.
I think it’s a safe bet to say that none of us want to appear foolish. We want to be seen as smart, capable, understanding people. We want to be wise; failing that, opinionated! But if we are to live as Christians, Paul thought we should take a different tack.
1 When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. 3 And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NRSV)
Paul was a clever guy. He was a Pharisee, trained under a rabbi, well-known in Jerusalem even before his conversion to the Way. A zealot. A patriot. He wasn’t the kind of guy you’d idly pick an argument with in a bar. But in the second verse he writes that he consciously, deliberately stepped away from all that knowledge and status: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” To him, knowing Jesus and knowing that he’d died and risen was enough. Paul stopped putting faith in his own knowledge and ability, instead reserving that faith for God.
Do we rely on our own smarts, or do we rely on God’s?
I ask because being a Christian often means not doing the “smart” thing, “smart” by worldly standards at least. It would be smart to be cynical about the world, knowing what we do of it; but that’s not Christian. Christians live in hope. It would be smart to be more circumspect about who receives our care; after all, there are people out there who might take advantage of it. But that’s not Christian. Christians live in love. It would be smart to be anxious about our future, faced as we are with a plethora of problems on local, national and international levels. But that’s not Christian – Christians have peace.
First century Christians in the Roman world, like those in Corinth, lived in a time where their behaviour was seen as strange and foolish. Caring for the sick, the poor, the abandoned, for discarded children and ailing grandparents, for prisoners and outcasts – these things weren’t actually the norm back then. Welfare was a foreign concept. But the Way freely admitted women, slaves and foreigners into communal worship. They cared about and for each other. In a class-based society, this was weird, even dangerous. They went against the grain of their day.
Why abandon the wisdom of their societies? “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:18. “But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Like Paul, many of the first century Christians had found God in the very things their world considered foolishness.
Folks, we still find ourselves in a world where we need to go against the grain, perhaps now more than ever. Our world needs a whole lot of foolish love, foolish hope and foolish peace. A world where gender, nationality, race, religion and culture aren’t borders to draw but borders to cross. Will we decide to know nothing but Jesus Christ and his cross? Are we willing to risk being seen as fools – fools who love God and love their neighbours?